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Report backs end of bombers' nuclear role

Jan. 17, 2010 - 09:23AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 17, 2010 - 09:23AM  |  
The B-2 "Spirit of Missouri" taxis on the north ramp at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., as part of the wing's nuclear operational readiness exercise. The multiple aircraft fly-off tests the skills and operations of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman.
The B-2 "Spirit of Missouri" taxis on the north ramp at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., as part of the wing's nuclear operational readiness exercise. The multiple aircraft fly-off tests the skills and operations of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman. (SENIOR AIRMAN JASON HUDDLESTON / AIR FORCE)
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Two former Air Force officials want the service to drop its nuclear mission except for intercontinental ballistic missiles, dedicating its next-generation bomber solely to conventional weapons.

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Two former Air Force officials want the service to drop its nuclear mission except for intercontinental ballistic missiles, dedicating its next-generation bomber solely to conventional weapons.

Retired Col. Robert P. Haffa and Christopher J. Bowie, the Air Force's deputy director for strategic planning in 2002, make their case in the report "Triad, Dyad, Monad?" published last month by the Air Force Association, the Air Force's main lobbying group. Space and security expert Dana J. Johnson of the Northrop Grumman Analysis Center, where Haffa and Bowie also work, also contributed to the study.

Released through the Air Force Association's think tank, the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, the report comes at a time when both the nation's nuclear forces and the next-generation bomber are already generating much discussion.

Air Force leaders are hashing out what they want in a new bomber, scheduled for delivery in 2018, and the Pentagon is finishing a congressionally mandated nuclear forces review due in March.

The report recommends the U.S. gradually shift from three ways of deploying nuclear warheads —land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines and bombers — to two ways, the ICBMs and submarines.

Bowie, Haffa and Johnson made their recommendation after comparing the three delivery systems — separately and in different combinations — against a series of factors that included cost, survivability, promptness, ability to penetrate airspace, ease of retargeting, signal of alert readiness changes, weapons on alert and crisis stability.

The head of U.S. Strategic Command, the combatant command that oversees the nuclear mission, continues to support the Triad. Still, Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton has acknowledged the Pentagon and Congress need to debate nuclear deterrence strategies.

"We've skipped a generation of thought," Chilton said at a breakfast in November sponsored by the National Defense University.

Chilton emphasized the importance of nuclear bombers, saying they act as an important deterrent because their presence is visible through exercises and deployments.

Though the Air Force has not flown bombers on nuclear alerts since 1968, nuclear warheads still must be deployed to the bomb squadrons. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated he would like the U.S. to reduce its number of deployed nuclear warheads by 700, from 2,200 to 1,500.

To reach that reduced number, the report recommends the Air Force phase out its 95 B-52s from their nuclear role and let its 20 nuclear-capable B-2s conduct "discrete and selective nuclear strikes." Just last fall, the Air Force re-activated the 69th Bomb Squadron, a B-52 squadron at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., dedicated to nuclear operations.

The savings from not maintaining the B-52 as a nuclear weapons system, the defense experts advise, should be spent on a new conventional bomber — manned or unmanned.

"Given that conventional long-range strike capabilities will be even more important in the emerging security environment, the [research and development] of a new nuclear cruise missile and new nuclear bomber do not appear to be prudent investments in an era of nuclear force reductions," the report states.

A top nuclear scientist agrees with the B-52 phase-out recommendation, especially if the Defense Department chooses not to develop a new cruise missile or to modernize the Air Launch Cruise Missile, the Air Force's sole cruise missile.

"If they retire the cruise missile, that marks the end of the B-52 in the nuclear bomber business," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Despite the report, the Air Force wants a next-generation bomber capable of delivering nuclear weapons, according to recently retired Lt. Gen. Bob Elder. Before stepping down in July, Elder commanded 8th Air Force, which oversees the B-52s and B-2s.

"I haven't heard anything about it not being nuclear capable," said Elder in a Dec. 29 interview, adding Strategic Command "has been pretty vocal that they would like this thing to be part of the nuclear deterrence force."

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