Aerospace Power and the Cold War

From the Centennial of Flight


The first KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft flew in August 1956. It was put into service for aerial refueling because the KC-97 couldn’t keep up with the B-52.

Soviet SAMs in Cuba

This photo was President Kennedy’s favorite of all those taken during the Cuban crisis. It was taken with the camera displayed here on November 10, 1962 (from less than 500 ft. altitude at a speed of 713 mph). Clearly shown are Soviet-built SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in place at launch sites. These defensive missiles protected offensive weapons sites and posed a serious threat to U.S. reconnaissance aircraft.

SR 71 spyplane

Lockheed’s SR-71 spy plane replaced the U-2. It was the most advanced of the military aircraft of the 1950s and 1960s, cruising at 85,000 feet and at more than three times the speed of sound.

Boeing B-52 Stratofortress

Boeing’s B-52B Stratofortress was the first aircraft in the B-52 series to actually serve with operational bomb wings in the Strategic Air Command.

Convair B-36

The Convair B-36 was the largest bomber ever to enter service. Although the aircraft had great range, the slow cruising speeds at combat weight (about 225,000 lbs.) caused the entire B-36 program to be criticized as out dated in the post-WWII era of jet development.

XB-36 and B-29

The Army Air Force’s newest superbomber, the XB-36 compared with the veteran, and much smaller, B-29.

XB-47 Stratojet bomber

The Boeing B-47 was the first all-jet bomber.

Lockheed U-2A

The Lockheed U-2 was designed and built for surveillance missions in the thin atmosphere of about 55,000 feet. It first flew in August 1955.

almost 50 years, beginning soon after the end of World War II, the United
States and the Soviet Union have prepared for war. Fortunately, none was
declared and no shot was ever fired. But during that half century, diplomats,
politicians and ordinary citizens lived with the knowledge that an improvident
move could result, at best, in war and, at worst, in the destruction of the
world. Governments, defense industries and citizens were changed forever by
this knowledge. And in aeronautics and spaceflight, it led to an intense period
of progress for aircraft, missiles,
spacecraft, and technology.

the 1960s, nuclear bombs could be delivered by three vehicles, known as the
nuclear triad: aircraft-delivered bombs, land-based missiles, and sea-based
missiles (mostly carried by submarine). The responsibility for the first two
fell into a U.S. Air Force command, the Strategic Air Command (SAC).
Formed on March 21, 1946, SAC’s mission was to “be prepared to conduct long
range offensive operations in any part of the world…to provide combat units
capable of intense and sustained combat operations employing the latest and most
advanced weapons.” Although nuclear weapons were never mentioned, this was
known to be SAC’s primary mission, even during the Korean and Vietnam

the late 1950s, the bomber had been the only long-distance nuclear delivery
system.  The Boeing B-29, which had dropped the nuclear
bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, quickly became obsolete and was replaced by a
series of planes that included the Convair B-36, the largest bomber ever to
enter service, the first all-jet bomber B-47, and in 1954, the Boeing B-52. The B-52 remained SAC’s nuclear bomber
until the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s first nuclear bomber was the Tupolev Tu-4 “Bull,” whose
design was based on three B-29s that made emergency landings at Soviet bases
during World War II. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union updated its
fleet with a series of bombers from the Tupolev Design Bureau, including the
1955 Tu-20 “Bear,” which was the only airplane ever to combine swept wings and

a bomber’s range was air-to-air
refueling. Although the technology had existed since 1929, it was fully
developed by SAC in the late 1940s to increase the range of U.S.-based bombers.
Most American tanker aircraft are modified airliners, filled with fuel. The
Boeing KC-97 (modified from the Boeing 377) was the first SAC tanker to enter
regular service in the early 1950s. Because it could not keep up with the B-52,
the KC-97 was replaced by the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. One group of
Stratotankers, code-named “Looking Glass,” was kept in the air continuously for
three decades. In the event that SAC’s command center in Nebraska was
destroyed, officers aboard the Looking Glass planes would have continued the
task of running SAC from the air. By the end of the Cold War, almost every
plane for every nation had in-flight refueling capabilities.

apprised of the other side’s plans and capabilities was essential to organizing
war strategies. Although it was a violation of international law to enter
another nation’s airspace uninvited, it was worth the risk of an international
incident to stay informed. In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower proposed an
“open skies” policy to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The policy would allow
reconnaissance aircraft free range over each other’s countries. Convinced the
United States had less than forthright reasons for pushing for the policy,
Khrushchev refused. The United States, though, continued the flights, with
planes that could fly fast enough and high enough not to be shot down by the
country below. The American Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) first spyplane,
the U-2, was
developed by Lockheed’s Advanced Development Projects Office, nicknamed “Skunk
Works.” The U-2, an extremely long-range, high-altitude airplane, flew its
first reconnaissance flight in 1956 and immediately began to provide a clearer
picture of the Soviet Union’s nuclear capabilities. It was augmented in 1962 by
the SR-71 Blackbird, the only operational plane to be the fastest in the world
the day it debuted as well as on the day it was retired in 1990 (it was
reactivated in 1995). In 1976 it set a world speed record at 2,193.167 miles
per hour (3,529.56 kilometers per hour), but its true top speed remains
classified information.

Satellites were also a valuable means
of spying on another country from above. On October 4, 1957, the Soviets
put the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. The United
States then sped up its reconnaissance satellite program, named Project
CORONA. From 1960 through the early 1970s, the United States sent up
more than 140 satellites to monitor nuclear tests, space launches, troops
movements, and any intercontinental missile launches, with about 100
satellites operating successfully. The Soviet program was equally active
during the period, with up to two launches per month.

Another part of the space program was
the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Guidance
system technology, rocket fuels and launch systems, some descended from
Germany’s V-2 rockets, were increasingly
improved to launch and kill quickly. They were kept in sheds, underground
silos, on battleships, and in submarines patrolling close to the coast.
Because they trailed the Americans in bomber development and fleet size,
the Soviets used ICBMs as their primary weapon delivery system. Their
first Soviet ICBM was the SS-1 Scud, a copy of captured V-2s. The SS-3
Shyster had a nuclear warhead added. After a vast array of models that
had increased speed and decreased weight, the Soviets settled on the
SS-11 Sego in 1966. Featuring a storable liquid propellant, more than
a thousand were built. The American equivalent was the Minuteman rocket,
which was solid-fueled and could be stored cheaply in silos. Although other missiles were developed,
the militaries focused on these two models until arms reduction treaties
began to order their destruction.

the beginning of the Cold War, the United States was able to keep peace because
it was the only nation with a nuclear bomb. Although politicians were loath to
use this weapon, they were not afraid to use it as a bargaining chip. The
Soviet Union knew that any sign of aggression toward the United States or its
allies would result in a nuclear bomb being dropped on one of its cities, a
policy known as “first strike capability.” But once the Soviets tested their
own bomb in 1949, nuclear policy began changing.

United States’ next policy was termed “massive retaliation” in 1954. This
called for devastating the Soviet Union at any sign of aggression. But, as the
Soviets built their arsenals, this policy became mutual, guaranteeing that any
threat from either side would assure that both sides would launch full
retaliatory nuclear attacks, destroying each other completely. This doomsday
scenario, termed Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), meant that only diplomacy
and deterrence could ensure survival.

a result, the United States followed a doctrine of deterrence which dictated
that an opponent would not launch an attack if the retaliation results
outweighed the gains of the original attack. This strategy only worked if the
enemy knew that America maintained the capability for such an attack and would
not hesitate to use it. Plus, the United States had to be assured their forces
would survive the initial attack and that the attack to which it was responding
was not a mistake but, rather the intentional action of a hostile government.
If deterrence did not work, the U.S. reaction was termed “flexible
response”–they would inflict losses that would outweigh any expected gain from
the original attack. This theory, too, held a risk of escalation.

the Cold War there were times when tension nearly escalated to nuclear war. The
most dramatic was in June 1962 when a U-2 spy plane photographed Soviet missile
bases being built on Cuba, 90 miles (145 kilometers) off the coast of Florida.
For 14 tense days, the world feared nuclear war would begin. Finally, in the
words of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “the Soviets blinked” and removed the
missiles. Khrushchev noted that the nuclear threat, especially the fact that
“20 percent of all Strategic Air Command planes, carrying atomic and hydrogen
bombs, were kept aloft around the clock,” had been a major part of the
withdrawal decision.

By 1989 the Soviet Union’s power had begun to wane
and its protective shield fell apart. Communist dictatorships all across
Eastern Europe were toppled, until in 1991, the Communists even lost power in
Russia. The vast arsenals the two countries had built began to be disassembled
and in 1992, SAC, the mighty nuclear delivery command, was disestablished.
After almost half a century, the nuclear threat that gripped the world was
gone, without a single shot ever having been fired.


References and Additional

Burrows, William E. This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space
Age. New York: Random House, 1998.

Day, Dwayne, et al. Eye in the Sky: The Story of the CORONA Spy
Satellites. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Freedman, Lawrence. “The
First Two Generations of Nuclear Strategists” in Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age,
Peter Paret, ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Kaplan, Fred. The Wizards of Armageddon. Stanford,
Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1983.

Lloyd, Alwyn T. A Cold War Legacy: A Tribute to Strategic
Air Command- 1946-1992. Missoula, Mont.: Pictorial Histories Publishing
Company, 1999.

Miller, David. The Cold War: A Military History. New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Richelson, Jeffrey. America’s Secret Eyes in Space. New
York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Samuel, Wolfgang W.E. I Always Wanted to Fly: America’s Cold War
Airmen. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

“American Experience: Race
for the Superbomb.”

CNN Cold War Special.

Cold War Exhibit.

Cold War International
History Project.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. “U.S. Satellite Imagery, 1960-1999.” April 14,

“Showcase Corona.” Central
Intelligence Agency Directorate of Science and Technology.