A day after the Air Force flew a B-52 Stratofortress over South Korea in the wake of their northern neighbor’s nuclear bomb test, Air Force officers discussed the service’s nuclear capabilities with policymakers Jan. 11.
The hour-long discussion, part of an ongoing series, touched on North Korea’s Jan. 6 test and why the Air Force responded with a show of force. It also delved further into the U.S. military’s triad system, which deters a nuclear attack using strategic bombers, missile silos and submarines.
Organized by the Air Force Legislative Liaison Office at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, the Air Force 101 sessions inform policymakers on various topics.
“We don’t write policy. That’s not our job,” said Maj. Justin Ballinger, a legislative liaison. “What we do is educate how the policy and legislation affects us, and what we can do with what is given to us.”
The bi-monthly sessions cover “airpower from the ground up” and hot topics such as a briefing on cyber security that had officers talk about policies related to Air Force missions.
“They spoke on the things that the current legislation allows us to do and some of the things that we’re handcuffed with,” Ballinger said.
The sessions by the liaison office, which Ballinger described as an arm of the executive branch, also save time and energy to highlight Air Force matters.
“The more folks we can reach out to and educate, the better returns we get when it comes to responsiveness for policy and other issues,” he said.
At the latest session, three Air Force officers spoke to about 60 policymakers on nuclear operations an issue recently thrusted into the spotlight.
“It gives us an opportunity to build that initial foundation for a lot of them,” said Maj. Nathan Perry, the chief of airborne capabilities for Air Staff 10 that handles the service’s nuclear mission. “If a handful of them left this door smarter than they were when they walked in on nuclear deterrence, then mission accomplished.”
To Perry, who has flown B-2 Spirits, the session was a unique chance for him and others to communicate in person with policymakers who may alter the future of nuclear operations one day.
“For us to be able to say that we are credible and reliable all the time,” he said of nuclear deterrence, “we have to be able to correspond about it, talk about it and prove it.”
Allowing Capitol Hill staffers to interact with Airmen who’ve had prior experience on a specific issue may also indirectly shape new policy.
“Being over here talking and sharing our experience, we absolutely influence the process,” said Maj. Stephen Bonin, a senior emergency actions officer with the National Military Command Center who once served as a missile maintainer.
The goal of the sessions is to improve the decision making of policymakers.
“I can’t tell you what the composition of the triad should be or how many weapons we should have,” Bonin said, “but I can tell you all the information so you can make an informed decision.”
Eric Mattson, a Hill staffer who works for U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer of Washington, said the session helped expand his knowledge on nuclear capabilities.
“As I work here there may be a time when I will work with this kind of policy,” Mattson said. “I think it’s important for us as policymakers to know what can be done better.”
One aspect that the Air Force is pushing to modernize is its aging aircraft, of which many are part of the triad system. In October, Air Force officials awarded a multibillion-dollar contract to build 100 long range strike bombers to replace legacy bombers, such as B-52s that are more than 50 years old.
Bombers play a critical role in nuclear deterrence since they’re easily visible, unlike submarines or intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The low-level flyover of the B-52 and fighter aircraft only a few hours from the demilitarized zone of the Korean Peninsula was a prime example.
“That’s what the bomber portion gives you,” Perry said. “It allows the whole world to see that we’re getting it done. It’s definitely a game of chess and it takes a lot of work.”
How the Air Force will evolve and continue its nuclear deterrence mission will be up to those making legislation.
“You need to take a serious look at what is the strategic narrative that we want to push for some of these capabilities,” Perry told the policymakers. “Please help us use our capabilities to do what we need to do.”