Saturday, February 4, 2012

15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation by L. Douglas Keeney

L. Douglas Keeney's 15 Minutes is an excellent Cold War history from the perspective of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the organization led by General LeMay. The title refers to the amount of time given to SAC to get its bombers in the air in the event of an incoming attack by the Soviet Union.

The book is a linear chronology beginning with the waning days of World War II and the first use of atomic weapons and ends in 1991 when SAC was dissolved. SAC was created as a bomber and tanker force with the mission to deliver nuclear weapons in response to an attack on the U.S. by an adversary. In the beginning SAC didn't even control the weapons - those were maintained by the AEC, the Atomic Energy Commission. At its peak, SAC was as complete a force as you could imagine with its own intelligence, early warning, tankers, bombers, missiles, bases, and certainly an esprit de corps. (As an example, and for those who don't want to read the book, I highly recommend the movie Strategic Air Command starring Jimmy Stewart.)

The chapters are organized around pivotal events in SAC's chronology and each chapter consists of compact, almost newsy stories, of various incidents and personalities. This makes for a very easy read without sacrificing facts or interest.

Topics covered include the aircraft (B-36, B-47, B-52, B-58), the testing (with emphasis on the Castle Bravo test where the actual yield of 15 megatons vastly exceeded expectations and therefore caught everyone off guard with deadly results), the weapons, the missiles, the men, the strategy - it goes on and on. There are discussions of various nuclear weapon accidents where bombs were dropped, burned, crashed, and sometimes not recovered. There's the SIOP, single integrated operational plan, for targeting adversaries, Chrome Dome missions, and the two-man rule. And there's an emphasis on the Texas Towers and how the desire for a little more warning time for an incoming low-level attack from the Atlantic ended with the death of 28 men. (For those who prefer movies, I'll suggest 1964's Fail Safe starring Henry Fonda for a good tale of bombing the Soviets. I could've suggested Dr. Strangelove which is great, but everyone's seen that. Right?)

My interest in the Cold War and nuclear weapons has been extensively self-documented. I was born right around the time when SAC's use of aircraft peaked. After that, missiles grew into their predominant platform. I'm too young to have participated in any "duck and cover" drills in school. But my friends and I did play in a big field called the Nike Site - not for the shoe but rather for the Nike surface-to-air missile system deployed to defend the U.S. from incoming Soviet bombers and ICBMs. At the time I never thought too hard about what that big concrete bunker on the edge of our field had been for.

I remember a couple of years ago telling a younger co-worker that the DFW Metroplex would've been devastated by Soviet nuclear missiles if the Cold War had gotten hot. I thought she was going to pass out. (You can check out this target map of the U.S. It's probably more qualitative than factual but it doesn't seem unreasonable.)

Consider this. At the end of 1963 SAC had 922 bombers and tankers and 426 missiles on alert. Of those aircraft, I bet around 50-100 fully-armed bombers were in the air at all times. In total, the SIOP alert forces had 2,071 delivery vehicles with 3,976 megatons of explosive force.

Keeney's 15 Minutes is a great history of the Strategic Air Command. I recommend it strongly to anyone interested in history or aviation.

Just a few websites that provide additional information on topics covered in the book:
  • On 01 Sep 1952 a tornado struck Fort Worth's Carswell Air Force Base damaging many of its B-36 bombers.
  • Website of the now-defunct 7th Bomb Wing B-36 Association (nice photo gallery)
  • Film documentary of 1952's Operation Ivy nuclear tests (1 hour)
  • The USAF Texas Tower Association
  • The Nike Historical Society (watch the 30 minute movie)
  • The B-47 Stratojet Association
  • A B-58 Hustler website
  • SiloWorld, a website dedicated to ICBMs

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