The unexpected decision by President Trump to amend an emergency Sept 11 order signed by George W Bush, allowing the Air Force to recall up to 1,000 retired air force pilots to address what the Pentagon has decribed as “an acute shortage of pilots” caught us by surprise. After all, this was the first time we have heard of this particular labor shortage – perhaps there was more to this executive order than meets the eye. Indeed, a just released report may help explain the reasoning behind this presidential decision.
According to Defense One, the US Air Force is preparing to put nuclear-armed bombers back on 24-hour ready alert, a status not seen since the Cold War ended in 1991.
That means the long-dormant concrete pads at the ends of Barksdale Air Force Base’s 11,000-foot runway — dubbed the “Christmas tree” for their angular markings — could once again find several B-52s parked on them, laden with nuclear weapons and set to take off at a moment’s notice.
“This is yet one more step in ensuring that we’re prepared,” Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, told the publication in an interview during his six-day tour of Barksdale and other U.S. Air Force bases that support the 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.”
Quoted by Defense One, Goldfein and other senior defense officials stressed that the alert order had not been given, but that preparations were under way in anticipation that it might come. That decision would be made by Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, or Gen. Lori Robinson, the head of U.S. Northern Command. STRATCOM is in charge of the military’s nuclear forces and NORTHCOM is in charge of defending North America.
Putting the B-52s back on alert is just one of many decisions facing the Air Force as the U.S. military responds to a changing geopolitical environment that includes North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear arsenal, President Trump’s confrontational approach to Pyongyang, and 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, is asking his force to think about new ways that nuclear weapons could be used for deterrence, or even combat.
Quoted by Def One, he said that “the world is a dangerous place and we’ve got folks that are talking openly about use of nuclear weapons. 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.” During his trip across the country last week, Goldfein encouraged airmen to think beyond Cold War uses for ICBMs, bombers and nuclear cruise missiles.
“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?’” he said. “How do we think about it — how do we think about deterrence in that environment?”
Asked if placing B-52s back on alert — as they were for decades — would help with deterrence, Goldfein said it’s hard to say.
“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.
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