In a dynamic shift, Admiral Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, emphasized the critical role of bombers in the face of potential changes in the Defence Department’s nuclear strategy. If circumstances dictate the removal of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), bombers would need to be elevated to alert status to maintain the nation’s nuclear deterrence capabilities.
The U.S. military’s “nuclear triad” encompasses ICBMs, bombers, and ballistic missile submarines, all strategically positioned to dissuade nuclear-armed adversaries. This ensures a robust response even if a portion of the nuclear arsenal is compromised. Adm. Richard underscored the triad’s fundamental design principle: no single failure should hinder the execution of presidential directives.
When on alert, bombers are poised on runways, loaded with nuclear payloads, ready for immediate action. Following the Cold War’s conclusion, the United States took its bombers off alert status, effectively operating with only Minuteman III ICBMs and Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines primed for rapid nuclear response. Adm. Richard clarified this daily operational reality, referring to it as a “dyad” rather than a triad.
He pointed out that without ICBMs, the nation’s dependence on the submarine leg of the triad would be absolute. In such a scenario, he emphasized that he would advocate for the re-alerting of bombers.
The Biden administration is slated to conduct a comprehensive review of the nation’s nuclear capabilities, a process that has drawn increased scrutiny toward the ICBM component. Some left-leaning lawmakers and arms control advocates argue that bombers and submarines alone are sufficient for deterrence, potentially jeopardizing the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, currently being developed by Northrop Grumman.
Adm. Richard staunchly opposed any delays to the GBSD program, asserting that relying on Cold War-era remnants was inadequate for countering modern threats. He emphasized the pressing need for effective weapon systems tailored to face 2030-level challenges.
In the hypothetical scenario of ICBM decommissioning, specifics regarding which bombers would be placed on alert status were not outlined. The U.S. Air Force presently maintains two nuclear-capable bombers—the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and Northrop B-2 Spirit. While the B-1 Lancer has been repurposed for conventional missions, the B-52 and B-2 remain capable of deploying nuclear ordnance.
In 2017, steps were taken to ready B-52s for potential re-alerting, driven in part by escalating nuclear concerns from North Korea. Though the order was never issued, it underscores the adaptable nature of our strategic defence apparatus.
In this evolving landscape, the role of bombers stands as a linchpin in upholding our nation’s nuclear deterrence capabilities.
Stay vigilant and resolute,