A Concise History of the U.S. Air Force/The "New Look" Air Force
The "New Look" Air Force
After Korea, President Eisenhower told the JCS that the next war they planned would be nuclear. Conventional capabilities paled before super liquid deuterium bombs such as the Mark 17 (a 41,400-pound thermonuclear device). Only the Air Force B-36 Peacemaker and B-52 Stratofortress could carry the weapon. How to defend America against the Soviet Union's nuclear threat was the question of the day. Brushfire wars would be addressed when they arose, but, so the argument went, they should not occur under the threat of American nuclear retaliation. In January 1954, Secretary of State Dulles unveiled America's new defense strategy―the "New Look." The United States would deter any Soviet attack by threatening to destroy Soviet cities. Commanded by General Curtis LeMay, SAC would expand from 19 to 51 wings, armed with a new generation of smaller, but enormously destructive high-yield thermonuclear weapons. These wings would be placed on constant alert, based around the word, and eventually augmented by KC-135 turbojet Stratotankers to extend their aircrafts' range. In the mid-1950s the major portion of budgetary allocations to the Air Force went to SAC. This specified command, responsible for intercontinental nuclear retaliation, had become "an Air Force within an Air Force."
Besides acquiring such bomber aircraft as the B-52 Stratofortress and B-58 Hustler, the Air Force pursued missile development to support the "New Look." Beginning in 1946, Project MX-774 investigated the development of a 5,000-mile ballistic missile, however, the Scientific Advisory Group, formed by General Arnold, cautioned that atomic bombs were too large for any such delivery system and directed its efforts toward large, unmanned cruise missiles like the Snark. Ballistic missile development lagged until the test of the hydrogen thermonuclear bomb in November 1952 offered prospects of smaller warheads with greater power. Intensive research began in 1954, accelerating in 1956 when the DOD assigned the Air Force responsibility for all ground-launched missiles with ranges of more than 200 miles (later changed to 500 miles). Success with the liquid-propellant Thor and Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs, operational in June 1960 and April 1961, respectively) and Atlas and Titan I intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs, deployed from September 1960 to December 1962 and April to
August 1962 respectively) came in time to carry a whole new generation of miniature nuclear and thermonuclear warheads. The solid-propellant Minuteman ICBM series followed, beginning in October 1962, and became the mainstay of SAC's missile retaliatory force. The U.S. Air Force was becoming an aerospace force.
Before ICBMs, manned bombers formed the strength behind the "New Look." Airmen had argued since World War I that air power was essentially offensive, but they were compelled to view it as defensive in light of the damage that resulted from the explosion of even one nuclear weapon. To detect incoming attacks, President Truman approved the Distant Early Warning (DEW) radar line which, with Canada's assent, was built across its northern territory beginning in 1954. To operate the line and coordinate their defensive forces, both the United States and Canada established on September 12, 1957, the binational North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). A generation of interceptor aircraft began service, beginning with the F-89 and F-100, succeeded by the F-102, F-106, and F-15. For a time anti-air defenses included surface-to-air missiles such as the Nike Ajax system. The development of several follow-up designs occurred, but none was deployed. In the early 1960s the Air Force reinforced NORAD with the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Sys tem (BMEWS) and, later, the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System (PARCS). An Air Force general officer historically has served as NORAD commander, operating from a command center inside Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Because of its experience of World War II in Europe, the Air Force expressed little faith in the ability of America's defenses to stop a determined air attack, nuclear or otherwise. The only defense was deterrence, made possible by a protected force of bombers and missiles. Any strike at the United States would result in immediate, overwhelming retaliation and a smoking, radioactive wasteland. This "countervalue" strategy targeted cities. Because accuracy was limited, especially with early model ICBMs, and thermonuclear warheads were few, the Air Force targeted large, easy-to-hit cities to inflict the greatest possible damage. A countervalue strategy was at odds with the Air Force's traditional commitment to precision bombing, but consistent with Dulles's doctrine. Reliance on it and massive retaliation created three problems for the Air Force and the DOD.
The first problem had to do with the increasing vulnerability of manned bombers to improved enemy ground defenses when airborne and, when not, to a surprise nuclear first strike. The Air Force's solution to ground defenses was the production of standoff weapons (including the Hound Dog and eventually the SRAM short-range attack missile and ALCM air-launched cruise missile) to keep bombers at a distance from their targets. "Airborne alert" helped offset the threat of a surprise first strike against the United States. Beginning in 1957, part of SAC's bomber force always remained on ready alert, its crews on standby, poised to take
off at a moment's notice; another was dispersed to satellite bases around the world, complicating Soviet targeting; while a smaller was actually airborne. The DOD's ultimate solution was the Triad, maintaining three primary nuclear forces, each with special advantages. The first element of the Triad was the manned bomber, important for its load-carrying and ability to be recalled once launched. ICBMs formed the second component. They were important for their speed, size, and, eventually, accuracy. Early ICBMs, the Atlas and Titan I, burned cryogenic liquid propellant and required extended launch preparations which rendered them vulnerable to a first strike. In the 1960s later model Titans IIs employed storable propellants and, joined by the solid-propellant Minuteman, were placed in protective silos and capable of near-instantaneous launch. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), including the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident, comprised the third component of the Triad. Able to roam the world's oceans, missile submarines represented the most survivable of the three legs. Although the sub-launched solid-propellant ballistic missiles at first lacked range and accuracy, technology soon removed these drawbacks.
The second problem created by a countervalue strategy and massive retaliation had to do with the control and integration of diverse weapon systems into a single American war plan. In 1959 President Eisenhower ordered that a single integrated operational plan (SIOP) be adopted, which required coordination by the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The need for SIOP became apparent when in the late 1950s an investigation revealed that the military services had targeted Moscow with fewer than 170 nuclear bombs and warheads in case of all-out war.
The third problem had to do with intelligence. America's first steps into space, the "ultimate high ground," were associated with intelligence, surprise attack prevention, and nuclear war planning. The Air Force also sought to exploit space for communications, navigation, and weather forecasting.
Chuck Yeager and the XS-1 rocket aircraft, the first to break the sound barrier, began pushing back the aerospace frontier in 1947, as did other experimental aircraft that flew over 301,000 acres of desert testing ground in California at Edwards Air Force Base's Air Force Flight Test Center. The X-15 rocket airplane flew nearly seven times the speed of sound and seventy miles high in the mid-1960s―records that still stand for winged aircraft. In 1957 the Air Force began the Dyna-Soar program, later designated the X-20, to build a manned space boost glider/aerospace plane. Dyna-Soar was cancelled in 1963 in favor of a Manned Orbital Laboratory, itself scrapped in 1969 because automated satellites could
perform the same missions. The flights of the X-aircraft, however, provided critical knowledge for manned space travel and for the special materials used in a new generation of aircraft, starting with the SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft.
Strategic reconnaissance became the primary goal of space exploration. Fears of a surprise nuclear attack, based largely on the memory of Pearl Harbor, and the secrecy of events behind the Iron Curtain forced every administration after 1945 to seek information on the status and disposition of military forces inside the Soviet Union. Initially, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy aircraft were deployed along its vast periphery to take photographs and intercept radio and radar signals. In early 1956 the Air Force launched 448 unmanned camera-carrying balloons from western Europe propelled eastward by prevailing winds. Although inherently random in their coverage, 44 were recovered and provided tantalizing glimpses of some 10 percent of the Soviet Union's land area. At the direction of President Eisenhower, the Air Force, with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation developed the U-2, a single-engine glider aircraft capable of flying above 70,000 feet and beyond the range of Soviet air defenses. Eisenhower authorized U-2 overflights across the Soviet Union beginning on July 4, 1956, but, fearing that they might become a casus belli, he limited their number. Fewer than 25 missions occurred before a Soviet surface-to-air missile downed a U-2 flown by Francis Powers on May 1, 1960. The resulting diplomatic crisis ended aerial reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union. A more capable SR-71 Blackbird was soon available to replace the U-2, but by then safer "national technical means" were available for intelligence-gathering.
In part because of the Soviet Union's success with Sputnik in October 1957, President Eisenhower in early 1958 established within the DOD the Advanced Research Projects Agency, accelerating efforts to exploit space for reconnaissance purposes. The Air Force had begun investigating the use of satellites for this purpose as early as 1946, beginning actual development in October 1956 with a contract to Lockheed for the WS-117L (SAMOS) reconnaissance satellite. Dissatisfied with the technical prospects of the SAMOS, which transmitted images to Earth from space, in February 1958 Eisenhower approved Project CORONA, a CIA-Air Force effort to put into outer space a spy satellite capable of ejecting film capsules for retrieval on earth. The first CORONA satellite, known publicly as Discoverer, went into space on February 28, 1959, atop a modified Air Force Thor IRBM. After twelve consecutive failures, complete success came with number 14 on August 18, 1960. It provided analysts with film coverage of more of the Soviet Union than all of the U-2 flights combined. This first successful CORONA satellite ended the "missile gap" controversy, revealing that the Soviet Union possessed fewer IRBMs than the United States. Only a few SAMOS satellites were launched in the early 1960s. Designed to scan images in space and broadcast them as radio signals to receivers on the ground, SAMOS failed to return one usable photograph of the Soviet Union. Before leaving office
in 1961, President Eisenhower established the National Reconnaissance Office to direct all U.S. reconnaissance efforts, with the Air Force and CIA participating. To provide satellite early warning of a nuclear attack, the Air Force also developed the Missile Defense Alarm System (MIDAS) and its operational successor, the Defense Support Program (DSP), that detected missiles within moments of their launch. DSP would later play a key role in detecting the launch of Scuds during the Gulf War.
After the discontinuance of the space reconnaissance mission, on March 28, 1961, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara assigned the Air Force responsibility for other DOD military space operations such as the worldwide Defense Satellite Communications System I (DSCS I). Twenty-six system satellites were launched from 1966 to 1968. Beginning in 1972, larger geosynchronous communications satellites reinforced the original DSCS I, followed in the 1980s by a third generation of DSCS and in the 1990s by the Military Strategic Tactical and Relay Program (MILSTAR) system. Another key space flight project was the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) for monitoring weather conditions around the globe, with information transmitted to the Air Force's Global Weather Center at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The Air Force tracked and identified space debris produced by space missions through the Space Detection and Tracking System (SPADATS). The service also held primary responsibility for launching all DOD satellites at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida (into low inclination equatorial orbits) and at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California (into polar orbits).