The U.S. Military's Behind-the-Scenes Moves To Protect Nuclear Readiness Amid Coronavirus

B-2 stealth bomber nuclear forces readiness
U.S. Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Justin Aeckerle, a B-2 crew chief assigned to the 131st Maintenance Squadron, salutes B-2 Spirit pilot before takeoff at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, March 8, 2020. The B-2 "Spirit of Washington" launched from Whiteman AFB to support U.S. Strategic Command Bomber Task Force operations in Europe. The 131s Bomb Wing’s 131st MXS is the total-force partner unit to the 509th Bomb Wing. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel

The Defense Department shifted many of its domestic bases to "health protection condition" Charlie on Sunday, the latest in a series of moves to protect military forces, families and bases from coronavirus. HPCON Charlie – also known as "substantial threat of sustained community transmission" – is the fourth highest of five levels.

Though Pentagon officials continue to insist that the coronavirus pandemic has had no impact on operational readiness of the armed forces, behind the scenes military exercises and deployments are being scaled down and canceled, and plans are being put in place to sustain essential operations. That includes the so-called triad of bombers, land-based missiles and submarines that make up the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Last week, the head of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), Adm. Charles A. "Chas" Richard, said that nuclear readiness was unaffected by coronavirus. The nuclear forces, he said, "remain ready to execute" their war plans despite coronavirus and that the pandemic has had "no impact to our ability" to carry out missions.

Adm. Richard said that his Omaha, Nebraska-based command "had plans in place that we have updated and are executing,'' to deal with a pandemic. The nuclear force, he said, was designed to operate isolated for long periods of time.

But an active force that is constantly kept on alert is also one that is more exposed. According to a military tally compiled as of Sunday and reviewed by Newsweek, units feeding STRATCOM have a cumulative 106 uniformed personnel not on duty due to coronavirus, either because of confirmed cases or "protective self-quarantine." Six bases are listed where bombers, missiles, aerial refueling tankers and supporting command and communications units that support the nuclear force are reporting coronavirus cases, according to the data compiled by the Defense Department.

One positive case of coronavirus was reported Saturday at Whiteman air force base in Johnson County, Missouri, where the B-2 stealth bomber force is deployed. Three of those bombers returned to base over the weekend from a "deterrent" mission deployment to Europe. That mission, observers say, was cut short in comparison with previous bomber deployments.

The United States currently has a total of about 850 nuclear warheads on alert – 400 nuclear-armed land-based intercontinental missiles in three western states, and 450 warheads on five ballistic missile submarines in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. These are the weapons that are ready to instantly respond to presidential commands, according to the Federation of American Scientists. An additional 1,300 warheads can be brought up to alert status quickly on four or five additional submarines and on 60 nuclear-configured B-2 and B-52 bombers at bases, all in a matter of a few days.

Last week, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said that the nuclear deterrent has had no changes in its operations due to coronavirus.

An example of those operations is the deployment of the three B-2 stealth bombers to Europe on March 8, the bombers and their maintainers first landing at Lajes Field in the Azores, an archipelago of nine islands 850 miles off the coast of Portugal. The next day, the bombers flew to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire in the southwest U.K. There, they conducted various practice missions – over the North Sea on March 12, an Icelandic Air Policing mission on March 16 and 17, over the North Sea on March 18, and then over the Arctic Ocean on March 20. The bombers practiced flying with British, Dutch and Norwegian fighter planes, practicing escort and the procedures for the bombing of Russia.

"A credible deterrent for the high North region," Lt. Gen. Steven Basham said, in describing the operations. "Operating B-2s in the Arctic allow us to shape that environment by demonstrating our resolve to deliver combat power anywhere in the world if called upon."

"The world expects that NATO and the U.S. continue to execute our mission with decisiveness, regardless of any external challenge," said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

As for the nuclear arsenal itself, the Department of Energy, which is responsible for the nuclear warheads, said last week that it would continue "its National Essential Functions, Primary Mission Essential Functions, and Mission Essential Functions" despite coronavirus shifts to telework and other social distancing operations.

No nuclear warheads are currently being produced, the production run of the W76 Trident submarine missile warhead life extension program ending last December. The nuclear warhead producers were to have shifted the production line to producing a new bomb – the B61 Mod 12 – starting this month, but because of technical hold-ups, production of that warhead has now been delayed until late 2021.

B-52 U.S. military nuclear weapons readiness
B-52 Carrying Rocket Plane (Photo by Dean Conger/Corbis via Getty Images) Dean Conger/Corbis/Getty

Instead, the Department is in a constant cycle of keeping the existing stockpile of bomber and missile warheads healthy. Nuclear weapons expert and observer Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists says that includes "taking apart and surveying existing warheads in the stockpile" at the rate of about a dozen or so warheads per month. This is primarily accomplished at the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas, though the two nuclear laboratories –Los Alamos in New Mexico and Livermore in California – also get involved in more complex and problem cases discovered in what are called "surveillance" activities. The current U.S. nuclear stockpile is made up of seven different basic types of warheads, and some sampling of each is shipped from active bases back to Pantex and the laboratories in a complex and secret ongoing process.

Kristensen says that though there have been few signs of how coronavirus is impacting nuclear forces, the B-2 mission in Europe was "dramatically shortened" in comparison with previous years. "Last fall when they deployed the B-2s, they were there [at RAF Fairford] for a month," he says. Kristensen is been closely following bases where nuclear weapons are deployed, as well as the operations of the force, expecting that there will be significant changes if the virus persists in its growth.

Though U.S. European Command says its readiness remains high "for the foreseeable future," it admits it is already curtailing numerous military exercises due to coronavirus. In the coming months, Gen. Tod Wolters, overall European commander says, it is likely that between 30 and 65 percent of exercises will be reduced or canceled. Other commands have similarly canceled or postponed Russia-oriented military exercises, including a Red Flag exercise planned for Alaska and a high-profile test of a new all-domain warfighting system planned for next month, one that would have practiced the integration of nuclear, conventional, cyber and space weaponry.

"My organization is designed to be able to operate isolated for long periods of time," STRATCOM commander Adm. Richard insists.

The 3,000 person headquarters in Omaha has taken steps to institute social distancing, and it has shifted some people and functions to alternate and subordinate commands, improving redundancies and guarding against spread of the virus.

Though alerts, exercises, and the shuffling around of warheads continues, a senior officer at U.S. Strategic Command (who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to public speak on the matter) says that everyone is anticipating that there will be significant changes are coming. "There isn't a command headquarters, including STRATCOM," the senior officer says, "where there aren't people with coronavirus symptoms or in self-quarantine."

For now, Kristensen says, "probably the healthiest people in America are those who are coming back from the longest submarine patrols," which currently last as long as 78 days.

They've been underwater since almost the beginning of the year.

The U.S. Military's Behind-the-Scenes Moves To Protect Nuclear Readiness Amid Coronavirus | U.S.