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Reagan Administration Decision To Retain The B53

The decision to halt retirement of the B53 thermonuclear bomb in 1987 has always been rumored to have been motivated by a need to hold deeply-buried targets at risk. A partially declassified Joint Staff document from March 1987 confirms the rumor and brings new information to light about the justification.

The Nuclear Weapons Council decided in early 1987 that the B53 should not be retired but retained in the stockpile. As the command responsible for delivering the bomb, Strategic Air Command (SAC) reacted to the decision on February 19, 1987, by asking the Joint Staff "how many B53s are required for ALFA Alert or other postures and when will they be required." In its response on March 23, Joint Staff outlined the rationale and operational requirements:

"In order to hold selected deeply targets at risk in all scenarios, a day-to-day alert capability is required. The current capability will be lost when the last Titan II ICBM is deactivated on Jun [sic] 87. Therefore, a B53 ALFA Alert capability must be developed as soon as possible."

B-52 Alert At Wurtsmith Air Force Base In The 1980s

The decision to stop retirement of the B53 bomb in 1987 was due to a military requirement to hold deeply buried targets at risk. This required B53 bombs to be kept on air bases ready for delivery by alert aircraft like these B-52 bombers photographed at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan in the 1980s.

ALFA Alert was the term describing aircraft parked at the end of the runway, loaded with weapons and crews in standby position, ready to take off within 15 minutes to strike targets in the Soviet Union. A requirement existed for B53 ALFA Alert in Fiscal Year 1987, but the guidance provided by the Nuclear Weapons Council stated that "B53 loading on ALFA Alert aircraft is not planned."

Instead, pending completion of the Air Force Operational Safety Review and final decision on a stockpile improvement program for the B53, "these weapons will be used in a generated CHARLIE/FOXTROT role." A CHARLIE/FOXTROT alert involved starting the engines of the B-52s, taxi to the end of the runway, and taxi to the first turn-off before returning to the parking place. In a strike, aircraft on CHARLIE and FOXTROT alert would follow after the first wave of ALFA alert aircraft.

The Joint Staff message to SAC explained further that B53 bombs that were not used in an ALFA Alert role "must be available for follow-on CHARLIE and FOXTROT alert. In addition to operations involving sortie generation during times of crisis/advanced DEFCON or wartime operations, non-ALFA alert B53s must be available for peacetime operations to include generation for operational readiness inspections and testing."

The decision to retain the B53 and the operational requirements that flowed from the decision was temporary. Joint Staff stated that the actual requirements depended on two other factors:

  • The ability to locate and sufficiently characterize the projected growth of the deeply buried target set;
  • The ability to field a suitable earth-penetrating weapon "in the near future."

The second factor referred to the Strategic Earth Penetrating Weapon (SEPW) under development at the time. Yet as described in the B61-11 section of this web site, the SEPW was canceled in 1990, and the W61 follow-on candidate was also canceled, in 1992. So the old B53 stayed on duty. Finally, after a DOE safety review determined in 1993 that the B53 "has no assured level of nuclear safety in a broad range of multiple abnormal environments," and after the strike planners determined that a more survivable delivery platform was needed for the earth-penetrating mission, a decision was finally made to retire the B53 and build the B61-11.

Exploded View of B53 Thermonuclear Bomb

The 9-megatons warhead for the 8,900 pounds B53 thermonuclear bomb was contained in a huge casing of nose capsules, outer casements, a rear case, and a parachute can. In 1993, DOE determined that the bomb was safe but not safe enough.


© Hans M. Kristensen | www.nukestrat.com | 2005

download documents:

» Memorandum (w/attachment), J. David Finley, Department of Energy, Albuquerque Operations Office, "Nuclear Explosive Safety Study Report," August 23, 1994. [1.88 MB]
Partially declassified and released under the FOIA.

» Message 232345Z MAR 87, Joint Staff to CINCSAC, et al., "B53 Requirements." [0.05 MB]
Partially declassified and released under the FOIA.

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  © Hans M. Kristensen