Reports have surfaced all over the internet claiming that the Pentagon has ordered the U.S. Air Force to place its nuclear capable B-52 bombers on a 24-hour alert status, indicating to some of the more conspiracy-minded social media pontificators that World War III is on the verge of commencing.  The truth, of course, is a bit murkier than that.

The idea seemed to emerge earlier this week, when Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein seemed to indicate that preparations were being made to ensure the airborne leg of America’s nuclear triad would be ready if called upon to transition into an alert status, though he did specify at the time that no such order had been given.  Apparently, that’s all it takes to get the tin foil hats crinkling, and before you knew it, social media platforms like Twitter were ablaze with the idea that we were preparing for nuclear war.

Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek clarified that there are no pending plans to place our nuclear bombers on 24-hour alert, though there are some preparations underway that could ultimately support such a decision.

Preparations like updating base infrastructure, conducting exercises, and modernizing equipment are necessary to maintain a baseline level of readiness,” she said. “We do this routinely as part of our organize, train and equip mission so our forces are ready to respond when called upon.”

The United States did maintain nuclear bombers on an alert status for years in a practice that was discontinued after the fall of the Soviet Union.  American pilots would take shifts in residences established next to the runway, with B-52s loaded and prepped for takeoff so America could launch a retaliatory nuclear strike at a moment’s notice.  It’s a posture American grew comfortable with throughout the Cold War, but that we haven’t had to return to since 1991.

I’ve talked to [STRATCOM]. I’ve talked to Global Strike Command a few minutes ago. I talked to the 2d Bomb Wing” at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, “a few minutes ago. There are not any plans,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told Defense One about a shift to 24 alert status for our bombers. “Right now those discussions are not happening. Could they or would we be ready for them? Absolutely. Could we be doing the mission? We could stand that up very quickly. I just don’t want to overplay something.”

It would seem that, at least for now, this step toward nuclear war isn’t being taken, but if and when it is, even that should not be seen as a leap down the slippery slope into war.  Placing nuclear bombers on alert is, by its very nature, a deterrent strategy intended to ensure our nation’s enemies know we have the capacity to strike back, which is why they’re on alert, rather than already airborne and headed for a target.  Our nation maintained a nuclear alert status for decades in the past, all without unintentionally ushering in the apocalypse.