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David Alan Rosenberg on: U.S. Planning for a Soviet Nuclear Attack
In the fifties, it's a case that clearly, from all the data we have, Soviet nuclear readiness was incredibly low; that the Russians were not really able to do anything to match the Strategic Air Command in terms of its capabilities to keep its forces up and all. And the ability to launch a surprise attack did not seem particularly great. But the problem was what we didn't know. The intelligence revolution, as represented by satellites in particular (the recently declassified photo satellites that used to drop their packages and get caught by airplanes, you know), that doesn't come until the 1960s.

The Soviet Union explodes an atomic bomb in August of 1949. It's disclosed to the world in September. In the spring and summer of 1950, the Joint Chiefs of Staff do some consideration of an additional targeting category. And in August of 1950, the Joint Chiefs lay on the Strategic Air Command the requirement to in fact also to begin targeting Soviet capability to deliver nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies. And this is one of the great drivers of any kind of nuclear competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, at least on the America side. And that is the requirement to be able, under the right circumstances, to launch a disarming first strike against the Soviet Union. A preemptive strike, not a preventive war but a preemptive strike against Soviet nuclear capability.

And this, in turn, means that as more air fields are identified in the Soviet Union, as Soviet military capability, aerial capability grows, that by the 1950s you're now talking about the growth of so-called counter-force targets. That includes nuclear production facilities and major air bases. And then starting in the mid-fifties, with dispersal air fields, where the Soviet air force could disperse to and then launch strikes, that it causes this huge increase in potential targets beyond the traditional city bombing requirement.

And the fact is then, how are you going to be able to take out these targets? Are you going to go in and just launch a strike against the air bases and the nuclear production facilities, and then hold back your bombers from attacking cities? Well, the problem is that no one had told LeMay that that was what he was supposed to do. And he felt he didn't have the resources that could launch a series of strikes into the Soviet Union, because the likelihood of Soviet air defenses (which were constantly working and improving at this time-- Soviets made great, great progress in terms of both anti-aircraft artillery and in early warning, although none of it was--was, you know, so overwhelmingly proficient as to prevent the Americans from truly getting in), but the fact that this could, in fact, slow a strike, take out enough of his bombers to prevent a series of strikes. And so LeMay plans the equivalent of one big air strike that will take out both nuclear capability and retardation targets (that which they can find), and also urban industrial targets, in one big attack.

And by the mid-fifties (`54, `55), you're talking about 750 airplanes, 750 targets that SAC is contemplating attacking if it has, in fact, an adequate warning time, which under strategic warning (based on the equivalent of various forms of signals, intelligence that the Russians were in fact moving their forces to attack Western Europe as well as preparing their forces to attack the United States), would mean that they could get perhaps 24 or 36 hours warning. And whether the President of the United States would then act on that warning time to launch the United States first is another question, although it's clear that Eisenhower understood that he would, in fact, if given this kind of warning, be willing to use his forces to (as he says in December 1954) "blunt the enemy offensives".

And so you've got the dynamics of an arms competition at work here, that is being fueled by increasing capability in aircraft, and bigger and bigger nuclear weapons, until by `54, `55, the first hydrogen bombs, the first thermonuclear weapons are now entering the inventory that will allow you to take out large air fields or significant portions of cities in ways that the smaller fission weapons would not in fact do. And that begins to pile up even more and more weaponry and capability.

The other problem is that SAC has a series of analytical formulae that it puts together, that relate to the question of what will be the damage that needs to be laid on against targets. And that means that there needs to be a certain kind of redundancy that insures that enough weapons will land on what is a designated ground zero. And so you will see a certain amount of duplication from SAC alone, in terms of taking this on.

And then the problem is that in the mid-fifties, you see the Navy developing its own nuclear capability, charged under the various agreements governing roles and missions of the Armed Forces. Navy carrier aircraft will be attacking targets of naval interest, as they're called, within the Soviet Union. They could include air fields that could launch Soviet aircraft to attack, with nuclear weapons, U.S. forces at sea, submarine bases. And in some cases, the Navy, being somewhat paranoid about the Air Force during this period, the Air Force being somewhat paranoid about the Navy during this period -- as one old friend who worked on this used to note, "Well, we finally got to the point where we weren't trusting SAC to hit everything that we needed, so we'd go against cities where battery factories were located, that made batteries for submarines. And they were deep in central Russia. But we were always going against those with much smaller yield weapons than SAC was" -- that you then had a lot of what SAC always decried as endless duplication and needless duplication in nuclear targeting.

And the other part of the problem was that then you would also have the problem of deconfliction, which was a case that you had numbers of aircraft coming in, aircraft that were launched from perhaps the European command, U.S. Air Force tactical aircraft that might be going against targets that could affect the land battle in Western Europe, SAC aircraft coming in from the continental United States or stationed overseas, and carrier aircraft coming in from the Mediterranean or from the Norwegian Sea - and they might all simultaneously be going against a series of targets that would mean that they could be passing each other and dropping weapons at moments where one airplane could in fact either be flying into the blast of another, or in a more benign sense, airplanes could in fact be flying close enough so that the pilots could in fact get blinded and irradiated by the blast of a nuclear weapon going off nearby. And so there was a serious need to try to find ways of deconflicting these incoming strikes, which led to the creation of what were known as worldwide coordinating conferences that were held annually, in which there were a lot of debates that went on about all of this.

And so finally it was decided in the summer of 1960 to in fact not to create a single strategic command, but to create a joint strategic target planning staff out in Omaha, at SAC headquarters, that would attempt to put together two products: a national strategic target list that would, in fact, serve as the basis for all national nuclear war planning for Strategic Air Command and for Polaris submarines, and then put together a Single Integrated Operational Plan that in fact would control the forces going against those targets. And that would include SAC forces in the U.S. and overseas, theater forces, carrier aviation, and submarine forces.

The problem was that SAC had developed its own approach to nuclear war planning. And so when the Navy sent people out to Omaha, they were in effect forced to go along with the SAC approach, both analytically in terms of weighting targets and in terms of their value in a war plan and what was going to be attacked and serving as a priority, and also, given what the national strategic target and attack policy laid out, what you were going to hit in terms of how much damage was going to be expected, what your probability of damage was going to be in terms of-- against how much of industrial floor space, against how much of the counter-force capability that you were going to be working against a Soviet means of delivering. And these were very, very high levels of what's known as damage expectancy: what damage would be expected, assuming the weapons; how many weapons would get to the target, and would both arrive and do their job.

And as a result, you created what's been called by some people a doomsday machine that, if you had 28-hour strategic warning, would launch over 3,000 weapons at 1,050 designated ground zeros in the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China and in Eastern European states, that would be destroyed all at once, and (it) has been estimated as resulting in 285 million prompt deaths. And that was the American nuclear war plan that was created in 1960, that was briefed to the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in December 1960.

And when Secretary Thomas Gates, the Secretary of Defense, and General Lyman Leominster, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, called the President to say, well, we've got a first cut of this war plan, and we're going to approve it, Eisenhower, who was not briefed on it, in this phone call says, "Well, announce-- put my name on it too, saying that I've in fact reviewed this," when in fact there does not appear to have been any real indication that President Eisenhower was ever fully briefed on this war plan, other than perhaps by his science advisor, the late George Kistiakowsky, who in fact, at the instigation of Admiral Arlie Burke (the Chief of Naval Operations who was so disturbed at so many of the abuses that went on in putting this plan together) convinced Kistiakowsky to in fact go out to study the problems of this war plan. And he produced a report. But that report, in effect, was what the Kennedy Administration inherited instead.

And this set up the foundation for nuclear war planning for, in many ways, for decades to come, in that it established a joint pattern for planning that subsequent presidential administrations and military services (the Army and the Air Force and the Navy) have been working to sort of find ways of breaking this up into much more discrete and potentially militarily useful options, rather than this kind of doomsday plan. And much of the debates over nuclear war planning in the United States, in effect, have revolved around the question of just how flexible one's plan should be.

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