A Short History of Air and Space Defense in the Cold War


A B-52 strategic bomber is being aerial refueled a KC-135. This refueling capability gave SAC global reach.

04 A B-52 strategic bomber is being aerial refueled a KC-135. This refueling capability gave SAC global reach. The B-52 became a critical part of the nuclear triad in the 1950s and remains an important bomber to the present.

Following World War II, although some demobilization took place, the Cold War precipitated a continuation of an expansion of military aerospace activities and fostered the search for a truly effective air and space defense for the United States. In the process the air arm became an independent service, the United States Air Force, through the National Security Act of 1947 and the creation of the Department of Defense (DOD).

The military air and space component in the Cold War has involved a broad range of activities. The development, training, equipping, and employment of aerospace military power extended from aircraft to missiles to satellites to other systems of both a passive and active nature. Much of this has been carried out in a highly classified environment, such as satellite reconnaissance, with neither details nor records of government available for ready inspection. All have been justified as a means of maintaining the integrity of the nation against an aggressive threat from the Soviet Union and other global rivals.

In this context national air and space defense evolved along a two pronged but complimentary path, and it became all the more serious in 1949 when Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon. The first of these, and the more public of the two, involved the development of a strong capability to strike any potential enemy either before that enemy had a chance to inflict significant damage on the United States through its own attack or in retaliation for a nuclear attack. Although American leaders always denied the possibility of making a first strike against a foreign nation with nuclear weapons, war plans were always maintained and updated that offered a first strike scenario and on at least one occasion during the Kennedy administration of the early 1960s the National Security Council considered seriously the option of launching a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union before it had the ballistic missile capability to respond effectively.

Artist's concept of an Ohio-class SSGN launching Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles.

Artist’s concept of an Ohio-class SSGN launching Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles.

Nonetheless, the very public idea of massive retaliation for any attack on the United States was an important part of the overall air and space defense strategy of the United States. The intent was to develop and maintain the capability, regardless what might have been inflicted on the United States in a nuclear attack, to strike against an enemy and to ensure its destruction as well. This doctrine of deterrence guided significant expenditures for weapons systems within the DOD from the 1940s to the late 1980s.

It ensured the development of what was known as the nuclear triad: U.S. continental-based, long-range strategic bombers; U.S. continental-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM); and sea-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (SLBM) carried on submarines and therefore mobile. All of these could strike the Soviet Union–or anywhere else on the globe–with nuclear weapons and therefore ensure an enemy’s destruction despite a United States in ruins. Sometimes referred to as mutual assured destruction, this doctrine was known by the most appropriate acronym ever coined by the military—MAD.

It led to the development of an exceptionally capable strike force. The first truly capable intercontinental bomber, the B-36, came into the Air Force inventory in the latter 1940s, and the most famous and extraordinary strategic bomber ever was the B-52 “Superfortress” which became operational in the mid-1950s and served through much of the 1980s. Additionally, the B-1 was developed in the 1970s and the B-2 stealth bomber in the 1980s. Land-based ICBMs were developed in the 1950s and first became operational in the first part of the 1960s, particularly the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman. The most recent ICBM to be developed was the M-X Peacekeeper in the later 1970s and early 1980s. The SLBM efforts involved development of the Polaris in the 1950s and the Trident in the 1960s and the nuclear submarines that carried them on their deadly mission.

The Convair B-36 "Peacemaker" was a strategic bomber built by Convair and operated solely by the United States Air Force from 1949 to 1959.

The Convair B-36 “Peacemaker” was a strategic bomber built by Convair and operated solely by the United States Air Force from 1949 to 1959.

To execute this deterrent mission, the DOD created such organizations as the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in the latter 1940s, and places in command General Curtis E. LeMay, as coarse and irascible officer as the Air Force had, but he got results. LeMay fully understood that the nation’s first line of defense—indeed in many respects it was the only line of defense—was the nuclear deterrent that SAC was charged with maintaining. The command, he knew, had to be prepared to carry out effectively its nuclear mission at any time for the deterrent to have any viability.

“A” Section at SF-88L, circa 1959. The four Nike Hercules missiles are arrayed for the photographer’s benefit, in a non-launching configuration. The cantonment of Fort Cronkhite is visible across the lagoon. This famous view of SF-88L was used time and time again to illustrate the Nike missile defenses of the Bay Area. U.S. Army photograph. (Golden Gate National Recreation Area, TASC Collection)

Four Nike Hercules missiles arrayed in San Francisco Bay area in 1959.  The cantonment of Fort Cronkhite is visible across the lagoon.  (U.S. Army)

LeMay, therefore, refined the procedures for strategic bombardment, both with ICBMs and strategic bombers, and made them increasingly more effective. The preparedness of SAC to execute its mission became legendary and set standards of excellence still idealized within the Air Force, as it maintained a state of extreme readiness from the late 1940s through the early 1980s.

Less public, but perhaps more critical to air and space defense, was the development of early warning and interception systems by the United States. The first successful one was the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line created beginning in 1954 across the most northerly practicable part of North America. Its purpose was to provide radar and other electronic surveillance of the Soviet Union to monitor technological progress and, more important, any possible hostile actions against the United States and its allies.

The capability of this string of listening posts across the Arctic was to be 100 percent detection for all weapons up to 100,000 feet in altitude, which would therefore handle ballistic missiles and bombers. A joint project, the United States provided the funding and supervision of the construction. The Canadians, with a similar system already in place in certain parts of its nation, would link with the DEW Line for an unbroken surveillance sequence in the Arctic. This system was constructed quickly in the next two years, coming on line in 1957, and served its purpose throughout the Cold War. It was still operational, although its capabilities had been upgraded, as late as 1993.

To manage the DEW Line, and to respond to any threat detected, the United States and Canada created the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in 1957, with Aerospace being substituted for Air in the name in 1981. Based at Cheyenne Mountain, a few miles outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, for more than three decades NORAD provided integrated command of air and space defense forces of the two nations. It directed dedicated interceptors, other fighters, surface-to-air missiles (SAM), air and space detection and control centers, and other facilities to defend the continent against attack.

A rough map of the three warning lines. From north to south: the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, Mid-Canada Line, and Pinetree Line.

A rough map of the three warning lines. From north to south: the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, Mid-Canada Line, and Pinetree Line.

Another major component in the air and space defense system of the United States was the strategic reconnaissance efforts of specialized aircraft and space satellites. Both the U-2 and the SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft served effectively as high-altitude, high-speed assets that could overfly the Soviet Union or other nations and return imagery to U.S. military analysts.

Under development in the latter 1950s, Project CORONA was the first successful reconnaissance satellite program of the nation. Essentially, the objective of this effort was to obtain high quality satellite photographs of the Soviet Union and thereby ensure that the United States would never suffer another Pearl Harbor. As part of this effort, the first satellite, launched 18 August 1960, reached orbit and then correctly returned its reentry vehicle containing photographs of the ICBM base at Plesetsk and the bomber base at Mys Schmitda in the Soviet Union where it was plucked from the Pacific Ocean by Navy frogmen. After this flight, CORONA became an operational mission and functioned through 1973 when it was succeeded by later generation reconnaissance satellite projects.

But strategic deterrence, air and space reconnaissance, and NORAD’s warning and response capability seemed insufficient to guarantee the safety of the United States against a determined enemy and this prompted national security official of the Reagan administration in the 1980s to seek an ultimate shield against attack. The result was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), unveiled by President Ronald Reagan in March 1983. An expansive, technologically sophisticated, and exceptionally expensive research and development (R&D) program, SDI’s aim was to create an array of space-based technologies that could track and destroy incoming missiles.

An artist's concept of a ground / space-based hybrid laser weapon, 1984

An artist’s concept of a ground / space-based hybrid laser weapon, 1984

SDI immediately became controversial, mostly because of its technical complexity and its high price tag. Advocates of the MAD strategic deterrence policy also opposed the effort because it would upset the balance of power between the U.S. and the USSR that had succeeded in avoiding superpower war by holding populations hostage to nuclear forces. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the end of the Cold War, SDI declined in importance and survived only as a modest R&D effort within the DOD in the mid-1990s.

Indeed, with the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s the air and space defense system of the United States underwent substantial changes. NORAD continued to exist for a time but its mandate was narrowed with the realization that there is no major strategic threat, and its response component has been transferred from the active military force to the Air National Guard. The nuclear forces of the DOD have been taken off alert, some of the nuclear weapons destroyed, and the Strategic Air Command inactivated. The DOD component managing SDI has been reduced in size and funding and renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. Finally, public conceptions of air and space defense, such as civil defense in its various capacities, have been minimized.

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