The U.S. nuclear defense triad consists of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, submarines and bombers, including the good old-fashioned B-52. Like the rest of us, personnel in all three strategic areas have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We recently talked to a missileer (see story) about how he is dealing with it. Here, we discuss the pandemic and its impact on training and operations with B-52 officers of the 11th Bomb Squadron, a part of the 8th Air Force, at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. Lt. Col. Kera “Puff” Rolsen is Director of Operations (and a B-52 electronics warfare officer) and Maj. Benjamin “Vector” Kempen is the Assistant Director of Operations (and a B-52 pilot). Following are edited excerpts from a longer telephone conversation with the two.
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Jim Clash: What steps are you taking to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic at Barksdale?
Lt. Col. Kera “Puff” Rolsen: We get our leadership together once a week with a medical expert, and identify all the risk points for students and academics, as well as for the students who are out flying. We talk through these risks, then decide what we can mitigate and what we can’t. One of the CDC guidelines is that you have to remain six feet apart. Inside the B-52 cockpit, you can’t get six feet apart. There the question is, “Do we roll with the mission because it has to get done,” or do we say, “No, we can’t have any flying at all.” Obviously, as we balance risk versus national defense, on this one we have to fly, but at the same time we do everything we can to meet the other CDC guidelines. How do we physically clean the cockpit? Again, that balance of risk versus reward. What cleaners can I use that could potentially kill a virus without corroding the cockpit parts?
Clash: What if someone does test positive for COVID-19?
Rolsen: They go into the CDC-directed quarantine. Then we identify all the vectors: who had primary contact with that person, secondary contact, etc. They would then need to be tested and quarantined, as well, kept away from the larger group.
Clash: Has anyone within your unit tested positive?
Rolsen: No. We all have been fortunate.
Clash: How many persons at a time train in a B-52?
Maj. Benjamin “Vector” Kempen: We usually fly with eight: five students and three instructors. The instructors include a pilot, a weapons expert and an electronic warfare officer. The maximum onboard the B-52 is 10, but we don’t like to fly with that many.
Clash: When you train students, do they drop real bombs, or is the bomb bay empty?
Kempen: We do the majority of training without weapons, but at the end of the training we do drop inert [concrete] weapons. That way the students get real exposure to releasing a gravity weapon, a laser-guided weapon and a GPS-guided weapon, our bread and butter. It’s really good training to release a full weapon to see how the jet reacts to it.
Clash: Any heightened awareness that perhaps the U.S. is more vulnerable to adversaries given COVID-19?
Kempen: This is a very dynamic situation. And we understand the importance and criticality of our mission. Every single day we assess the risk and reward for continuing to do our mission. National security is something of high importance, so we will take every active measure we can to be preemptive.
Clash: How are you dealing with COVID-19 on a personal level?
Kempen: I’m taking it day by day, honestly. With the kids and my wife at home, it’s different from the norm. When I get to work, I’m hand sanitizing. After finishing an activity, I hand sanitize. As soon as I get into my car, I’ll hand sanitize. I’m just trying to minimize personal risk. Same thing with going out to the grocery store. Instead of say, two or three times a week, now maybe it’s once a week. It’s a little strange. But we’ve found ways to get the mission done and still balance the work/family relationship.
Rolsen: I’m a hyper-extrovert. I love people. Having to be holed up in my house and not being able to go out and see and talk to people has been stressful. But I’ve been finding ways to get online and talk to my friends and family. My husband has been playing a lot of video games, as have I [laughs]. My little girl has enjoyed the heck out of books on tape. She has gone through four or five entire storybooks.
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