Strategic Air Power In The Cold War

Two Tu-95 Bear bomber aircraft, center, and an AN-124 Condor transport aircraft of the Russian military, background, are parked on the flight line beside a B-52H Stratofortress aircraft of the 62nd Bombardment Squadron.  The Russian planes are on base as part of an exchange program proposed by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill A. McPeak.


A Russian Tupolev Tu-95 Bear parting the clouds.

Manned aircraft offered certain unique advantages. First, they possessed inherent flexibility, in that they could be launched on receipt of strategic warning and then be held in the air, diverted to airfields outside the threatened area, or recalled to base. The fact that men were aboard and in control meant that targets could be changed during flight, that moving targets or even targets of opportunity could be engaged, and that orders could be altered or countermanded. Also, unlike with SSBNs, there were excellent communications between the command centres and the airfields, and between the ground and the aircraft. Finally, the bomber-delivered gravity bomb was the most accurate of any nuclear delivery system.

Among their disadvantages, however, was the bombers’ vulnerability to air defences and their absolute dependence on airfields with large runways and extensive maintenance facilities. Every airfield capable of taking strategic aircraft was known to both sides throughout the Cold War, and there can be no doubt that they were primary targets for both conventional and nuclear strikes.

At the start of the Cold War all that the strategic bomber had to do was to fly high and reasonably fast to reach its target, and even if it was picked up by enemy radar there was little that the enemy could do about it. Thus, throughout the late 1940s and most of the 1950s, bombers of Strategic Air Command could quite safely overfly almost anywhere on earth, since anti-aircraft guns could not fire high enough and contemporary fighters’ ceilings were too low to threaten them. That changed, however, in the mid/late 1950s as the performance of Soviet fighters improved, and in particular when they were fitted with airborne radar, enabling them to find and track targets in the dark and in bad weather. At first, bombers sought to counter this by flying even higher and faster, but then yet better fighters and in particular the fielding of air-defence missile systems caused different solutions to be sought.

The advantages offered by bombers over missiles depended upon the aircraft getting airborne in the first place, and in the worst-case situation of an ‘out-of-the-blue’ missile attack the bombers might only receive some seventeen minutes’ warning in the USA (less if the missiles were launched from Yankee-class SSBNs off the US coast) and four minutes in western Europe. Western bombers were therefore placed on a high-readiness status, known as Quick Reaction Alert (QRA). In the UK’s V-force, for example, this was introduced in early 1962 and involved one aircraft in each squadron being at fifteen minutes’ notice twenty-four hours per day, 365 days per year. Bomber Command stipulated that, apart from the aircraft on QRA, 30 per cent of the available aircraft (i.e. those not on major servicing or overseas) should be ready to deploy after four hours, rising to 100 per cent after twenty hours.1

Bomber fleets are almost always listed by total numbers, but this is misleading and nothing like that number would have reached the target in an unexpected crisis. A proportion would always have been in deep maintenance or rebuild, while others would have been simply unserviceable at the time they were required. In addition, it was not unknown for major problems to be discovered en route to the holding position which would prevent the aircraft proceeding to its target. Finally, at least some would have been either shot down or damaged by air-defence missiles, fighters and, on low-level missions, anti-aircraft artillery.

Bomber designers and the tacticians fought an unending war against the potential defenders in an effort to ensure that the bomber would get through to its targets. In the late 1940s the major threat came from radar-directed anti-aircraft guns, which had reached a considerable degree of sophistication, and the bombers’ first response was simply to fly higher than the effective ceiling of the guns. The next threat was air-defence fighters, and here again the bombers responded by flying higher and faster – there were numerous reports of British and US reconnaissance flights over the USSR in the early 1950s in which the Soviet fighters simply could not reach the same altitude as the intruder.

Second World War bombers were fitted with machine-guns in a variety of positions – including the nose, the waist, above and below the fuselage, and the tail – but these were rapidly reduced to just the tail, the elimination of the others saving considerable weight and enabling the aircraft to fly higher and faster. Also in the Second World War, bombers had been escorted by fighters, particularly on the USAAF’s daylight raids; but the strategic ranges now being flown were far in excess of anything a fighter could undertake. So in the 1950s the US air force trialled the idea of the B-36 bomber taking a fighter with it, with the latter being carried on a retractable cradle from which it could be launched in mid-air to deal with enemy fighters, then being recovered for the return to base. A special miniature fighter, the McDonnell XF-85 Goblin, was tested, as was the RF-84K, a modified version of the full-size F-84 Thunderjet fighter, but, although launching proved feasible, recovery did not, and the idea was not pursued.

Electronic countermeasures (ECM) were always used, becoming increasingly sophisticated as time passed. Thus electronic jamming was used to confuse enemy radars, as was ‘chaff’ (strips of metal foil cut to the wavelength of the radar), which was dropped in large quantities, either by the bomber or by specialized escorting aircraft.

One of the earliest devices to help the bomber get through was the US air force’s ADM-20 Quail, which resembled a miniature unmanned aircraft and was dropped over enemy territory, where it flew for some 400 km, using its on-board ECM devices to confuse the enemy as to the strength, direction and probable targets of the incoming bomber force. A maximum of three Quails could be carried by a B-52, and the device was in service from 1962 to 1979.

The main emphasis then turned to stand-off missiles – a concept which, like so many others, had its genesis in Germany, where V-1 missiles had been launched from Heinkel He-111 bombers in 1944–5. The Cold War missiles carried a nuclear warhead and were designed to be launched from the bomber while still outside the range of the enemy air defences. One of the first was the US Hound Dog – a slim missile with small delta wings, and powered by a turbojet – which entered service in 1961. Two Hound Dogs, each with a 1 MT nuclear warhead, were carried beneath the wings of a B-52. The missile could be set to fly at any height between about 50 m and 16,000 m, and had a range at high level of 1,140 km, less at low level. The guidance system was capable of high- or low-level approach, with dog-legs and jinxes to confuse the defence.

Next came the unhappy saga of Skybolt, which was an attempt to use a bomber to launch a ballistic missile, which would have given longer range and, of greater importance, a much shorter flight time. The UK air force joined the project, but the incoming Kennedy administration unilaterally cancelled it in December 1961 – greatly to the indignation of the British, who used the issue as a lever to obtain Polaris missiles and SSBN technology to replace its V-force bombers.

The Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM), which entered service in 1972, was a rocket-propelled missile with a 170 kT nuclear warhead and a speed of Mach 3. SRAMs could fly either a semi-ballistic, a terrain-following or an ‘under-the-radar’ flight profile, the latter terminating in a pull-up and high-angle dive on to the target. The range depended on the height, and was from 56 km at low level to 170 km at high level. B-52s normally carried twenty SRAMs, while the FB-111A carried six and the B-1B twenty-four.

The Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) entered service with the US air force in 1982. This weapon had folding wings which extended when it was dropped from the carrier aircraft, and was powered by a small turbojet engine. Designed exclusively for low-level flight, the ALCM used a radar altimeter to maintain height and a map-matching process known as terrain comparison (TerCom) to give very precise navigation. The nuclear-armed version (AGM-96B) had a 200 kT warhead, a CEP of 30 m and a range of some 2,500 km. The AGM-96C was conventionally armed, with a high-explosive warhead, and this version demonstrated its effectiveness and accuracy when thirty-five were launched by B-52s during the Gulf War. B-52s could carry up to twelve and B-1Bs twenty-four.

Soviet stand-off missile development followed a similar pattern and time-scale, although in the early stages of the Cold War the missiles tended to be much larger and less effective than their US counterparts. Indeed, the first missile designed for use by strategic bombers, the AS-3 (NATO = ‘Kangaroo’) remains the largest air-launched missile to go into service, with a length of some 15 m, a wingspan of 9 m and a weight of 11,000 kg; only one could be carried by a Tu-95 (Bear-B). It did, however, have a useful range (650 km) and a high speed (Mach 2), and with an 800 kT warhead it was targeted against large area targets such as cities and ports.

The AS-15 (NATO = ‘Kent’) was much smaller and generally similar in size, performance and role to the US Tomahawk; sixteen could be carried by the Tu-95 Bear-B and twelve by the Tu-160 Blackjack. It carried a 200 kT nuclear warhead and flew at high subsonic speeds over a range of some 3,000 km at a height of 200 m, with an accuracy (CEP) of 150 m.


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