The U.S. Air Force is preparing to put nuclear-armed bombers back on 24-hour ready alert, a status not seen since the Cold War ended in 1991.
That means the long-dormant concrete pads at the ends of this base’s 11,000-foot runway — dubbed the “Christmas tree” for their angular markings — could once again find several B-52s parked on them, laden with nuclear weapons and set to take off at a moment’s notice.
“This is yet one more step in ensuring that we’re prepared,” Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, said in an interview during his six-day tour of Barksdale and other U.S. Air Force bases that support the nuclear mission. “I look at it more as not planning for any specific event, but more for the reality of the global situation we find ourselves in and how we ensure we’re prepared going forward.”
On October 16, Syrian anti-aircraft units fired a SAM-5 anti-aircraft missile at Israeli planes conducting a reconnaissance mission over Lebanon. Israel frequently conducts these types of intelligence gathering operations over Lebanon to keep tabs on Hezbollah. The missile missed and all Israeli planes returned safely back to base. Shortly thereafter, Israel retaliated transforming the missile battery, located approximately 50 kilometers east of Damascus, into an expensive heap of scrap metal. Following the Israeli strike, an Israel Defense Force spokesman stated that Israel “hold[s] the Syrian regime responsible for the anti-aircraft fire and any attack originating from Syria.”
This isn’t the first time that the Syrians launched anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli fighter planes. In March, Israel intercepted and destroyed a Syrian SAM-5 missile with an Arrow anti-missile system. The Syrians had fired the missile during an Israeli air raid on a Syrian airbase known as T4 near the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which was believed to be housing Iranian weapons destined for Hezbollah. While the missile missed, Israeli radar operators who were tracking its flight path feared that the missile, with its 478lb warhead would land in Israeli territory prompting the commander on the scene to order a launch.
These clashes underscore the volatile nature of the existing situation in Syria. With an airbase at Khmeimim, and a naval base in Tartus, and other forces scattered about the country, Russia maintains a formidable military presence in Syria. Israel and Russia maintain cordial relations but a miscalculation by a jittery Russian technician sitting behind a computer screen could trigger a clash between Israeli and Russian forces.
Russia’s presence in Syria represents a double-edged sword for Israel. On the one hand, it somewhat constrains Israeli military action given the close proximity of Russian forces to Iranian, Hezbollah and Syrian forces. An Israeli strike could conceivably cause Russian casualties which in-turn could spark a political crisis. Moreover, Russia’s powerful military intervention in Syria’s civil war likely saved Assad and enabled Iran to maintain a dominant position in Syria.
On the other hand, Russia’s interests in maintaining stability in Syria and good relations with Israel serve to prevent Iran from acting recklessly. The Russians will exert their heavy-handed influence over the Iranians to rein them in and keep them from moving close to the Israeli border.
Meanwhile, while Shoigu was meeting with Liberman, Iran’s top military chief, Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, met in Damascus with his Syrian counterpart, Lt.-Gen. Ali Ayoub. The Iranian stated that his nation would not sit idly by while Syria was attacked by the “Zionist regime.” The Iranians are notorious dissemblers and much of what they spew amounts to hot air but their recent assertiveness – a product of political success through the calamitous Iran deal and military successes in Iraq and Syria – is deeply alarming.
Regardless, as it has demonstrated on countless occasions, Israel will continue to act to safeguard its citizens from malign external threats and preserve its security interests.