“Nuclear Showdown”: Stripped B-52 Bombers Could Get Nukes Again Amid Growing Russian Threats

The US Congress could reinstate nuclear weapons capability on 30 B-52H Stratofortress bombers, which were previously reconfigured to launch only conventional weapons under the terms of the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia.

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The Senate and House military policy bills for the fiscal year 2025 would require that the Air Force bring these conventional bombers back into the nuclear triad, almost ten years after they were taken out to comply with the New START limitations.

The US and Russia signed a nuclear arms reduction agreement, the New START, in April 2010, which took effect in 2011. The pact stipulated that the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers had to be reduced to half and that a new system of inspections and verification had to be implemented. It did not, however, impose a limit on the number of operationally inactive nuke warheads that the two countries could stockpile.

The treaty’s initial term was ten years, ending on February 5, 2021, with the possibility of a five-year extension at the parties’ discretion, which was granted.  Russia formally withdrew from the treaty last year amid nuclear saber-rattling with the US-led NATO alliance. This means there will be no further extension, and the two sides are not bound to reduce nuke capability. The treaty obligations will end in February 2026.

Russia’s frequent insinuations about the potential use of nukes have triggered concerns among the NATO countries, particularly the US. The Pentagon had gone so far as to chalk an elaborate plan in case of a nuclear contingency, as revealed by CNN earlier this year. While the officials believe a nuclear attack is not imminent, the threat has not been dismissed.

B-52H static display – Wikipedia

With the suspension of the treaty by Russia and China’s rapidly increasing production of strategic warheads, US lawmakers are keen to bolster the US nuclear arsenal. There are also concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program and its growing stockpile, as evidenced by the new Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report.

According to the latest reports, the critics of the proposal to arm B-52 with nukes contend that it will complicate efforts to extend the lifespan of the B-52 bomber fleet, which was first introduced during the Cold War, and make it tougher to negotiate a new pact.

According to the House Bill, the US Air Force (USAF) would have to start reconverting the bombers a month after the treaty ends and finish restoring its nuclear capability by 2029.

The AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile, or ALCM, and AGM-86C/D conventional air-launched cruise missile, or CALCM, were developed to increase the effectiveness of B-52H bombers (USAF Photo)

Despite objections from a top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the House passed the B-52 amendment by voice vote. Smith said, “The Department of Defense is not interested in doing this.”

He further argued, “What they’re interested in doing is investing in the B-21, which is the next-generation nuclear-capable bomber. This would cost a great deal of money. Also, they’re currently trying to extend the life of several B-52s out to 2050, which they think they can do. This would be another added expense to that.”

The Air Force’s 76 B-52 bombers, which have been in service since the early 1960s, are the oldest in the force. They carried out bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War and round-the-clock nuclear alert missions at the edge of the Soviet airspace. They participated in the strikes on Iraq that made room for Operation Desert Storm’s swift ground invasion. Additionally, they also carried out targeted precision attacks on the Taliban and the Islamic State in recent years.

With the ability to carry the AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile or ALCM, it is still one of the primary components of the American nuclear triad and forms the backbone of its bomber fleet. The bomber is frequently deployed for Bomber Task Force (BTF) missions globally and is expected to stay in service for at least the next three decades until at least the 2050s.

That puts the eagerness shown by US lawmakers to re-arm several of them with nukes into perspective. The development, intriguingly, comes at a time of increased nuclear posturing by NATO as the Kremlin continues with its routine nuclear saber-rattling.

NATO’s Enhanced Nuclear Posture

Speaking to The Telegraph recently, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO states were consulting about putting more nuclear weapons into service, pulling them out of storage, and keeping them ready for action.

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Stoltenberg said emphatically that more of the alliance’s weapons must be removed from storage to “communicate the direct message that we, of course, are a nuclear alliance”.

“I won’t go into operational details about how many nuclear warheads should be operational and which should be stored, but we need to consult on these issues,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing,” he added.

Three of the alliance’s 32 members—the United States, France, and the United Kingdom—are nuclear weapon states. In addition to these three, other countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Turkey, host US tactical nuclear weapons on their territory.

In March 2023, the United States claimed to have 1,419 strategically placed nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Russia stated that it had 1,549 in 2022 but chose not to disclose its numbers for 2023. Combined, the two nations own about 90% of the nuclear weapons in existence.

Stoltenberg’s remarks come days after Russia launched its tactical nuclear drills in response to “provocative statements and threats of certain Western officials regarding the Russian Federation.”

Russia has been accusing the US and its European allies of arming Ukraine with weapons worth billions of dollars, some of which were being used against Russian territory. Such acts were bringing the world dangerously close to a nuclear conflict.

Stoltenberg countered, saying that Russia was attempting to sow discord and that his remarks had to do with the upgrade of NATO’s nuclear deterrent, which included the modernization of warheads stationed in Europe and the swapping out of F-16 fighters for F-35s, both of which, he said, had been known for a long time.