Unlike the wars the nation has fought over the past two decades against terrorists and violent extremist groups, the next one — potentially against China or Russia — threaten the nation’s survival, said Gen. Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command.
Those potential adversaries are modernizing in a way that the United States is not, Ray said Sept. 11 in an emailed response to questions. Those peer nations have modernized their nuclear weapons and systems to deliver them, Ray said.
To keep pace, he said, the United States needs to modernize its network of bombers, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles, in part by developing new technologies. This is how Global Strike plans to respond to Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown’s recent call for the Air Force to “accelerate change or lose,” Ray said.
The Air Force is already working on this by developing the B-21 Raider bomber. But until enough B-21s are ready, the Air Force will need to keep sustaining and modernizing the existing — and aging — B-1, B-2 and B-52 bomber fleet, he said.
The Air Force awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman Sept. 8 to build the next generation of ICBM, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. This will replace the 50-year-old Minuteman III ICBM, Ray said, which was originally only meant to serve a decade.
“Our contribution to the joint fight, and frankly national-level power, is not a birthright and must be continuously invested in and evolved,” Ray said. “We must keep our nuclear modernization and investments in long-range strike stable and on time to ensure we’re positioned for the 21st century.”
The Air Force will continue to invest in long-range strike. In fact, it has “no substitute … regardless of what you hear to the contrary,” he said.
“No matter where you look, the Air Force has proven time and again that rapid, flexible power projection — anywhere and anytime — is one of our bread-and-butter mission sets, and the premium on those attributes increases as we look ahead,” Ray said.
Global Strike’s ability to keep operating during this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, with just a small number of cases, was one of the things of which he is most proud.
ICBM airmen began pulling two-week alerts, he said, the longest in history. And in January, Global Strike began conducting tabletop exercises, worked with local civilian agencies and reached out to academia and business to create real-time models to map the spread of the virus around bases.
That predictive modeling gave wing commanders data they needed to make accurate, timely decisions to protect bases without applying a “one-size-fits-all” solution, Ray said. Commanders had the ability to dial up or down protective measures as they saw fit, he said.
“We never faltered,” Ray said. “The nation expects us to be ready under all conditions. … The coronavirus has not, and will not, stop us.”
As the pandemic spread across the planet, Global Strike Command kicked off a series of engagements and training missions by sending bombers and their crews to the Western Pacific, Europe and the Arctic, Ray said.
These Bomber Task Force missions — including the recent “Allied Sky” mission, in which six B-52s from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota flew over all 30 NATO countries in Europe and North America in a single day — helped build relationships with allies and partner nations, he said.
Global Strike also focused on trying to fix its ailing B-1B Lancer fleet, Ray said, by preparing a two-year “roadmap to recovery.” Some B-1s have taken part in deployments to the Pacific region, he said, showing the fleet’s improving health. However, some B-1s still need “significant structural repairs," and Global Strike is working to retire 17 that have most frequently been flown in ways they weren’t designed for in the Middle East, he said.
In December, Global Strike stood up Detachment 7 at Duke Field in Florida to prepare to receive the MH-139A helicopter, known as the Grey Wolf, Ray said. This will replace the UH-1N fleet, and provide security and support for ICBM fields in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska.
Over the next year, Ray said, he hopes Global Strike will continue improving its culture, by dealing with issues of race, diversity and inclusion.
And, he said, Global Strike will continue moving forward with programs such as the B-21, the B-52 modernization, the GBSD missile, and the Grey Wolf helicopter.
“We’re building an enterprise that is naturally inclined to innovate while moving forward,” Ray said. “These airmen will be the ones who will preserve and perfect the production of American air and space power, in the same way our airmen accomplish this today.”
[Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to note that the Allied Sky mission also included overflights in North America.]
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.