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.


(Glow Images via Associated Press)

Editor's Note: This article by Amy Bushatz originally appeared on, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

A massive billing glitch in Tricare's East region, managed by Humana, on Thursday slammed about 25,000 beneficiaries with premium charges 100 times more than they owe monthly for their coverage.

Read More Show Less
A UH-60 Black Hawk departs from The Rock while conducting Medevac 101 training with members of the 386th Expeditionary Medical Group, Feb. 16, 2019. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys)

A Minnesota Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter with three Guardsmen aboard crashed south of St. Cloud on Thursday, said National Guard spokeswoman Army Master Sgt. Blair Heusdens.

At this time, the National Guard is not releasing any information about the status of the three people aboard the helicopter, Heusdens told Task & Purpose on Thursday.

Read More Show Less
Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally on April 21, 2018 in Draketown, Georgia. (Getty Images/Spencer Platt)

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

Former Canadian Army Reserve Master Cpl. Patrik Mathews, 26, was first identified as a member of The Base by Winnipeg Free Press reporter Ryan Thorpe.

Days after Thorpe's report was published, Mathews went missing and was discharged from the military for his alleged ties to the group. His car was found about 10 miles from the U.S. border soon thereafter, and police found a cache of weapons when they raided his home.

Vice reporters Ben Makuch, Mack Lamoureux, and Zachary Kamel, citing confidential sources, reported on Thursday that Mathews had been illegally smuggled across the border and is being hidden by members of The Base, which has operated in encrypted chatrooms as a largely online organization.

Read More Show Less

The Pentagon's latest attempt to twist itself in knots to deny that it is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East has a big caveat.

Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said there are no plans to send that many troops to the region "at this time."

Farah's statement does not rule out the possibility that the Defense Department could initially announce a smaller deployment to the region and subsequently announce that more troops are headed downrange.

Read More Show Less

The Navy could send a second aircraft carrier to the Middle East if President Donald Trump orders a surge of forces to the region, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said on Thursday.

Gordon Lubold and Nancy Youssef of the Wall Street Journal first reported the United States is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East to deter Iran from attacking U.S. forces and regional allies. The surge forces could include several ships.

Read More Show Less