In Part 1 we looked at the day to day life of a SAC crew member during the Cold War.
The whole idea of keeping our nuclear forces on alert was to (ironically enough) prevent a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union.
We were always afraid that the Soviets might try to take out most of our nuclear forces with a surprise attack. We, of course, wanted them to think that they couldn't get away with it.
The Soviets, at the same time, were afraid we would try to do the same thing to them. Their society was so centrally managed and "top down" that they feared we could take out a few key command and control centers and thus render them incapable of responding. It's not really that far fetched. I'm sure that more than one neoconservative wanted to see us try it.
So basically, we had two idiots pointing guns at each other, fingers on the trigger, terrified that the other guy was going to shoot first. It's amazing that we didn't blow the whole damn thing up. We came close on several occasions. Everyone knows about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but there were others.
Fortunately calmer heads prevailed and we at least put our weapons back in the holster.
So what if everything had gone to hell and we'd actually done it?
I'll give you my best guess as to how I think it would have gone down. It ain't pretty.
Everything was based on having at most 20 minutes warning, which is the time of flight for an ICBM launched from the Soviet Union. In reality it might have been a lot less. By the time we spotted the launch, figured out what it was, notified the appropriate people and someone actually made a decision, we're probably talking 10 to 15 minutes tops.
In reality, this scenario was pretty unlikely. What was more likely to happen would have been a crisis in Europe or elsewhere that escalated to conventional war and then quickly to nuclear war.
Everything you heard back in the 80s about fighting a conventional war in Europe or "limiting" a nuclear war to Europe (I'm sure the Europeans loved that idea) was pure crap. We'd probably have been lobbing ICBMs at each other around day 3 of any war with the Soviets. The line between "tactical" and "strategic" nuclear warfare was pretty thin.
We most likely would have seen a rapidly escalating situation where we had some time to bring our nuclear forces up to a higher level of alert. We might have "generated" additional nuclear sorties in addition to the ones we normally kept on alert. We might even have dispersed some bombers and tankers to other airfields. We did all this during the Cuban Crisis.
We would possibly have seen the bomber crews first restricted to the alert facility, then probably sitting alert in the cockpit, then sitting at the hold line, engines running.
Note that during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war we reached that level of readiness.
The bombers could even have been launched but not sent to their targets. That was one useful thing about bombers. You could put them in the air to survive an attack and then figure out what you wanted to do with them.
We would have launched using MITO (Minimum Interval Takeoff) procedures - 12 seconds between aircraft. The idea being that there are missiles inbound and we need to get everyone airborne and away from the base as quickly as possible. I've practiced these and they're pretty wild.
Once airborne we would have closed our thermal curtains (heavy shades that covered the cockpit windows) and put on our PLZT "plitz" goggles. These made you look like an Imperial Storm Trooper from Star Wars. All of this was to protect us from flash-blindness and thermal radiation from the nukes that presumably would be going off around us.
WarningSo, these things are supposed to protect me from nuclear blast, but sunlight hurts them?
Thermal curtains will not be used as a sun shade on crew training missions. Use of the curtains for this purpose subjects the curtains to abnormal wear which will eventually cause deterioration to the point that their effectiveness as a heat shield is materially decreased.
So, the big question is: would we have gone if ordered?
We used to joke about turning south and making Jamaica the next nuclear power. In reality, we were so well trained I figure we'd have been halfway to Russia before we even thought about what we were doing. Most nuclear scenarios had us dodging mushroom clouds on our way out of the US. Human nature being what it is, we'd have wanted revenge at that point.
Next big question: would we have made it our target(s)?
Our missions from Barksdale would have had us crossing the South Atlantic, launching our cruise missiles somewhere around the Eastern Mediterranean and then making a low-level penetration into the southern parts of the Soviet Union.
Unless it was our bad luck to run into a MiG-31 out over the Med, we probably could have made it to the cruise missile launch point.
After that, it's anyone's guess. Keep in mind that we'd have been lobbing ICBMs at each over for 12 hours by the time I lumbered over there in my B-52. I'm not sure there would have been much left of Soviet air defenses by then.
So what were our targets?
Bombers were mostly tasked against very hardened targets that would have been difficult to take out with an ICBM. Deeply buried command bunkers and such.
Mind you, our tasking had us putting the third or fourth weapon on any given target. So unless the first couple had missed, we'd have just been digging the crater that much deeper.
Oddly enough, we didn't directly target population centers. A lot of people don't realize that. That's very small consolation in reality. A lot of military and economic targets happened to be in or near population centers, so you get the idea. We were aiming for the airbase, sorry about the city you guys had sitting next to it.
So how do you drop a nuke?
You can drop them from high altitude or from low level. They come down on a parachute, to give you time to get away. There was a "safe escape" speed that was supposed to get us far enough away to survive the blast. From low-level we would have to do a PUP (pop up) maneuver to give the parachute enough altitude to deploy.
Its' worth noting that we couldn't arm the weapons without certain codes being sent to us. So much for my plans to become a James Bond villain and hold the world hostage for One Million Dollars!
Could we have been recalled?
Assuming that command-control and communications weren't completely disrupted. I'm not sure how well the HF radios would have worked once nukes started going off all over the place. In the off chance that someone was still around to give the order and we were able to receive it we could be called back.
Finally: would we have made it home?
Possibly, but doubtful.
The plan was for us to land in some allied country close to southern Russia (I won't say who but you can probably figure it out) and refuel the plane, possibly by hand-pumping 50 gallon drums. That would have kept us busy for a while.
There were plans for us to land on dry lake beds or other "natural landing sites" in the US because there probably wouldn't be any runways left at that point.
I suspect there wouldn't be much of home to come back to at that point.
If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody's going to make it. - Thomas K. Jones, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration and general all-around idiot.The reality is, it would be much worse than you probably think. Probably nothing east of the Mississippi would have lived, and not a whole lot west of it either. If you're living on a reservation somewhere in the remote desert southwest, congratulations, you now own the country. Too bad you won't be able to grow any food for a hundred years or so.
I found an interesting study that the Natural Resources Defense Council did in 2001 on the effects of nuclear weapons. Their findings pretty much confirm what I already knew.
These charts are hard to read, but they show the effects of a relatively small nuclear strike on Russia. Change "Moscow" to "St. Louis" and you'd have a pretty good idea what a strike on Whiteman AFB would do. Now multiply this by a whole lot, and you get the idea....
Cue REM singing "It's the end of the world as we know it...."
So to summarize, in case you didn't already know this, those people back in the 80s who told you things like "We can win a nuclear war with the Russians" or "We can fight a limited nuclear war in Europe" were either idiots or liars or both. Take your pick.
Whew! Pretty serious stuff. Time for a beer:
Mapping the Apocalypse
NRDC article on nuclear war plans
15 minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation
The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy