After two decades of targeting terrorists, insurgents and Taliban holdouts, Air Force bombers are once again preparing for the planet’s last day.
It’s a mission that never went away, even as the Cold War ebbed and an age of terrorism rose. But Gen. Timothy Ray, who oversees the service’s nuclear-armed bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, told The Gazette it has probably seldom been more important amid “the return of a long-term strategic competition.”
What was once primarily a standoff between America and the Soviet Union is now what Ray describes as a multifaceted world of danger where risk can emerge from military giants such as China and Russia or from smaller countries like Iran and North Korea using nuclear arms to seize the global stage.
And every player has watched America’s high-tech military at war for the past 18 years.
“Our enemies have studied us for a long time,” Ray, who heads the Louisiana-based Global Strike Command, said in an interview at the Air Force Academy.
To take on this new and dangerous world, Ray has weapons he could have been issued when he graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1985. The newest of his B-52 bombers came off the assembly line during the Kennedy years. His B-1 bombers, ICBMs and air-launched cruise missiles came off the drawing board when disco was in fashion. His newest war machine, the B-2 stealth bomber, come from a project that was canceled by George H.W. Bush.
Now, Ray is working to keep the weapons he has running long enough for the Air Force to field its first generation of nuclear bombers and missiles since the Cold War.
“The game is to hang on and make what we have as lethal as we can until the new stuff gets here,” he said.
Ray’s new gear is on its way. The stealthy B-21 Raider bomber is expected to join Air Force squadrons in about six years. A new missile to replace the service’s venerable Minuteman is expected to be placed in underground silos starting in 2027.
Ray isn’t complaining about the old gear. He says even the B-52s, which saw their first combat in Vietnam, have plenty of life left. Constant upgrades, including new computers, precision guidance for weapons and better communication and navigation gear have kept the Air Force’s nuclear fleet, two thirds of a “triad” that includes the Navy’s missile submarines, ready for war.
What the general wants to tune up immediately is the mindset of his airmen.
“What now is required is a very concentrated focus on being the Air Force we need to be,” he said.
After years of taking on enemies armed with AK-47s and roadside bombs, America is taking on enemies as smart as the iPhones they keep in their pockets. Technologies that once took generations to attain are available so easily that nations once considered backward, including North Korea, can build and wield them.
And resurgent Russia and powerhouse China are showing off weapons that the United States, at least outside the top-secret realm, does not possess. The scary new entrants to the nuclear world include a stealth hypersonic cruise missile that China proudly paraded through Beijing last month. Russia in recent weeks has tested a nuclear-powered hypersonic cruise missile.
Although a test of the new Russian weapon failed with radioactive results, its theoretical ability to speed around the planet with nearly unlimited range has set off alarms at the Pentagon.
To take on these new threats, Ray has another old tool: The airmen who have defended America by threatening its rivals with a nuclear counterstrike since the end of World War II. He’s certain that their weapons will work and that any nuclear attack on America would end in an enemy’s ruin.
What for America was a simple test of an aging missile in California last week showed the might of Ray’s forces to the rest of the planet. A Minuteman missile roared from Vandenberg Air Force Base and delivered a dummy warhead to its target 4,200 miles across the Pacific Ocean.
“We’re pretty doggone good at it,” Ray said of his troops and their mission.
And America’s might will grow. Ray envisions U.S. planes packing hypersonic cruise missiles more reliable and accurate than those under development elsewhere. But even new planes and new missiles won’t be enough. America is in a race that’s moving faster than the Cold War.
“The challenge is one now where technology and industry are moving so quickly,” he said.
The general came to Colorado Springs last week to look over the new generation of officers who must ensure the Air Force stays in the race. He’s getting ideas from cadets, including how his troops defending the nation’s missile silos can be paired with drones to improve security.
While the future has plenty to fear, he said, this generation of high-tech cadets can bring solutions that will keep the nation safe.
“Their ingenuity is very helpful to us,” he said.