As the Air Force and wider Defense Department work to address threats posed by peer competition and to fulfill the requirements of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the service must invest in a workforce that can build and deliver crucial capabilities to sustain the nuclear arsenal, the Air Force’s top military official said June 26.

Speaking at the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute breakfast event on Capitol Hill, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein pushed for a greater investment in educating the next generation of nuclear physicists and engineers within the U.S. military community.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein gives remarks during a Heritage to Horizons concert at the Air Force Memorial, Arlington, Virginia, May 15, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark)

The defense community needs to “acknowledge that our nuclear deterrent is a national asset, and therefore demands a national commitment,” he said, adding, “This is the right time for a national debate about this issue as we face the return to great power competition.”

He lauded efforts by Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) Commander Gen. Timothy Ray to recruit and retain a nuclear-knowledgeable workforce.

“History has shown us that investment in these elements are well worth the cost,” he said, noting earlier in his speech that Russia and China are hard at work to field new capabilities ahead of the United States. “The burden is large but affordable to the nation, and the price of preserving our nuclear deterrent is nothing compared to the price of losing it.”

The Air Force has previously sounded the alarm over maintaining a strong nuclear defense workforce. The service is working with the Defense and Energy Departments on continuing studies to determine whether to force the two contractors for the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) – Boeing [BA] and Northrop Grumman [NOC] to use both remaining U.S. manufacturers for solid rocket motors in their development of the new nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missile, a senior service official testified in March (Defense Daily, March 28).

Meanwhile, the Air Force’s top nuclear modernization programs remain on track, Goldfein said. The classified B-21 Raider development program is on schedule to debut in the mid-2020s, he said. Northrop Grumman [NOC] is the prime contractor building the next-generation nuclear bomber, which will eventually replace the service’s B-1B and B-2 aircraft.

“Our confidence remains very high in this program,” Goldfein said, noting that the B-21’s critical design review, which occurred last November, went “very well.” (Defense Daily, Dec. 11).

“We are closely monitoring the build of the initial test aircraft and associated software to support first flight,” he added. “We have built agile acquisition into the development and procurement efforts to ensure the Air Force delivers system capabilities for the very best value.”

The service’s long-range standoff (LRSO) weapon development also remains on track to achieve initial operating capability in 2030, Goldfein said. Raytheon [RTN] and Lockheed Martin [LMT] are each developing their own version of the new nuclear-tipped missile, which will replace the aging AGM-86 air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) that is “25 years past its design life,” he said.

The forthcoming GBSD, which will replace the Air Force’s Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), is fully funded to achieve IOC by 2029 and remain viable through 2075, Goldfein noted. Boeing [BA] and Northrop Grumman have each received engineering, manufacturing and development (EMD) contracts to develop a new GBSD missile, and the Air Force plans to select a provider in 2020.