By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

7. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, by Neil Sheehan, pp. 142-173

Book III: The Perils of an Apprenticeship, 24. Into the Lion's Den; 25. Moscow Opts for Rockets; 26. A Nuclear Reactor in the Sky; 27. Low-Level Tactics and the Flying Boom; 28. The Last Tangle and an Ambush
When LeMay complained that SAC was not getting enough attention from the research and development people, Schriever was put in charge of satisfying him, specifically his latest concern: that SAC's bases needed to be dispersed enough so that they could survive a Soviet attack. One idea Schriever came up with was to equip SAC bombers with pontoons, so they could take off and land on water. Unfortunately, Schriever's superiors actually sent him to LeMay with the idea, which was met with "disgust and ridicule." While the idea was far-fetched, LeMay had started ignoring even more practical suggestions. He was, Sheehan says, "no longer willing to hear anything that did not fit his preconceptions. He was the classic example of a man made arrogant by power."

For one thing, he became fixated on bombers and bombers alone, which closed his mind to the intercontinental ballistic missile, which the Soviet Union was putting its R&D efforts into. He argued that bombers were superior to ICBMs because they could destroy the launching sites, even though destroying a launching site after the missiles had been fired seems somewhat illogical. LeMay even wanted to abandon all conventional weapons and go entirely nuclear -- an idea that was not publicized by the Air Force because it would have "set off a political firestorm at home and abroad of nuclear dimensions." He asked for 1,900 B-52s. Eisenhower gave him 744. He wanted the Scientific Advisory Board to investigate the possibility of a twenty-megaton hydrogen bomb, "an idea Eisenhower is said to have vetoed as beyond common sense."
Pressure from LeMay was to be the major impetus in driving the yield of the American stockpile of nuclear warheads up to the record 20,491 megatons peak it was to reach in 1960, enough to provide each of the approximately 180 million inhabitants of the United States at the time with bomb material equivalent in explosive force to 110 tons of TNT.
And he seemed entirely indifferent to the suggestions that use of a nuclear weapon would also mean "national suicide" for the United States. One mitigating factor in the use of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that they were detonated in the air, limiting the extent of the radiation they released. LeMay wanted his bombs detonated at ground level, which would fill the atmosphere with radioactive dust. On the plus side, LeMay's mad abandon and devotion to overkill may have been a powerful deterrent to Soviet adventurism as Nikita Khrushchev took over leadership in the Soviet Union. But the "bomber gap" he proclaimed when it became evident that the Soviets were developing new bombers was bogus. He spooked Congress into adding $1 billion for bombers to the Air Force budget in 1957 and 1958, even though the CIA reported that the Soviets were producing fewer bombers than LeMay claimed, and they cut back on bomber production in 1958.

What LeMay failed to take into account was that the Russians had a long history of experimental rocketry, and although Stalin had stupidly purged Marshal Tukhachevsky, the leading military proponent of rocket-propelled weaponry, in 1937, Sergei Korolev had survived to become a leader in the postwar era. In 1953 the Politburo put him and rocket engine builder Valentin Glushko in charge of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile, which would change the "strategic equation" and make LeMay's bombers less effective. But LeMay persisted in his single-mindedness, which brought him into conflict with Schriever over the creation of a nuclear-powered bomber.

Schriever was put in charge of recruiting a team of engineers that could fulfill LeMay's dream: not only a nuclear-powered plane but also one capable of flying faster than sound. But all of the scientists and engineers involved agreed: supersonic flight in a bomber powered by a nuclear reactor would create temperatures so high that no known material could withstand. "The reactor would melt." LeMay would not listen, even when Schriever told him that none of the scientists and engineers he knew believed it was possible to "build a nuclear-powered engine that will operate at supersonic speeds." LeMay persisted that if the Navy could build nuclear-powered submarines, somebody ought to be able to solve the problem of the nuclear-powered bomber. Sheehan comments,
The idea of airplanes flying around with nuclear reactors in them might seem daft to subsequent generations, given the appalling consequences if one crashed. In the edge-of-battle atmosphere of the Cold War, such risks were rationalized as necessities. 
And in fact, the Air Force did manage to install a nuclear-reactor in a converted B-36, which made forty-seven flights between Fort Worth and Roswell, N.M. The flight crew rode in "a twelve-ton lead-and-rubber-shielded compartment, with leaded glass windows almost a foot thick." And the plane was always followed by a B-50 with paratroopers who were trained so that in the event of a crash of the nuke plane they would jump onto the crash site and cordon it off until a cleanup team could arrive. Sheehan comments that the flight path took the plane over Lake Worth, Fort Worth's main water supply, and that a crash into the lake would have been cataclysmic. President Kennedy canceled the project in 1961.

Meanwhile, the Soviets had developed the surface-to-air missile, which were deployed around Moscow in 1957. The SAM demonstrated its effectiveness in 1961 when it downed Francis Gary Power's U-2 spy plane. Schriever saw that low-altitude bombers, which could fly under the radar, might be more effective than the high-altitude ones that LeMay insisted on. But attempts to demonstrate this to LeMay were failures. And LeMay also stubbornly resisted attempts to change SAC's reliance on a fueling technique that involved what was called the "flying boom" method. Schriever's Development Planning Office was asked to do a study of in-flight fueling methods and concluded that another method, called "probe and drogue" was more efficient. But when Col. Bill Maxwell was tapped to present the results of the study to LeMay, he was met with hostility. LeMay asked, "Who the hell keeps promoting that probe and drogue stuff?" Maxwell responded, "Every pilot that ever flew it is promoting it." Whereupon LeMay walked out. Schriever realized that LeMay was doing "all he could to keep the Tactical Air Command, with its fighters and fighter-bombers, in check."

Schriever's ultimate clash with LeMay was over the next-generation bomber, the one designed to replace the B-52. LeMay wanted it to be supersonic, to be able to fly at extremely high altitudes, to carry a heavy bomb load and to be able to reach the furthest targets without midair refueling. Schriever did everything he could to emphasize the impracticality of such a plane, but to no avail. LeMay, Schriever said, "was of the school that 'Goddamn it, I know what I need. This is a requirement, goddamn it, no go out and do it.'" Schriever persisted in trying to create the best practicable plane, choosing Paul Blasingame, a Ph.D. aeronautical engineer, to head the project. One result of the team's work was the development of a more effective jet engine, one that would produce more thrust with less fuel. The turbofan engine would do the job and require a much shorter runway for takeoff. Blasingame also devised advanced navigation and bombing systems for the plane. But it was never built: LeMay rejected it. Instead, he had a team develop the B-70 Valkyrie, which was "massive," "supersonic," "expensive" and "useless." The project was canceled by Kennedy as "unnecessary and economically unjustifiable." The B-52 never had a real successor: It was used for the infamous carpet-bombing raids in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, in the first Gulf War, in the second one and in Afghanistan.

The conflicts with LeMay caused Schriever to suffer from tension headaches. But the turbofan engine was a success that "set off a revolution in military and commercial aviation." It made possible the C-5 Galaxy, which "could lift virtually anything that might be loaded into its astonishing 34,000 cubic feet of cargo space" using only four turbofan engines. And the development of the first jumbo jet, the Boeing 747 changed commercial passenger flight forever. Even SAC began using Schriever's low-altitude tactics after LeMay retired.

Schriever was promoted to brigadier general in 1953. But LeMay still managed to get his hand in: Schriever was reassigned to South Korea as chief of logistics for the Fifth Air Force units there. It was clear that LeMay was behind the move. But he stuck with the Air Force and was vindicated.
Bernard Schriever was to be the indispensable man in the creation of the intercontinental ballistic missile during the Cold War and the enormous consequences that were to flow from it -- America's penetration of space and an unspoken but permanent truce of mutual deterrence with the Soviet Union. 

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