A Look into SAC’s Future

June 1, 1958

General Power explores it in the following excerpt from the Airpower Book Club’s new selection, The USAF Report on the Ballistic Missile, to be published by Doubleday next month. The material below is taken from the chapter entitled “Employment of the Ballistic Missile,” by General Power. For details on this book, see the ad on page 125. A veteran airman, General Power headed the Air Research and Development Command before succeeding Gen. Curtis LeMay as Commander of the Strategic Air Command.

There is little doubt that future developments will bring about rapid improvements in accuracy, yield, range, automaticity, maintainability, and similar areas in which early ballistic missiles are deficient. Technological advances will also engender spectacular improvements in some of those areas, which constitute inherent rather than initial weaknesses of current missile designs.

One of the most far-reaching improvements, as far as operational employment is concerned, would be the conversion from liquid to dependable and stable solid rocket fuels. Use of solid propellants would greatly facilitate maintenance and logistics problems, enhance movability, permit more extensive dispersal and hardening, reduce requirements for skilled technicians, and allow for greater automaticity. The relative simplicity of solid-fuel powerplants would increase reliability and improve reaction capability. Moreover, it is anticipated that over-all cost of procuring and maintaining solid-fuel missile will be considerably below that for the liquid-fuel type. For all these reason solid-fuel powerplants will undoubtedly find increasing use in future generations of ballistic missiles.

Another improvement, which appears technically feasible concerns means for permitting a missile to deviate from its normal ballistic trajectory. Once perfected, such a means would add immeasurably to protection against antimissile defense, which at present, can be based on the fact that after a ballistic missile has been detected its trajectory can be predicted expeditiously and accurately.

A profound impact on SAC’s future operations would also result from the development of an operational Strategic Reconnaissance Satellite (SRS). Such a satellite would minimize one of the principal inherent weaknesses of unmanned weapon systems – their inability to report whether and to what extent they have performed their assigned mission. The Strategic Reconnaissance Satellite would also assist in accurately locating targets, facilitate missile guidance, and possible, provide countermeasures against missile defenses. Moreover, it would permit early detection of hostile missiles and thereby enhance both SAC’s alert posture and missile defense.

Obviously the Soviets would use satellites for similar purposes. This may create the need for developing anti-satellite defenses. Thus the Air Force may have to extend its operations ever deeper into space, with the prospect of actual space warfare in the more distant future.

Non-technical aspects of the future include those for growing cooperation with the other services and the military establishments of our allies in coordinating the assignment of ballistic-missile targets. The increasing availability of ballistic missiles, their tremendous scope of ranges, and their potential adaptability to mobile launching platforms on land, at sea, and in the air will eventually make the entire Soviet target system accessible to many organizations other than SAC. With adequate assignment of responsibilities and centralized control, the combined missile capability of the Free World could represent a tremendous asset to its deterrent posture.

Consideration of Soviet Missile Capability

In the employment of ballistic missiles the Soviets must cope with problems and deficiencies similar to those affecting our own initial operational capability. The question whether or not the Soviets are currently ahead of us in their missile technology is rather academic. They would not launch an all-out missile attack unless and until they have enough operational missiles to ensure the immediate and complete success of such an attack by neutralizing our retaliatory forces. Indications are that the Soviets have not yet reached that capability. By the time they have accumulated what they would consider an adequate stockpile of ballistic missiles, our own stockpile can, with proper effort, have grown sufficiently to offset any technological advantages they might possess at present.

There are, however, some factors in missile employment, which represent exclusive advantages to the Soviets. They have more accurate and detailed information concerning the location and nature of strategic targets in this country. Also these targets are more concentrated, with many major target areas within easy reach of submarine-launched missiles. As the potential aggressor they can select the most suitable time and circumstances for a surprise attack. Thus they can cause severe damage even if our subsequent retaliatory action led to their ultimate defeat.

But while successful attacks on large, highly concentrated target areas can be undertaken with relatively poor missile accuracies, much better accuracies are required to seriously weaken SAC’s combat capability, even with a large number of missiles. The Soviets recognize the mixed bomber-missile force as mandatory to achieve flexibility in the choice of weapon systems for a variety of missions.

There are two approaches the Soviets could and undoubtedly would use in trying to neutralize SAC’s strike forces and thereby prevent unacceptable retaliation. The first approach would entail a surprise attack with both missiles and manned bombers, in which the missiles would be employed principally against area targets while the bombers would concentrate on SAC installations.

The success of such a surprise attack appears rather doubtful, at least at the present time. It is extremely difficult to time the attack in such a manner as to ensure the simultaneous arrival of all elements, manned and unmanned, and thereby to achieve a complete surprise. A small aggressive force would find it easier to delay detection but would not suffice to prevent retaliation, and the bigger the aggressive force, the less change there is for a sneak attack. Radars have now been developed which can detect an ICBM at very great distances. Eventually they should be able to provide the minimum warning SAC will need to launch its manned alert forces before they could be hit on the grounds. The previously mentioned hardening and deployment of missile sites will further enhance the survival of a missile capability adequate to retaliate effectively.

The Soviets’ second approach in preventing decisive retaliation rests with continued improvements of their air defenses, especially against manned bombers. But as defenses become more sophisticated, they must rely increasingly on electronics, which, in turn, can be combated with electronics, generating a vicious spiral of countermeasures and counter-countermeasures of mounting complexity.

Future advances in missile technology and the techniques of missile employment will, of course, increase the Soviets’ offensive capability and, therefore, the threat to us. However, as long as we grow with the threat and succeed in preserving our deterrent margin, we can at least maintain what is sometimes refereed to as a “nuclear stalemate.”

The concept of the nuclear stalemate seems to have a derogatory connotation, which is not justified. As long as the Soviets threaten aggression, we must make every effort to prevent it, because in a nuclear war there are no winners, only different degrees of losers. The nuclear stalemate is preferable to open warfare even if we should eventually win the war, for we could win only at tremendous cost to ourselves. Therefore we must endeavor to maintain the critical balance in the hope that the fundamental issues can be resolved by future international and political developments