Air Weapons for the Cold War, 1946-1962

B-26B, B-26C, and YB-26K


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Resistance arose to the program as the Navy demanded renewed recognition for carrier and anti-submarine aviation, the Army charged neglect of tactical air, and development of Soviet atomic weapons raised concern over continental defense. DOUGLAS B-26B in Korea, 1953

The Finletter report was made at a time when "no possible enemy could make a (sustained) assault" on the American mainland, but suggested January 1, 1953, as a target date for the Air Force to be capable of dealing with a possible atomic attack on the U.S. Establishment of a Scientific Advisory Board, headed by Theodore von Karman, gave the Air Force a long-range technological outlook.


Just as American war plans like Rainbow Five had been prepared for attack on Germany, so plans were made for the new adversary. Only 51 days after Japan surrendered, the vulnerability of Russian cities to a "limited air attack" with atomic bombs had been analyzed by a Joint Intelligence Staff study. By 1948, Cold War tensions produced an American war plan, Charioteer. Strategic Air Command had the leading role, to deliver 133 atomic bombs on 70 Soviet vital centers in thirty days, including eight on Moscow and seven on Leningrad.*


DOUGLAS B-26C in 1951

But the Soviet Army was strong enough to occupy western Europe, probably within twenty days, and could threaten the bases in Britain and the Middle East necessary for B-29/B-50 attacks. Soviet technical progress gradually began to reduce the substantial lag behind American long-range weapons. By 1949's end, atomic bombs, long-range bombers, and MiG-15 jet fighters began joining the Soviet inventory.

While the capability for a sustained attack on the United States did not yet exist, the capability was there to overrun all of Continental Europe and the Near East, which would be an "unacceptable threat" to United States security. Fear of a "nuclear Pearl Harbor" promoted PARPRO, the Peacetime Airborne Reconnaissance Program designed to measure Soviet strength and preparations. Electronic intelligence (ELINT) became a central concern, leading to the aircraft modifications described in later chapters.

A new global war plan, Dropshot, was developed in 1949 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the basic assumion that war could be "forced upon the United States by an act of aggression of the USSR and/or her satellites, " on or about January 1, 1957, the date selected for planning purposes. The USAF would be built up to the level wanted to sustain a strategic air offensive, ward off attack on the Western Hemisphere, support allies (like NATO and CENTO) overseas, and begin a counteroffensive. ON MARK YB-26K prototype

These war plans, however, were for big, relatively short, nuclear wars, but the future actually brought small, long, non-nuclear struggles. Skyrocketing costs of air weapons limited procurement, and thus the Air Force on January 1, 1950, had 48 groups with some 17,000 aircraft (8,000 combat), about half of which were Second World War types held in storage. Naval Air had 4,900 planes attached to the fleet, plus 1,900 in the Reserve and 550 in storage.

Resistance arose to the program as the Navy demanded renewed recognition for carrier and anti-submarine aviation, the Army charged neglect of tactical air, and development of Soviet atomic weapons raised concern over continental defense.

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