U.S. May Put Nuclear Bombers Back on Alert for First Time Since Cold War

'The world is a dangerous place and we’ve got folks that are talking openly about use of nuclear weapons,' Air Force chief of staff tells Defense One magazine

In this 1965 file photo, a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber takes off from Guam for a strike against the Viet Cong in Vietnam, 2,200 miles away, during the Vietnam War.
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The U.S. Air Force is preparing to put its fleet of nuclear B-52s back on alert for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Defense One magazine reported, based on an exclusive interview with the American air force's chief of staff.

The around-the-clock alert status, which was discontinued in 1991, has the B-52 bombers armed with nuclear weapons on the tarmac and ready to take flight.

According to the leading defense magazine, the move is still in its early planning stages but joins a series of decisions by the air force to address what it described as a "changing geopolitical environment that includes North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear arsenal, President Donald Trump’s confrontational approach to Pyongyang," as well as Russia's "increasingly potent" military.

“The world is a dangerous place and we’ve got folks that are talking openly about use of nuclear weapons,” Gen. David Goldfein, the U.S. Air Force chief of staff told Defense One. “It’s no longer a bipolar world where it’s just us and the Soviet Union. We’ve got other players out there who have nuclear capability. It’s never been more important to make sure that we get this mission right,” he said.

Gen. David Goldfein, who has been nominated to be Air Force chief of staff, listens as he is introduced by Defense Secretary Ash Carter during news conference at the Pentagon, Friday, April 29, 2016.
Molly Riley / AP

 “This is yet one more step in ensuring that we’re prepared,” Goldfein said. “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,” he said.

The report stressed that the final word has not been given, but that the air force is laying the ground work in anticipation of the order by either the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command or by the head of the Northern command, which cover America's nuclear arsenal and defense of North America, respectively.

According to the report, Goldfein, who is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is asking the air force to think about what Defense One described as "new ways that nuclear weapons could be used for deterrence, or even combat."

Last month, Trump wanted to dramatically increase the country's nuclear arsenal, he said in a meeting with his national security advisers in July, NBC News reported, citing three officials who were present in the room.

The president spoke on July after he was shown a chart indicating the stockpile of U.S. nuclear weapons had slid from a high of 32,000 in the 1960s. Trump said he wanted to have that same number now, NBC reported. 

The United States currently has about 4,000 nuclear warheads earmarked for use in its military stockpile, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

Trump said in an interview with Reuters in February that he wanted to ensure that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was at the "top of the pack." 

Although U.S. presidents have modernized weapons stockpiles over the years, adding to the nuclear arsenal or building a prohibited type of weapon would be a violation of treaty agreements, according to NBC. 

After the meeting, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to Trump as a "moron," according to NBC. U.S. news reports have painted the relationship between Trump and Tillerson as tense. 

Reuters contributed background to this report.