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June 23, 2014—The Air Force continues to display ambivalence toward its role and responsibility in the nuclear deterrent aspects of national security strategy. 

​​When former Defense Secretary Robert Gates resumed the Air Force's program for a new bomber in 2011, he referred to it as a "nuclear-capable penetrating bomber."

Consecutive Nuclear Posture Reviews have validated the triad of nuclear bombers and ground-launched and sea-launched nuclear ballistic missiles as the fundamental, overarching security strategy for the nation.

The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision that requires the Air Force to ensure the new bomber has a nuclear weapons capability at initial fielding and full nuclear testing and certification within two years after that. As recently as May, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in testimony before Congress, reiterated the nuclear triad as the basis for the nation's defense strategy.

With such overwhelming clarity in support of the triad and the nuclear-capable bomber role within it, why does the Air Force continue to turn a blind eye toward the nuclear mission for Long-Range Strike Bomber, the new bomber?

Initially, the former Air Force Secretary and former Chief of Staff stated that the new bomber would carry and deliver only conventional weapons. Later, the Air Force said it would provide some "provisions" for a nuclear role, but would defer installing them fully for cost reasons.

Even after the Congress prodded the Air Force to accept full nuclear capability in LRS-B, the Air Force, in its public statements, has consistently not advocated the nuclear deterrent role of LRS-B.

In June of this year, the Air Force's assistant secretary for acquisition, in an interview with Air Force Magazine, said, "From a schedule and national perspective, the nuclear variant [of LRS-B] wasn’t the first version we needed," and "adequate provision will be made to make it easier to make a future nuclear version."

A week later, the Air Force was forced to release a statement clarifying his remarks by reiterating its commitment in accordance with the Congressional requirement for full nuclear capability and testing within two years of initial fielding.

But, why the persistent reluctance among Air Force leaders to fully embrace the nuclear deterrent role for LRS-B? This is out of character for the Air Force given the value and role of strategic nuclear bombers throughout its history. With the current re-emphasis on nuclear deterrence in national security policy, one would think the nuclear mission for LRS-B would be first in priority.

Moreover, there are many other reasons to promote the nuclear mission for LRS-B. As our military forces shrink while those of potential adversaries grow, those forces that are nuclear-capable increase in value. In the Cold War, the USSR and Warsaw Pact outmanned us on the ground, at sea, and in the air. We depended on our nuclear forces, not numbers, to compensate and deter aggression.

The nuclear bomber enforces extended deterrence. We have committed to our allies that they can depend on us for their nuclear deterrent. Our allies count on our nuclear bomber force more so than the nuclear missiles to provide extended deterrence.

Ironically, the bomber leg of the triad is the weakest, another reason to advocate a new nuclear bomber. We have only 60 nuclear bombers, 44 B-52s and 16 B-2s. B-52s cannot penetrate even modest defenses and must launch nuclear cruise missiles to contribute. B-2s are few in number and their ability to penetrate defenses continues to atrophy in the face of modern air defenses. The LRS-B must become the backbone of the bomber leg of the triad.

For these reasons and many more, Air Force leaders should restore the nuclear deterrence ethos throughout the Air Force, champion the nuclear-capable bomber's unique contribution to the triad, and reorder its priorities by advocating the nuclear deterrent mission as Job One for LRS-B.


John Michael Loh, a retired Air Force general, is a former Air Force vice chief of staff and a former commander of Tactical Air Command and Air Combat Command.​