Putting Nuclear Bombers Back on 24-Hour Alert Would Exhaust the Force, General Says

Maj. Gen. James Dawkins is briefed
Maj. Gen. James Dawkins Jr. (middle), Eighth Air Force and Joint-Global Strike Operations Center commander, is briefed at RAF Fairford, England, April 4, 2019. (Airman 1st Class Tessa B. Corrick/U.S. Air Force)

A requirement to return a portion of the Air Force bomber fleet to alert status ultimately would  deteriorate and exhaust the force, a key general said Thursday.

While the Air Force routinely trains to deploy bombers at a moment's notice and conduct a nuclear strike anywhere in the world, returning to a full-time alert status could not "be done forever," Lt. Gen. James Dawkins, the service's deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said this week at a Mitchell Institute virtual event. 

Such a mission would require a substantial increase in resources, Dawkins said. 

"You're going to need more aviators, you're going to need more Security Forces [personnel],  more maintainers ... more bombers ... infrastructure improvements at the [alert] facilities, and you're going to need more tankers," Dawkins said. More refueling tankers from the service's KC-135 Stratotanker, KC-10 Extender and KC-46 Pegasus fleets would need to be "sectioned off" just for the mission to ensure bombers are refueled sufficiently while in flight, he added. 

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Dawkins was responding to comments made by Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command. During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this week, Richard said that if the Defense Department got rid of its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, submarines and bombers would need to increase their operations. 

The U.S. military's nuclear triad, operated by the Air Force and Navy, consists of lCBMs, strategic bombers and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs.

"If you don't have intercontinental ballistic missiles -- you are completely dependent on the submarine leg," Richard said during the hearing. "I've already told the secretary of defense that under those conditions, I would request to re-alert the bombers."

The Air Force bomber fleet hasn't been on full-time alert since the Cold War. President George H. W. Bush ended the alert status in 1991, Dawkins said. 

Of the Air Force's three bombers, only the B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit are capable of carrying and launching nuclear weapons. The B-21 Raider, which also will be nuclear-capable, is not scheduled to join the fleet until the mid-2020s

Of the Air Force's 76 B-52s, 46 are nuclear-capable, according to the Congressional Research Service. The service also has 20 nuclear B-2s in its inventory. 

Dawkins said moving bombers to alert status also would limit the conventional missions they take on. 

Through the Bomber Task Force, or BTF, part of the Pentagon's larger "dynamic force employment" strategy, the Air Force dispatches two to four bombers at a time to units around the globe, in an effort to improve mobility and unpredictability. This initiative also has made Air Force bomber fleets more visible.

"So while it sounds real simple, 'Hey, let's just put our bombers back on alert,' it's not so simple," Dawkins said Thursday. He added, though, that a move to revive the alert mission would shore up an Air Force case for buying more B-21s.

The Pentagon is facing increased scrutiny about developing the next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles to replace the U.S's aging Minuteman III ICBMs.

Experts estimate the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, program could cost between $85 billion to $100 billion for ICBM infrastructure alone. 

Modernizing the entire nuclear arsenal -- including equipment within each leg of the triad, plus crucial communications, the Congressional Budget Office estimates it will cost taxpayers $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years. Some progressive lawmakers have suggested turning solely to submarines and bombers as a result to act as America's nuclear deterrent, according to a report from Defense News

Facing rising threats from North Korea, DefenseOne reported in 2017 that the Air Force had been preparing to put bombers back on 24-hour alert status in part by upgrading facilities for hundreds of airmen to support the potential mission. 

"Bombers are always prepared to go on alert," Gen. David Goldfein, then-Air Force chief of staff, told Military.com last year prior to his retirement. "And they stay in readiness status that we track on behalf of the U.S. Strategic Command commander."

"They're prepared at any given time, should he call for them to go into an alert status," Goldfein said. "They don't sit alert day to day, but we do exercise that pretty robustly, [such as] the command-and-control communications, [and more]." 

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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