Update: The U.S. Air Force has clarified that there are no imminent plans to put B-52 bombers back on 24-hour alert, although facilities for the aircraft and crews are receiving renovations to prepare for the possibility of around-the-clock readiness should U.S. Strategic Command decide to issue the order.
The U.S. Air Force is preparing its fleet of B-52 nuclear-capable bombers for 24-hour alert at Barksdale Air Force Base in northwest Louisiana, . Airmen at the base are readying the planes in case the alert order is issued, which would see the bombers stationed out on nine concrete pads at the end of the 11,000-foot runway, laden with nuclear bombs and available to take off at a moment's notice.
Restoration work is also being completed on a nearby base facility where crew members can sleep, awaiting the call to dash out to the concrete pads—known as the "Christmas tree" for the shape—and take to the skies in the heavy bombers in the case of nuclear war. It's a level of readiness the Air Force has not maintained since the end of the Cold War in 1991.
The order for a 24-hour B-52 readiness alert has not been given, as emphasized by General David Goldfein, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, who recently toured Barksdale AFB to review the fleet of nuclear bombers. However, preparations are being made in case the order should come down from U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which oversees the nation's nuclear forces, or U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), charged with defending the North American continent.
The increased readiness of the B-52 bomber fleet at Barksdale is the latest move by the Pentagon in an attempt to check North Korea's quickly developing nuclear missile program. The Air Force is planning to station F-35A stealth fighters in the region, and the Marines maintain a fleet of F-35Bs in Japan. Goldstein stressed, however, that preparations in the B-52 fleet are a response to global threats from numerous nations with nuclear capabilities.
"The world is a dangerous place and we've got folks that are talking openly about use of nuclear weapons," Goldfein said during his tour of Barksdale, as . "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."
Goldfein also charged Air Force Global Strike Command to make preparations for a war that involved the use of nuclear weapons. He asked the service to come up with answers to the questions, "What does conventional conflict look like with a nuclear element?" and "Do we respond as a global force if that were to occur?"
The Christmas tree at Barksdale will also be receiving two additional visitors soon, the E-4B Nightwatch and E-6B Mercury. The two aircraft would serve as airborne command centers in the event of a nuclear war, with Nightwatch, a Boeing 747-200B, carrying the secretary of defense and Mercury, a Boeing 707-320, carrying the commander of STRATCOM. At least one of the four E-4Bs is always on 24-hour alert. Should the commander in chief issue a nuclear strike order, the launch codes would be transmitted from these command planes to nuclear bombers, ICBM launch facilities, or nuclear capable submarines—the three components of the nuclear triad.
The alert order has not yet come down from on high, but General Goldfein suggested that the Air Force anticipates the need to permanently park B-52s, loaded with nuclear bombs, out on the gray, Cold War-era concrete slabs of Barksdale's Christmas tree.