A LearnWorld Text

Race to Oblivion

A Participant's View of the Arms Race

Herbert F. York

Chapter 4: THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE


Information

CONTENTS 5

CONTENTS
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
PART ONE: TOWARD A BALANCE OF TERROR10The Defense Delusion188
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
6Sputnik106

4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 60

4

THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE

The story of the nuclear airplane is entirely different from the story of the B-70, and a review of that ill-starred program can reveal a great deal about some of the basic forces that drive the arms race. The idea of the nuclear airplane dates back to the waning days of World War II and involves a wedding of two of the technologies which burst forth on the world in the early forties: jet propulsion and nuclear power.

An ordinary jet engine, such as those which propel the large commercial transport aircraft of today, is, in principle, a fairly simple and straightforward device. Air is taken in through a scoop at the front end, compressed by a fan and then mixed with fuel. This mixture then burns and heats itself and in so doing greatly increases its pressure. It then pushes its way toward the rear end of the jet, turning a turbine in the process and finally being exhausted at high speed through a nozzle, giving the aircraft a push in the opposite direction. The turbine extracts some of the energy from the heated air and uses it to drive the compressor fan. The power plant for a nuclear aircraft is, in principle, very similar. Instead of heating the air by mixing kerosene or gasoline with it and then burning the mixture, the air is heated by the energy produced in a nuclear reactor. There are two basic schemes for accomplishing this. In one scheme the air passes directly through the reactor itself


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 61

and is heated on direct contact with fuel elements consisting of uranium metal which has been clad or "canned" in some suitable material. In the other, heat is removed from the reactor by some intermediate fluid (such as liquid sodium) and taken to another heat transfer unit (crudely similar to an ordinary automobile radiator), where it is transferred from the intermediate fluid to the air, and then the intermediate fluid (the radiator water in an auto) goes back to the reactor for more heat. The first of these schemes is called the direct cycle, and the second is called the indirect cycle.

Work on the nuclear airplane began at an annual rate of $1.3 million in fiscal 1946 and grew steadily to $8.3 million in fiscal 1951. At first only Air Force funds were involved, but by 1949 the AEC had a major piece of the action, which it kept through the end of the program in 1961. The Navy was also involved, but only to a much smaller degree. From the beginning the program had an unusually stormy career. In addition to being beleaguered by extremely difficult technical problems, it was surrounded by political controversy and buffeted by various political power struggles. The program budget oscillated; decisions for early flight of one kind or another were made and quickly rescinded; the AEC concerned itself with what was the Defense Department's business and vice versa; the JCAE, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, repeatedly tried to usurp the prerogatives of the executive branch; and through it all the Air Staff and certain major contractors tried to exploit every little bit of confusion and animosity that arose.

Research on the project was begun by the Fairchild Engine and Aircraft Company in 1946 under the rubric of NEPA (Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft). In the next two years, a series of committees urged the project on with glowing testimonials to its importance and optimistic predictions about its possibilities. The Research and Development Board of the Defense Department recommended that it pro-


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 62

ceed on a priority basis under the supervision of the board and the AEC. The Congressional Aviation Policy Board reported to Congress that NEPA deserved "the highest priority in atomic-energy research and development." An M. 1. T. report commissioned by the AEC contended that the nuclear aircraft was feasible and could probably be achieved within fifteen years. (All the early laboratory work and virtually all the theoretical studies were focused on the direct-cycle approach. This was more straightforward and seemed then to offer the surest means for flight in the foreseeable future. Research work on the indirect cycle was not undertaken until 1954.)

Such optimism was not borne out by the initial findings of the researchers. A number of very difficult problems very soon became evident. It turned out that there were then no materials available which would (1) stand up to the high-intensity nuclear radiation which necessarily existed throughout the interior of the reactor, (2) resist corrosion by the very hot air which passed through the reactor at great speed, and (3) be guaranteed not to leak any of the highly radioactive fission products into the exhaust airstream.

It also soon became painfully clear that there was a very difficult shielding problem. As with other high-power nuclear reactors, it was necessary to surround this one with a heavy shield in order to protect the pilots, and any instruments or other cargo which the airplane might be carrying, from the intense radiation always generated by these devices. The shielding problem is especially difficult in this case because the shield must be light enough to be flown and because it must be pierced in such a way as to allow large masses of air to pass through it at high speed without creating too large a radiation leak.

A third, very basic set of problems was related to potential operating hazards such as would obviously be associated with a crash landing of such an airplane or even with lesser accidents. While most of the intellectual effort devoted to solving


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 63

these problems was of the usual serious and straightforward kind, occasionally some bizarre proposals arose. One which was discussed quite seriously was that older men (i.e., men beyond the usual age for begetting children) should be used as pilots so that genetic damage from radiation would be held at a minimum and because older people are generally more resistant to radiation than younger ones.

However, these problems did not daunt those who wanted to have a nuclear plane in flight as soon as possible. At the end of 1950 the Defense Department recommended that the project aim to put a subsonic aircraft in the air in 1956 or 1957. The project passed from feasibility studies into the development phase. The General Electric Company was commissioned to develop a propulsion plant (using the direct cycle), and General Dynamics was contracted to conduct the "flying testbed" program with the aim of achieving a first flight by 1957. The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, which eventually held more than thirty-six hearings on the subject, soon became the most vigorous and vocal supporter of the early-flight scheme. It insisted that the Air Force support the program on a massive scale, sufficient to insure success, or abandon it entirely.

The political pressure to put a plane in flight as soon as possible eventually proved fatal to the program. The part of the program which was supposed to develop reactor materials had by no means reached the point where it could be certain of coming up with something suitable. By demanding that a flight reactor be designed immediately regardless of whether anyone knew how to do so, the politicians and bureaucrats severely inhibited real progress in this vital area. As I will argue, politicians should in general take a strong role in weighing the over-all value of technological programs. But in this particular case, politicians insisted on meddling deeply in the strictly technical elements of the program, and the practically inevitable result was a serious retardation.


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 64

In July of 1952 the AEC and the Defense Department announced plans for a flight test of a nuclear-propulsion system between 1956 and 1958 which would use a modified conventional airplane as a "testbed." By then it was widely apparent that no one knew how to build a nuclear engine that could propel an aircraft on its own, but rather than go back to the drawing board the directors bullheadedly insisted on flying something anyway, even if the new device was little more than a passenger in a conventionally powered aircraft.

After Eisenhower's inauguration, all major development programs were reevaluated, including what was by then known as ANP (Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion), and for a while it looked as if good sense might prevail. In March, 1953, an ad hoc committee of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board recommended cutting the program back fifty percent, on the ground that the production activities were premature in the light of the slow rate of progress in research. The following month the National Security Council urged that the program be canceled entirely. Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson issued orders to that effect, calling the nuclear airplane a "shitepike." The "flying testbed" program was terminated, along with most of the work on the direct-cycle propulsion system, and the program was reoriented toward basic research.

Yet only seven months later the ANP enthusiasts were back in action. The Air Force repeatedly told the AEC that it was once again interested in the ANP and asked it to expedite the experimental work. In April, 1954, the director of the ANP project, Air Force General Donald Keirn, claimed that the nuclear-propelled aircraft could be put in flight in half the time originally foreseen, if it were given high priority. The JCAE immediately called for a "crash effort" on the program. At the same time the Pratt and Whitney Corporation was commissioned to begin research on an indirect-cycle propulsion system.


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 65

In early 1955, the AEC reported that progress on the direct-cycle system had surpassed expectations and authorized additional funds for it. The Defense Department and the AEC agreed to accelerate the program, with the objective of testing a prototype propulsion plant about 1959. The Air Force insisted that this was a realistic goal. Competition for airframe studies was opened, and General Electric and Pratt and Whitney were directed to proceed with their work on the propulsion systems.

The Joint Committee continued to receive optimistic predictions from the Air Force. In June, 1956, General Curtis LeMay then commander of SAC, testified that an early flight by a nuclear aircraft was both necessary and possible. The following month, General Keirn told the committee that a ground test of a propulsion system would be possible in 1959, with a flight the following year.

But a review of the technical progress in the program and subsequent budget cuts by the Defense Department led to postponing the flight target date by eighteen months. In December an experimental reactor operated a turbojet in a laboratory for several hours, but not at a temperature suitable for flight propulsion. The accelerated flight program was again canceled, and the research efforts were cut back.

After reviewing the matter, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board recommended again that less emphasis be put on designing the plane until a suitable reactor had been developed, but the Joint Committee continued to urge the earliest possible flight. Deputy Defense Secretary Donald Quarles agreed with the Air Force Advisory Board that no date should be set for flight until the reactor had been developed. This was an eminently sensible conclusion in my view, but it was not to the liking of the Joint Committee, which continued in letters and testimony to insist to the Defense Department on the importance of immediate flight. In May, 1957, another advisory board, chaired by Air Force General William Canterbury, rec-


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 66

ommended that a low-level nuclear plane be developed. The reason for specifying a low-level plane was simple: no one knew how to design a reactor suitable for any other kind of flight. Anxious to hold back the budget as much as possible, some Administration officials fought the project, but the Joint Committee, backed up by still another advisory- committee report and a letter from Air Force Secretary James H. Douglas`, fought for it. In July, Secretary Quarles relented and approved a program aiming at a test flight in the mid-sixties.

As usual during such periods of political buffeting, little technical progress was made. The date for the test flight was again put off, and complaints were heard that Pratt and Whitney could not carry on adequate research on the indirect cycle effectively without more funds.

At this point the first Sputnik went into orbit, and the Sputnik psychology affected the ANP program just as it did all other high- technology projects. Representative Melvin Price, Chairman of the Research and Development Subcommittee of the JCAE, wrote President Eisenhower that an early flight program was desirable both for military reasons and as a psychological victory to counteract the effects of Sputnik. The AEC recommended that early flight of a nuclear plane be pursued as a means of increasing American scientific prestige in the post-Sputnik era. The Air Force and several Defense Department officials threw their support to the direct-cycle propulsion system in hopes that flight could be achieved as soon as possible, this time suggesting the early sixties as a flight goal.

Eisenhower requested his science adviser, James Killian, to investigate the recommendations, and Killian appointed Robert Bacher to chair a study committee on the matter. The Bacher Committee reiterated the earlier recommendation against accelerating an early flight program and urged that the ANP effort concentrate on developing a suitable reactor. The President expressed agreement with this view. But General


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 67

Keirn, the Joint Committee, and Congressional ANP proponents attacked the Bacher report and continued to press their case.

When I became Director of Defense Research and Engineering in 1958, by the terms of the position, the ANP program would have come under my jurisdiction; but because of the long, difficult, contentious history of the program, Deputy Secretary Quarles chose to continue himself in direct charge while I was beginning to take up my other responsibilities.

As a result of lack of progress and negative reports on the project, Quarles backed away from his July, 1957 position approving a test flight in the mid-sixties. He continued to maintain this new position despite strong pressures from the Air Force, the AEC, and the Joint Committee, and in the face of very strong lobbying on the part of the larger contractors. A few months later, Quarles died suddenly and I assumed responsibility for overseeing the program. (The claim was made shortly after Quarles's death that at a meeting in the afternoon before he died he had had a change of mind and had told someone that he wanted to go ahead with a flight vehicle. Unfortunately, Quarles made no written record of this. I was at the meeting; I recall he was beginning to yield to the enormous pressures being applied in favor of early flight, but I do not believe he had quite yet finally decided what to do.)

After carefully reviewing the program with Arthur T. Biehl and others on my staff, I determined that the program objectives for the immediate future should be to (a)) continue the development of only such reactors and power plants as would be suitable for militarily useful nuclear flight, (b) increase the effort on the indirect-cycle program so as to determine its potentialities at an earlier date than previously contemplated; and (c) defer initiation of a specific flight program until one of the advanced power plants was established as feasible and potentially useful, and until a flight program could be insti-


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 68

tuted without seriously interfering with the development of militarily useful power plants.

This decision was very poorly received by those who wanted to "go full steam ahead, damn the technical minutiae," and in the following general questioning by committee members 1 was very closely cross-examined about my views. The hearings were especially remarkable in that the heads of the contractor programs, D. Shoults of the General Electric Corporation, B. A. Schmickrath of the Pratt and Whitney Corporation, and Andrew Kalitinsky of the Convair Corporation, were also brought in to testify. Shoults and Schmickrath presented prepared statements to the committee, and all three responded to the general questioning of the committee members. To put it simply, Mr. Shoults was there specifically for the purpose of rebutting some of the government witnesses and to testify in behalf of expanding a program which he managed and for which his corporation was receiving approximately $100 million per year.

A more intensive, continuing review of the program in the course of next year revealed that during all this political maneuvering, while there had been substantial progress in the rate of spending money, there had been precious little progress toward solving the basic problems which had been recognized by 1948, well over a decade earlier. After all that time and effort, there were still no materials available with which a useful propulsion reactor unit could be built, the problem of crew and cargo shielding had still not been satisfactorily solved, and potential hazards to the public associated with potential accidents of various kinds were still as bad as ever. The kind of airplane that could perhaps be built and the kinds of uses to which the airplane could conceivably be put appeared to be of no value at all. It was claimed that if we would only build such an airplane and get on with the flight program, somehow in due course these problems would be solved. However, since over ten years of intensive laboratory work by some


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 69

pretty good people had failed to make any real progress at all on these problems, we saw no reason to believe that exposing the reactor prototype then under construction to still more hostile environments (vibrations, etc.) would be useful in solving them.

Therefore, just as the Eisenhower administration was coming to a close, we (my staff and I) determined to terminate further work on the direct cycle and to continue only fairly fundamental work on the indirect cycle at Pratt and Whitney at a level of approximately $25 million per year. I reported all of this to Secretary Gates, but, since it was so late, he suggested that I talk it over with the incoming secretariat. I then discussed the whole matter with Roswell Gilpatric, the Deputy Secretary of Defense designate, and also with Jerome Wiesner, who was about to become President Kennedy's Special Assistant for Science and Technology. If there was any difference between Wiesner's views and mine, he felt more negatively about the program, and, as a result, ANP was canceled in the first months of the Kennedy administration. More precisely, it was not totally canceled: research in the indirect cycle at Pratt and Whitney, essentially along the lines of my earlier recommendation to Secretary Gates, was in fact continued, but under a different rubric.

All during the last two years of the life of this program, the public was bombarded by scare stories and by self-serving intelligence revelations about how the Soviets were just on the verge of accomplishing an ANP of their own and about how dreadful it would be for us if we didn't have one, too. Representative Melvin Price, Chairman of the JCAE subcommittee holding the hearings, commented on "the shattering impact of Russia's Sputniks last fall" and said:

it became evident that we could ill-afford another humiliating psychological defeat in the eyes of the world. Our views were reinforced by our talks with


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 70

Russian scientists in Moscow last fall, who confirmed that the Soviets were, indeed, pursuing a vigorous development program for a nuclear-powered aircraft.

Later, in the letter to President Eisenhower, Congressman Price wrote: ". . . recent events including the launching of an earth satellite by the Soviet Union have lent urgency to the long-standing need for the United States to develop a flying capability in the field of nuclear-propelled aircraft.,'

Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia said in a television statement:

The report that the Russians have test-flown an atomic-powered aircraft is an ominous new threat to world peace, and yet another blow to the prestige and security of our nation and the free world. It follows in tragic sequence the Russian success of last fall in launching the first earth satellite. If the report is true, it means that we are today faced with a new weapon of terrifying consequences. A plane powered by nuclear energy could have practically unlimited range and load capacity and therefore would be a weapon of incalculable danger to us.

General Keirn (who headed the ANP office) said in a speech, "This emphasis [in the last year] on technical progress has resulted in many suggested proposals to accelerate the ANP program in an effort to beat the Russians to first nuclear flight." In another speech General Keirn said:

I'm sure each of you is aware of and appreciates the seriousness of any potential threat to our seacoast military installations and industrial and population centers posed by a large enemy submarine


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 71

fleet. Imagine in addition to this a fleet of "enemy" high-speed aircraft continuously patrolling the air space just outside our early-warning net capable of air-launching a devastating missile attack followed by high- speed penetration or attack against our hardened installations.

A letter from an employee of one of the contractors was published by the Joint Committee in the record of the hearing; it said:

I believe that an overwhelming majority of American citizens would prefer to be absolutely sure that the amount of national defense available is adequate for security rather than risk even a momentary period of potential collapse in retaliatory deterrent. The nuclear aircraft program can help prevent this potential collapse.

The December 1, 1958, issue of Aviation Week carried a signed editorial which said:

On page 28 of this issue we are publishing the first account of Soviet nuclear powered bomber prototype along with engineering sketches in as much detail as available data permits. Appearance of this nuclear powered military prototype comes as a sickening shock to the many dedicated U. S. Air Force and Naval aviation officers, Atomic Energy Commission technicians, and industry engineers who have been working doggedly on our own nuclear aircraft propulsion program despite financial starvations, scientific scoffing and top level indifference, for once again the Soviets have beaten us needlessly to a significant technical punch.


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 72

The story on page 28, datelined Washington and entitled "Soviets Flight Testing Nuclear Bomber," stated flatly:

A nuclear powered bomber is being flight tested in the Soviet Union. Completed about six months ago, this aircraft has been observed both in flight and on the ground by a wide variety of foreign observers from communist and non-communist countries.

There followed all kinds of purported details and even some sketches in which large red stars showed plainly in the side view and the top view of the aircraft. The story ended:

As long as a year ago there were brief but specific mentions in the Soviet technical press of successful ground testing of atomic aircraft power plants. Recent speculative stories in the Soviet popular press suggest conditioning the Russian people to an announcement of a spectacular achievement by an atomic powered airplane in the near future, probably a non-stop non- fueled flight around the world.

This steady flow of phony "intelligence" came from the missile press, from Congressional sources, from industrial sources, and from the lower levels of the Air Force. General Keirn himself did not specifically claim that he had solid evidence of a Russian program. Rather, in response to a question from Senator Anderson in the hearings referred to earlier, he said only, "I have an intuitive feeling myself that they [the Russians are quite well along the road." He was then asked (and this was 1959) whether he felt there was any possibility of a Russian nuclear-propelled airplane within two years, and he replied, "I think there is a possibility of it."

President Eisenhower, who, of course, had all intelligence


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 73

information available to him, as well as the best possible interpretations of that information, said on December 10, 1958, "There is absolutely no intelligence to back up a report that Russia is flight-testing an atomic-powered plane." Today it is guise obvious that no such nuclear aircraft ever existed ;in the Soviet Union and that stories to that effect were simply one more very clear and very obvious loose attempt to generate what may be called self-serving intelligence, something which can be found again and again in other debates over weapons systems. At the time, the true nature of this "intelligence" was not at all obvious, even to fairly well-informed people, and those of us who had all the facts in the matter and who knew there was no real basis for any of these claims were hamstrung in any attempts we made to deal with them by the secrecy which always surrounds real intelligence information. I do not mean by any of the foregoing that intelligence- type information was deliberately or maliciously falsified. Indeed, if that had been the case, the Administration's problem in dealing with the matter would have had a simple solution: expose the falsifiers. Rather, what happened was that isolated facts and rumors were assembled, and then analyzed and interpreted by zealous amateurs until the result was almost pure wishful thinking and self- delusion. And since the recipients of these phony intelligence analyses were very frequently as eager and as predisposed to believe them as were their purveyors, it was extremely difficult to deal effectively with them.

The story of the ANP, it seems to me, provides a classic illustration of some of the forces that drive the arms race onward. It involves partisan politics: Congress was controlled by the Democrats, the White House by the Republicans. It provides a classic example of the exploitation of the fears and anxieties of the public through the use of imaginary "intelligence." It shows how sincere people who badly want to be misled can easily mislead themselves: the so-called intelligence that was used as one of the arguments in support of a crash


4. THE ELUSIVE NUCLEAR AIRPLANE 74

program by our side was based in part on technical articles which really did appear in the Soviet press about possible uses of atomic energy, including application of nuclear propulsion to aircraft. These articles were strictly theoretical, but it was quite easy for persons who wanted to believe that the Russians were ahead, to believe it with passion. The ANP story shows how an industrial organization, in this case General Electric, does not merely do what the government asks it to do, but rather works very hard through all possible channels to make sure that the government asks it to do what it wants to do in the first place. It shows how military advocates of programs, especially programs involving more than one agency, attempt to take advantage of all the internal rivalries and tensions which exist in order to find a successful path for the accomplishment of what they--very sincerely, to be sure--believe to be essential, and which they therefore believe justifies the use of any tactics to ensure that administrators will not be able "to put the budget ahead of survival."


NUCLEAR POLICY STUDIES: GRAPHICS & TEXTS: LINKS:
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

NEWCOMER'S GUIDE TO LearnWorld:SAMPLE TOPICS:DOWNLOAD:
LearnWorld Explained FAQ Bosnia War Theory Templates


KRUSE-LARKIN HOME PAGE: GRAPHICS: LINKS:
Our Home Page Our Home

Please direct comments and corrections by email to Bruce D. Larkin, who has prepared this page.