By Hans M. Kristensen
The U.S. Air Force today sent two non-nuclear B-1 bombers to overfly South Korea in response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test.
The operation coincides with the deployment of two non-nuclear B-1 bombers and a recently denuclearized B-52 bomber to Europe for exercise Ample Strike.
To be sure, nuclear bombers continue to deploy to both Asia and Europe, and U.S. strategic bombers have had the capability to deliver conventional weapons for many years.
But the use of exclusively non-nuclear strategic bombers in support of extended deterrence missions signals a new phase in U.S. military strategy that is part of an effort to reduce the role of nuclear weapons.
Korea: Non-Nuclear Bomber Deployment
The conventional B-1 overflight of Korea was explicitly described by U.S. Pacific Command as a “response to the recent nuclear test by North Korea.”
The two B-1s are from the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, which in August forward deployed a squadron of the bombers to Anderson AFB on Guam for several months of operations in the Pacific. The B-1s relieved nuclear-capable B-52 bombers that had operated from the base more or less continuously since 2004. Nuclear B-2 bombers also occasionally operate out of Guam.
Europe: Non-Nuclear Bomber Deployment
The B-1 overflight of South Korea coincides with the deployment of a non-nuclear bomber strike group to Europe for exercise Ample Strike. The group consists of two non-nuclear B-1 bombers from Dyess AFB and a recently denuclearized B-52 bomber from Barksdale AFB that operate out of the RAF Fairford base in the United Kingdom.
Converting Bombers to Non-Nuclear Missions
The non-nuclear strategic bombers sent on assurance and deterrence operations in Europe and Asia are part of conversion of formerly nuclear bombers to conventional-only capability.
The B-1 was removed from nuclear planning in 1997 when the B-2 entered the force. But the B-1 was retained in a Nuclear Rerole Plan under which it could be returned to the nuclear mission in six months if necessary. The rerole plan was canceled in 2003 but the B-1s still had equipment that made them accountable under the 2010 New START treaty. Eventually, the last B-1 was stripped of nuclear equipment in 2011.
The B-1 has been used as a bomber as part of the war on terrorism for years. But the bomber was recently equipped with the new long-range conventional JASSM cruise missile and integrated into Air Force Global Strike Command as a strategic strike bomber alongside the B-52 and B-2 bombers. Each B-1 can carry up to 24 JASSMs.
The B-52 used in the ongoing Ample Strike exercise in Europe along with two non-nuclear B-1s was recently denuclearized as part of the implementation of the New START treaty. A total of 30 operational B-52s will be denuclearized before 2018 to reduce the number of deployed nuclear bombers to no more than 60.
B-52s have been able to launch Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missiles for many years but are now being converted to carry the JASSM and, in the case of 30 operational B-52s, being stripped of their nuclear capability. Each B-52 can carry up to 20 JASSMs.
Reducing the Role of Nuclear Weapons
The two non-nuclear bomber operations are important because they follow the 2013 Nuclear Employments Strategy which, among other things, directed the military to “conduct deliberate planning for non-nuclear strike options to assess what objectives and effects could be achieved through integrated non-nuclear strike options…”
Although non-nuclear weapons are officially not seen as a substitute for nuclear weapons, the guidance stated that “planning for non-nuclear strike options is a central part of reducing the role of nuclear weapons.”
Advocates for building a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile (LRSO) argue old-fashionedly that the weapon is essential for providing assurance and deterrence in support of allies in Europe and Asia. But the recent non-nuclear bomber operations demonstrate that conventional bomber with conventional cruise missiles can also serve that mission – and already do.
This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.