The closure of Lincoln Air Force Base 1960-1971 

By 1960, a major change in American defense policy was looming. While the activation of Lincoln Air Force Base may be attributed to President Dwight Eisenhower's "New Look" defense policy (basing much of America's defenses on its offensive nuclear weapons, namely bombers at the time), its eventual closure might be attributed to President John Kennedy's revamping of defensive posture. Spearheaded by an efficiency-driven Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, it was decided early in the 1960s not only to redistribute America's military might away from the Air Force's strategic nuclear firepower towards limited conventional conflicts, but also to make America's nuclear deterrent more efficient and modern.

As Lincoln fielded the aging B-47 bomber in the early 1960s and the modern but soon obsolescent Atlas-F ICBM, few options were available to keep the base active.


Peak


The years 1960 to 1962 were watershed moments of the Cold War. Perhaps the greatest peak of U.S.- Soviet tensions, the Berlin and Cuban Crises pushed the world to brink of catastrophe.

These years were also the peak of American nuclear firepower, of which an overwhelming majority was owned by the Strategic Air Command. While Sputnik was launched in 1957, SAC was only a few short years later fielding a small but steadily growing force of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). The threat of nuclear attack by missile shortened warning time into minutes instead of hours and American defense planners and think-tanks began to scrutinize the relative vulnerability of bomber bases and bombers themselves.

By 1960 much of the modern B-52 force had been pressed into service (the last B-52H was delivered in October 1962, many of those are still flying combat missions as of 2010) and the B-58, a supersonic medium bomber developed at best to compliment the B-47 trickled into a handful of SAC squadrons as fewer than 100 were built. Perhaps the ultimate manned bomber, the B-70 Valkyrie had been relegated to research missions as it was soon decided to cancel that program. By 1962 the future of American bomber development appeared in doubt, and no true successor to the B-47 seemed to exist (some could say it was ultimately replaced by a mixture of B-52s and the Minuteman missile)

B-47 production ended in 1957 with nearly 2000 total types built and deactivation very quickly followed suit. By 1960 the large B-47 force was shrinking at a fast rate but a reprieve was ordered by President Kennedy in the wake of the Berlin Crisis. For the next few years B-47 bombers would still be seen at SAC bases, especially Lincoln.

At Lincoln

1960 saw the 307th Air Refueling Squadron re-deployed to Michigan as a part of SAC's redistribution of forces (to put it simply not putting their eggs in one basket). At the time Lincoln operated two wings of B-47s and two squadrons of KC-97s, by 1960 this was a "super-base" as most other SAC bases downgraded to an average of one wing to better distribute bombers and thus increase survivability in the face of a Soviet missile attack.

9-minute alert scrambles continued and soon a "molehole", a dedicated bunker near the flight-line for alert crews to put their bombers in the air in as short of time as possible, would be constructed. SAC instituted alerts for its bombers (B-47s, B-52s and soon B-58s) in the face of decreased warning time. Initially 1/3rd of its entire bomber force was on alert at one time, only to be increased at the insistence of President Kennedy to 1/2 of its force by 1961.

Lastly, the 551st Strategic Missile Squadron was coming on-line and missile silos were being constructed outside of Lincoln. The idea of placing America's deterrent power in missile instead of bombers was said to irk some bomber crews which lead to increased tensions between themselves and the newly designated missile crewman. Some were worried that missiles would replace bombers altogether. This idea was considered nationally not only by the Air Force but defense think-tanks as well.

After the Cuban Crisis

By 1963 Cold War tensions eased considerably with the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty. The Air Force was going at full speed with its Minuteman missile program (aiming towards at least a thousand missiles by the end of the decade) and strategic thought moved away from direct superpower confrontation towards possible proxy wars (I.E. the Vietnam War was heating up in Southeast Asia).

President Kennedy weighed the options of keeping America's strength in a massive deterrent force or putting funds back into tactical readiness (including Tactical Air Command (SAC's relative opposite), the Army and Marine Corps). Already Defense Secretary McNamara was attempting to reorganize the services, placing emphasis on service compatibility (an infamous example can be found with the F-111 fighter project, where one variant was offered to the Air Force and another to the Navy with the Navy eventually rejecting the project and moving forward with a more favorable aircraft in the F-14 Tomcat).

In 1963 as well the 98th Air Refueling Squadron departed Lincoln leaving the base to operate its compliment of B-47s and Atlas-F missiles. By this point much of the original B-47 infrastructure was dwindling yet Lincoln remained at full capacity. Indeed while other wings deactivated nationwide, they sent their lower-hour B-47s to serve at Lincoln.

1964

In an early move by SAC, and perhaps correlating with the overall mission change of SAC to a multi-weapon strike force, strategic missile squadrons were reassigned and reported directly to wings instead of divisions. On January 1st, 1964 the 98th Bombardment Wing became the 98th Strategic Aerospace Wing as it gained control of the 551st Strategic Missile Squadron for a period of 18 months.

Secretary McNamara moved forward in 1964 with the decision to scale back defense stations worldwide but negotiated with SAC about the idea to retire much of its early B-52 fleet and the remainder of B-47s that were still operational. By 1964 Lincoln more or less operated a full fourth of the remaining B-47 bombers in SAC service but no replacement was visible on the horizon. Worry began to spread through Lincoln that the base would be eliminated but there were rumors of trying to get a wing of new F-4 Phantoms to replace the Stratojets. At the time as well it was believed the still new Atlas-F squadron would remain until at least 1968 (after all, some of the missiles by 1964 were only a few years old).

Finally in November, Secretary McNamara made a public announcement concerning the closure of 13 Air Force Bases, Lincoln (as well as Schilling) were ordered to be closed.

The reasoning for the closures were as follows...

     "...bases considered for reduction and closure were those with limited warning time, poorly maintained facilities, limited potential to expand and/or accommodate additional missions and weather induced poor working and living conditions..."

- "Locating Air Force Base Site's History and Legacy, Frederick J. Shaw"

Lincoln's rebuilt infrastructure, including its well maintained runway most likely did not make it a poorly maintained base, its central location offered ample warning time and weather (although this might be disputed by airmen working in the brutal summers and icy winters at Lincoln) was not very harsh when compared to other bases that closed including Glasgow AFB in northern Montana. The limited potential to expand may have been a large factor as Lincoln AFB was one of the few bases to be connected with a civilian airport (which by 1964 was expanding air service for the city). Ultimately the closures were contributed to "financial savings and efficiency" - hallmarks of Secretary McNamara's reign at the Pentagon. Lincoln's missions were simply outdated, and the new outlook of a post-LeMay Strategic Air Command meant some bases that were created from a 1400 strong B-47 bomber force being replaced by Minuteman missiles elsewhere had no reason to remain open.

At the same time, the Atlas-F ICBM was ordered to deactivate as well. A number of mishaps leading to missile damage as well as outright explosions led leaders to quickly end the first generation ICBM force for sake of the efficiency of the second-generation Minuteman missile. Atlas-F, as well as Atlas-D, -E and Titan-I burned liquid fuel and oxygen, both very volatile fluids which required expensive equipment and crews to maintain them. The Minuteman-I (later the -II and -III) had much safer solid-fuel propellants, much more survivable and hardened silos and realistically a much cheaper and efficient basing system. All first generation missiles (save the Titan-II which served another two decades due to its massive 10 megaton warhead capability) were to be retired by 1965 instead of 1968.


1965

With deactivation immanent, in March 1965 the 818th Aerospace Division ceased as an entity while the 307th Bombardment Wing was temporarily deactivated (later to be reactivated as a B-52 base wing at U-Taepo Air Base in Thailand during the later years of the Vietnam War).  By April the 551st itself was already scaling back operations and the first missile was removed from alert the same month. By June the 551st itself was deactivated and only the 98th SAW remained.

On December 7th, 1965 the last B-47s left Lincoln. They were amongst the last B-47 bombers deployed by SAC. Lincoln was now a skeleton of an Air Force Base as the majority of its crews, airmen, officers and families departed for different duties.

On June 25th, 1966 the 98th changed the care-taking mission to the 4255th Air Base Squadron and Lincoln Air Force Base ceased to exist. Only 431 people remained on the base on that day from a 1964 population of nearly 6500.
The Airport Authority soon gained entrance rights (on July 13th) and a job corps operation opened in the same year.The small Air Force contingent remained until January 1st, 1967 when it too deactivated and handed over any remaining air force responsibility to personnel from Offutt AFB.  In 1968 the Air Force negotiated breaking the 99-year lease from the City of Lincoln (prepared in 1952) and in 1970 finally severed all ties when the Lincoln Airport Authority took over guardianship of the former base. In 1971 the Arnold Heights housing area was opened to the public and has operated much the same ever since.

To Be Continued and Updated...



References: Shaw, Frederick. "Locating Air Force Base Sites: History's Legacy" Air Force History and Museums Program. 2004
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