No, The Nuclear Bombers Aren’t Going Back On 24-Hour Alert — Yet

The legendary Slim Pickens as Major "King" Kong, riding a nuclear bomb down to oblivion in 1964's 'Dr. Strangelove'
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Amid what feels like a never-ending cycle of nuclear brinksmanship with North Korea, the Air Force may return its fleet of nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortresses to the 24-hour ground alert cycle that defined the bomber fleet for decades during the height of the Cold War, according to an exclusive report from Defense One.

The 24-hour “strip alert,” established by the Department of Defense in 1968 to replace the continuous sorties traced by nuke-laden B-52s, was officially tabled in 1991 by President George H. W. Bush — an end to a retaliatory posture that defined the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union and was immortalized in movies like “Fail Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove.”

Don’t panic just yet, though: According to Defense One, the order to return to the 24-hour ground alert “had not been given,” but “preparations were under way in anticipation that it might come.” When reached for comment by Task & Purpose, the Air Force Global Strike Command and the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force characterized the Defense One report as “inaccurate,” claiming that the publication “read too much into routine refurbishment.”

“We’re looking at the capabilities to do this. We are not are actually doing this,” an Air Force spokesman told Task & Purpose. “We prepare for things. This is what your military does. This is what you want your military to do.”

Jared Keller

A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress leads a formation of aircraft including two Polish air force F-16 Fighting Falcons, four U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, two German Eurofighter Typhoons and four Swedish Gripens over the Baltic Sea, June 9, 2016.

Although Air Force Global Strike Command has yet to actually order a return to the ground alert, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told Defense One that the idea behind the preparations is simple: It’s “yet one more step in ensuring that we’re prepared” for modern threats.

“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,” Goldfein told Defense One. “The world is a dangerous place and we’ve got folks that are talking openly about use of nuclear weapons.”

The main dynamic in the world is no longer “just us and the Soviet Union,” he added. “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.”

The return to a full-time alert would constitute a dramatic shift in the current U.S. nuclear posture. The legislatively mandated Nuclear Posture Review, last published in 2010, suggested that the current system — heavy bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert, and “a significant number” of nuclear-equipped ballistic missile subs prowling the oceans — “should be maintained for the present,” with the latter two legs of the U.S. nuclear triad making reliance on ever-ready ground-based bombers unnecessary.  

But a return to a strip alert may not be the most efficient deployment of Air Force resources, anyway. The 1993 START II treaty between the U.S. and Russia mandates that strategic bombers and nuclear warheads remain physically separated from each other, making it impossible to launch a nuclear strike without the aircraft first authorizing, obtaining, and equipping their payloads — so any immediate “strip alert” would just be a flight line of toothless Stratofortresses awaiting armaments (an extremely thorough chain of custody, according to a recently-declassified 2009 report to Congress).

Photo via DoD

The Cold War Nuclear Triad has evolved to a more “capabilities-based” posture to deal with multiple aggressors across a spectrum of contingencies.

The return of the 24-hour ground alert isn’t just strategically empty, but deeply dangerous in terms of potential for accidents and mishaps. As nuclear researcher Martin Pfeiffer notes, the mix-and-match between bomber aircraft runs the risk of introducing “warhead ambiguity” into the mix, a case where a nuclear warhead might be mistaken for conventional munitions, as happened in 2007. And as the history of U.S. military nuclear accidents shows, aircraft tend to present the greatest potential for disaster and lost weapons, compared with the relative security of ICBMs and ballistic missile submarines.

Time will tell if Global Strike Command’s own assessment accords with what the history of nuclear weapons tells us. But until then, don’t run for the hills: reviewing the options doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll find ourselves stuck in a brand-new nuclear detente — yet.


"It's kind of like the equivalent of dropping a soda can into canyon and putting on a blindfold and going and finding it, because you can't just look down and see it," diver Jeff Goodreau said of finding the wreck.

The USS Eagle 56 was only five miles off the coast of Maine when it exploded.

The World War I-era patrol boat split in half, then slipped beneath the surface of the North Atlantic. The Eagle 56 had been carrying a crew of 62. Rescuers pulled 13 survivors from the water that day. It was April 23, 1945, just two weeks before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

The U.S. Navy classified the disaster as an accident, attributing the sinking to a blast in the boiler room. In 2001, that ruling was changed to reflect the sinking as a deliberate act of war, perpetuated by German submarine U-853, a u-boat belonging to Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine.

Still, despite the Navy's effort to clarify the circumstances surrounding the sinking, the Eagle 56 lingered as a mystery. The ship had sunk relatively close to shore, but efforts to locate the wreck were futile for decades. No one could find the Eagle 56, a small patrol ship that had come so close to making it back home.

Then, a group of friends and amateur divers decided to try to find the wreck in 2014. After years of fruitless dives and intensive research, New England-based Nomad Exploration Team successfully located the Eagle 56 in June 2018.

Business Insider spoke to two crew members — meat truck driver Jeff Goodreau and Massachusetts Department of Corrections officer Donald Ferrara — about their discovery.

Read More Show Less
(CIA photo)

Before the 5th Special Forces Group's Operational Detachment Alpha 595, before 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment's MH-47E Chinooks, and before the Air Force combat controllers, there were a handful of CIA officers and a buttload of cash.

Read More Show Less

The last time the world saw Marine veteran Austin Tice, he had been taken prisoner by armed men. It was unclear whether his captors were jihadists or allies of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad who were disguised as Islamic radicals.

Blindfolded and nearly out of breath, Tice spoke in Arabic before breaking into English:"Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus."

That was from a video posted on YouTube on Sept. 26, 2012, several weeks after Tice went missing near Damascus, Syria, while working as a freelance journalist for McClatchy and the Washington Post.

Now that Tice has been held in captivity for more than seven years, reporters who have regular access to President Donald Trump need to start asking him how he is going to bring Tice home.

Read More Show Less

"Shoots like a carbine, holsters like a pistol." That's the pitch behind the new Flux Defense system designed to transform the Army's brand new sidearm into a personal defense weapon.

Read More Show Less

Sometimes a joke just doesn't work.

For example, the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service tweeted and subsequently deleted a Gilbert Gottfried-esque misfire about the "Storm Area 51" movement.

On Friday DVIDSHUB tweeted a picture of a B-2 bomber on the flight line with a formation of airmen in front of it along with the caption: "The last thing #Millenials will see if they attempt the #area51raid today."

Read More Show Less