U.S. Air Force nuclear bombers are poised to return to 24-hour alert status for the first time since the Cold War ended more than 25 years ago.
That means B-52 bombers, which became a staple in the U.S. arsenal during the Cold War, could once again be ready to take off with a nuclear payload within moments. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told Defense One in an interview that the actual order to go back on alert had not been given, but the force is preparing itself in anticipation.
"This is yet one more step in ensuring that we’re prepared," said Goldfein. "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."
The actual order would come from Gen. John Hyten, the chief of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the nuclear arsenal, or Gen. Lori Robinson, who is in charge of U.S. Northern Command, which is charged with defending Northern America.
The Air Force's preparations come at a time when international political tensions are escalating with countries like North Korea, Russia and others. Unlike the Cold War, Goldfein noted that there are now several nuclear threats the U.S. must contend with.
"The world is a dangerous place and we’ve got folks that are talking openly about use of nuclear weapons," said Goldfein. "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 he has encouraged his forces to explore new ways to engage in nuclear deterrence in an effort to adapt to the new environment.
"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?’” the general said. “How do we think about it — how do we think about deterrence in that environment?"
Goldfein noted that it is his job to provide "options" to Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. While the U.S. has multiple nuclear options, the reactivation of the B-52 force serves a symbolic purpose as well as a tactical one.