US Air Force B-52H bomber shows new nuclear strike capabilities

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U.S. Air Force file photo/Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson

The U.S. Air Force has demonstrated a key part of the country’s nuclear triad, a B-52 bomber armed with nuclear-capable cruise missiles.

Three unarmed AGM-86B nuclear cruise missiles were launched from B-52s assigned to Minot Air Force Base recently. Without revealing the dates, the press release said the testing were carried out at the Utah Test and Training Range.

The B-52H aircrews departed Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, for the Utah Test and Training Range, about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, Utah, and launched the unarmed ALCMs during three separate sorties.

The ALCM is a key air component of the nuclear triad, providing the nation a strategic capability to assure our allies and deter potential adversaries. It provides a clear, visible and tailorable deterrent effect, and denies geographic sanctuaries to potential adversaries.

The AGM-86B is designed to deliver a nuclear payload on target, destroying it on impact. As a standoff weapon, the ALCM can be launched from outside the combat area, allowing aircrews to strike distant targets with a high degree of accuracy without exposing themselves to potentially deadly enemy fire. A B-52H can carry six ALCMs on each of the two externally-mounted pylons and eight internally on a rotary launcher, giving the B-52H a maximum capacity of 20 missiles.

The ALCM sustainment program is managed by the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center and the tests were conducted under Air Force Global Strike Command’s Nuclear Weapon System Evaluation Program, part of the Air Force’s ongoing effort to test weapons systems in training missions and prepare aircrews for future mission requirements. The integrated test team also included personnel, assets and aircraft from AFGSC’s 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, its 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, and Air Combat Command’s 53rd Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida.

The ALCM was initially designed with a 10-year life span but has been in use for about 35 years, largely due to successful sustainment programs. While the current ALCM remains a safe, secure, effective and viable nuclear capability, it faces increasing sustainment and operational challenges against emerging threats as it continues to age. The Long Range Stand Off weapon is being developed to replace the ALCM, which the Air Force expects to start fielding by 2030.

“The LRSO will be a critical element of the United States’ nuclear deterrence strategy, but we must continue to support the ALCM program until it is fielded and these recent tests are clear indicators of the ALCM’s effectiveness and reliability,” said Maj. Gen. Scott Jansson, AFNWC commander and Air Force program executive officer for Strategic Systems.

The LRSO weapon system will be a cost-effective force multiplier for B-52, B-2 and B-21 aircraft to credibly deter adversaries and assure U.S. allies of our deterrent capabilities. Currently in source selection, up to two LRSO contracts are expected to be awarded in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2017.

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