Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced that Russia would soon station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. Although the announcement was more of a warning to the West over its military support to Ukraine, it drew the ire of NATO states.
Experts had expressed concerns that the nuclear posturing is reminiscent of the Cold War days when the United States and the former Soviet Union were up in arms against each other without ever engaging in a direct military confrontation. The period also saw a looming threat of a potential nuclear strike.
In the 1960s, when the Cold War between the two camps was in full swing, the US Strategic Air Command sought to familiarize the crew of the B-52 strategic bombers with the devastating effect of a potential nuclear strike that they may have to conduct.
The Strategic Air Command (SAC) created intriguing training videos and reports in the 1960s to prepare bomber crews and pilots for a potential nuclear conflict. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) of the United States recently declassified these materials.
The United States Air Force Training Film 5363, “Nuclear Effects During SAC Delivery Missions,” produced in 1960, is one of them.
The goal of Training Film 5363 was to familiarize SAC pilots and crew members with the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapon explosions and the intricate arrangements created so that the crews could avoid the hazards of a nuclear battlefield and return home after completing their mission.
These plans were part of the “Combat Mission Folders,” which were given to each nuclear-armed bomber on alert duty and contained the projects necessary to reach the objectives and return safely to the base.
During the Cold War era, the United States started a program under code names Head Start, Chrome Dome, Hard Head, Round Robin, and Operation Giant Lance. B-52 bombers carried out airborne alert duty during the Cold War. For quick first strikes or reprisal in the event of a nuclear conflict, bombers hung around locations outside the Soviet Union.
For instance, when Operation Chrome Dome was being conducted, B-52s with nuclear weapons on board were on alert and prepared to take off just 15 minutes after the alarm went off. If the Soviet Union attacked the United States, these bombers on high alert were designed to launch retaliatory nuclear strikes.
What Does The Declassified Video Show?
The video opens with a B-52 flying an Emergency War Order sortie under Positive Control while en route to the “go/no-go” position. However, the crew is unsure if this is a real mission or a drill until they arrive at the location.
The narrator explains, however, that while they are confident that the mission can be completed because it was meticulously planned and reviewed by highly skilled combat planners, and they have flown countless profile missions, they still need to be aware of the nuclear repercussions of a detonation.
The majority of the video focuses on the effects of nuclear explosions on both aircraft and crew, as well as the precautions taken to reduce crew exposure.
For example, carefully planned routes that created a safe distance between the bomber and the detonation of their weapon and the explosions caused by other SAC bombers operating in the same area were used to minimize crew exposure.
The film continues with a summary of the numerous atmospheric nuclear tests conducted by the US, from Crossroads in 1946 to Hard Tack in 1958.
These tests increasingly included efforts to measure the effects of the tests on aircraft and structures, both in the air and on the ground. They frequently used drones to measure radioactivity in the air, in addition to B-47 Canberra bombers with air sampling equipment.
Together with these experiments, a scientific investigation by academic and Air Force researchers improved SAC operational processes.
To carefully organize the missions of the Emergency War Order (EWO) in line with the objective assignment by the Joint Chief of Staff to SAC, this enormous amount of data immediately flows into the planning cells of SAC, numbered Air Forces, and Wings.
The Combat Mission Folder located on the aircraft is then used to contain the comprehensive plans and “overwhelming mass of facts and figures” needed to complete the mission.
The video returns to the B-52 approaching the turnaround point when a radio message from SAC comes in: “Sky King. Sky King. This is Migrate. This is Migrate. Do not answer. Break. Break. Alpha Sierra Foxtrot Juliet Oscar Papa Mike Tango. Break. Go-Code.” The crew scrambles to verify the code and discovers this is the go code for a real mission: “Pilot to the crew. We checked the go code and verified it. This is it. We’re going in.”
When they are ready to cross the H-Hour Control Line on their route to the allocated target in the Soviet Union, the crew members briefly suspend their disbelief before getting to work and preparing the aircraft for the nuclear strike mission.
The crew experiences the shockwave from another nuclear bomb dropped nearby as they navigate to the objective, then they fly low to escape Soviet air defense missiles over lakes, mountains, woods, and farmland.
To achieve a safe separation distance from the target after they are a few miles away, the bomber engages in a pop-up maneuver, drops the bomb, and then descends again at a low altitude and rapid speed.
Once the bomb explodes, a battle damage assessment is conducted before the B-52 flies through the contaminated cloud left behind by a bomb dropped 30 minutes earlier to avoid flying through the explosion of a multi-megaton bomb that was planned to pass over the area at that time.
At the movie’s end, the narrator makes a dramatic declaration that captures the anxiety of the looming nuclear conflict anticipated during the Cold War: “This could happen. If this nightmare situation ever materializes into a grim reality, you may have a real bear by the tail, but at least you are assured of escaping from the nuclear effects of our own weapons.”
The ongoing war in Ukraine has presented a renewed threat of nuclear weapons, similar to the Cold War era. Russia’s sporadic warning about nuclear weapons has caught global attention.
In February last year, Putin said he was putting Russia’s nuclear arsenal on high alert after international sanctions were imposed on the country. Further, Russian nuclear posturing has become focused again in recent months as Kyiv continues to secure lethal military aid from its NATO allies.
EurAsian Times reported earlier this month that a Russian military journal suggested that the country is developing a new military strategy using nuclear weapons. It emphasized that the US had “apparently” prepared plans to strike Russia because of concerns it might be losing its global dominance.
Against that backdrop, the declassification of the training video as Russia consistently threatens to use nuclear weapons in retribution for Western support of Ukraine since the invasion began last year is significant.
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