A KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a B-2 Spirit. STRATCOM chief Gen. Robert Kehler urged an end to gridlock that is delaying upgrades to the nation's nuclear arsenal, including the B-61 nuclear gravity bomb — the primary nuclear bomb for the B-2. (Airman 1st Class Maurice A. Hodges / Air Force)
The head of U.S. Strategic Command today urged an end to the gridlock that has delayed long-overdue upgrades to the nation’s nuclear arsenal and the aircraft fleet that protects them.
“We find ourselves in a position today that most of the platforms and all of the weapons are well over 20 years old,” Gen. Robert Kehler told reporters.
A top priority for upgrades: the bombs themselves. The Defense Department is moving forward on upgrades and service life extension programs for the B-61 nuclear gravity bomb, which was first developed in the 1950s and produced in the 1960s. The bomb will be the primary nuclear bomb for the B-2 Spirit and the next-generation bomber and is “essential” to a credible deterrent force, Kehler said.
The command is looking to have one variant of the weapon, and to combine electronics upgrades and service-life extension programs into one process to save money, Kehler said. The upgrades would keep the bomb flying, and would be necessary for it to be carried on the F-35 or upgraded B-2s, officials said.
But the push for upgrades has met opposition.
The National Nuclear Security Administration has estimated the B-61 life-extension program will cost more than $8 billion, and other assessments have found it to be even higher, according to the Center for Arms Control and Nuclear Non-Proliferation The center states the upgrade is unnecessary because it assumes a threat that might no longer existin a decade.
Another focus for updates is the flying fleet that protects the bombs: the Air Force’s fleet of UH-1Ns assigned to Global Strike Command.
The 43-year-old UH-1Ns are still flown by the security forces assigned to Global Strike Command, but these aging helicopters are “overall, not the right aircraft for the mission,” Kehler said. The security forces need a newer aircraft to complete its mission, which would allow the Air Force to reduce the size of the fleet.
“You can do that mission with fewer helicopters, if you have the right helicopter,” Kehler said.
The older helicopters have trouble flying in all weather, and Global Strike Command was planning on a replacement until budget cuts stalled that effort last year.
Upgrades are moving forward on another plane in Global Strike Command’s aging fleet: The first B-52H touched down this month at a depot at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., for new communications software and hardware that will let Stratofortress crews see real-time digital information, such as intelligence, mapping and targeting information. The Combat Network Communications Technology upgrades include on-board equipment such as servers and new workstations.
“It’s going to look considerably different,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Buxton, 2nd Maintenance Group superintendent, in an Air Force release. “There will be six new monitors in the aircraft which will give us increased functionality. We’ll be able to tie in more systems to those monitors.”