The Air Force is likely to bring back 24-hour nuclear alerts for the B-52 soon. Continued threats by North Korea along with escalation in tensions with China and Russia are the primary reasons cited. In an interview with DefenseOne, Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen David Goldfein said, “This is yet one more step in ensuring that we’re prepared. 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.”
During the Cold War, B-52s were always on alert. The jets were prepped and ready to launch on a moments notice. They were primed with air start carts that could quickly spool up the eight ear-piecing TF-33 engines. B-52s were paired with KC-135s to ensure that the nuclear capable bomber had the range to hit any target, at anytime, and anywhere. The constant 24/7 nuclear alerts were stood down at the end of the Cold War.
Will SAC return too? Doubtful.
B-52s used to be the cornerstone of the now-retired Strategic Air Command or SAC for short. SAC was known for highly disciplined airmen and a culture of perfection. Their motto was “Peace is Our Profession”. Practice alerts were frequent and excellence was the baseline expectation. Launches took place from the Christmas-tree looking pads that held bombers strapped with nuclear weapons. The jets were ‘cocked’ and ready to launch at a moment’s notice. Crews hung out at shelters located nearby. Each alert facility contained entertainment, showers, dining area, and a crew rest area. Those facilities are now being renovated, ready to host the next generation of airmen.
SAC was retired in 1992 and unlikely to return. The airmen that crew and support the B-52 now fall under the Air Force’s Global Strike Command. KC-135 and KC-10 tankers that support the bomber fleet now fall under Air Mobility Command.
B-52 soldiers on…
The B-52 is the nation’s oldest active bomber. The robust aircraft first B-52 flew in 1952. Over 700 bombers were produced. Only 78 B-52Hs are in service today. While loud and elderly, the aircraft is still known for being robust and dependable. One B-52 even returned safely after losing part of its tail back in 1964.
The active bombers still in the inventory have undergone numerous upgrades to make them more lethal. The bomber is expected to be active through at least 2040 with additional upgrades planned including a much debated potential engine upgrade.