The “New Look” US Military 1952-53 II


B-47B using JATO bottles to reduce takeoff distance.

More military miracles occurred in the cloistered Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories of the Atomic Energy Commission. In less than a decade after the first fusion explosion, nuclear scientists and engineers discovered ways to reduce dramatically the size of nuclear weapons. The first fusion device had been 22 feet long; the nuclear warhead for the Army’s Davy Crockett mortar was only 2 feet long and 12 inches in diameter. The redesign of the gun-type trigger and the use of extremely dense metal alloys permitted chain reactions with diminishing amounts of radioactive material. At a time when the published minimal amount of radioactive material for a weapon was around 50 pounds, the real minimum was probably around 12 pounds of plutonium and 22 pounds of enriched uranium. Smaller warheads meant a wider variety of delivery vehicles—ground- and air-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, depth charges, torpedoes, artillery shells, rockets, and mines. Behind the imprecise rhetoric of “massive retaliation” rested an awesome fact: The United States could manufacture literally thousands of nuclear warheads for its armed forces. Between 1953 and 1959 the number of warheads soared from 1,161 to 12,305.

The flood of nuclear weapons into America’s arsenal did not exhaust the military efforts to blunt the Soviet threat, for both the Air Force and Army searched for ways to create an effective air-defense system. The search was expensive and frustrating. As one Air Force chief of staff mused, “active air defense is a can of worms.” No one knew precisely how much the Defense Department put into air defense, but the figure probably reached $40 billion for the 1950s. When the Russian threat appeared to be a bomber strike, the air-defense planners managed to win sufficient funds for a plausible system, but the bureaucratic battle between the services for the mission gave air defense a sour flavor. In 1956 Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson ruled that the Air Force would handle area air defense, the Army point air defense. The decision National Photographic Interpretation Center became a key intelligence agency. In 1960 the Russians, outraged by the overflights, brought down a U-2 with an air-defense missile. Amid an international furor, Eisenhower canceled the overflights.

The administration had other collection means near at hand to replace the U-2. Eisenhower’s scientific advisers, especially James R. Killian Jr., and the Air Force’s research and development community joined forces with the CIA to win funding for reconnaissance satellites. Receiving high-priority funding after 1955, the satellite reconnaissance program produced an effective satellite equipped with high-resolution cameras from the Polaroid Corporation. Finding an adequate launch booster proved more difficult, in part because of bureaucratic competition within the armed forces, CIA, and the aerospace industry. To direct the satellite programs, Eisenhower authorized the creation of the National Reconnaissance Office in 1959 under the general supervision of the Air Force. By the end of 1960 the first satellite system was in operation. Through British intelligence, the CIA also in 1960 recruited a disaffected colonel in Soviet military intelligence, Oleg Penkovsky, who provided significant details about Soviet missile programs. In short, the administration’s technical means of intelligence collection, supplemented by Penkovsky, gave it a clearer picture of the Soviet threat than it could admit to its critics for fear of compromising its sources.

The slim flow of hard data on Soviet aviation and missile development in the 1950s encouraged the Air Force to exaggerate the growth of Russia’s strategic forces. The debate on the Soviet threat might have been contained to a dispute between the NSC staff, CIA, and the Air Force except for the fact that national security had become tempting partisan politics. Four Democratic senators with presidential ambitions—Lyndon B. Johnson, Henry Jackson, Stuart Symington, and John F. Kennedy—made sure that the New Look became a campaign issue. The first conflict was the “bomber gap” affair of 1954–1956. Using exaggerated assessments of Soviet aircraft productivity, supported by an alarmist count of an “Air Force Day” bomber flyover, Air Force experts projected that the Russian heavy-bomber force would grow from around 50 to 800 by 1961. Although this prediction receded by 1957 to a realistic prediction of around 200 bombers, the bomber gap affair left the impression that the United States faced a threat its air-defense system could not meet. The alarm became panic in 1957 when the Soviets used a liquid-fueled SS-6 missile to place a Sputnik satellite in earth orbit. Sputnik surprised intelligence experts, who did not expect the SS-6 to be operational before 1960. The next CIA estimate in 1958 was that the Soviets could deploy a force of 500 ICBMs by 1961. The “missile gap” set off another round of recrimination and criticism of “massive retaliation” and the New Look.

The Eisenhower administration pointed with pride to Strategic Air Command as the centerpiece of American defense. During the New Look, SAC adopted new aircraft and the nuclear weapons, expanded its base system, and improved its communications. In 1954 SAC’s bomber force numbered about 1,000 B-36s and B-47s. By 1960 this force had increased to almost 2,000 bombers. Although the B-47 remained the backbone of SAC despite its range limitations, SAC supplemented it with 500 new bombers—the Boeing B-52. Operational in 1955, the B-52, loved by its crews for its dependability and handling ease, gave SAC the intercontinental jet bomber it wanted. To reduce its vulnerability, SAC placed 20 percent of its bombers on strip alert (1957–1960), then extended this program to airborne alert. SAC also continued to expand its base system to confuse Russian planners. Its continental bases increased from thirty-seven (1954) to forty-six (1960); its overseas bases climbed in the same period from fourteen to twenty.

The deterrent monopoly of SAC’s bombers, however, eroded under the pressure of three developments: Soviet air defenses and ICBMs, civilian scrutiny of strategic deterrence and force structure, and interservice actually reversed the services’ interests, for the Air Force wanted point air defense of SAC bases, while the Army argued that sufficient numbers of its “Nike” family of conventional and nuclear surface-to-air missiles could provide effective area air defense if assisted by Air Force supersonic interceptors. The growth of the Air Force’s own air-defense missile program, Bomarc, complicated the issue, which was then further confused when it became apparent that the threat would come from ICBMs, not bombers. The Army argued that a new missile, Nike-Zeus, could intercept ballistic warheads. The Air Force, however, wanted rapid development of a satellite-based air-defense system. The only clear area of agreement was that the nation needed a better warning system, and the administration started work on the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) in 1957.

As the nation’s nuclear forces proliferated, defense planners became increasingly aware that they had no single plan for using these forces should deterrence fail. More important, it had become difficult to judge the relative utility of SAC’s bombers and missiles compared to the Navy’s carrier aircraft and SLBMs against the targets they had to threaten to make deterrence credible. A gnawing sense of costly redundancy plagued defense analysts. In 1960 Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates created the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) and charged it with building one plan from SAC’s “Emergency War Plan” and the Navy’s comparable documents. In part the JSTPS had to reconcile two different visions of nuclear deterrence. The Navy stressed the importance of holding Soviet cities hostage; the Air Force argued that Soviet strategic forces should be the primary targets, a position that meant that warhead numbers and accuracies should expand in proportion to an ever-increasing number of Soviet military targets. When the JSTPS produced its first “Single Integrated Operational Plan” (SIOP) in 1961, the plan continued the Air Force emphasis on targeting Soviet nuclear forces. Russian war-related industry and its Warsaw Pact ground and air forces received lesser priority. In reality a SIOP strike would have also devastated many Soviet metropolitan areas, so “finite” or “countervalue” city-threatening deterrence might be assumed. No planner could predict what level of threat would really deter the Soviets.

The Eisenhower administration did not view the New Look’s deterrent programs as the only method to assure the nation’s security, for the United States might profit from international arms control agreements. The major issues the administration addressed were nuclear proliferation, surprise attack, and testing. In December 1953 Eisenhower proposed that the peaceful use of nuclear power be encouraged by international cooperation and monitored by an international organization, eventually created as the International Atomic Energy Agency (1957). While such an arrangement could encourage the construction of nuclear power plants, it might also inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons. The administration believed that nuclear power projects would absorb much of the world’s uranium supply; new uranium discoveries confounded this hope. Inhibited by its fear of international verification, the Soviet Union slowed the UN-sponsored talks. The same problems impeded Eisenhower’s second arms control initiative, the “Open Skies” proposal of July 1955. Concerned about the threat of a surprise first strike, Eisenhower proposed that reconnaissance overflights be protected by international agreement. When the United Nations proved uninterested in the proposal, the United States and the U.S.S.R. opened bilateral negotiations, which produced no agreement on aircraft overflights but tacitly accepted the future deployment of reconnaissance satellites.

The prospect of nuclear proliferation, plus growing evidence that atmospheric testing created health hazards, persuaded the administration to pursue UN talks on restricting nuclear tests. Once more the United States and the U.S.S.R. divided on the timing and extent of verification procedures. By 1958 the talks had shifted to international scientific meetings on the technical problems of detecting nuclear explosions. These meetings concluded that all but deep underground tests could be unambiguously identified, and seismograph experts believed they could soon tell the difference between an earthquake and even a small (20-kiloton) nuclear explosion. Frustrated by the complexities imposed by United Nations negotiations, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union pursued the talks on a trilateral basis in 1959 and within a year drafted a treaty banning atmospheric and water testing. The U-2 incident stalled the talks in 1960, but the United States and the Soviet Union stood on the threshold of their first major arms control agreement. As France and Communist China were quick to point out, the test ban imposed greater handicaps on the nonnuclear powers than the United States and Russia, but the limited test ban at least cleared the air of radioactivity, if not of international distrust. These negotiations introduced a new element in the U.S.-U.S.S.R. arms competition by suggesting that the risk of nuclear war might be reduced by agreement.

The growth and diversification of American and Russian strategic forces, paired with the administration’s cautious arms control initiatives, popularized deterrence theory, developed largely by civilian writers. The accumulated effect of the civilians’ analysis was to question the simple vision of deterrence by city-threatening retaliation inherent in massive retaliation. The Gaither Committee report was but one of a series of skeptical studies. Asked to examine SAC basing, the RAND Corporation questioned bombers’ survivability and stressed the importance of invulnerable, nonprovocative second-strike weapons capable, if necessary, of destroying Soviet strategic forces. The doctrine of “counterforce-no cities” emerged in additional RAND analyses, a report by the secretary of defense’s Weapons Systems Evaluation Group, some Air Force studies, and an open study of defense policy sponsored by the prestigious Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The president’s Scientific Advisory Committee became part of the coalition of strategic revisionists, and within the military Army Chief of Staff Maxwell D. Taylor found common cause with the scientist-engineers and social scientists who emerged as the principal theorists. Among the latter were Bernard Brodie, Albert J. Wohlstetter, William W. Kaufmann, Paul Nitze, Henry Kissinger, Charles Hitch, Henry S. Rowen, and Herman Kahn.

The civilian “defense intellectuals” of the 1950s created a body of thought that became politically influential among the Senate critics of the New Look. The appeal of deterrence theory rested in part on the academic credentials of the principal theorists, almost to a man Ph.D.s in the social sciences. Another factor was the persuasiveness of analytical techniques based on economic theory; numbers spoke louder than words. An additional influence was the growing belief that traditional strategic thought, as developed by military professionals, had no application in a world of nuclear weapons. Some of the new deterrence theory did, in fact, make traditional defense calculations appear obsolete. One concept was that only force survivability really counted and that the Soviets had to perceive that survivability to make deterrence work. Yet the prestrike force should not appear threatening, thus inviting a preemptive attack. Just how a force could be large enough to survive and attack Soviet military targets and not also appear threatening proved an elusive calculation. Another concept was that should deterrence fail, the goal of strategic forces should be to limit the war, thus providing negotiating time. Phrases like “escalation control” and “damage limitation” soon entered the strategic lexicon. Analysis by game theory, psychological modeling, and the measurement of marginal utility further brought strategic analysis by analogy to a high art form. It also provided the intellectual foundation for the dramatic expansion of American strategic forces in the 1960s.


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