A Concise History of the U.S. Air Force/The Cold War Concluded
The Cold War Concluded
President Kennedy's flexible-response nuclear war-fighting doctrine of the early 1960s lacked the technology to match its vision of many options adapted to meet the varieties of Cold War crises. Advances in geodesy and cartography and the integrated circuit developed in the early 1960s for missile and satellite guidance systems, significantly improved missile accuracy. Decreased CEP (circular error probable―the radius of a circle in which at least 50 percent of the targeted missiles would hit) meant that warheads could be smaller. New warheads could be sized to detonate at kiloton or megaton ranges independently. Because they were smaller and lighter, more warheads could be mounted to each ICBM and SLBM. In the early 1970s the DOD developed MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles), allowing three or more warheads on each ICBM and SLBM. The Air Force's arsenal did not rise above 1,054 ICBMs; many now carried three MIRVs (Minuteman III) as opposed to earlier models that carried a single Minuteman I or II warhead. Strategic launchers remained static, but warheads multiplied.
Although Secretary of Defense McNamara introduced "counter-force" targeting in 1962, the improvement in CEP and dramatic increases in the number of nuclear warheads in the American arsenal of the 1970s encouraged the Air Force to return to the more traditional practice of bombing precise military targets instead of countervalue cities. Counterforce targeting identified enemy military and industrial chokepoints―command centers, military industries and bases, and ICBM silos. Whatever the targets selected, in the 1960s political leaders adopted a doctrine for deterring nuclear war known as "assured destruction," i.e., the capability to destroy an aggressor as a viable society, even after a well-planned and executed surprise attack on American forces. This doctrine held that superpower strategic nuclear forces would be sized and protected to survive a nuclear attack and then to retaliate with sufficient force to ensure a level of destruction unacceptable to the other side. With such retaliatory destruction assured against an aggressor, no rational Soviet or American leader would consider starting a nuclear war. On May 26, 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which limited both sides to two ABM sites each to protect the national capital and an ICBM complex. The treaty reinforced the continued effectiveness of assured destruction in deterring war in the face of new, destabilizing ABM weapons. SALT I, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty which was signed at the same time, limited the numbers of nuclear weapons with the objective of obtaining a verified freeze on the numerical growth and destabilizing characteristics of each side's strategic nuclear forces.
The Nixon administration adopted counterforce targeting beginning with SIOP 5 of 1974. The Carter administration expanded it with Presidential Directive 59 and SIOP 5D. Counterforce, however, offered an option to assured destruction of a limited, prolonged nuclear war based on accurate attacks with limited collateral damage while maintaining a creditable second strike capability. In an address on March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan proposed replacing the doctrine of assured destruc-
tion with one of assured survival, in the form of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). SDI was to focus on the development and deployment of a combination of defensive systems such as space-based lasers, particle beams, railguns, and fast ground-launched missiles, among other weapons, to intercept Soviet ICBMs during their ascent through the Earth's outer atmosphere and their ballistic path in space. While the ABM Treaty restricted various methods of testing SDI weapon systems, the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union removed the justification for the level of research and development associated with this project, although research continued at a much reduced level under the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.
Beginning in March 1985, Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev initiated major changes in Soviet-American relations. The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in December 1987 eliminated short-range nuclear missiles in Europe, including Air Force ground-launched cruise missiles stationed in the United Kingdom. Gorbachev's announcement in May 1988 that the Soviet Union, after nine years of inconclusive combat, would begin withdrawing from the war in Afghanistan, indicated a major reduction in Cold War tensions, but it provided only a hint of the rapid changes to come. Relatively free and open Russian elections in March 1989 and a coal miners strike in July shook the foundations of Communist rule. East Germany opened the Berlin Wall in November, which led to German reunification in October 1990. A coup against Gorbachev in August 1991 by Boris Yeltsin, led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its replacement by the Commonwealth of Independent States on December 25, 1991.
This chain of events brought major changes to American nuclear strategy. Under START I, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in July 1991, the Air Force will be involved in reducing to a level of 6,000 total warheads on deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers. START II, signed in January 1993, will reduce (upon entry into force) total deployed warheads to a range of 3,000 to 3,500. The resulting force structure (determined during the Nuclear Posture Review process overseen within his department by then Secretary of Defense Les Aspin), will ultimately lead to the deployment of five hundred single warhead Minuteman III ICBMs, 66 B-52H and 20 B-2 heavy bombers. Ninety-four B-1 heavy bombers will be reoriented to a conventional role by 2003, in addition to all Peacekeeper ICBMs being removed from active inventory through the elimination of their associated silo launchers. The Air Force, by Presidential direction in September 1991, notified SAC to remove heavy bombers from alert status. SAC was subsequently inactivated several months later in June 1992. U.S. Strategic Command replaced Strategic Air Command, controlling all remaining Air Force and Navy strategic nuclear forces.
Rebuilding the conventional Air Force after Vietnam began with personnel changes. The Vietnam-era Air Force included many officers and airmen who had entered its ranks in World War II. President Nixon ended the draft in 1973 in favor of an "all volunteer" American military. The Air Force attracted recruits as best it could, but encountered problems with the racial friction and alcohol and drug abuse that reflected America's social problems. Enough Vietnam career veterans remained, however, to direct the new service and institute changes, one of the most noticeable of which was more realistic, and thus more dangerous, combat training. In combat simulations Air Force pilots flew as aggressors employing enemy tactics. By 1975 their training had evolved into Red Flag at the U.S. Air Force Weapons and Tactics Center at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, in which crews flew both individual sorties and formations in realistic situations, gaining experience before they entered actual combat.
The vulnerability of air bases to enemy attack and sabotage had long been the Achilles heel of land-based air power. In western Europe, living under the threat of a massive Warsaw Pact air offensive and land invasion, the U.S. Air Force spearheaded an active program to improve the survivability and readiness of air bases. The effort was marked by the construction of thousands of reinforced concrete aircraft shelters and other hardened facilities, alternate runways, rapid repair elements, chemical weapons protection, and a host of other defensive measures.
The Air Force's post-Vietnam rebuilding also involved applying improved technology. The battle for control of the skies over North Vietnam underscored the need for a dogfighting aircraft that featured maneuverability before speed―one armed with missiles and cannon. Begun in the late 1960s and operational in the mid-1970s, the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon filled this need. The struggle against radar-guided antiaircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles in Vietnam encouraged the Air Force to pursue stealth technology utilizing special paints, materials, and designs that reduced or eliminated an aircraft's radar, thermal, and electronic signatures. Operational by October 1980, both the B-2 stealth bomber and the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter featured detection avoidance.
Other Vietnam War technologies included precision guided missiles and bombs. From April 1972 to January 1973 the United States used over 4,000 of these early "smart weapons" in Vietnam to knock down bridges and destroy enemy tanks. Continued development of laser-guided bombs and electro-optically-guided missiles offered the prospects of pinpoint, precision bombing on which traditional Air Force doctrine rested―the destruction of chokepoints in an enemy nation's industrial web with economy of force and without collateral damage. These technologies, which afforded a strike precision far beyond that available to earlier air power thinkers, sparked a revision of the traditional doctrine of strategic bombing. This revision took two forms. First, the Air Force, to overcome numerically superior Warsaw Pact forces, cooperated with the Army in updating the tactical doctrine of AirLand Battle promulgated in Field Manual 100-5 in 1982. The Air Force would make deep air attacks on an enemy army to isolate it on the battlefield, conduct battlefield air interdiction (BAI) to disrupt the movement of secondary forces to the front, and provide close air support (CAS) to Army ground forces. The Air Force procured the A-10 Thunderbolt II CAS attack-bomber in the 1970s to support such missions.
Second, the Air Force pursued a new approach to conventional strategic bombing doctrine in the fertile atmosphere of the post-Vietnam era. Key leaders in the effort were Generals Charles Boyd and Charles Link and Colonel Dennis Drew. Strategic bombing doctrine of the Air Corps Tactical School, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam had relied on carpet bombing to saturate linear chokepoints, with industry as the key. Colonel John Warden's ideas in the Gulf War relied on precision munitions to attack an expanded complex of targets. He viewed an enemy nation's war-making capacity in five concentric rings. The center ring consisted of its civilian and military leadership, the first ring out, its key production sources, the second ring out, its transportation and communication infrastructure, third ring out, the will of its population, and, the last ring, its military forces. An air attack on these would be "inside-out" warfare, starting from the center and working outward. The first objective of an air war would be to seize air superiority followed by attacks on an enemy's leadership and other vital centers. Colonel John Boyd focused on "control warfare" and "strategic paralysis" by loosening the observation, orientation, decision, and action loops (the "OODA Loop") that maintained the "moral-mental-physical being" of an enemy nation.
Participation in three crises in the 1980s allowed the Air Force to test these new ideas and technologies. Operation URGENT FURY (October 1983) rescued American students and restored order on the island of Grenada. In this operation the Air Force primarily transported troops and cargo, but discovered problems with command, control, planning, and intraservice and interservice coordination. President Reagan called on England-based F-111s to strike against Libya on April 19, 1986, in support of his policies to counter state terrorism. Operation ELDORADO CANYON exposed continuing difficulties with target identification and intelligence, punctuated by some inaccurate bombing. Finally, Operation JUST CAUSE in 1989 again tested air operations, this time in Panama. The Air Force provided the airlift for troops and supplies, although the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter made its debut when it and an AC-130 Spectre gunship intimidated Panamanian troops loyal to the dictator Manuel Noriega.