25.

MOSCOW OPTS FOR ROCKETS

Curtis LeMay could not understand that his bombers were in danger of being undermined as a credible deterrent by the advance of technology. In strategic terms, they were coming to represent the past. He was not heeding von Kármán’s warning to Arnold in 1945 that “the men in charge of the future Air Forces should always remember that problems never have final or universal solutions and only a constant inquisitive attitude toward science and a ceaseless and swift adaptation to new developments can maintain the security of this nation through world air supremacy.” Stalin’s successors after his death on March 5, 1953, initially a committee and then Nikita Khrushchev alone when he overcame his rivals, did not intend to rely on bombers to counter America’s nuclear might. Long-range bombing was not part of the Russian military experience. The aircraft they had deployed during the Second World War, such as Sergei Ilyushin’s famous Il-2 Shturmovik fighter-bomber, were designed to support the Red Army as flying artillery and tank destroyers. They built bombers, but these were mainly medium-range types, again meant to enhance the fighting power of the army. Tupolev’s Tu-4 copies of the B-29 on which Stalin had lavished resources in the immediate postwar period were impractical because of their lack of range. The Soviets would never be able to overcome this obstacle. There was no way, short of going to war, for them to acquire the type of staging bases with which LeMay had encircled their empire and, because of the distances involved, midair refueling was also not an answer. With everything having to take off from the Soviet Union or its satellites, the tankers, to stay aloft, would be using up the fuel they were supposed to pass to the bombers.

The Russians had difficulties as well with the long-range bombers of their own design. As a would-be intercontinental, the Bison was deficient in range at about 5,600 miles and the turboprop Bear was vulnerable to American jet fighters. Neither approached being an equal of the B-52. The designer of the Bison, Vladimir Miasishchev, suggested to Khrushchev that they might overcome the range deficiency by landing in Mexico after bombing the United States. “What do you think Mexico is—our mother-in-law?” Khrushchev replied. “You think we can go calling anytime we want? The Mexicans would never let us have the plane back.”

On the other hand, Russia had a long record of experimental rocketry and visionary theories of space travel, beginning with the end-of-the-nineteenth-century writings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a provincial math teacher with dreams and a knowledge of physics. Marshal Tukhachevsky, the star of the prewar Red Army leadership, had an intense interest in rocketry, seeing it as a way to hurl large charges of explosive beyond the range of conventional artillery. He established a flourishing laboratory for military rocketry in Leningrad in the 1920s. One of its inventions, a prototype bazooka, might have proved quite useful against German tanks. But after Stalin had Tukhachevsky purged and executed in 1937 during the Great Purge, the laboratory was suppressed and about 200 of its specialists suffered the marshal’s fate. Nevertheless, a number of the more imaginative scientists and engineers, including Sergei Korolev, who was to become the senior Soviet rocket designer in the postwar era, managed to evade an executioner’s bullet. The Red Army also employed what rocket artillery it had developed to powerful effect during the conflict. The German soldier had trembled at the whooshing salvos of high explosive from the massed batteries of 122mm Katyusha rockets.

At the close of hostilities, the bombproof V-2 production plant tunneled into a mountain near Nordhausen in north-central Germany and run full-tilt with the lives of thousands of slave laborers turned out to be located within the Soviet occupation zone. So were the V-2 engine test facilities in the Frankenwald Mountains. The U.S. Army got to the Nordhausen plant first, however, and hauled off all the documentation along with as many intact V-2s as it could before the occupation lines were formalized. But there were enough parts and engines left to serve the Russians. The Americans also got the best of the German rocket engineers from the group of 400 rocketeers who, with Wernher von Braun, had fled to them. The Soviets still managed, sometimes willingly and sometimes by force, to assemble their own group of competent German rocket men. The leader was an engineer named Helmut Gröttrup, a left-winger who came to the Russians voluntarily. He had been one of the ranking guidance and control specialists at Peenemünde. Altogether, about 5,000 German engineers and technicians of various skills were rounded up and transported to the Soviet Union for rocket work. The V-2 blueprints and associated documentation were reconstructed, German-made V-2s assembled and fired, and copies then manufactured by the Soviets themselves.

As the Russians acquired enough expertise of their own, the Germans became superfluous and were sent back home. Steady progress was made in subsequent years devising more advanced ballistic missiles under the direction of Korolev and the rocket engine builder Valentin Glushko. Stalin’s heirs set the course of the Soviet Union firmly at the end of 1953. The Politburo of the Communist Party, the highest governing body, formally decided to have Korolev create an intercontinental ballistic missile that would carry as its warhead the hydrogen bomb the Russians were to acquire two years later in November 1955. Andrei Sakharov, the most talented of the young Soviet physicists, had just completed his preliminary design for the Russian hydrogen weapon in November 1953. While the development of bombers continued, as the appearance of the Bison and Bear demonstrated, the Politburo decision held. The pattern of the future had been drawn. The Soviet Union would rely, not on bombers as LeMay continued to think it would, but on intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver most of its nuclear warheads.

If the Soviets had fielded a considerable force of ICBMs with nuclear warheads before the United States possessed equivalent weapons or had them well in progress, panic certainly would have ensued at home and among America’s allies in Europe. LeMay’s Strategic Air Command would have been trumped. SAC would have ceased to be, in the minds of much of the American public and among West Europeans, a credible deterrent force. The appearance of the Bison and Bear bombers had already raised worries about the safety of SAC bases beyond the simple one at the beginning of the decade that had prompted Bennie Schriever’s inane amphibious bomber scheme. Soviet ICBMs in quantity would have transformed those worries into a genuine fear that SAC could be eliminated in a surprise attack and the United States left with no adequate means of retaliation.

LeMay needed six hours to load nuclear weapons into all of his bombers and get them into the air. The American radars of the day would give only fifteen minutes’ warning of an ICBM assault because the radars could not pick up the incoming missile warheads until they had reached their apogee halfway through their flight. Some SAC bombers could be kept on strip alert, as was always being done, and some could be rotated aloft on aerial alert, but this could never be more than a portion of the force. To keep all of SAC permanently on alert twenty-four hours a day wasn’t feasible. The task would have required triple manning of the aircraft and doubling or tripling the ground crews and support staff. LeMay would have argued, and with logic, that in real circumstances there would be sufficient warning of imminent war with the Russians for him to prepare his bombers. He would have argued in vain, for many would not have believed him.

(In 1960, three years after LeMay departed to become vice chief of staff of the Air Force, SAC reached a personnel strength of 266,788 officers, men, and civilian specialists and was able to keep a third of its bombers and tankers on fifteen-minute strip alert around the clock. The following year SAC adopted an airborne alert in which some of its bombers were always aloft and on station waiting for a go order, along with a permanent airborne command post, named Looking Glass, under a general officer. The command post planes flew eight-hour shifts day and night in converted KC-135 tankers equipped with communications, radars, and other necessary gear to direct SAC’s bombers. But the strategic equation was changing by 1960 and 1961. SAC’s bombers were no longer so important. Earlier, when the bombers represented all that the country had, not even a third of the force on perpetual fifteen-minute alert might have been enough to silence the skeptics and alarmists like Paul Nitze who were on a perpetual alert of their own to arouse and batten on fear.)

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