They miss the Soviet Union

This news story about Major General Michael Carey and Vice Admiral Tim Giardina being fired got me to thinking about nuclear strike forces, then and now.

Back in the day, there was SAC, the Strategic Air Command. They controlled the Air Force’s stock of strategic nuclear weapons, which meant most of them. Bomber, and later, missile crews sat alert 24/7. Airborne command posts stayed airborne 24/7.

SAC took its job seriously. Before going on alert, crews took a nuclear weapons control test, and the only acceptable score was 100%. Anything less and the crew, the training officer, and the wing commander, might find themselves being flown down to numbered air force headquarters to explain to a general officer why they shouldn’t be fired. The second commander of SAC, and the man who shaped it into the elite force it became, was General Curtis LeMay. He is famous for saying “I can’t tell the difference between bad luck and bad management”. In LeMay’s day, If a SAC crew crashed a bomber, the wing commander was automatically fired and replaced with a new one. If a second bomber crashed the next day, the new wing commander was also fired. When SAC opened up its ‘Northern Teir’ bases, in North Dakota and Montana and Wyoming (to move them away from Soviet missile submarines), LeMay refused to relax readiness requirements, even in the face of blizzards and seriously sub-zero windchills on the flight lines, because he was worried that if he let standards slip, there’d be no bottom.

SAC felt it had to do this because the Soviet Union was our declared enemy (that’s a politically incorrect word, so we’d say adversary, or the competition, but everybody knew the e-word). The USSR had the ability to destroy the US completely, if it launched first. Flight time over the pole was 30min. Flight time from offshore SSBNs was as little as 15minutes. SAC had to be able to get enough bombers airborne in that amount of time to ensure the counter-destruction of the USSR. That was deterrence.

At the same time, they had to have absolute and total control of all the thousands of nuclear warheads in their inventory. In SAC, you had to know where every weapon was at all times. There were rigid rules about what could and couldn’t be done with them (plug a test pad into a bomb to see if it was still calibrated and you’d end up on report for using a live weapon as a test device). Everything around the weapon was a no-lone zone, where two weapons-qualified people were needed to pull a sheet of canvas over a weapon. The human reliability program saw to the psychological health of all SAC weaponeers. One young officer was pulled from missile duty and reassigned, because he asked for dynamic tension exercises he could do while buried in the ground on silo alert for a week, to keep from getting antsy. SAC doesn’t want antsy people near weapons. Theoretically, such reassignment doesn’t impact career prospects, except without crew experience his chances of becoming a commander were slim.

To get a flavor of what SAC was like in the early ’60’s, go find a copy of “Gathering of Eagles”, a typically Hollywood melodrama portrait starring that most manly of men, Rock Hudson. Despite its flaws, it still manages to capture some of the atmosphere of a SAC base.

And then, it all changed.

The Soviet Union went away. Russia lost a good many of its missile silos and bomber bases to newly independent states. Both sides stood down their alert forces, and both agreed to zero out the targetting information in the missile guidance packages, so that an accidental launch wouldn’t start a war. Both sides started reducing the size of their arsenals.  Russia remained a competitor, but was no longer an active enemy. It soon became obvious that nobody cared any more. Remember 2007, when the B-52 bomber crew flew from Minot, ND to Barksdale, LA, not noticing that two nuclear missiles were still on board?

SAC was gutted, with the remnants becoming part of Strategic Command, a command with the detail-oriented requirements of old, but without the compelling adrenalin rush that justified the absolute and total dedication to those details. SAC wanted anal-retentive warriors. SC wants anal retentives. What they’ve got, is anal retentives with a loose grip.

The problem is, it’s hard to maintain that level of commitment to the goal, when the goal is something like be kindof available in the unlikely event that somebody wants to blow up the world, or maybe just one town. The USSR gave the US nuclear force a reason for being. Right now, they don’t have that kind of a reason, and it shows.

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