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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.

Aerospace Power and the Cold War

For 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.


By 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, SACís 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 SACís primary mission, even during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.


Until 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 SACís nuclear bomber until the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Unionís 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 turboprops.


Extending a bomberís 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 SACís 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.


Keeping apprised of the other sideís plans and capabilities was essential to organizing war strategies. Although it was a violation of international law to enter another nationís 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 otherís 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 Agencyís (CIA) first spyplane, the U-2, was developed by Lockheedís 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 Unionís 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 Germanyís 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.


At 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.


The United Statesí 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.


As 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.


Throughout 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 Unionís 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.


--Pamela Feltus


References and Additional Reading:

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. Martinís Press, 1998.

Richelson, Jeffrey. Americaís 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." http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/bomb/peopleevents/pandeAMEX61.html

CNN Cold War Special. http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/

Cold War Exhibit. http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/history/coldwar/cw.htm

Cold War International History Project. http://cwihp.si.edu/default.htm

Richelson, Jeffrey T. "U.S. Satellite Imagery, 1960-1999." April 14, 1999. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB13/

"Showcase Corona." Central Intelligence Agency Directorate of Science and Technology. http://www.cia.gov/cia/dst/showcase.html


Educational Organization

Standard Designation† (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political effects of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 7

Students will develop an understanding of the influence of technology on history.

National Center for History in the Schools

US History

Era 9

Standard 1

How post-World War II reconstruction occurred, new international power relations took shape, and colonial empires broke up.