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Air Force can’t keep nuclear bombers on 24-hour alert, top general says

A KC-135 Stratotanker from the 155th Air Refueling Wing refuels a B-52 Stratofortress May 3, 2017 at the 155th Air Refueling Wing, Lincoln, Nebraska. (U.S. Air Force photo taken by Airman 1st Class Jamie Titus/ Released)
April 23, 2021

The U.S. Air Force is considering a plan to put part of its nuclear bomber fleet on 24-hour alert status to fill the gap left by the aging U.S. nuclear missile arsenal, but one top general is warning that plan isn’t sustainable and could exhaust the force.

During a Mitchell Institute virtual event on Thursday, Air Force Lt. Gen. James Dawkins, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, said putting the U.S. bomber fleet on 24-hour alert can’t “be done forever.”

Asked what would happen if the nuclear triad was just reduced to a nuclear duo of just air and sea-based nuclear weapons, Dawkins said, in extreme conditions, the Air Force could keep its bomber fleet on alert for a long period of time “but at some point at some time period we are going to basically exhaust the force and we cannot do this steady state, we cannot do this forever.”

Under the proposal to end the use of the land-based nuclear arsenal, the Air Force would instead divert its energy to maintaining a bomber fleet that is always on alert.

“You’re going to need more aviators, you’re going to need more Security Forces [personnel],  more maintainers,” Dawkins said. “You’re going to need more bombers, you’re going to need some infrastructure improvements as well at the [alert] facilities, and you’re going to need more tankers, because a bomber on alert without a tanker is not the same.”

Dawkins said diverting more bombers and tankers to nuclear alert status also takes away from the bombers and tankers that can be used for conventional purposes.

Dawkins comments come as lawmakers and defense officials are considering ways to modernize the nuclear triad, which entails the U.S. land, sea and air-based nuclear forces. Officials are considering whether to do away with the land-based component of the triad, the U.S. nuclear missile arsenal, instead keeping only the air-based U.S. nuclear bomber fleet and the sea-based fleet of submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

During hearings this week before the U.S. Armed Services Committee, U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) commander Adml. Charles Richard said maintaining a triad of nuclear strike capabilities is “fundamental to our survival as a nation.”

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

During his Thursday remarks, Dawkins also noted the land-based nuclear missile arsenal acts as a deterrent, both for its rapid strike capabilities and because an adversary considering attacking the U.S. would first have to direct many of its resources to taking out U.S. missile silos first.

“[Land-based nuclear missile silos] create a great targeting challenge for an adversary,” Dawkins said. “They really are a high barrier to entry for any country that would want to threaten us because they would have to use such overwhelming force to take out our ICBMs and that deters them from even thinking about it.”