March 28, 2008— Gen. John D.W. Corley, head of Air Combat Command, said March 27 he supports the idea of creating a second squadron of B-52H bombers at Minot AFB, N.D. The extra squadron would bring USAF to a level of 76 B-52s kept in the same configuration, up 20 from the previous number that the service wanted to maintain.
The move would provide the flexibility to meet the demands of supporting combatant commanders worldwide with the venerable, yet still capable, bombers for conventional roles, Corley said. But really driving this issue, he said, is the desire to institute a new policy under which B-52 units could be fenced off for extended periods so that they would train exclusively for the nuclear mission and then be available to US Strategic Command in that role rather than supporting both nuclear and conventional roles during their Air and Space Expeditionary Force call ups.
This move is one of the many that the Air Force would like to enact—or has already implemented—to improve the oversight of its nuclear weapons and counter the atrophying emphasis on the nuclear mission that has been identified. USAF received a wake-up jolt last August when some airmen responsible for overseeing nuclear weapons at Minot got sloppy and allowed a B-52 mistakenly to carry six nuclear warheads on a flight from Minot to Barksdale, AFB, La.
“I think that to restore the trust and confidence and make sure that the Department of Defense restores its focus on the nuclear enterprise, we need to look at having individuals focus in an air expeditionary force rotational basis on just the nuclear mission,” Corley said March 27 during a meeting with defense reporters in Washington, D.C. “For me to be able to do that plus the other conventional deterrence missions that I have to do with the B-52 for the commander USSTRATCOM, the total number of aircraft required to do that is probably more like 76 than it is 56, which is were the Air Force’s previous position was.”
With a 76-aircraft fleet, there would be 44 combat-coded B-52s; currently Air Force funding supports 56 B-52s, with 32 of them combat coded. This move, which Corley cautioned still has to be approved by the Air Force’s leadership, does not equate to creating a dedicated B-52H squadron for the nuclear mission, but rather rotating the units from Minot and Barksdale in and out of this role every six months or so, he said.
“By putting ourselves into this rotation, I think it gets us properly postured,” he said. “It allows me to work the rotational basis. You can envision an environment where someone moves into a spin up, solely focused on the nuclear enterprise for a period of two months and they go into the normal AEF rotation of about four months where they are focused exclusively on only one thing: nuclear. And then they come off of that and rotate back into their conventional role.”
Corley said he had an appointment with Gen. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff, to discuss this topic right after leaving the meeting with the reporters. Moseley has already come out in support of the idea publicly, for example, telling Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a huge B-52 backer, during a Senate oversight hearing March 12 that the Air Force now believes that it will need to maintain a fleet size around 76. “This is the first time the Air Force has said this publicly,” Dorgan’s office said in a statement released later that same day.
Spearheaded by lawmakers like Dorgan, Congress has called on the Air Force to maintain a larger B-52 fleet. In fact, the Fiscal 2008 defense authorization act directed the Air Force to maintain at least 76 B-52s. Further, called on the Air Force leadership to maintain that level at least until the new bomber that the service wants to field in 2018 reaches combat-ready status.
In the past the Air Force has argued that it didn’t need to maintain that many B-52s, saying there was over capacity and funds could be better applied elsewhere. Even with the desire to keep 76 aircraft, USAF would still like to see some B-52s retired, Corley said. The current inventory is 94, one of which is assigned to NASA as a test aircraft, and another 17 of which are kept in a lower level of readiness as attrition reserve.
Corley said he isn’t sure of the cost for maintaining the 76 B-52s in the same configuration and for fielding the manpower for the new squadron. At the top of USAF’s unfunded requirements list for Fiscal 2009 is the request for $183.1 million to bring the B-52 fleet into compliance with Congressional language in the Fiscal 2008 defense authorization act that calls for the 76 total aircraft inventory/44 combat-coded levels, with all aircraft in a common configuration.
Corley said the B-52 continues to provide “extraordinary value” in conventional roles with its long range, persistence, and large payload capacity. It also has “great deterrent value” in terms of supporting the continual bomber presence that the Air Force maintains on Guam by rotating B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s.
The same approach that the Air Force wants to take with the B-52 is not possible with the B-2 fleet, USAF’s other bomber force that is assigned both conventional and nuclear roles, Corley said.
“When you look at a fleet size of 20 total aircraft, to be able to partition out some of those individuals and those number of aircraft to solely focus on that [the nuclear mission] would make it untenable and unsupportable in the long run,” he said.
As the Air Force weighs these changes with the B-52s, it is also considering on a related note if there is a better way to organize its nuclear forces, Corley said. Bomber units are currently organized within ACC, while USAF’s ICBMs fall under Air Force Space Command.
“There is an ongoing debate as to organizationally is that the right construct to do that,” he said, noting that the issue centers on whether it makes sense “to merge all things nuclear inside of one, if you will, command chain.”
The Air Force’s leadership may take up the organizational issue at its next Corona summit planned for June, he said.
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