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Race to Oblivion

A Participant's View of the Arms Race

Herbert F. York




Table of Contents57Missile-Gap Mania125
INTRODUCTION78The McNamara Era147
Prologue: Eisenhower's Other Warning9PART TWO: UNBALANCING THE BALANCE OF TERROR171
1The Arms Race and I159MIRV: The Multiple Menace173
2The Race Begins: Nuclear Weapons and Overkill2711Other Lessons from the ABM Debate213
3The Bomber Bonanza4912The Ultimate Absurdity228
4The Elusive Nuclear Airplane60A Glossary of Acroyms241
5Rockets and Missiles75Index245




At the same time that America was pursuing its spectacular accumulation of nuclear weapons, it was devoting considerable attention to perfecting the means of delivering them. At first this effort naturally focused on the bomber.

The strategic bombardment of Germany in World War II by the United States Army Air Force was carried out largely with B-17s and B-24s. These subsonic propeller-driven aircraft flew at speeds of a couple of hundred miles per hour. They could carry payloads weighing a few tons for distances ranging up to a thousand miles or so. They dropped the bulk of the 2.7 megatons of chemical high explosives which were showered on Germany during the latter part of the war. The bombardment of Japan, including the fire-bombing of Tokyo and other major cities and the delivery of the two atomic bombs, was carried out with B-29s, another type of subsonic propeller-driven aircraft. These had been especially designed for the Pacific campaign, where a much longer range was needed than in the European campaign. Aircraft continued after World War II and up until 1960 to be the sole means of delivery for our strategic weapons. And even in 1970 the great bulk of the total megatonnage in our nuclear stockpile is still programmed for delivery by aircraft. After World War II the B-36 bomber, an extremely


long-range propeller-driven aircraft, was introduced into the force to give us a home-based intercontinental strategic bombardment capability. In keeping with the general development of aviation, both civil and military, all of these propeller aircraft were eventually replaced by the B-47 and the B-52 jet bombers.

The first American jet bomber, the B-47, was introduced into the Air Force inventory in the late forties. It did not have either the desired range or the desired payload-carrying capability, and so a still larger airplane, the B-52, was designed specifically to meet these needs. The B-52 was simply a much larger version of the B-47. Both have speeds in the high subsonic range (about six hundred miles per hour). The B-52 began to be phased into the force in 1954. Today the largest part of our strategic stockpile in terms of total explosive power is still programmed to be delivered by one of the later models of this same B-52.

The B-58 was designed in the early fifties to meet the desire for a plane capable of supersonic speeds over enemy territory. It became operational in the late fifties and obsolete in the late sixties. This aircraft was programmed to fly most of the distance from its home base to a target at subsonic speeds, and then to dash in over the target and out again at about twice the speed of sound. The inventory of these airplanes never became very large, and consequently they never played a major role in our strategic-delivery plans.

In addition to gradual progress in the development of airframes and aircraft propulsion systems, the years since World War II have seen further developments in devices to confuse air defenses (electronic countermeasures and chaff), in weapons designed to roll back the defenses, and in the development of "standoff" weapons. These last include various types of small pilotless aircraft and guided rockets. These can be launched directly from the B-52s, and they can then fly ahead on their own for hundreds of additional miles, making it un-


necessary for the aircraft themselves to penetrate all the way to the immediate target area. The longest-range missile of this type ever to be seriously considered was the famous Skybolt missile, which after several years of on-again, off-again and development effort, was finally canceled at the beginning of the Kennedy administration.

Since the first plane rolled off the production line in 1954, the B-52 has gone through a series of major model changes. Some of these changes resulted from modification in operational concepts and requirements. But most of them resulted from the steady advance of the technological state of the art in engine design, aerodynamic design, and "avionics" (a general term coined to cover all of the various electronic devices carried by modern aircraft for communications, navigation, weapons control, defense penetration, etc.). As a result, the B-52G's and the B-52H's (the last one came off the line in 1962) were very different from the original B-52A. In fact, the difference between the B-52H and the B-52A was almost as great as the difference between the B-52A and the B-47.

Except for the B-58, no entirely new strategic bombardment aircraft has been introduced since the B-52. The reason for this has not been a lack of ideas, but rather that attention since the mid-fifties has been primarily focused on an entirely new kind of intercontinental delivery system, the long-range ballistic missile to be discussed later. Nevertheless, the Air Force has continued to propose several new radically different types of aircraft. Because of what their stories reveal about the dynamics of the arms race, two are especially worthy of mention: the huge supersonic B-70 and the nuclear airplane, or the ANP, as it was usually called.

The B-70 program was initiated in the late 1950s. Only

two prototype aircraft were ever built. These were flown in the mid-sixties, and the program is now dormant. The plane was to be capable of flight at Mach 3 (i.e., at three times the speed of sound, or about two thousand miles per hour), to fly at


attitudes in the neighborhood of 100,000 feet and to carry payloads of many tons to targets anywhere in the world. Its gross weight at takeoff would have been over 500,000 pounds. The airframe was to have been constructed of titanium and stainless steel, since the aluminum alloys used for all other aircraft would not stand up under the extreme temperatures generated on the leading surfaces at such high speeds.

The history of the B-70 is closely linked to the political and technological environment of the era.

The program began in the mid-fifties as a study of what was then called the WS-110. By early 1957, development work (mostly done at the old NACA laboratories) on the various kinds of components and design ideas necessary for long-range supersonic flight had reached a point where it became clear to everyone concerned that a Mach-3 airplane of intercontinental range could really be built. As a result, in mid-1957 the Air Force authorized both Boeing and North American Aviation to engage in a competitive design study.

Meanwhile, the huge programs to develop the intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, had been started and had been given the highest national priority. As we will see, they soon came to dominate the technological scene in the U. S., and they absorbed the bulk of the resources, including both men and money, which the Air Force could devote to research and development. Thus, even i! the studies showed the project practicable, it was not likely that the U. S. would be able to commit the necessary resources to it. But on October 4, 1957, shortly after the study started, Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite, was launched into space by the U.S.S.R. The political atmosphere both in Washington and throughout the country was transformed by the sudden shock of discovering that the United States was not automatically first in technological feats of that sort. Frightened by the Soviets' apparent technical superiority, Americans were disposed to listen sympathetically to anybody with an advanced-technology program to sell.


Thus, when North American Aviation was selected as the prime contractor for the project at the end of 1957, the firm was ordered by the Air Force to proceed on a high-priority basis with the development of what had become known by then as the B-70. The official priority rating given was just below that of the ballistic-missile development program. The B-70 appealed particularly to the flying generals, who did not look forward to becoming "the silent silo-sitters of the sixties." They took a different view from those who advocated the primacy of the ICBMs. General Curtis E. LeMay, the man with the cigar, was the commander of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at the time. As I recall his personal view of the priorities, he placed the B-52H first (it was then called the B-52 Squared) and the B- 70 second (it was then called the WS-110). The nuclear airplane (ANP) was somewhere in the middle of his short list, and the long-range missiles were at the bottom. He and other leading Air Force generals managed to make it clear to the contractor that they personally considered the B-70 to be at least as important as the ICBMs, whatever the official priorities might be, and they ordered first flight by the end of 1961.

Before the first full year under contract was over, there were more than forty first- and second-tier subcontractors, and approximately two thousand vendors and suppliers were by then involved in the total program. Seventy of the then ninety-six United States Senators had a major part of the program in their states, and something like a majority of the Congressional districts had at least one supplier of consequence.

Many different arguments in favor of the B-70 program were presented by its proponents to the Congress and in the aviation and missile press. It was said that, as compared with conventional bombardment aircraft, its speed gave it certain very important advantages: it could respond much faster, it could arrive in the target area much sooner, and it could penetrate air defenses more surely. Compared with missiles, its


main advantages were said to reside in its greater "flexibility." That is, like any other aircraft, it could be launched into the air very soon after receiving a warning and it could be easily recalled if the warning turned out to be a false alarm. It could carry out a search-and-destroy mission on arrival in the target area, and it could deliver larger weapons with greater accuracy than was generally foreseen for missiles. In addition, the claim was made that it could also be useful for such purposes as "showing the flag" and serving as a high-velocity platform for launching artificial earth satellites. In this latter application, it could in theory substitute for some other non-recoverable rocket first stages, such as the Atlas or Titan booster. Because of it' enormous speed and great flight altitude and these other real and hypothetical advantages, it was sometimes called the "manned missile."

At the time the contract for building the B-70 was awarded to North American in 1957, the multistage intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, were still in a very early test phase, and the single-stage intermediate-range ballistic missiles, or IRBMs (Jupiter and Thor), had been successfully launched for the first time only months before. The first Atlas B, with all engines operating, would not be launched until some months after the B-70 program was initiated, and even then only to less than half of its intercontinental range. The guidance and control systems for these long-range missiles were also still in a very early stage of flight test. Although some of the leaders in this field, particularly Stark Draper of M.I.T.'s Instrument Laboratory, were predicting extreme accuracies down the road, it was reasonable to believe then that aircraft delivery accuracy would continue to be very significantly better than missile delivery accuracy. Hence, the B-70 received its priority go-ahead at the time when advanced technology programs generally received a friendly welcome from the Congress and the people, and when its technical competition was still in too early a development stage to offer a sufficiently convincing alternative.


By the end of l 958, though, an Atlas-D missile had reached a range of four thousand miles, and the first field test of an operational missile was conducted in September, 1959. By October, 1959, some $300 million had already been spent on the B-70, and many hundreds of millions more were scheduled to be spent during the remainder of that fiscal year (i.e., through June of 1960). The Air Force was asking for an additional $460 million for the next fiscal year. In the budget planning for fiscal year 1961, which took place as usual six to nine months before its beginning--that is, during the last three months of calendar year 1959--we pared this figure back in the Office of the Secretary of Defense to about $360 million. We then discussed this and other development programs with representatives of the Bureau of the Budget and with Dr. George B. Kistiakowsky (then the President's Special Assistant for Science and Technology), and it soon became evident that there was rising opposition in the White House staff to spending anything like these amounts on this program. In a later meeting with President Eisenhower himself at his vacation headquarters in Georgia, it was finally decided that we should cut the program all the way back to an annual level of $75 million for the fiscal year beginning July, 1960, and that we should reduce expenses immediately for the remainder of the then current fiscal year so as to reach that goal in 8 rational manner. Such a program level would allow exploratory development work on components and certain advanced subsystems, but it would eliminate the construction of any prototypes, and, of course, indefinitely postpone any deployment plans. North American Aviation received an order from the Air Force to this effect in early December of 1959.

An intense campaign to save the B-70 was immediately launched in the Congress, in the aviation and missile press, and on a wider front in the general media. All kinds of visions of potential national dangers (and, just incidentally, lost jobs) were conjured up. Carl Vinson of Georgia, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said, " . . . by cutting


back the B-70 we have increased the danger to our survival . . ." Senator Barry Goldwater, who was a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve, personally appealed the case to President Eisenhower. Senator Clair Engle, Democrat of California, and also an officer in the Air Force Reserve, characterized the cutbacks as a "blunder which may have the gravest consequences to our national security," and he claimed that the B- 70 was needed to make up for what he said was the "five-year lead of Soviet missile developments." Even so, the lower budgetary level was maintained throughout the first half of 1960.

Then, during the 1960 campaign for the Presidency, the B-70 was given a brief new lease on life. Even before the new fiscal year started, on July 1, 1960, about $60 million had been tacked onto the originally planned $75 million. This extra money was supposed to be used for development work on some of the most critical weapons subsystems; and in combination with other readjustments in the project, it was to make possible the construction of a single prototype aircraft. However, a program leading to only one prototype never made sense, and going through such a step was nothing more than an exercise in salami tactics. Thus, in August, another $20 million was added for a second plane. Then, just days before the Nixon- Kennedy election contest in November, 1960, the Department of Defense announced that it was bringing the total B-70 budget for the then current fiscal year up to $265 million. As a result of these increased funds, the number of airplanes to be built was increased to four for sure, with eight more possible, and the four were to be prototypes of a "usable weapon system." In California, the announcement of this new lease on life was accompanied by a detailed statement by North American Aviation about the recent sad history of declining employment in southern California and how these funds would change all that.

Although Nixon did carry California in 1960, Kennedy won


nationally, and the B-70's new lease on life ran out almost immediately. Shortly after the inauguration, I, along with Secretary McNamara, Jerome Wiesner, then Kennedy's science adviser, David Bell, the new Director of the Budget, and a few others, attended a meeting with the new President where the outlines of Kennedy's first defense program were developed. By the time of that meeting long-range missiles of several different types had been successfully flown, sufficient reliability and accuracy had been demonstrated, several models of missiles were already deployed, and the first Minuteman (a second-generation ICBM) had just been test-flown successfully. And, no doubt most important, the new Administration kind confirmed the claims of the prior one that the missile gap for all practical purposes did not exist and had stopped claiming that it did. As a result, the B-70 program was cut back once again, this time to one which would produce two prototype aircraft but no more. When President Kennedy announced this decision, Senator Goldwater immediately denounced it and said that it would "go down in history as one of our worst tactical blunders." Other members of the Congress, including especially some from California, made similar statements And the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion urging the Administration "to reimplement the program for mass construction of the B-70 supersonic bomber." The Board duly noted that "much of the work of constructing these bombers would be done by Los Angeles area concerns."

Over the next three years, a battle of growing intensity raged between the executive branch and the Congress over the B-70. McNamara requested an appropriation of about $200 million annually for the program and stated that his objective was to build two prototype aircraft. Characteristically, the Air Force generals made it known that that was not their objective, and the Congress, inspired especially by Chairman Carl Vinson of the Armed Services Committee, appropriated or tried


to appropriate about $300 million more per year than the Secretary of Defense requested. It also tried to convert the program to one committed to produce about two hundred so- called reconnaissance-strike bombers at a cost usually estimated by friends of the B-70 at $10 billion. It was not for naught that the generals and the admirals referred to the chairman as "Uncle Carl."

For a time the argument was raised to the level of a constitutional issue. At one point Vinson said in a speech, "What is Congress's function in defense? Is it a partner? Does it have a voice? Or is it just a Mr. Moneybags, to give or withhold funds? That's not what the Constitution says; the Constitution grants the Congress the exclusive power to raise and support and make rules for our military forces."

I think those were, in the abstract, very good questions. Unfortunately, though, the real issue was then not so much about the merits of and need for the B-70 as over the question of military versus civilian control of defense planning. It was not until years later, in the 1969 ABM debates, that the Congress got around to arguing the real merits of an important weapons system, and, in the process, declined to accept the word of either the civilian secretariat or the generals as gospel. (Like the B-70 dispute, the TFX controversy which raged during the middle sixties was largely over the issue of civilian versus military control.)

But McNamara, with the support of the President, stood his ground and refused to spend the extra funds on the B-70, even when they were fully authorized and appropriated as an integral part of the final defense budget.

The program did finally work out middling well in a technical sense. Two prototypes were built, and the first of them flew in September, 1964. In another flight a year later, a speed of Mach 3--two thousand miles per hour--was reached and maintained for two minutes during a 107-minute, 1,900-mile flight out of Edwards Air Force Base in California. One of the


two proto B-70s was destroyed in a tragic collision with an accompanying F-104 during a test flight on June 8, 1966. The other made its last flight in February, 1969, when it flew cross country to Dayton, Ohio, to take its place in a museum.

It is important to emphasize that the B-70 was not terminated because North American was not doing a good job, nor because the B-70 could not be successfully built, nor because it had none of the advantages claimed for it. Its fatal problems were two: first, the very great cost of these hypothetical advantages (250 B-70s, which is the size of the fleet the Air Force at one time considered for the 1965-1975 time period, would surely have cost well over $10 billion), and, second, the eventually clearly demonstrated successful development of intercontinental missiles. It is, however, entirely possible that at some future date, when weaknesses in our missile forces, now only dimly foreseen, become clear, a new program for an advanced manned strategic aircraft may be initiated. And it is equally possible that it may be designed to fly at Mach 3.

Nuclear Designs: Great Britain, France, and China in the Global Governance of Nuclear Arms
[Transaction Publishers, 1996]

British SSBNs

French SNLEs
Other Sites
"Comprehensive Test Ban" [28 February 1996] and a 21 June 1996 addendum on China's CTB policy. The Acheson-Lilienthal Report [16 March 1946]: Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy. Re CTB

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