Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The Politics of Extravagance: The Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Project

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The Politics of Extravagance: The Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Project

Article excerpt

HOW DID THE U.S. NAVY GET INVOLVED in a ponderous, pricey, and ultimately pathetic effort to achieve nuclear-powered flight? The Navy was the post-World War II leader in supporting research for technological innovations intended to strengthen U.S. military might;l the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Project (ANP), however, is one instance in which it would have been better not to have been involved at all. Unfortunately, the story that will be told here-one of interservice rivalry over appropriations-has a familiar ring. Some might prefer that this seemingly lost chapter in naval history remain in dusty boxes at government archives; as will become apparent, it does not place its principals in a very positive light. It is important, however, that this story be remembered and retold. In the post-Goldwater-Nichols spirit of reducing interservice conflict, lessons can be drawn from proposals based as much (or more) on jealousy as on prudence, and from ideas more fantastic than feasible. This is true even when the events at issue are several decades old; as the saying goes, those who forget the past may end up reliving it.

The ANP project, a manifestation of the American push for innovation in aviation technology, now seems like a figment of the Cold War imagination.2 The nuclear jet, originally envisioned by the Air Force, was to be capable of extremely long-term, continuous flight without refueling. The program, which commenced under the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy CAE) and the Lexington Project of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ballooned into a massive research and development effort. The ANP project spanned almost fifteen years, included about two dozen governmental and private institutions, and consumed over a billion dollars (in 1950s currency). The ANP ultimately failed: no aircraft of practical value that used a nuclear reactor for its power plant ever materialized. The final decision to scrap the project reflected more concern about cost and negative public opinion than about feasibility-a feasibility that may be judged by the fact that even today, and for the foreseeable future, nuclear-powered aircraft remain technically possible but too problematic, along several dimensions, to be realized.

This article begins, after placing the ANP project in historical context, by explaining the technological obstacles it had to overcome before atomic flight could have been realized. By the early 1950s the project was still highly debated but had matured into a complex research and development effort; a chronicle of the Navy's role, beginning in this period, follows. As will next be seen, the project would fall victim to rising costs, competing weapons systems, and ultimately the fears that often accompany the use of nuclear energy. The article concludes with a brief review of the project as well as of its of tereffects.

On 8 August 1945, as a world torn by six years of conflict considered the prospects of peace and rebuilding, the commander in chief of American military forces looked ahead to the nation's future security needs. Although the predictions of General Giulio Douhet, the early-twentieth-century aviation theoretician, about the social impact of strategic bombing had not fully materialized, it was clear that airpower had become a key component of national defense.3 A memo from President Harry Truman to Henry Stimson, the secretary of war, drew attention to the importance of aircraft development. "It is vital to the welfare of our people," Truman emphasized, "that this nation maintain developmental work and the nucleus of a producing aircraft industry capable of rapid expansion to keep the peace and meet any emergency." In particular, the United States would need an "adequate number of advanced and developmental aircraft."4 These assertions, which undoubtedly reflected even earlier conclusions about the need to keep ahead of the Soviet Union, provided legitimacy to even the most revolutionary thinking in aviation at the time, including such ideas as atomic power for aircraft-a concept that followed quickly on the heels of the awesome events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. …

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