Q: What was the reason that the Strategic Air Command crews were given
shorter and shorter alert times during the course of the 1950s?
JE: Primarily, Russian capability. In the early days of the Cold War, the only
thing we had to worry about was a Russian ground attack through the Fulda Gap
[in Germany] into Western Europe. And this would have taken weeks and maybe
more than a month for the Russians to make significant moves to their ground
forces in order to bunch their muscles for such an effort. So SAC [the
Strategic Air Command] then had lots of time to stop past and pick up their
weapons and go.
As the Russians developed their own nuclear capability and an airplane to
carry nuclear bombs, then this squeezed us down into a lot less alert time. We
built what was called a DEW-Line, the Distant Early Warning Line, which
extended from Scotland, across northern Canada, to-- and Greenland and Iceland
-- and as far as Alaska. And this was a radar line that would warn when-- if
any aircraft were approaching from cross the ice cap on the North Pole. And we
figured that SAC bases would have about an hour to get ready, to get their
airplanes off. And so this really shortened things down. Instead of having
weeks to operate in, we had an hour to get ready.
When the Russians got their inter-continental missiles with nuclear
warheads...warning from the DEW-Line was, instead of an hour, it was 15
minutes. And that's when SAC went to the 15-minute alert for one-third of the
This was farther downstream, but the B-52s went on airborne alert, where a
certain number of them would be in the air with [nuclear] weapons all the time,
around the clock....this meant that even if [Soviet planes] hit the United
States, we would have a certain number of aircraft already airborne with
weapons on board, the target material they needed, and halfway to Russia.
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