Playing With (Nuclear) Fire: Why Renewal of B-52 On-Alert Status is So Dangerous

Sunday, October 29, 2017
By Paul Martin

All this week, conflicting reports have been floating around about US plans to put their fleet of nuclear-armed B-52 strategic bombers back on round-the-clock combat alert, something unseen since the end of the Cold War. Sputnik contributor Vladimir Barsegyan explains why such a move would dramatically increase the dangers of a nuclear incident.

The initial report that Washington was planning to put its Stratofortress bombers back in the air, ostensibly over the threat posed by North Korea, was shot down by the Pentagon the next day. However, on Friday, just days ahead of President Trump’s upcoming South Korea visit, Vice President Mike Pence ratcheted up fears again, telling personnel at a North Dakota base containing B-52s and ICBM launch sites to “be ready” for a possible confrontation with Pyongyang.

The nuclear superpowers had given up 24-hour nuclear alert bomber missions at the end of the Cold War. Before then, US and Soviet bombers flying along each other’s borders saw Moscow and Washington engaged in a protracted attempt to stare each other down. In October 1969, President Richard Nixon approved Operation Giant Lance, which involved flying a squadron of 18 B-52s loaded with nukes toward the Soviet Union over the Arctic Circle to try to coerce the USSR into backing down in Vietnam. The plan failed, and Nixon rescinded the operation three days later, but not without raising alarm bells in Moscow first.

Observers say that if the Stratofortresses are sent back to the skies on 24/7 alert now, the situation would be even more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. In an op-ed for RIA Novosti, journalist and Radio Sputnik contributor Vladimir Barsegyan pointed out that back then, at least the USSR’s western borders were ‘covered’ by the airspace of the communist bloc countries. Since then, he noted, this bloc has dissolved, and been absorbed by NATO, which then proceeded to expand into the former Soviet Union proper in the Baltic states.

“This means that today, the Pentagon is tempted to approach Russia along its European borders,” the journalist wrote. “They have already taken some first steps.”

This summer, for example, three B-52s from the Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, along with B-2 Spirit and B-1B Lancer bombers, were sent to Europe to participate in the BALTOPS and Saber Strike drills across Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. This included operations over western Estonia, less than 200 km from the Russian border. The US strategic bombers have made similar stopovers in the region repeatedly since 2014, after the deterioration in relations between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine.

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