Arctic linchpin: the Polar Concept in American air atomic strategy, 1946-1948.

Author:Farquhar, John T.
 
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With the Japanese surrender on the deck of the U.S.S Missouri on August 14, 1945, American civil and military leaders faced a bewildering array of problems: unaccustomed world leadership, a potential renewed economic depression, demobilization, structuring postwar national defense, the breakup of European colonialism, and signs of an impending Cold War. Among the postwar strategic visions, American air leaders advanced an "air atomic strategy" based on perceived lessons from World War II and the terrible potential of the atomic bomb, viewed by many as a weapon that revolutionized warfare. As Cold War hostilities increased, American war planning adopted strategic air warfare as a primary component. Yet, the problem of transforming a strategic concept into operational and tactical realities remained. At the heart of the issue in geographic, strategic, and conceptual terms emerged the American territory of Alaska and what became known as the "Polar Concept," the idea that the shortest, most direct, and least defended route between U.S. bases and Soviet targets involved flying great circle routes over the Arctic and North Pole. By examining Air Force efforts in 1946-1948 to pioneer Arctic flying, map the vast northern reaches, and plot possible transpolar bomber routes, Alaska emerged as the linchpin of American air atomic strategy. The role of arctic aerial reconnaissance during the early Cold War also served as a case study of military innovation, problem solving, and the limits of Air Force strategic theory.

Awareness of Alaska's strategic importance first appeared with interwar thinking about the growing threat of Japan. Most notable, Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell called attention to a great circle route from the United States to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, to Kamchatka, the Kurile Islands, and to Japan. (1) In a manuscript, "American, Air Power, and the Pacific," Mitchell claimed Alaska as the key to a strategic bombing campaign against vulnerable Japanese cities in an inevitable and imminent war. (2) Likewise, seizing Alaskan bases offered Japan an attack avenue to the United States as dramatized by World War II's significant, but unheralded, Aleutian campaign. Before hostilities, the U.S. Army and Navy recognized Alaska's geographic significance and resource potential and constructed military, naval, and air bases at Adak, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and other locations. Fairbanks, in particular, served as an experimental cold weather station where winter temperatures dropped to as low as minus seventy-two degrees F. (3)

Postwar military base planning varied over the relative importance of Alaska to U.S. national defense concepts. In his book, Circling the Earth: United States Plans for a Postwar Overseas Military Base System, 1942-1948, Elliott Converse depicted a conceptual battle between visions of the United States as a regional, or hemispheric, power and the U.S. as a global force. In the June 1944 revision of the Army Air Force's Initial Postwar Air Force Plan (IPWAF), Col R. C. Moffat, Chief of the Post War Division, argued that even though Alaska is close to eastern Siberia, "it is far distant from the sources of Soviet power." The IPWAF called for outposts in Alaska "purposely not strong enough to constitute a dagger pointed at the Soviet heart or at Europe, but do provide routes for reinforcement ... [and] constitute a deterrent to offensive action aimed at the western hemisphere." (4) Along the same lines, a December 1945 Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) document, "An Outline Plan for the Military Development of Alaska," emphasized the low probability of conflict between the U.S. and U.S.SR:

The Soviet capability to launch a major operation against the Alaskan Area in the next five years is estimated to be almost nil; ... it does not appear necessary to station air forces or ground force combat troops in the Alaskan Area except for training, acclimatization, experimental purposes, limited reconnaissance and surveillance, and for limited local defense of selected bases. (5)

In stark contrast, prominent airmen embraced "the Polar Concept" as central to their postwar vision. In a February 1946 National Geographic magazine article, "Air Power for Peace," General of the Army H[enry] H. Arnold argued, "A surprise attack could readily come from across the roof of the world unless we are in possession of adequate airbases outflanking such a route of approach." (6) He argued that any danger to the United States must come from north of thirty degrees north latitude and that with 5,000-mile-radius bombers, U.S. air forces could cover practically all danger spots in Europe or Asia. Conversely, by the polar route similar enemy planes would threaten our principal industrial centers. (7) To further illustrate the point, the National Geographic issue featured a polar projection map of the Northern Hemisphere with air distances between major cities based on trans-polar routes.

The Polar Concept meshed with the "air atomic" or strategic air warfare vision strongly advocated by senior Air Force leaders. In some ways, General Arnold's National Geographic article served as a manifesto of their beliefs: "With present equipment, an enemy air power can, without warning, pass over all formerly visualized barriers or "lines of defense" and can deliver devastating blows at our population centers and our industrial, economic, or government heart even before our surface forces can be employed." He believed that the atomic bomb made air power all-important, the primary requisite of national survival: "Air power provides not only the best present means of striking the enemy with atomic bombs, but also the best available defense against them." (8)

On March 21, 1946, the Army Air Forces sought to operationalize strategic air warfare by creating the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Its mission was straight forward:

The Strategic Air Command will be prepared to conduct long-range offensive operations in any part of the world either independently or in cooperation with land and Naval forces; to conduct maximum range reconnaissance over land or sea either independently or in cooperation with land and Naval forces; to provide combat units capable of intense and sustained combat operations employing the latest and most advanced weapons; to train units and personnel for the maintenance of the Strategic Forces in all parts of the world; to perform such special missions as the Commanding General, Army Air Forces may direct. (9)

The creation of SAC institutionalized the Air Force's conviction that strategic bombing played a vital, if not decisive, role in winning World War II.

As strategic air campaigns in World War II showed, there was a vast gulf between the vision of strategic air warfare and the reality of Europe's Combined Bomber Offensive and the strategic bombing campaign against Japan. Similarly, vast uncharted miles of polar ice cap, freezing temperatures, magnetic anomalies that jeopardized navigation, unknown winds, and other significant, practical obstacles presented significant challenges to the Polar Concept as described in postwar air atomic strategy. Although a handful of daring explorers flew across Arctic regions in the 1920s and 1930s, no practical means of arctic air travel existed.

In an attempt to bridge the operational gaps, the War Department General Staff initiated a top secret Project No. 5, codenamed Operation FLOODLIGHT, to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the Arctic. Army Chief of Staff General Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the concept, and General Carl A. Spaatz as Commanding General, Army Air Forces, directed the new Strategic Air Command (SAC) to lead the effort. On June 14, 1946, SAC ordered the deployment of the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron to Ladd Field, near Fairbanks, Alaska, as part of Project NANOOK. (10)

From August 1946 until October 1947, the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron, under the command of Maj. Maynard E. White, tested the feasibility of transpolar operations and arctic flying. In compliance with Project NANOOK, 46th crews conducted visual and radar photography of the arctic ice pack, Alaska, and the Canadian Archipelago. The mission directed crews to search for previously undiscovered land masses, accumulate meteorological data, record magnetic variation, and explore potential air routes. (11) In the first month of operations in August 1946, the 46th flew thirty photo missions, yet even before onset of full winter, icing and other weather conditions hampered operations. The 46th Reconnaissance Squadron flew F-13A reconnaissance aircraft (Boeing B-29s modified for aerial photography) and discovered that cameras installed in unpressurized areas froze and were impossible to maintain. (12) These early flights encountered ice that formed on propeller hubs that would break off and damage the aircraft's skin. The cold also required oil-lubricant changes and eventually thirty-six additional modifications to the planes. (13) Making matters worse, December 1946 marked one of the coldest months on record, including a span of thirty days with temperatures never higher than minus fifty degrees F. In an assessment of the arctic flying efforts, Mr. Carroll L. Zimmerman, Strategic Air Command's Chief of Operations Analysis concluded: "One of the large lessons learned in this winter's operations in Alaska is that AAF knows how to operate aircraft in flight at any temperature, but it does not know how to preserve and maintain aircraft on the ground at extreme temperatures with limited facilities." (14) Nevertheless, drawing upon the ingenuity and fortitude of the maintenance and support personnel and the courage of aircrews, the 46th eventually conquered the elements.

Overcoming the unique challenges of polar navigation through the development of grid navigation procedures marked a significant advancement in making the Polar Concept a reality. As was suggested, early arctic flights were a...

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