Getting to the target: the penetration problem in strategic air command during the 1950s.

Author:Meilinger, Phillip S.

Strategic Air Command (SAC) was established in March 1946 by commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF), Gen. Carl A. Spaatz. SAC was meant to be the jewel in the AAF crown and was thus given the largest number of assets in personnel, aircraft and funding. Its mission was deterrence, but if that failed, SAC was expected to launch an atomic air attack and defeat the enemy. That enemy was assumed to be its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union. The commander of the command was Gen. George C. Kenney, a senior airman who had served with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific for much of the war. SAC immediately encountered hard times.

Demobilization after the war hit all of the services hard. The AAF went from 232 total groups down to ninety within six months of VJ-Day and over the next two years would fall to forty-eight; worse, few of those groups were even combat-ready. (1) Although SAC was supposed to be the elite corps within the air arm, it was hard hit as well. Chronic shortages of skilled personnel led to a dismal aircraft-in-commission rate of forty-two percent. (2) When SAC launched a maximum effort simulated bombing attack against New York City in May 1947, only 101 of 180 bombers were able to make it to the target--and this was without anyone shooting at them. Several months later SAC tried again, against Chicago, but the results were even worse. (3)

When the Berlin crisis broke out in mid-1948 and the Soviets blockaded the city, it appeared the world was moving towards war. Fortunately, that was averted, and the newly created U.S. Air Force instead launched a massive airlift to supply the beleaguered city with food and coal. The eleven-month Berlin Airlift was one of the greatest Western victories of the Cold War, and it was achieved without firing a shot. (4) SAC was nonetheless in the limelight during that period, because if matters escalated and shooting began, U.S. war plans made it clear that the few ground troops involved in occupation duties in Germany would serve merely as speed bumps as the massive Soviet Army sped to the English Channel. But SAC was not ready, and internal investigations by the Air Force revealed that depressing fact. (5) Kenney was relieved and a new commander was brought in to straighten things out--Lieutenant General Curtis E. LeMay.

LeMay, a gruff and no-sense young general, had enjoyed a meteoric rise during the war. Arriving in England as a bomb group commander and lieutenant colonel in mid-1943, eighteen months later he was a major general in command of a bomb division. In January 1945, he took command of the XXI Bomber Command in the Mariana Islands--the B-29s conducting a strategic bombing campaign against Japan. He was still on Guam when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ending the war. After the surrender, LeMay served in research and development on the Air Staff, and then became the air commander in Germany. When a replacement was needed at SAC in October 1948, LeMay was the obvious choice. In 1951, he would pin on a fourth star: at age 44 he was the second youngest full general in American history behind U.S. Grant who beat him by a few months. (6)

The next several years would witness a dramatic increase in capability of Strategic Air Command. (7) LeMay was famous for his emphasis on rigorous and realistic training. Although some argued the advent of atomic and later nuclear weapons made the need for accuracy moot, LeMay disagreed. He drilled his crews relentlessly on the necessity of putting bombs precisely on target. Other problems existed that were just as fundamental: How would SAC bombers penetrate deep inside Soviet airspace in the event of war, find their targets, and successfully attack them? The extreme distances involved, combined with increasingly robust Soviet air defenses, made these formidable problems. Several potential solutions presented themselves, one of these concerned increasing the range of existing bombers via air refueling.

The Challenge of Range

Although Allied bombers had the range to reach most targets in Nazi-occupied Europe, the distances in the Pacific were far greater and it was not until mid-1944 that forward bases and long-range B-29 bombers were available. On the other hand, experience proved that despite prewar doctrine, fighter escort for the bombers was necessary. Until the arrival of the P-51, such long-range fighters were not available. Air refueling would have been useful, for both the bombers and the fighters.

Despite experiments in April 1943, using a B-24 as a tanker with a B-17 as a receiver, the procedures were too complex to employ the system on a major scale. Air refueling was not even considered for fighter escort during the war, however, perhaps because of the sheer scale of the problem--by mid-1944 there were over 5,000 U.S. fighters in Europe. At a time when factories were straining to produce aircraft to supply a global war, building hundreds of tankers was unthinkable. The issue of air refueling lay dormant until the Cold War when the advantages offered by air refueling were reexamined.

The U.S. and its allies were outnumbered by at least three-to-one on the ground in postwar Europe.

SAC would be the equalizer. But Moscow was a long way from the U.S.--5,000 miles--how could the bombers extend their range? A Heavy Bombardment Committee met in September 1947 at SAC headquarters and discussed the problem. Very long range aircraft like the B-36 was one answer, but the sleek new jet-powered B-47 then in the development stage was only a medium bomber. Air refueling was the obvious solution. (8)

On June 30, 1948, SAC formed its first air refueling squadron, and in December an air-refueled B-50 flew non-stop for 10,000 miles. (9) In February 1949 another B-50 made the first non-stop around the world flight using eight in-flight refuelings along the way. Upon landing back in Texas, LeMay stressed the flight's importance: "This means that we can now deliver an atomic bomb to any place in the world that requires an atomic bomb." (10)

Over the next several years methods were tested to improve the speed and efficiency of in-flight refueling. A "probe and drogue" system involving a hose reeled out from the tanker with a basket attached shaped like a huge shuttlecock was one such method. The receiver aircraft was equipped with a probe that plugged into the basket. This system worked well for small aircraft, but large planes were difficult to maneuver while trying to plug a basket. (11) In addition, the amount of fuel transferred by this method was limited, approximately 250 gallons per minute. Other problems included oscillation and whipping of the hose and fuel leaks. (12) Nonetheless, the system was useful for fighters. In September 1950 an F-84E flew non-stop from England to Maine--a flight of ten hours that was a transatlantic first for a jet fighter. (13) During the Korean War a squadron of KB-29s deployed to Japan to test the system in combat with jet fighters. The world's first combat air refueling took place on July 6, 1951. Far East Air Force (FEAF) and Tactical Air Command were pleased with the realization of how air refueling could impact fighter operations. In 1952, tankers began escorting and refueling fighter squadrons across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. In July, operation FOX PETER I deployed the 31st Fighter Wing to Japan: 58 F-84Gs, led and periodically refueled by KB-29s, flew from Turner AFB in Georgia to Japan. It would be the first of many such deployments. SAC, which contained several fighter escort wings, deployed them to Korea to practice the new procedure in anticipation of a major war. (14)

The limitations of the probe and drogue system for large aircraft led to the flying boom. By 1950 Boeing had perfected the use of a boom extending down and telescoping out from the rear of a tanker. A boom operator, sitting in the old tail gunner's position, could actually "fly" it via a small wings termed "ruddervators." The receiver aircraft maneuvered behind the tanker and flew formation; the boomer would then fly his probe into the other aircraft's receptacle. The boom system transferred fuel at 600 gallons-per-minute--more than twice that of the probe and drogue. (15) The first boom-equipped KB-29P was delivered to SAC on September 1, 1950.

Over the next several years the number of tankers in SAC exploded--by the end of 1954 there were 683 tankers in thirty-two squadrons. (16) With the move towards an all-jet bomber force, however, even the KB-29s and KC--97s were inadequate...

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