Nuclear deterrence: The silent sentinel

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By Staff Sgt. Torri Ingalsbe, Air Force Public Affairs Agency, Operating Location – P / Published August 27, 2014

A B-2 Spirit flies into position June 11, 2014, during a refueling mission over the North Atlantic Ocean. The B-2 is conducting training flights and regional familiarization in the U.S. European Command area of operations. The B-2 is a multi-role bomber capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear munitions. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Paul Villanueva II)

The B-52 is a long-range, heavy bomber that can perform a variety of missions. The bomber is capable of flying at high subsonic speeds at altitudes up to 50,000 feet. It can carry nuclear or precision guided conventional ordnance with worldwide precision navigation capability. (Courtesy photo)

An unarmed LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Launch Facility-4 on Vandenberg Air Force Base Calif. The Minuteman III ICBM is an element of the nation's strategic deterrent forces under the control of the Air Force Global Strike Command. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Lael Huss)

A B-2 Spirit from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., performed air refueling with a KC-135 Stratotanker from Royal Air Force Mildenhall June 11, 2014, over Cornwall, England. Whiteman AFB is participating in familiarization training operations while deployed to RAF Fairford. (U.S. Air Force Senior Airman/Christine Griffiths)

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Global conflict and instability have always been a part of human history, and America’s nuclear forces serve as the nation’s ultimate form of deterrence in a world where global engagements are becoming increasingly complex.

It has been almost 70 years since the last nuclear weapon was detonated during conflict. According to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender.

Nuclear weapons remain the gravest threat to the U.S. and our allies because of their extraordinary destructive power, a fact that's unlikely to change in the decades to come,” said Maj. Gen. Garret Harencak, the Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration. “As long as these weapons exist, it's imperative the U.S. maintain a robust and credible deterrent.”

With eight known countries in possession of nuclear weapons and others trying to acquire them it’s imperative the U.S. maintains a safe, secure and effective nuclear capability. In other words, the U.S. nuclear deterrence mission is here to stay.

Harencak explained although the threat of an all-out nuclear war has significantly declined throughout the last couple of decades, there are an increasing number of nuclear-capable entities around the world.

“There’s no doubt that today’s multi-polar, proliferated environment creates new and complex challenges,” Harencak said. “The threat of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation has increased. Not only has the world seen a rise in the number of nuclear weapons states since the Cold War, but established nuclear powers like China and Russia are investing billions in modernization of their stockpiles and delivery systems. In light of these developments, the strategic stability provided by the Air Force’s nuclear deterrence forces is vital to ensuring an aggressor can’t coerce the U.S. or escalate their way out of conflict.”

Airmen stationed within Air Force Global Strike Command operate and maintain two-thirds of the nation’s nuclear triad, including intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable bombers.

“With its diverse, flexible, responsive and survivable mix of capabilities, the triad provides the best hedge against future uncertainty,” Harencak said. “Those unique attributes become even more important as the U.S. reduces its number of deployed nuclear weapons to meet treaty obligations.”

He said the Air Force plays a crucial role in the equation.

“ICBMs are valued most for the stability they produce and their high level of responsiveness,” he explained. “Their dispersed basing and alert posture creates an extraordinarily high threshold for adversary attack against the homeland. Nuclear-capable bombers are highly flexible and resilient and can be deployed worldwide to signal resolve and intent. They're integral to extending deterrence globally and assuring our allies and partners. Dual-capable fighters perform an important role in assuring our NATO allies.”

The Air Force’s execution of its nuclear deterrence mission is not something that is changing anytime soon.

“For more than 50 years, our nation's nuclear forces have provided the U.S. with the ultimate guarantee against its only existential threat,” Harencak said. “Every day, Air Force ICBMs, nuclear-capable bombers and fighters, and the Airmen who operate and maintain them help preserve the strategic stability that is foundational to that guarantee.”

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