UPDATE BELOW, BUMPED
There is a lot, and I mean a LOT of pants-wetting going on right now about the Bear Bomber(s) that circled Guam (except they apparently didn't). Part of me really wants to say "Get off my lawn!" to the media involved.
Part of the problem lies in that many news services are (badly) pulling from a story by Bill Gertz in the Washington Free Beacon. While I question parts of his story, the pulls from it (for those I've seen) are very poorly done, though I've seen what I think was an update to one to make corrections (or at least give it some basic editing). So, take this with a grain of salt and know that by the time this goes up, some of those stories may be fixed a bit.
First, some of the stories are either very poorly written or very poorly edited, not sure which. While Bill's story quotes the Air Force as stating there were two Bear bombers, some of the versions I've seen elsewhere mix tenses and numbers. FYI, two is not a fleet, but does make sense on several levels having to do with intel and flight safety.
Second, the Bear is nuclear capable but in the past rarely nuclear armed. There is a huge freakin difference there. Could we tell if it was nuclear armed? Not from looking at it; but, suspect (insert whistling idly here) there are ways to tell. Bill says his sources say there were armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Me, I have to question this as I am not getting any such confirmation nor can I find any official statement so stating. I've put in a formal inquiry to see what response I get in public. I will also note that we have rarely stated that any plane had any particular type weapon on it, as that tends to tell others about our intel capabilities...
Third, the Bear sorta sucks as a nuclear bomber. It is old, it is slow, it is fairly easy to track and shoot down if push comes to shove. As a stand-off platform, it would work better, but they are not exactly stealthy.
Fourth, the Bear has great long range capability. Combine that with a radar great for searching large swatches of ocean, and electronics to gather other intel, and it makes an excellent platform for target location and analysis (and general monitoring). That was, and as far as I know still is, the prime role for the airframe -- finding targets for others and gathering intel.
Fifth, did anyone in the vaunted layers and layers of fact checkers and editors do the first bit of basic research on the system before writing headlines to their version of Mr. Gertz's story? Wonder if any of them ever read Red Storm Rising (paperback or Kindle) or played Harpoon Classic ? Sheesh.
Sixth, Bears have regularly patrolled out over the Pacific and the Atlantic in the past. In fact, they have been known to fly up and down the East Coast just outside the limits on occasion. They have approached Guam before, though they may not have done so recently. Given their range, they are perfect to provoke a response and hoover every bit of electronic noise (and even some visual data) that happens in response. Guess what they probably were doing this time?
Oh, if you want to have some fun, do a search on photos of Bear bombers taken by our pilots who "escorted" them as they approached Iceland or the U.S. Some of them are good, and some are pretty funny for the various signs held up by both sides.
So, this cold warrior is torn between being amused and grumpy at the piss-poor story and all the hysteria going with it. Was Vladimir sending a message as well as testing things? Yep. I also suspect that he is hearing intel on the reaction and has got a look of pure "you have got to be kidding me" on his face at the public side of it.
UPDATE 1: I reached out to some Air Force contacts, and the official response was most interesting and informative, if you read between the lines a bit. The official response from Capt. Bender, quoted also in the original article, is that the F-15s -- normally based in Japan -- were on Guam for Cope North, an annual exercise.
In regards the bombers being armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles as reported by Bill Gertz and breathlessly jumped on by others: "You will have to contact Russian officials to answer your question."
Well, that actually wasn't what I asked, as my question was " is the Air Force stating or confirming
that these bombers were indeed armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles? If so, how was this confirmed?" But, the real answer to the real question is indeed answered. And, no, I'm not going to reach out to any Russian contacts I may still have (can hear their snickers already).
Annual scheduled exercise. Two Bears. Gotta call bullshit on the whole nuclear-armed thing. Pattern is pure intel run.