American defense strategy and Lincoln Air Force Base

How Politics shaped the role and demise of Lincoln AFB

 Massive Retaliation Vs. Counterforce

                First and foremost, the mission of the Strategic Air Command throughout the Cold War period (1945-1991) was principally deterrence. Deterring the enemy against an attack against the United States and its allies however changed meanings occasionally throughout this period.

 One could offer the meaning of nuclear deterrence in the phrase “massive retaliation” which was not only SAC policy but a pillar of American defense strategy throughout the 1950s. Massive retaliation in itself was rooted in the beliefs of American strategic bombing during World War II which, put simply, meant destroying the enemy’s defensive, industrial and political livelihood. Collateral damage was fully expected. The laser-guided munitions of today is a pin-prick against perhaps even a squad of enemy combatants, when the thermonuclear weapon of yesteryear was more of a wrecking-ball approach to destroying targets, likely killing tens to hundreds of thousands.

                Later, particularly during the Kennedy Administration the idea of “Counterforce” came into being which was moreover influenced by social, political and mathematical scientists during the late 1950s. Symbolically, the RAND group offered a great deal of this new thinking into nuclear warfighting. Here different theories came into play attempting to control a nuclear conflict by attacking not specifically an enemy’s cities but going after their nuclear assets in an effort to blunt the spear of the attacker and, notably, later holding its cities “hostage” with threats of nuclear bombardment should the enemy not be willing to surrender.

                Naturally in the course of the ensuing years to 1991 other strategies were considered and policies were put in place on how to control, deliver and threaten with nuclear weapons but those are beyond the scope and point of this writing. Between the two strategies which in themselves became American policy respectively, Lincoln Air Force Base operated its bombers, tankers and missiles.

Massive Retaliation, Eisenhower's "New Look"

               Lincoln Air Force Base became an effectively “ready” bomber base by 1955 during the highlight years of the concept of “Massive Retaliation”. This policy was said to have been put into the public consciousness by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who served under President Dwight Eisenhower for the bulk of his administration. Eisenhower himself helped place the policy within his “New Look” doctrine towards shoring up the U.S. military with nuclear weapons, placing them at a higher priority of deployment over conventional forces (much to the dismay of the Army and Navy, who in the early 50s fell outside of the nuclear monopoly dominated by the Air Force). Air Force leadership, notably General Curtis E. LeMay head of Strategic Air Command, many politicians and scientists were in favor of this policy. Pouring funds into nuclear weapons was a theoretically cheaper method of preventing war, of which conventional forces such as tanks and ships began to be thought of as less important products during the Atomic Age. The concept of a limited conflict (like Vietnam) was thought to be obsolete.

                Thus, during the 1950s funding came through to build up SAC as America’s foremost fighting force which, ironically, was never supposed to be used at least by policy. As American leadership saw the potential of Soviet conventional forces threatening Western Europe and later threatening the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons (highlighted during the so-called “bomber gap” period in which U.S. intelligence mistakenly judged the Soviet Air Force to have hundreds of strategic bombers where in reality there were perhaps dozens), Theodore Roosevelt’s old homage “Speak softly and carry a big stick” found no truer meaning than in the hundreds of B-36s, B-47s and soon B-52s coming off the production lines.

                By the the early 1950s the B-36 was already on the way out, soon to be replaced by the now venerable B-52 Stratofortress. Yet with the advent of air-refueling and the early availability of overseas bases, the B-47 Stratojet became SAC’s premier weapon. By 1957 when production ended, over 2,000 B-47s had been built and a great number of these were soon adapted to carry not only the early “fission” small-scale nuclear bombs but the much more powerful “fusion” thermonuclear bombs. By 1959, with a large number of B-52s and a slowly shrinking but a still numerically superior B-47 force threatened the Soviet Union, and as we now know from declassified war plans, China and most Communist nations worldwide with a rain of destruction that even we today cannot imagine. SAC planners called it the “Sunday Punch”, an all-out nuclear war on Communist industrial, military, governmental and numerous other targets. Even if the nation of Albania had nothing to do with a provocation on the part of the Soviets, it would still suffer an attack.

                Scientists at the RAND corporation (a so-called "think-tank" with Air Force connections), as well as a number of other defense intellectuals began to discuss other ways of conducting a war. SAC strategists at the time had a relatively free reign over target planning and strategy of its bombers and soon missiles. Both elements would eventually clash over strategy. Scientists pointed out the relative problems of strategic bombing in World War II (from the results of the Strategic Bombing Survey conducted after the war, stating that bombers couldn't have ended World War II and ultimately ground forces were required to finish it) and that a massive bombing campaign was not going to be effective neither politically nor morally, especially when the nuclear bomb came into play. The Air Force meanwhile charged that a quick, violent war that ended quickly with fewer American casualties was the way to proceed.  Curtis LeMay himself saw the strain of long-term war during World War II, and his ideas coincided with the Air Force’s. With the end of Eisenhower's administration, Kennedy and especially his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, began to direct changes within the nuclear community by instituting the first SIOP, or Single Interrogated Operational Plan, which brought all the services together at Omaha to plan a warfighting strategy.

                Back at Lincoln Air Force Base in 1955, the 307th and 98th Bomb Wings became the true symbol of the ideals of massive retaliation. Near one-hundred bombers supported by tanker elements on a nuclear strike mission against Soviet targets was nothing to scoff at. Indeed as of 2013 a capable nuclear bomber fleet is scarcely larger for the entire United States Air Force.  Such numbers of bombers in the 1950s were the still less than stuff of Eighth Air Force raids into Germany during the early 40s, except the B-47s didn’t carry a few thousand pounds of high explosive; they carried something much more powerful.

SAC Vulnerability and Lincoln

                Yet problems were found with SAC’s vulnerability. In 1955 and 1956, it would have actually taken hours of preparation time to equip, fuel and man B-47s to at least get airborne. A surprise attack by Soviet bombers, and later much more drastically by Soviet ICBMs could take much less time to knock-out SAC bases.  By the next year however, especially when the Sputnik satellite was put aloft by the Soviets, SAC had quickly developed a new program to put many of its bombers on 15 minute ground alert. In 1961 a third of SAC’s nuclear strike force was mandated to be on ready alert.

Defense intellectuals as well as the Air Force now began to worry more about the manned bomber’s vulnerability. When the Francis Gary Powers incident of 1960 was thrown into the equation, it was all too obvious that the B-47 could not meet the nuclear deterrent role much longer into the 1960s.

                B-47s were purpose built to fly at high altitude and had a shorter range without the assistance of air-refueling. The airframes themselves were already aging but now with the threat of Soviet Surface-to-Air missiles being fired at them at high altitude forced SAC to develop low-level flying techniques to avoid radar coverage. The B-47s thin-wings, which were a great advantage to it in the early days of jet powered bombers, would now be its Achilles heel. Fatigue of the metal caused by the stress of flying at lower levels caused accidents. This was somewhat alleviated by Operation “Milk Bottle”, the task by Boeing to reinforce the B-47 wings. Even then it was known that the B-47 was destined for phase out.

                The time period between 1957 and 1962 saw huge leaps in rocket technology and the thought of a relatively drawn out World War III would last days now began to seem as though it could last mere hours. When two powers could hurl ICBMs at one another at high speed, it seemed the manned bomber was at a crossroads.

                Even with the deployment of the Atlas-F ICBM and the 551st Strategic Missile Squadron, representing a great jump in targeting, fueling and protection measures when compared to earlier missiles, Lincoln Air Force Base may as well have seen its days numbered by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.


                At the same time period, President Kennedy and McNamara began to further retool American nuclear strategy. Now sensing the increasing chances of limited war (coinciding with early involvement during the Vietnam War), conventional forces began to be recognized more fully. SAC’s bomber force was shrinking, B-47s themselves only being saved from phase-out by a 1961 militarization move by Kennedy in response to the Berlin Crisis. McNamara, coming from the private sector was more receptive to political science and the proposals set by RAND scientists. Counterforce, the idea of “legitimizing” a nuclear strike against an enemy’s own nuclear forces and not their civilians, began to take hold and become a possible method of U.S. nuclear policy. Now a nuclear war was to be less of a spasm of violence but, potentially, a strange form of diplomacy provided that the Soviets played along. Of course there was no way of truly knowing if they would play the game imagined by American planners.

                The upcoming Minuteman missile system fell nicely within the premise of this strategy. Relatively survivable encased within hardened silos and dispersed over many miles, McNamara immediately saw the potential of a cheaper and increasingly more accurate deterrent force against manned bombers.  Minuteman could ride out an attack much more successfully than dozens of unprotected bombers sitting on a flightline and could be better counted on constituting a reserve force of nuclear weapons during later phases of the counterforce game.

                Atlas-F was protected as well but took time to fuel and fire, not to mention the hazards with its liquid fuels and high operating costs. In all, the Atlas was a weapon system that was quite useful to the U.S. for a few years, but the smaller, cheaper, and safer Minuteman (particularly its later variants, the Ib, the II and the III) became the backbone not only of America’s ICBMs but its entire nuclear arsenal. The triad of ICBM, bomber and submarine missiles was soon to be developed.

                But, by 1965 the useful life for Lincoln was quickly passing. Developed in a time of massive retaliation, the vulnerabilities and not least the age of the B-47 fleet allowed it to pass into history with a successful mission of deterrence. The Atlas-F, as well as many of its first-generation brethren, was phased out as well. Technology now offered a true “push-button” response to nuclear conflict. Now instead of a crew of men aboard bombers flying towards distant targets a team of two officers, perhaps 60 or more feet underground ironically represented the U.S. Air Force’s nuclear striking power. This is not to say that the bomber had been totally phased out, the B-52 and later B-1 and B-2 bombers of course continued on the deterrent role. But the massive bomber force, representing an earlier time of American thinking disappeared.

Perhaps fittingly Lincoln AFB closed its doors in 1966 as one of the original “classic” SAC bases whose flight lines were crowded with planes and later early generation missiles stood guard over the prairies. During a time of “counterforce” planning, the relative sledge hammer of Lincoln B-47s were exchanged for pin-point strikes of Minot’s Minutemen, if one could consider a nuclear weapon in such a manner. B-52s saw out the end of the Cold War and SAC itself on nuclear alert missions, standing ready during the turmoil of Vietnam, the ease of Détente and  the tension of the so-called “Second Cold War” of the 1980s. In 2013, under the jurisdiction of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command and the greater control by Strategic Command, America’s land and air based nuclear weaponry remain in the inventory though no longer on strategic alert. The world has dramatically changed time and time again, whereas Lincoln Air Force Base remains albeit in slow decay, as a testament to a time when the bomb was American defensive strategy and the hope of a nation stood on the shoulders of B-47s, Atlas-Fs  and the men who operated them.

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