Academic journal article Air Power History

Armageddon's Shortening Fuse: Ham Advances in Nuclear Weapons Technology Pushed Strategists to Mutually Assured Destruction, 1945-1962

Academic journal article Air Power History

Armageddon's Shortening Fuse: Ham Advances in Nuclear Weapons Technology Pushed Strategists to Mutually Assured Destruction, 1945-1962

Article excerpt

Introduction: The Old Cold War, 1945-1962

In the latter half of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, nuclear conflagration hung like the sword of Damocles above the world. Over the course of approximately four and a half decades of standoff, the U.S. alone produced some 70,000 nuclear weapons for various purposes. (1) Exploded simultaneously at its 1960 peak, this vast arsenal would have yielded the explosive equivalent of 1.37 million atomic bombs of the sort dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. (2) Turnover and obsolescence, however, largely kept the arsenal to within a range of roughly 22,000 weapons from the early 1960s through the 1980s. (3) The rapid build-up of such an arsenal in the 1950s created a super-abundance of weapons, in contrast to their earlier scarcity in the late 1940s. (4) With no cause to worry over supplies of warheads, strategists responded by shifting American nuclear strategy from one limited only to military targets to a total war, aimed at devastating Soviet society. With the whole world hostage to the super powers, the new Cold War had begun.

Beginning with the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, Americans expected nuclear war to come, when it did, almost without warning--a sudden barrage of missiles carrying thermonuclear warheads and then, silence. This apocalyptic vision was the result of specific developments in American nuclear weapons technology in the period 1945-1962. (5) Advances in explosive yield-weight ratios, thermonuclear weapons, long-range jet bombers, missile guidance and targeting systems, warhead production, and intercontinental ballistic missiles drove a revolution in planning for nuclear war that imagined parallel Soviet advances, grew paranoid about American vulnerability to a first strike, and increasingly stressed rapid response and massive retaliation. (6) The fast pace of technological breakthroughs in weapons technology created this arguably defensible paranoia as a matter of course. There was no room for error. Every contingency had to be planned for--if American weapons scientists could create it, so could the Soviets, and newer technologies were called for by military strategists to counter the enemy's imagined advantages. (7) By the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the United States possessed 116 different nuclear delivery systems, including 11 types of ballistic missile, 11 types of strategic bomber, and 3 types of ballistic missile submarines. (8) Strategists had to scramble to accommodate these new technologies in their war games. This frenetic process brought about the invulnerable strategic triad of air-launched atomic bombs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and land-based inter-continental ballistic missiles, and with it, an ability to plan around the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) based on mature nuclear delivery platforms.

Therefore, by 1962, technological developments--and nuclear strategists' accommodation of those new technologies in their war plans--brought about the 'new' Cold War Americans remember, a hair-trigger away from mutual destruction. This paper will examine the leading, often unplanned, role technological developments played in influencing planners and policy-makers to create the mature, stable Cold War situation of MAD that ultimately resulted in the detente and disarmament negotiations that characterized the late Cold War world from 1962-1991.

Atomic Monopoly, 1945-1949

The first years of the atomic age, from 1945 to 1949, witnessed a nuclear America both supreme and impotent. No rival on the world stage, even its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, could not match the stunning show of weapons technology America had demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Simultaneously, a limited nuclear arsenal and technical problems with deployment curtailed strategic nuclear efficacy. (9) What Robert L. Perry, an analyst with the RAND Corporation described as "the attractive myth of American exclusiveness" formed the basis of thinking for the scientists and military strategists responsible for running America's nuclear weapons program. …

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