The US Air Force is renovating Cold War-era launch pads as it prepares to put its strategic bombers on constant 24-hour alert to engage in potential nuclear conflict for the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
“The world is a dangerous place and we’ve got folks that are talking openly about use of nuclear weapons,” Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein told US military website Defense One. “It’s no longer a bipolar world where it’s just us and the Soviet Union. We’ve got other players out there who have nuclear capability. It’s never been more important to make sure that we get this mission right.”
Goldfein said that the order to return the B-52 bombers to high-readiness has not yet been issued, but showed journalists the ongoing construction work at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
Nine alert pads branching off from an 11,000-foot runway are being renovated, along with a nearby building that will house more than 100 crew members assigned to the B-52 bombers, which have been in service since the 1950s.
Despite their age, Goldfein believes that the bombers could play a role in a modern conflict – certain to be different from the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War.
“I’ve challenged Air Force Global Strike Command to help lead the dialog, help with this discussion about ‘What does conventional conflict look like with a nuclear element?’ and ‘Do we respond as a global force if that were to occur?’ and ‘What are the options?’ ‘How do we think about it — how do we think about deterrence in that environment?’”
The final authority to place the bombers outside rests with either the head of the US Strategic Command, STRATCOM, which oversees the country’s nuclear arsenals, or the head of US Northern Command, NORTHCOM, responsible for defending the US in case of war.
“Our job is options,” Goldfein said. “We provide best military advice and options for the commander in chief and the secretary of defense. Should the STRATCOM commander require or the NORTHCOM commander require us to be on a higher state of readiness to defend the homeland, then we have to have a place to put those forces.”
Additionally, Goldfein said that Barksdale and other US bases are building storage facilities for new intercontinental ballistic missiles. In August, the White House issued an order to develop a replacement for the Minuteman III, the only land-based nuclear missile still in use by the US Army, which was introduced in 1970, and has since been superseded by several generations of strategic weapons developed by Russia, China, and other nuclear states. The US Air Force is also conducting operational tests of a new modification of its plane-delivered nuclear gravity bomb, with the B61-12 expected to enter service by 2020.
Asked whether these measures were likely to be an effective deterrent against North Korea, which has backed up its stated intention to become a nuclear state with a series of successful tests, or other volatile actors, Goldfein seemed less sure.
“It depends on who, what kind of behavior are we talking about, and whether they’re paying attention to our readiness status,” he said.