Monday, 15 October 2012

The weak link

One of the things that is fascinating about the cold war is the absolute primacy that nuclear weapons took in military minds over all other considerations, and the ever more intricate measures designed to compensate for various weaknesses of the human body that could compromise the delivery of said weapons to their targets. The crews of the bombers were very much secondary considerations, in monetary and strategic terms far less valuable than their cargo. The most striking example of this is a piece of equipment issued to RAF bomber crews, to be worn in the event of a real bombing run into Soviet territory. Although the crew was in no danger of being adversely affected by the bomb they were carrying, as they would turn away on releasing it and be far enough away when it detonated to avoid the flash and blast, their route over Europe at the outbreak of war would become a morass of smaller explosions. Landmines, artillery pieces, rockets and tactical bombs would all be emitting blinding nuclear flashes, which could disable bomber crews and render them useless. To combat this eventuality, pilots were issued with an eye patch, so that in the event of being exposed to a nuclear flash they could remove the patch from their unharmed eye and continue to their target. Of course, once the weapon had achieved its objective of flattening a Russian city, in a strategic sense the crew became worthless. Whilst a conventional bomber would return to base to be used for another mission, it was widely accepted that the bases the RAF’s Vulcan, Victor and Valiant bombers had departed from would have become radioactive craters. Indeed, due to the UK’s small size, high population and density of high value military targets, it would be amongst the first NATO countries to be hit, and would definitely be hit the hardest. It’s debatable whether these men would have had anything of a country to come back to. They knew that if they ever had to do the job they were trained for, their families would almost certainly be dead, and the crews back on the airbase would be incinerated minutes after they had seen the bombers off.

Indeed, with the advent of the ICBM, warning times were cut to minutes, and the incredibly valuable weapons and bombers suddenly became incredibly vulnerable. Ever more drastic measures were devised to cut launch times, and at the 1960 Farnborough airshow RAF bombers demonstrated the ability to board all crew, start the engines and get in the air from a standing start within 1 minute and fifty seconds. Our American cousins, in their time honoured tradition, took a rather more brash approach to the problem, namely strapping a shitload of rockets on to their bombers so they could make much shorter take off runs (see picture. I guess if you’re going to go and flatten a city, subtlety doesn’t matter that much).
Pretty soon, however, the US air force received enough funding that it could keep a significant portion of its forces in the air AT ALL TIMES. Its quite hard to explain how monumentally expensive this process was, and how much of a logistical challenge it represented. The B-52 carries 40,000 gallons of fuel, and getting that fuel up to the bomber in itself incurs massive costs, as a fully crewed refueling plane must precisely rendezvous with it, which has its own running costs, and so it goes on. This mid air wizadry was just one example of the exploits of a country at the peak of its self-belief and technical prowess. B-52s constantly circled the North Pole, ready to pounce through the Soviet Union’s back door at a moment’s notice. The US air force kept at least one EC-135 airborne command post plane in the air from 1961 until the collapse of the Soviet union in 1991, with an air force general on board to take command of nuclear forces in case his ground based colleagues were taken out in a sneak attack. In the American system, the human body was the weak link. This was because the cold war was unlike any other in history. Whereas the tempo of previous wars was dictated by human needs (soldiers cannot fight 24 hours a day and must sleep, eat and find shelter), missiles, satellites and computers are subject to no such restrictions. With the capability to refuel a plane in the air anywhere in the world, the only thing stopping the US air force keeping bombers in the air for weeks at a time was the amount of fatigue its pilots could tolerate – as this link points out (, it was de riguer for crews to spend 24 hours in the air. Such was the drive to extend the endurance of bombers that nuclear propulsion was looked into, and the soviet and American air forces both fitted test planes with nuclear reactors. A plane equipped with a reactor could stay in the air for months at a time. In reality however the idea turned out to be ludicrously impractical, the massive weight of the reactor severely decreasing the weight of bombs that could be carried, and the huge amounts of radiation generated requiring the crew to be shielded behind several inches of lead. Once again the vulnerability of the human body became a limiting factor.

These innovations helped to give rise to the merging in popular culture of the tropes of nuclear apocalypse and the usurpation of humanity by its mechanical creations. Part of the reason that the iconography of the Terminator series resonates so deeply (forgive the fanboy proselytizing) is that it reflected trends in the real world. The real kicker though, is that we don’t need an omnipotent machine à la Terminator's Skynet to turn nuclear weapons against us, because by definition a nuclear war would be a war removed from human agency, needs and objectives, a war for wars sake. You can’t put the lid back on Pandora’s box.