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Getting to the target: the penetration problem in strategic air command during the 1950s.

Strategic Air Command (SAC) was established in March 1946 by commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF), Gen. Carl A. Spaatz. SAC was meant to be the jewel in the AAF crown and was thus given the largest number of assets in personnel, aircraft and funding. Its mission was deterrence, but if that failed, SAC was expected to launch an atomic air attack and defeat the enemy. That enemy was assumed to be its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union. The commander of the command was Gen. George C. Kenney, a senior airman who had served with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific for much of the war. SAC immediately encountered hard times.

Demobilization after the war hit all of the services hard. The AAF went from 232 total groups down to ninety within six months of VJ-Day and over the next two years would fall to forty-eight; worse, few of those groups were even combat-ready. (1) Although SAC was supposed to be the elite corps within the air arm, it was hard hit as well. Chronic shortages of skilled personnel led to a dismal aircraft-in-commission rate of forty-two percent. (2) When SAC launched a maximum effort simulated bombing attack against New York City in May 1947, only 101 of 180 bombers were able to make it to the target--and this was without anyone shooting at them. Several months later SAC tried again, against Chicago, but the results were even worse. (3)

When the Berlin crisis broke out in mid-1948 and the Soviets blockaded the city, it appeared the world was moving towards war. Fortunately, that was averted, and the newly created U.S. Air Force instead launched a massive airlift to supply the beleaguered city with food and coal. The eleven-month Berlin Airlift was one of the greatest Western victories of the Cold War, and it was achieved without firing a shot. (4) SAC was nonetheless in the limelight during that period, because if matters escalated and shooting began, U.S. war plans made it clear that the few ground troops involved in occupation duties in Germany would serve merely as speed bumps as the massive Soviet Army sped to the English Channel. But SAC was not ready, and internal investigations by the Air Force revealed that depressing fact. (5) Kenney was relieved and a new commander was brought in to straighten things out--Lieutenant General Curtis E. LeMay.

LeMay, a gruff and no-sense young general, had enjoyed a meteoric rise during the war. Arriving in England as a bomb group commander and lieutenant colonel in mid-1943, eighteen months later he was a major general in command of a bomb division. In January 1945, he took command of the XXI Bomber Command in the Mariana Islands--the B-29s conducting a strategic bombing campaign against Japan. He was still on Guam when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ending the war. After the surrender, LeMay served in research and development on the Air Staff, and then became the air commander in Germany. When a replacement was needed at SAC in October 1948, LeMay was the obvious choice. In 1951, he would pin on a fourth star: at age 44 he was the second youngest full general in American history behind U.S. Grant who beat him by a few months. (6)

The next several years would witness a dramatic increase in capability of Strategic Air Command. (7) LeMay was famous for his emphasis on rigorous and realistic training. Although some argued the advent of atomic and later nuclear weapons made the need for accuracy moot, LeMay disagreed. He drilled his crews relentlessly on the necessity of putting bombs precisely on target. Other problems existed that were just as fundamental: How would SAC bombers penetrate deep inside Soviet airspace in the event of war, find their targets, and successfully attack them? The extreme distances involved, combined with increasingly robust Soviet air defenses, made these formidable problems. Several potential solutions presented themselves, one of these concerned increasing the range of existing bombers via air refueling.

The Challenge of Range

Although Allied bombers had the range to reach most targets in Nazi-occupied Europe, the distances in the Pacific were far greater and it was not until mid-1944 that forward bases and long-range B-29 bombers were available. On the other hand, experience proved that despite prewar doctrine, fighter escort for the bombers was necessary. Until the arrival of the P-51, such long-range fighters were not available. Air refueling would have been useful, for both the bombers and the fighters.

Despite experiments in April 1943, using a B-24 as a tanker with a B-17 as a receiver, the procedures were too complex to employ the system on a major scale. Air refueling was not even considered for fighter escort during the war, however, perhaps because of the sheer scale of the problem--by mid-1944 there were over 5,000 U.S. fighters in Europe. At a time when factories were straining to produce aircraft to supply a global war, building hundreds of tankers was unthinkable. The issue of air refueling lay dormant until the Cold War when the advantages offered by air refueling were reexamined.

The U.S. and its allies were outnumbered by at least three-to-one on the ground in postwar Europe.

SAC would be the equalizer. But Moscow was a long way from the U.S.--5,000 miles--how could the bombers extend their range? A Heavy Bombardment Committee met in September 1947 at SAC headquarters and discussed the problem. Very long range aircraft like the B-36 was one answer, but the sleek new jet-powered B-47 then in the development stage was only a medium bomber. Air refueling was the obvious solution. (8)

On June 30, 1948, SAC formed its first air refueling squadron, and in December an air-refueled B-50 flew non-stop for 10,000 miles. (9) In February 1949 another B-50 made the first non-stop around the world flight using eight in-flight refuelings along the way. Upon landing back in Texas, LeMay stressed the flight's importance: "This means that we can now deliver an atomic bomb to any place in the world that requires an atomic bomb." (10)

Over the next several years methods were tested to improve the speed and efficiency of in-flight refueling. A "probe and drogue" system involving a hose reeled out from the tanker with a basket attached shaped like a huge shuttlecock was one such method. The receiver aircraft was equipped with a probe that plugged into the basket. This system worked well for small aircraft, but large planes were difficult to maneuver while trying to plug a basket. (11) In addition, the amount of fuel transferred by this method was limited, approximately 250 gallons per minute. Other problems included oscillation and whipping of the hose and fuel leaks. (12) Nonetheless, the system was useful for fighters. In September 1950 an F-84E flew non-stop from England to Maine--a flight of ten hours that was a transatlantic first for a jet fighter. (13) During the Korean War a squadron of KB-29s deployed to Japan to test the system in combat with jet fighters. The world's first combat air refueling took place on July 6, 1951. Far East Air Force (FEAF) and Tactical Air Command were pleased with the realization of how air refueling could impact fighter operations. In 1952, tankers began escorting and refueling fighter squadrons across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. In July, operation FOX PETER I deployed the 31st Fighter Wing to Japan: 58 F-84Gs, led and periodically refueled by KB-29s, flew from Turner AFB in Georgia to Japan. It would be the first of many such deployments. SAC, which contained several fighter escort wings, deployed them to Korea to practice the new procedure in anticipation of a major war. (14)

The limitations of the probe and drogue system for large aircraft led to the flying boom. By 1950 Boeing had perfected the use of a boom extending down and telescoping out from the rear of a tanker. A boom operator, sitting in the old tail gunner's position, could actually "fly" it via a small wings termed "ruddervators." The receiver aircraft maneuvered behind the tanker and flew formation; the boomer would then fly his probe into the other aircraft's receptacle. The boom system transferred fuel at 600 gallons-per-minute--more than twice that of the probe and drogue. (15) The first boom-equipped KB-29P was delivered to SAC on September 1, 1950.

Over the next several years the number of tankers in SAC exploded--by the end of 1954 there were 683 tankers in thirty-two squadrons. (16) With the move towards an all-jet bomber force, however, even the KB-29s and KC--97s were inadequate. Piston-driven tankers could not keep up with the jet bombers, nor could they reach their altitude when loaded with fuel. As a result, B-47s had to descend and slow down to rendezvous with the tankers. What ensued became almost comical. As the B-47 took on gas and grew heavier, its stall speed increased, which meant it had to accelerate in order not to fall out of the sky. This in turn required both the tanker and the bomber to go into a descent in order to pick up speed to stay above a stall. Eventually, both aircraft would then go into a climb. As the airspeed slowly bled off, another descent was necessary. This porpoise maneuver, while connected, required inordinate skill for both the tanker and the bomber pilot. Moreover, once the refueling was accomplished, the B-47 had to climb back to cruising altitude and accelerate--a process that used up 25 percent more fuel than if the refueling had occurred at the bomber's altitude and cruising speed. (17) The Air Force needed a jet tanker, and the solution was the KC-135, born in 1955.

The KC-135 provided a quantum jump in capability over the KB-29. It could carry 31,200 gallons of fuel, while also hauling 40 tons of cargo or 160 passengers. The jet tanker could offload six times as much fuel as the KB-29 and twice that of the KB-97, and because it had twice the range of the KB-97, it meant that one KC-135 could take the place of three or more piston-driven tankers. Moreover, the "Stratotanker" could do so at the same speed and altitude as the B-47 and B-52.18 SAC embraced the KC-135 and purchased 732 of them, while also buying 744 B-52s. These aircraft were to become a team over the next several decades.

Entering Enemy Airspace

Range was crucial, but it was not the only problem. The B-17s and B-24s had been able to reach targets in Germany, but enemy interceptors proved a major menace. Fighter escort was essential, but designing and building small, agile fighters with the requisite range was a technological challenge. The P-51 Mustang solved the problem during the war, but the concern reemerged afterwards.

When SAC was formed in 1946 it was assumed escort would be necessary for the B-29s if they went against the Soviet Union. SAC therefore included escort wings in its numbered air forces. Originally, SAC was to have twelve fighter wings, but that number dropped quickly. In mid-1946 there was only one wing operational (two others on paper); by late 1947 there were five; a year later it was down to two; and in 1951 back up to seven. (19) In April 1950 LeMay admitted that SAC had no long-range escort capability. (20) Because targets in the Soviet Union were even farther off than had been German factories, the issue of long-range escort was obvious. SAC began to experiment.

First, air refueling was used to extend the range of existing fighter jets like the F-84, but this was insufficient for going all the way to the target and back. The arrival of jet bombers meant that although the F-84 could stay with the B-50 and B-36, it lacked the speed and altitude capability to accompany B-47s. Moreover, the appearance of the Soviet MiG-15 during the Korean War revealed the F-84s were outmatched. A study conducted by SAC in February 1951 revealed that "neither current escort fighters nor programmed escort fighters have a capability of adequately defending bombers" and as a result, the bomber force would "suffer an unacceptable loss rate during daylight conditions over enemy territory defended by interceptors." (21)

Because range for fighter escorts remained a major obstacle, unusual--if not bizarre--solutions were offered. In 1948 a parasite fighter, the XF-85 "Goblin," was built to be carried inside the bomb bay of a B-36. The intent was for F-85-carrying bombers to accompany the nuclear-toting B-36s into enemy territory. If enemy interceptors appeared, two "Goblins" would be dropped via a trapeze mechanism, ignite their engines, and maneuver to take on the attackers. At the conclusion of the dogfight, the F-85s would return to the B-36, reattach to the trapeze, and be lifted back into the bomb bay. (22) The XF-85 flew four times, but reengaging the trapeze proved so difficult the project was dropped.

SAC experimented with other ideas for its fighter force besides escort. The revolution in nuclear weapons design that made them dramatically smaller and lighter meant fighters could deliver them as well. In January 1953, SAC converted its F-84s so they could carry the new weapons and become part of the nuclear strike force--perhaps small, quick fighters could penetrate more successfully than big bombers. The problem of range remained, however, so one scheme included mounting a trapeze bracket on the underside of a B-36. An F-84F would be attached to the trapeze (which was external and not in the bomb bay as with the XF-85) and would carry a nuclear weapon. Upon entering Soviet airspace the fighter would be dropped and zoom off to deliver its bomb. It would then return to its mother ship, reattach itself to the trapeze and both would return home. (23) In a related concept, straight-wing F-84Es would attach themselves to the wing tips of a modified B-36. The fighters would then shut down their engines and be "towed" by the bomber to enemy airspace where the faster and more maneuverable fighters would restart their engines, detach, and fly on to drop their nuclear weapons. They would then reattach to the bomber for the ride home. (24)

These ideas went nowhere, but the fact they were even attempted illustrates the seriousness of the problem. The Korean War indicated once again that unescorted bombers would have difficulty penetrating even modest air defenses in daylight--and during the summer months northern Russia was always in daylight. Yet, repeated attempts to build a suitable escort fighter were unsuccessful. Eventually, SAC gave up on the escort idea: the fighter force, which had never been a high priority within the command, was given to other commands that could make better use of it. The original problem remained: how would SAC's bombers penetrate enemy airspace to complete their mission?

The Forward Basing Option

Other solutions seemed to offer better results. SAC built deployment bases on the periphery of the Soviet Union. Escort fighters would launch in the event of war, top-off their tanks with air refueling once airborne, and then escort the bombers as far as possible into enemy territory before turning back. (25) This idea ran into difficulties.

The greatest utility of overseas bases is they are near potential crisis areas. The greatest limitation of overseas bases is they are near potential crisis areas. The issue was vulnerability. Plans called for SAC aircraft to base at forward locations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia--within un-refueled striking distance of their targets. (26) With the detonation of the Soviet atomic bomb in August 1949, SAC realized such forward bases were increasingly vulnerable. It therefore pushed for bases in North Africa--close enough to the Soviet Union for staging, but far enough back to allow some protection from an enemy strike. (27) Construction began on four bases in French Morocco, and the first was completed in 1951. Three more bases were built in Spain. (28) These, along with airfields in England, Turkey and on Guam, would serve as bulwarks of an overseas basing system designed to outflank the Soviet Union. To be sure, numerous bases would also be built throughout Germany, Italy, France, etc. for short-range fighter aircraft, but the bombing offensive was initially planned to rely on bases farther back.

General LeMay recognized the vulnerability of overseas airbases and in January 1952 stated his goal as "to launch our offensive from this continent." (29) That was not yet possible so forward bases were essential. In 1954, however, a study by the RAND think tank concluded those forward bases were highly vulnerable to a Soviet first strike, especially if nuclear weapons were used. The analysts examined the distances involved and then compared the forward-basing scheme against a scenario relying on US-based aircraft with intercontinental range. Their conclusion was stark: regarding forward basing "we can expect the majority of the force to suffer serious damage on the ground." (30) That sounded too much like Pearl Harbor and Clark Field in 1941, so RAND called for a U.S.-based bomber force relying on air refueling and brief stops at staging bases in Europe and the Middle East --the concept LeMay favored. (31)

This report had a significant impact. In exercise FULL HOUSE that same year, SAC used forward bases for post-strike staging only. In other words, air refueling would allow the bomber force coming from the U.S. to hit their targets; on the way back they would stop in England, the Middle East or Guam to refuel. Because of this exercise, SAC made the post-strike profile their basic war plan. (32)

Within a year of the RAND study the Air Force had placed an order for its first KC-135 tanker, and within a decade it had bought over 700, of which over 400 are still in service. As SAC became more reliant on the long-range B-52, plans would change again. The new U.S. strategy in the event of war was to launch the B-52 fleet from secure bases in the continental US--air refueling would get them to their targets and back. The bombers would lift off from their bases and hit tankers flying out of Goose Bay, Thule, etc. fly to their targets in the Soviet Union, and hit the tankers again on their way home. (33)

The Importance of Electronic Warfare and Countermeasures

The need for aerial refueling, the problem of penetrating enemy airspace, the resultant inability to provide escort fighters, and the crucial issue of overseas airbases all related to the difficulty in carrying out the war plan. How would SAC fulfill its task of delivering a devastating bombing offensive? All the factors just noted chipped away at the problem but left unanswered the fundamental problem of how precisely would the bombers reach targets deep in the Soviet Union, destroy them, and make their way back to safety?

The solution finally adopted by SAC was to send its bomber force in without escort, employing instead electronic countermeasures (ECM) and decoys to slip past Soviet defenses. These, in addition to high altitude penetration, were a temporary solution. Before surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), the main threat to aircraft was from interceptors and antiaircraft artillery (AAA). One of the major aspects of the B-36 debate with the Navy in 1949 was whether the big bomber could get through; the sailors thought jet interceptors would be able to knock it down. The introduction of the B-47 and B-52 upped the altitude capability of the bombers while also increasing speed. It was believed a 600 mph bomber at 40,000 feet would make it through. Unfortunately, the deployment of high-altitude capable SAMs, specifically the Soviet SA-2 system that shot down the U-2 of Francis Gary Powers in May 1960, put an end to that idea. The reverse idea was then suggested--the bombers would go in at low altitude--barely above the tree tops and thus hopefully below the capabilities of the Soviet SAMs and radar-guided AAA. (34) Sometimes, bombers--like the B-58--would go in fast and low; at other times, B-52s would go in low and slow, trusting to ECM for safety. It was an on-going and complex cat-andmouse game fought between SAC and Soviet air strategists and tacticians throughout the Cold War.

There were still problems. Most ECM operators were demobilized when the war ended, decimating he electronic warfare field in the AAF. SAC was especially hard hit because it was more dependent on electronic warfare than anyone else. Yet, when the war ended, of the 5,600 electronic warfare (EW) specialists needed by the AAF, over 70 percent were mustered out by March 1946. Worse, SAC personnel policies ensured such vital individuals were made to feel unwelcome. Major General Clements McMullen, the vice commander of SAC until September 1948, had little use for non-rated officers (those not wearing wings)--which most EW specialists were--and he labored to push them out of his command. By mid-1947 there were barely a dozen such officers left in SAC. (35)

Major General Roger Ramey at Eighth Air Force wrote LeMay that his command needed far more personnel and equipment devoted to this area. Specifically, the B-29s needed jammers to counter Soviet radars; otherwise, SAC bombers would have little chance of penetrating enemy airspace. (36) Another report was even grimmer: the need for ECM was of "desperate urgency"; otherwise, taking on soviet radars would be "inordinately dangerous." The SAC history confesses that when LeMay assumed command "the electronic countermeasures capability in SAC units was practically non-existent." (37)

In January 1951, an exercise to test the ECM capability of B-50s against air defenses was a near total failure--the bombers reached the "target" (Abilene, Texas) with barely half their required ECM gear still working--had it been actual combat, the attacking force would have been decimated. (38) The few dozen jammers existing in SAC in 1949 were of Second World War vintage; even those were not installed on the aircraft. Instead, racks were built into the bombers, and if intelligence gathered for the mission to be flown indicated a threat, jammers would be installed. There was not enough room to install enough jammers to counter the entire frequency spectrum; instead, analysts would provide guidance on what threats the crew was likely to face and the specific jammer needed was then loaded on board. Even so, the B-29 and B-50 were not programmed to carry an ECM operator. If jammers were installed, a gunner would stand down, the radio operator would become a gunner, and the ECM expert would sit in. (39)

The above illustrates that when SAC sent its B-29s to war in Korea, they were unprepared for a serious ECM fight. Far East Air Forces had paid almost no attention to electronic warfare. Fortunately, North Korean air defenses were of a primitive nature, so the B-29s met little opposition, at first. Although the B-29's ECM gear was obsolescent, the left-over Japanese radars used by the North Koreans were worse. That changed with the Chinese intervention and the arrival of MiG-15s and Soviet-made radars. Now the B-29s would have to fight their way to the target. The dearth of suitable ECM personnel and gear was quickly felt and classically revealed when the ECM operator added to the B-29 was not even afforded a real crew position. He monitored his instruments sitting on the crew chemical toilet that included no seat belt, oxygen hookup or intercom jack! (40)

Tactics called for ECM-equipped RB-29s to accompany the bomb droppers to help nullify enemy radar defenses. Even so, by mid-1951 the B-29s were in trouble. On the evening of June 11, 1951, the bombers ran into MiGs receiving guidance from ground sites using Russian gun-laying and searchlight radars. Of the four bombers, two were shot down and the other two severely damaged. Making conditions worse was LeMay's decree that the latest ECM equipment could not be utilized by the B-29s in Korea. LeMay feared that using the full panoply of electronic systems would provide the Soviets and Chinese too much intelligence on American capabilities. He wanted to hold back information to protect SAC in the event "real war" broke out and the bombers would have to go against the full might of Soviet or Chinese defenses. As a result, the latest jammers were not sent to the Far East. Partly, this was due to the lack of room and electrical power output of the B-29s--as noted, the ECM operator did not even rate a true crewmember position. (41)

Even so, the Korean War laboratory provided insights into Soviet and Chinese equipment and tactics, while also training and educating a new generation of SAC crewmembers on the importance of electronic warfare. Obviously, SAC was surprised by the quality and capability of Soviet equipment. It had been customary to disparage Russian technology and assume it was a generation behind that made in America. The explosion of a Soviet atomic bomb years ahead of schedule and the appearance of the MiG-15 over North Korea quickly disabused American airmen of these notions. It was also not lost on LeMay and his command that just as SAC had held back some of its latest and best equipment so as not to tip its hand, so too were the Soviets probably holding back to mask their own capabilities.

By the end of the Korean War, LeMay realized ECM was crucial to the survivability of the SAC bomber force, and during that period its ECM budget quintupled. (42) By the end of 1954 the B-36--but especially the RB-36--was fitted with increasingly advanced ECM gear. The plane's size made the incorporation of extra equipment, antennae and an additional ECM crewmember a simple task. (43) The B-47, on the other hand, was virtually defenseless when first built--it was thought the bomber's high speed and altitude capability would keep it safe. The emergence of the MiG-19 put an end to such folly. Eventually, the "Stratojet" was equipped with an automatic jamming pod installed in the bomb bay: EB-47s would accompany the bombers to clear a path in to the target and back out. In later models two ECM operators would occupy the pod during flight. (44) The B-52 would be the first jet bomber designed and built with ECM in mind from the outset--the crew position of electronic warfare officer was included from the beginning. (45)


How to penetrate Soviet airspace and defenses? That was the major problem confronting SAC at the onset of the Cold War. Range issues remained fundamental. As the SAC chief of plans, Major General John P. McConnell, noted dryly: "as long as the Soviet Union is the enemy and not Canada, range matters." (46) The distances to targets deep in Russia were simply too great without either forward basing or air refueling. Both would eventually be used--airbases in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific were built to serve as pre-strike staging bases for bombers. LeMay was leery of this concept--he had commanded the B-29s in India and their staging bases in China so he understood the problems. He was reluctant to rely on politically risky forward bases for the success of his mission. Changes of government could result in previous basing agreements going awry--this is what happened in Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia, France, Iceland and elsewhere and which remains a problem today.

Military risk was another matter. During the Berlin Blockade, LeMay, who was then the air commander in Europe, fretted over the vulnerability of his airfields to a Soviet surprise attack. Staging bases were nonetheless built because they had to be. LeMay knew the danger and believed the solution was an intercontinental bomber flying from the U.S. that did not rely on forward airfields. A RAND study of 1954 confirmed SAC fears, arguing that forward bases would be wiped out at the beginning of a nuclear war. European bases were still used, but they would largely be post-strike recovery fields. (47) After refueling they would return home to reload. This became the SAC plan that was enabled by air refueling. This plan soon changed.

The advent of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles made even post-strike staging bases vulnerable. LeMay returned to his goal of relying solely on U.S. bases. The advent of the B-52 and KC-135 helped realize this aim. In 1954 the Air Force proposed construction of a string of radar sites in the Arctic stretching across the Aleutians, Canada, Greenland and Iceland. This DEW Line (Distant Early Warning) consisting of nearly 100 sites, became operational in April 1957 and provided warning of a Soviet bomber attack. Even so, the threat of a Soviet missile first-strike necessitated changes: a ballistic missile early warning system was built in 1959 to give some warning (fifteen minutes) of a Soviet missile attack. (48) This threat also led to SAC countermoves: dispersal, and both ground and airborne alert programs. This entire subject illustrates the iterative nature of strategy: weapons or technologies generated new plans, which in turn resulted in enemy counters, leading to different plans and technologies, which in turn led to more counters, etc. It was a never-ending cycle of actions and reactions.

Aerial refueling was attempted soon after the First World War had ended, but was not used during the Second World War. Air refueling would have been useful to enable fighter aircraft to escort the bombers, but technical impediments and the large number of escorts used on a given day--nearly a thousand--made the production of so many tankers impractical. The capability remained dormant until after hostilities ended. At that point the need for range greater than that during the war forced a reexamination of the air refueling issue.

Initially, B-29s were converted to tanker use as were C-97s. Hundreds were built for SAC and did yeoman service. The advent of the jet bombers indicated, however, that piston-driven tankers were inadequate--a jet tanker was essential, and the solution was to be the KC--135, of which over 700 were purchased by the Air Force.

Air refueling was bound up with the problem of penetration. Getting the bombers into Russia was only part of the problem: how would they survive once there? During the Second World War the Eighth Air Force had paid a heavy price for prewar myopia that argued escort fighters were technically infeasible and unnecessary. It was a huge error, and Curtis LeMay had been a witness to that poor decision. Fighter escort had saved the bomber offensive, and it seemed reasonable to assume escort would remain necessary. Yet, the distances involved were so much greater, the development of a truly longrange escort fighter was simply impossible. Subterfuges were attempted such as parasite fighters. Today, such experiments appear silly, but at the time they were trying to address a real problem. Speed was also attempted as a possible solution, as was altitude--both high and low.

In the end, it was decided the bombers would need to go in alone, and for this, electronic warfare was critical. EW had been used during the Second World War when radar, navigation beams and jammers were used by all sides. At the end of the war and demobilization, this area hit SAC particularly hard. The Korean War demonstrated anew how important this arcane technology and expertise were to successful air operations. Fortunately for SAC, the North Koreans were similarly deficient in this field--the B-29s had a breathing space to catch up. It was not a moment too soon: the Chinese intervention introduced Soviet-made equipment of a far higher caliber than that of the North Koreans. SAC would scramble to match it.

In short, range extension--air refueling--coupled with forward bases, escort fighters, speed/altitude tactics, and electronic warfare were all used and combined in varying mixes to solve the problem of penetration. The ultimate goal was ensuring SAC bombers reached their targets deep inside the Soviet Union, deployed their weapons accurately, and were then able to get back out of enemy airspace and home. SAC was certain it could to do this, and experimented and trained relentlessly to ensure its accomplishment. Fortunately, it never had to prove it.


(1.) Herman S. Wolk, The Struggle for Air Force Independence, 1943-1947 (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997), p. 81.

(2.) "Strategic Air Command--1946: Organization, Mission, Training and Personnel," Official History, vol. I, 28. (Hereinafter the annual official histories will be referred to as, for example, "SAC History--1946." There are multiple volumes each year, although not necessarily the same number. Some volumes consist of "exhibits"--copies of the actual letters, memoranda, etc. upon which the history is based. All of these histories are located in the AF Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), at Maxwell AFB in Alabama. The call number for the histories is either 416.01 or K416.01 depending on the year.)

(3.) "SAC History--1947," I, pp. 185-86.

(4.) For a good account of the crisis, see Avi Shlaim, The United States and the Berlin Blockade, 1948-1949 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); for the Airlift itself, see Roger G. Miller, To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000).

(5.) The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, called in, among others, his old friend Charles Lindbergh and asked him to visit SAC bases, check proficiency and readiness, and report back to him. The report was damning. "Lindbergh Report," Sep 14, 1948, LeMay papers, Library of Congress (LOC), box 61.

(6.) There are several biographies of LeMay, but all fail to cover his entire military career in sufficient depth. The best of a poor group is Thomas M. Coffey, Iron Eagle: The Turbulent Life of General Curtis LeMay (New York: Crown, 1986).

(7.) By the mid-1950s the Air Force was garnering nearly half of the Department of Defense budget; SAC was getting around one-third of the Air Force budget. U.S. Dept of Defense, Annual Report of the Secretary of Defense (Washington, D.C.: GPO, various years, various pages); and Clark R. Mollenhoff The Pentagon: Politics, Profits and Plunder (New York: G.P Putnam's Sons, 1967), Appendix A.

(8.) Thomas A. Julian, "The Origins of Air Refueling in the United States Air Force," in Jacob Neufeld, George M. Watson, Jr., and David Chenoweth (eds.) Technology and the Air Force: A Retrospective Assessment (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997), pp. 87-88.

(9.) The Boeing B-50 was an updated version of the B-29. It had more powerful engines and a taller tail, but otherwise it was difficult to tell the aircraft apart. The B-50 did have slightly improved performance characteristics--better speed, altitude capability, range and payload.

(10.) SAC History--1950, VI, pp. 65-75.

(11.) "SAC History--1950,"I, 91; ltr., Adams to Cabell, Jan 24, 1950, in "SAC History-1950," II, exhibit 1. The probe and drogue method is still in use today for U.S. Navy/Marine Corps aircraft and helicopters. KC-135s can be modified on the ground to use the probe and drogue system. The KC-10, and the new Boeing tanker under development, can use either method on the same flight.

(12.) Ltr., Austin to Cabell, Jan 24, 1950, in "SAC History--1950," III, exhibit 1.

(13.) "SAC History--1952," I, 225-30. This system was invaluable for deploying fighter wings overseas during an emergency--it would ordinarily take several weeks to disassemble a fighter unit, put its aircraft on ships to be moved overseas, and then for the aircraft to be reassembled after unloading.

(14.) Richard K. Smith, Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Refueling (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), pp. 34-38. Eventually, TAC gained its own tanker force of KB-50s.

(15.) Smith, pp. 26-27.

(16.) Ibid, 31. The C-97 was a cargo aircraft based on the B-29; the KC-97 was modified as a tanker.

(17.) "SAC History--1952," I, pp. 182-201; Carroll L. Zimmerman, Insider at SAC: Operations Analysis under General LeMay (Manhattan, Kans.: Sunflower Press, 1988), p. 63.

(18.) "Capabilities and Features of the KC-135 Tanker-Transport," Sep 10, 1958, AFHRA file K416.861-1, pp. 6-11.

(19.) "Development of Fighter-Escort in Strategic Air Command Through 1951," SAC historical study, Jun 1, 1952, AFHRA, file K416.01-29, p. 261.

(20.) "Notes from Commanders Conference, Exercise DUALISM" Apr 25-27, 1950, AFHRA, file 168.15-10, p. 219.

(21.) Robert J. Boyd, "SAC Fighter Planes and Their Operations," SAC Historical Study, 1988, p. 5.

(22.) Don Pyeatt and Dennis R. Jenkins. Cold War Peacemaker: The Story of Cowtown and the Convair B-36 (North Branch, Minn.: Specialty Press, 2010), pp. 221-22; Frank Gudaitis, "It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time," Aviation History, Mar 2011, p. 68.

(23.) Pyeatt and Jenkins, pp. 222-24. The Republic F-84 came in different models: most were straight-wing designs termed the "Thunderjet." The F model had swept wings and was called the "Thunderstreak." The RF-84F reconnaissance version was the "Thunderflash."

(24.) Pyeatt and Jenkins, pp. 224-26. C.E. Anderson, "Dangerous Experiments: Wingtip Coupling at 15,000 Feet," Flight Journal, Dec 2000, pp. 64-72. Initial tests were conducted on a modified B-29. After several dozen successful flights the idea was abandoned when an F-84 while connected rolled over onto the bomber --both planes went down and all crewmembers were killed.

(25.) One of the benefits of air refueling is that aircraft can fly at a heavier weight than they can take off. Therefore, it is common for aircraft to take off with a reduced fuel load but heavy payload, climb to altitude, and then fill their tanks with an air refueling.

(26.) For the story surrounding these early basing plans, see Elliott V. Converse III, Circling the Earth: United States Plans for a Postwar Overseas Military Base System, 1942-1948 (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 2005).

(27.) "Overseas Bases: A Military and Political Evaluation," AF History Division study, Apr 2, 1962, AFHRA, file K416.601-13, p. 2.

(28.) Kurt W. Schake, "Strategic Frontier: American Bomber Bases Overseas, 1950-1960," PhD Dissertation, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 1998, chapter 3.

(29.) "Overseas Bases" study, p. 4.

(30.) A.J. Wohlstetter et. al., "Selection and Use of Strategic Air Bases," Study R-266 (Santa Monica: RAND, Apr 1954), p/ viii.

(31.) Ibid, p. xv.

(32.) "Overseas Bases" study, p. 5.

(33.) "SAC History--1956," II, pp. 175-80.

(34.) Project LONG RANGE was conducted by SAC in 1957 testing the feasibility of B-36s penetrating at low altitude, around 500 feet, to keep them below radar coverage. As they approached their targets, the bombers would ascend quickly to "medium altitude" to deliver their weapon. "SAC History--Jan-Jun 1957," I, p. 73.

(35.) Daniel T. Kuehl, "The Radar Eye Blinded: The U.S.AF and Electronic Warfare, 1945-1955," PhD Dissertation, Duke University, 1992, pp. 49-53, 63, 80.

(36.) Ibid, 89.

(37.) "SAC History--1951," I, p. 194,

(38.) Kuehl, pp. 117-18.

(39.) "SAC History--1951," I, p. 211.

(40.) Kuehl, 127; "SAC History--1951," I, p. 174. Not every B-29 carried an ECM operator when going into combat; usually, one such aircraft would accompany a bomber formation to provide protection.

(41.) Kuehl, pp. 160-61. Alwyn T. Lloyd, Boeing's B-47 Stratojet (North Branch, Minn.: Specialty Press, 2005), pp. 181-82.

(42.) "SAC History--1951," I, p. 213.

(43.) Pyeatt and Jenkins, pp. 125-26.

(44.) Lloyd, p. 111.

(45.) Kuehl, pp. 207-19.

(46.) Elliott A. Converse III, History of Acquisition in the Department of Defense, Vol. I: Rearming for the Cold War, 1945-1960 (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense Historical Office, 2012), p. 480.

(47.) Despite their vulnerability, LeMay tolerated the use of forward bases simply because they compounded the Soviets' targeting problems. Interview with Gen Curtis E. LeMay, by Robert M. Kipp and John T. Bohn, Nov 16, 1972, AFHRA, p. 44.

(48.) For the development of the DEW Line and ballistic missile warning, see Kenneth Schaffel, The Emerging Shield: The Air Force and the Evolution of Continental Air Defense, 1945-1960 (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History Office, 1991), chapters 8-10.

Phillip S. Meilinger is a retired USAF colonel who served thirty years as a command pilot, staff officer and educator. He flew C-130 and HC-130 aircraft in Europe and the Pacific, and was in the Plans Division on the Air Staff during the First Gulf War in 1991. He received a Ph.D. in military history from the University of Michigan and taught at the Air Force Academy, the Naval War College, and was Dean of the School of Advanced Airpower Studies (now School of Advanced Air and Space Studies). His publications include ten books and over 100 articles on military and aviation theory, doctrine and operations. Upon retirement from the Air Force he worked six years in Washington, D.C. as a defense analyst and now resides in West Chicago, Illinois..
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Author:Meilinger, Phillip S.
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Date:Sep 22, 2014
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