The U.S. Air Force will struggle to keep its nuclear bombers on 24-hour alert, a top general has warned, following suggestions for the force to adopt a plan that will put its nuclear bomber fleet on around-the-clock alert status to fill the gap created by the aging U.S. nuclear missile arsenal.
In a virtual event hosted on Thursday at the Mitchell Institute, Air Force Lt. Gen. James Dawkins, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration said that the proposal to put the U.S. bomber fleet on 24-hour alert “can’t be done forever.”
Dawkins said in a situation where America’s nuclear forces were reduced to just air and sea-based weapons, the Air Force could keep its bomber fleet on alert for an extended period of time, but at some point, it would be exhausted. “We cannot do this steady-state, we cannot do this forever,” he said.
In the proposal to end the use of land-based nuclear weapons, the air force would be tasked to use its energy to maintain 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, according to Military.com. “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.”
The deputy chief of staff said that diverting existing elements of the fleet to nuclear alert status would take away their conventional capabilities. Dawkins made his remarks as lawmakers and defense officials are looking for ways to modernize the nuclear triad, which is made up of land, sea and air-based forces. Officials are thinking of doing away with the land-based component of the triad, which would be the U.S. nuclear missile arsenal. Instead, America would come to depend upon its nuclear bomber fleet and its fleet of nuclear submarines.
Thus far, the suggestion to do away with the missile arsenal has been met with backlash from members of the military, including STRATCOM Commander Adml. Charles Richard, who described the nuclear triad as “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 during a hearing before the U.S. Armed Services Committee. “I’ve already told the secretary of defense that under those conditions, I would request to re-alert the bombers.”
Dawkins said that having the land-based nuclear missile arsenal gives would-be invaders the notion to think twice before invading, because they would have to use its resources to attack the 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.”