Academic journal article Air Power History

Arctic Linchpin: The Polar Concept in American Air Atomic Strategy, 1946-1948

Academic journal article Air Power History

Arctic Linchpin: The Polar Concept in American Air Atomic Strategy, 1946-1948

Article excerpt

With the Japanese surrender on the deck of the U.S.S Missouri on August 14, 1945, American civil and military leaders faced a bewildering array of problems: unaccustomed world leadership, a potential renewed economic depression, demobilization, structuring postwar national defense, the breakup of European colonialism, and signs of an impending Cold War. Among the postwar strategic visions, American air leaders advanced an "air atomic strategy" based on perceived lessons from World War II and the terrible potential of the atomic bomb, viewed by many as a weapon that revolutionized warfare. As Cold War hostilities increased, American war planning adopted strategic air warfare as a primary component. Yet, the problem of transforming a strategic concept into operational and tactical realities remained. At the heart of the issue in geographic, strategic, and conceptual terms emerged the American territory of Alaska and what became known as the "Polar Concept," the idea that the shortest, most direct, and least defended route between U.S. bases and Soviet targets involved flying great circle routes over the Arctic and North Pole. By examining Air Force efforts in 1946-1948 to pioneer Arctic flying, map the vast northern reaches, and plot possible transpolar bomber routes, Alaska emerged as the linchpin of American air atomic strategy. The role of arctic aerial reconnaissance during the early Cold War also served as a case study of military innovation, problem solving, and the limits of Air Force strategic theory.

Awareness of Alaska's strategic importance first appeared with interwar thinking about the growing threat of Japan. Most notable, Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell called attention to a great circle route from the United States to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, to Kamchatka, the Kurile Islands, and to Japan. (1) In a manuscript, "American, Air Power, and the Pacific," Mitchell claimed Alaska as the key to a strategic bombing campaign against vulnerable Japanese cities in an inevitable and imminent war. (2) Likewise, seizing Alaskan bases offered Japan an attack avenue to the United States as dramatized by World War II's significant, but unheralded, Aleutian campaign. Before hostilities, the U.S. Army and Navy recognized Alaska's geographic significance and resource potential and constructed military, naval, and air bases at Adak, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and other locations. Fairbanks, in particular, served as an experimental cold weather station where winter temperatures dropped to as low as minus seventy-two degrees F. (3)

Postwar military base planning varied over the relative importance of Alaska to U.S. national defense concepts. In his book, Circling the Earth: United States Plans for a Postwar Overseas Military Base System, 1942-1948, Elliott Converse depicted a conceptual battle between visions of the United States as a regional, or hemispheric, power and the U.S. as a global force. In the June 1944 revision of the Army Air Force's Initial Postwar Air Force Plan (IPWAF), Col R. C. Moffat, Chief of the Post War Division, argued that even though Alaska is close to eastern Siberia, "it is far distant from the sources of Soviet power." The IPWAF called for outposts in Alaska "purposely not strong enough to constitute a dagger pointed at the Soviet heart or at Europe, but do provide routes for reinforcement ... [and] constitute a deterrent to offensive action aimed at the western hemisphere." (4) Along the same lines, a December 1945 Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) document, "An Outline Plan for the Military Development of Alaska," emphasized the low probability of conflict between the U.S. and U.S.SR:

The Soviet capability to launch a major operation against the Alaskan Area in the next five years is estimated to be almost nil; ... it does not appear necessary to station air forces or ground force combat troops in the Alaskan Area except for training, acclimatization, experimental purposes, limited reconnaissance and surveillance, and for limited local defense of selected bases. …

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