The 24 hour alerts were ceased in 1991 following the end of the Cold War. However, with rising threats from North Korea and increasing tension with Russia and Iran, the Air Force is preparing for the possibility that it will again have nuclear bombers continually on alert.
Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, home of the 2nd Bomb Wing and its B-52H bombers, is receiving renovations to enable 24 hour operation. The crew quarters meant to house crews on alert near their planes is receiving 100 beds, along with recreation equipment. Storage facilities to house new nuclear cruise missiles are also planned.
The Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. David Goldfein, visited Barksdale and commented on the preparations:
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.
Gen. Goldfein also clarified that the decision to resume 24 hour operation had not yet been made; these preparations are simply meant to ensure the Air Force is ready to implement that order, if it comes. The decision would be made by the heads of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), Gen. John Hyten, and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), Gen. Lori Robinson. STRATCOM has responsibility for American nuclear weapons, and NORTHCOM is responsible for the defense of North America.
The Air Force is attempting to beef up its capabilities due to its role in the American “nuclear triad.” The United States, among other countries, relies on land, sea, and air based nuclear weapons as a deterrent against attacks by ensuring that it could respond if attacked first (so-called second strike capability). Thus, the “triad:” the U.S. operates Minuteman ICBMs from land-based silos, deploys Trident SLBMs on ballistic missile submarines (the Ohio class), and has airborne bombs and cruise missiles able to be carried by B-52 and B-2 bombers. Since 1991, as noted, the “air” portion of the American triad has been neglected, so the Air Force is working to correct that, or at least signal to other nations that it is able to do so.
This may, in fact, be the main point of these statements and exercises: show hostile countries that the United States is ready and able to defend itself against their attacks. As North Korea’s Kim Jong-un continues to make noise about attacking the continental United States, the U.S. is signaling that it is able to respond to any attack.