If the order comes, the B-52s will return to a ready-to-fly posture not seen since the Cold War, Defence One revealed in an exclusive report.
The Base’s runways — dubbed the “Christmas tree” for their angular markings — will have B-52s carrying nuclear weapons, parked and ready to take off at any moment.
“This is yet one more step in ensuring that we’re prepared,” Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, said in an interview.
Goldfein has been touring several bases in support of the US nuclear mission. “I look at it more as not planning for any specific event, but more for the reality of the global situation we find ourselves in and how we ensure we’re prepared going forward.”
Goldfein and other senior defense officials explained that while the alert has not been given yet, preparations are under way in anticipation of it.
General John Hyten, the commander of US Strategic Command, or General Lori Robinson, the head of US Northern Command have been tasked to give the order. In charge of the US military’s nuclear forces is STRATCOM and the defence of North America falls under NORTHCOM.
The decision to place B-52s on alert comes in response “to a changing geopolitical environment” that includes “Russia’s increasingly potent and active armed forces”.
Goldfein, who is the Air Force’s top officer and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has demanded input on “new ways that nuclear weapons could be used” in combat, according to Defence One.
“The world is a dangerous place and we’ve got folks that are talking openly about use of nuclear weapons,” he said. “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 has encouraged the US military “to think beyond Cold War uses for ICBMs, bombers and nuclear cruise missiles” he says.
“I’ve challenged… Air Force Global Strike Command to help lead the dialogue, 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?’” he said.
Goldfein has denied that the move would undermine global nuclear deterrence. “Really it depends on who, what kind of behavior are we talking about, and whether they’re paying attention to our readiness status,” he said.
In Barksdale — home to the 2d Bomb Wing and Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the service’s nuclear forces — crew readiness stations are currently being renovated.
Inside the readiness stations, beds are being installed for more than 100 airmen manning the bombers positioned on the nine alert pads outside.
Two nuclear command planes, the E-4B Nightwatch and E-6B Mercury, will also both be placed on alert. In a coming nuclear war, the planes are deployed as flying command posts for the defense secretary and STRATCOM commander, respectively.
“If a strike order is given by the president, the planes would be used to transmit launch codes to bombers, ICBMs and submarines. At least one of the four nuclear-hardened E-4Bs — formally called the National Airborne Operations Center, but commonly known as the Doomsday Plane — is always on 24-hour alert.”
Barksdale and other bases with nuclear bombers are meanwhile planning the construction of storage facilities for a new nuclear cruise missile. Preliminary work for a proposed replacement for the 400-plus Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as the new long-range cruise missile, is being done.
“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.”