“head start” and sac airborne alert

    "A force had to be secure to be effective.  How secure it was depended upon the type of threat it faced during a particular time period.  Before 1950 the threat to SAC's strike force was almost negligible.  It consisted of Russia's copy of the U.S. B-29, the TU-4, carrying conventional weapons.  By 1956 the threat had become more formidable with the appearance of Soviet jet bombers such as the Bison and Bear.  By that time Russia also had the atomic bomb in its weapons inventory.  During fiscal year 1959 the intercontinental bomber threat still held the center of the stage.  But a new player"which had received much advanced publicity waited in the wings, the ballistic missile."

    "The ground alert force insured survival of a potent retaliatory force if warning could be guaranteed.  But warning could not be guaranteed during the crucial 1961-63 period when Soviet missiles would pose a threat not equalled by the United States.  This situation created the much publicized "missile gap.""

    "National intelligence estimates for these years credited the Soviet Union with 200 to300 intercontinental missiles and 700-800 intermediate range missiles.  Strategic Air Command War Games for 1961-62 concluded this stockpile was sufficient to destroy all SAC and other United States and Allied nuclear retaliatory forces even if these forces were on a ground alert.  In this connection, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Systems (BMEWS), designed to give early warning of missile launchings, would not be completely operational by 1961.  But even when it did become operational it could not guarantee "clear and unequivocal" warning."

    "Since it was doubtful the United States would have as many operational missiles as the Soviet Union during the 1961-63 time period, General Power strongly advocated maintaining a portion of the manned bomber force on an airborne alert.  During FY-59 operational tests proved that such a posture could become a routine weapon in SAC's deterrent arsenal."

From the declassified/excised Strategic Air Command’s 1958-59 Historical Study No. 79, “The Sac Alert Program”

In 1958, taking into account the introduction of sealed pit weapons, General Power decided to develop “Raising Curtain” into a full-fledge “armed airborne alert.”  He wanted a significant portion of his precious bomber force to be safe from surprise missile attack.  He also decided to expand the concept and have the bombers’ flight patterns be based upon actual combat attack plans.  In short, Operation “Head Start,” after evolving into “Chrome Dome,” allowed SAC’s manned bomber force to become a part of the missile-submarine-bomber “Triad,” the mechanism backing the United States’ “Mutual Assured Destruction” policy.

What this film doesn’t show is the cost extracted by MAD/Chrome Dome from the men and women of the Strategic Air Command.  Hidden behind a cloak of secrecy, to this day still not properly enumerated, are the full stories of those who were injured or lost their lives in a multitude of “confrontations,” “accidents” and “incidents.”  In addition, having both grown up and served in the Strategic Air Command, I can personally attest to the emotional and psychological damage brought about by the demands “Alert” placed upon those assigned to SAC.  Mental breakdowns, suicides, disabling physical injuries, an increased incidence of spousal abuse, divorce, and alcoholism ... these, and more, were the things for which no medals were awarded.  No monuments were raised honoring the stratospheric warriors and their families, nor has Hollywood yet produced a mini-series portraying their service.  “Peace is our Profession,” that is what they proclaimed at the gates to their bases, upon the sides of their aircraft, and on their insignia.   Always ready to react to the klaxon, forever hoping it was but another test, that was their job, and that is what they did.

©2013 - Patrick L. Groleau

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