The Early War Plans

Dec. 1, 2012

During World War II, war planners enjoyed a special status in the ground Army and in its virtually independent aviation arm, the US Army Air Forces. War plans were the link between forces and combat. Thus, the writing of good war plans was vital.

Airmen line up in front of a massive B-36 as another one flies past. Early atomic bombs were so heavy and cumbersome only the largest bombers could carry them. (USAF photo)

In the post-World War II era, the responsibility for carrying out national war planning passed from individual armed services to the Joint Staff, composed of personnel from the three services and civilians. These plans were delivered for review and acceptance (or rejection) by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of War (later, of Defense), and the President.

The advent of atomic weapons might not have changed everything about planning, but it came close. In the early days of the Cold War, the bomb and Strategic Air Command held a special position: SAC’s atomic-armed bombers formed the main US striking arm. SAC was a USAF-only combatant command, but it answered operationally to the JCS.

Even before the end of World War II in 1945, it was clear that the main enemy in the postwar world would be the Soviet Union. By 1950, communist China was assumed to be yet another adversary. For allies, the US counted on Britain, many Western European nations (coalescing under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and several countries in Asia.

196 Atomic Bombs

War planners had a good idea who would be friends and who would be foes, if war came.

However, planners faced three major constraints: money, personnel, and foreign bases. All three of these commodities were lacking in the immediate postwar era.

Two decades of economic depression and world war had left the world’s economies in tatters. People in the democratic West wanted an end to rationing, austerity, and belt-tightening, so military calls for large defense expenditures fell on deaf ears.

In this era, the key to military security would lie in the wise choice of weapons and methods able to meet national objectives effectively and efficiently. The logical answer seemed to be atomic weapons.

The early atomic bombs were large and heavy—around 10,000 pounds. Only large bombers such as the B-29, B-50, and B-36 were powerful enough to carry them. Because of this fact, it was all too apparent that the Air Force would play the dominant role in US war planning.

The Air Force’s atomic bomber capability seemed to address two of the three major concerns.

First, atomic-armed airpower did not cost anywhere near as much as the maintenance of massive conventional land, naval, and aviation forces.

Second, the atomic air weapon required far fewer uniformed troops than would be needed for an all-conventional deterrent.

A Boeing B-50 in flight. Heavy bombers were to play a key role in all scenarios imagined in early Cold War war plans. (USAF photo)

However, atomic airpower did nothing to ease the third constraint, the lack of overseas bases. Because the heavy bomber had relatively short ranges (and because practical air refueling had not yet arrived), the US would still need to acquire foreign footholds from which to operate them. Big conventional forces would undoubtedly require even more.

With these capabilities, constraints, adversaries, and allies on the table, postwar US planners set to work.

The first joint plan was developed in 1946. It held that, should the USSR attack any US allies on its periphery, Washington would respond with air-delivered atomic bombs—196 of them, to be exact. These would devastate 20 urban centers in the Soviet Union. The goal was to cripple Soviet war-sustaining industry and destroy a significant fraction of Moscow’s military power.

Planners acknowledged that the attacking B-29 force, launching from Britain, Italy, India, and China, would be sure to suffer losses (the plan foresaw up to 35 percent attrition), but they were convinced that a sufficient number of bombers would get through and complete their combat missions.

Interestingly, the war planners had no access to reliable information about the size and shape of the atomic stockpile. They erroneously assumed that a large number of bombs would be immediately available for use. At the time, the entire US atomic weapon stockpile consisted of a meager nine bombs.

As the plan worked its way up to President Harry S. Truman, defense officials knew they had gone far toward establishing reliance on strategic air attack as the primary response to Soviet aggression.

Next came a war plan called Pincher. It was created to deal with a hypothetical Soviet invasion of the Middle East and its oil fields, combined with a near-simultaneous Soviet attack on Western Europe.

The planners knew that the Soviet military would offer a formidable challenge. It would put into action 113 tough ground divisions. Its satellite nation allies would deploy 84 additional ground divisions. In stark contrast, the Western allies would be able to muster only 17 divisions.

In assessing this scenario, the Joint Staff prognosis for the West was grim. The planners believed the Red Army would surely overrun most of the continent, although there was a hope that the US and its allies could make a stand in either Italy or the Iberian peninsula and avoid being shoved out of Europe entirely.

A column of Soviet T-54 main battle tanks. Planners feared hordes of tanks such as these would someday rumble across Western Europe. (Soviet government agency photo)

The obvious conclusion was that the equalizer would have to be atomic airpower. It would, presumably, halt the offensive at some point and begin to destroy the enemy forces.

After the air campaign, the US would carry on the war as resources permitted. Pincher also noted that forward air bases, not then available, would be necessary to carry out the atomic air offensive.

Pincher foresaw that the US would use Britain as the major base from which it would launch counterattacks against the Soviet Union. The plan envisioned a gradual buildup of American forces, a military blockade of the Soviet Union, and an atomic air offensive against the war-making capacity of the Soviet Union.

The plan said that America’s most critical targets would be located in the Moscow and Caucasus regions, but Pincher offered no detailed target analysis for the air campaign.

In fact, intelligence data on the Soviet Union was not available in sufficient detail to allow the planners to do much more than talk in generalities.

The Joint Chiefs never officially approved Pincher. However, the JCS agreed to use it for planning purposes.

Bushwacker and Halfmoon

The next major turn in war planning came in 1948. In an effort to drive the US and the Western Allies out of the western sectors of Berlin, Joseph V. Stalin ordered a land blockade of the embattled German city. The specter of starvation loomed. So did the specter of war.

At this point, joint planners presented Bushwacker. This longer-range war plan was built on a notional war in 1952. The assumption was that the Soviet Union would not, at that time, have acquired its own atomic bomb. Moscow’s forces would, however, possess chemical and biological weapons, fearsome in their own right.

Under Bushwacker, the Western goal would exceed simply restoring the status quo ante; it would be to push the invaders out of Eastern Europe and back within their 1939 boundaries, before Stalin connived with Hitler to carve up Poland.

This plan also relied on a strategic atomic air campaign for the main offensive. In a new wrinkle, Bushwacker maintained that Navy aircraft carriers would also take part. Within the planning organization, opinion diverged on the question of whether carriers would be confined to conventional operations or would also employ atomic weapons.

Two months after the Joint Staff presented Bushwacker, it offered Halfmoon, a short-range plan covering the first year of a projected war with the Soviet Union.

President Dwight Eisenhower meets with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at Camp David. The bombastic Soviet leader kept war planners on their toes. (Eisenhower Presidential Library photo)

Halfmoon, like its predecessors, posited a Soviet invasion of Europe. The scenario was this: Western Allies in western Germany, vastly outnumbered, would retreat to the Rhine and then offer whatever resistance they could muster. The expectation was that the Red Army would overrun most of the continent and allied forces would depart from French and Italian seaports, à la Dunkirk in 1940.

Britain would likely remain secure, the planners concluded. From bases there and in the Middle East and Okinawa, the US would begin the counterattack some 15 days after the Soviet attack. This, of course, would have to be an atomic air offensive using Air Force heavy bombers. As the planners sized matters up, it would be a long slog.

Significantly, the new plan postulated a role for each of the three US military services. The Air Force’s SAC force—the queen on the chessboard—would dominate the initial phase of the counterattack, working virtually alone to decimate Soviet forces and war-making potential.

The Navy was to sweep the seas of the Soviet fleet, institute a naval blockade of key port cities, and contribute to the air offensive.

The plan also provided that, at some unspecified point in the action, Washington would launch a land invasion to defeat any residual Soviet forces and retake the continent.

Initially, Halfmoon was not well-received by the Joint Chiefs. They were displeased that it contained no projections for military operations beyond one year of combat. Eventually, however, the JCS looked past Halfmoon’s shortcomings and approved it, making it the first postwar plan to get their seal of approval.

In early 1949, Halfmoon was updated, expanded, and renamed Trojan.

The Halfmoon-Trojan effort constituted a critical step forward in planning. For one thing, it had a detailed targeting annex for the air offensive. It identified 70 specific industrial centers for atomic attack by SAC bombers.

The attacks were scheduled to require 133 atomic weapons—eight of which would be dropped on Moscow and seven on Leningrad. The first air strike would occur on the ninth day of the notional war and involve the employment of 25 atomic bombs. B-29s and B-50s would launch from bases on the Soviet periphery. B-36s would attack from US bases.

The planners argued that detailed targeting data was vital to the credibility of US deterrence.

They wrote that the US could not allow “the slightest doubt” about American willingness “to use the bomb” in a war “to creep into Soviet minds.” If that were ever to happen, the plan went on, the Kremlin “may miscalculate and start the war we are trying so hard to avert.”

The comment summed up the essence of nuclear deterrence that would endure throughout the Cold War.

A Temporary Monopoly

Gen. Curtis LeMay, shown here on a Navy ship watching an atomic bomb test in the early 1950s, did not want the US to “take the first blow” in a nuclear war. (USAF photo)

Atomic weapons had taken war planning onto a new plateau. Even so, defense planners received from their White House masters little help identifying major threats and US goals in the event of war.

It was not clear that atomic bombs would be available in sufficient numbers or even whether they would be authorized for use in a crisis. It took until September 1948 for President Truman to officially announce this decision.

Another issue confronting US political and military leaders concerned the viability of preventive or pre-emptive war.

National security professionals knew that the US monopoly on atomic weapons would not last. They frequently debated the idea of capitalizing on the West’s temporary advantage to reduce the threat of the Soviet Union before it had a chance to become an atomic power itself.

The question boiled down to this: Should the US strike first—now—to disarm the Soviet Union, or should it use atomic boms only in retaliation for an enemy first strike, after the USSR has acquired its own weapons

Then-Lt. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, the SAC commander in chief, was a key figure in the debate. At a commander’s conference, he swatted aside the idea of taking the first blow in a war.

“I think we in the military ought to do something about educating the people that we do not have to take the first blow,” he argued. He then clarified, “I didn’t mean by that statement that we should go out and attack Russia tomorrow. I do mean that there are many ways of determining when you are going to be invaded. One is to wait until somebody hits you on the head with a ball bat and then determine whether he is mad at you; the other is to start to swing and hit when the blow lands. That is what I’m talking about.”

LeMay’s predecessor, Gen. George C. Kenney, seconded LeMay’s belief. In a letter to the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Kenney stated that he was “worried about the time elapsing from the day that the whistle is blown before we can launch our first atomic strike.”

He feared a surprise attack would greatly reduce US war-making capability. “It is going to be so difficult to shorten the time before we can start effective retaliation that this in itself constitutes another argument for re-examining our national attitude toward fighting what has been wrongly termed a preventive war,” said Kenney. “It would not be a preventive war, because we are already at war.”

Retired Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, on becoming President early in 1953, launched Solarium, a wide-ranging study of national security policy in an atomic-armed world. His civilian planners presented three options, one of them involving preventive war against the Soviet Union.

It appears that Eisenhower never seriously considered accepting that option; as he was taking the Solarium briefing, he commented acidly, “You can’t have this kind of war. There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”

A nuclear weapon test on Bikini Atoll in 1954. In 1946, the US “stockpile” consisted of only nine atomic bombs, but grew rapidly. (Department of Energy photo)

Even so, Eisenhower relied firmly on SAC and its now-nuclear capability, commenting in 1959 that he expected deterrence would remain successful, but in the event it failed, the job of SAC was to “hit the Russians as hard as we could.”

Translation: The Kremlin might start a nuclear war, but the United States would finish it.

The rapid growth of the atomic and now-nuclear stockpile, combined with the dramatically smaller size of devices beginning around 1950, meant the Army and Navy were able to develop their own special weapons.

The Army, for example, built an atomic artillery round. Within the Air Force, fighter aircraft were able to carry smaller bombs. The same was true of Navy aircraft.

Massive Retaliation

The Far East Air Forces commander pushed for deployment of atomic weapons to his theater, under his control. The same was true in Europe, and in 1952 NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, acquired atomic weapons. By early 1952, SACEUR had been assigned 80 atomic weapons, to be delivered by aircraft of US Air Forces in Europe. The carriers would be not only medium-range B-29 and B-50 bombers but also F-84 fighters.

Eisenhower had directed a “New Look” at defense policy, and in October 1953 issued a national security statement. All talk of balanced forces was jettisoned, and Eisenhower instead called for major change.

“The United States should make clear to the USSR and communist China, in general terms or with reference to specific areas as the situation requires, its intention to react with military force against any aggression by Soviet bloc armed forces. … In the event of hostilities, the United States will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other munitions.”

This was the genesis of what came to be called, in the famous formulation of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the policy of “massive retaliation.”

Eisenhower was clear on priorities. When the Army Chief of Staff pushed for more funds for his service, the President exploded, exclaiming, “The only thing we fear is an atomic attack delivered by air on our cities.”

Building up the Army was senseless, he said. The problem with the Army Chief was “he’s talking theory—I’m trying to talk sound sense.”

Eisenhower could not have put his view more plainly. The Soviet Union did not fear a large US Army. It feared SAC bombers. Massive retaliation would rely on these implements of war.

American war plans between 1945 and 1955 were more or less alike. They were rudimentary and military leaders knew this, but planning was essential, and just going through the process offered important benefits. Noted one military historian about the period: “If war plans do not establish the precise course of a conflict, they do set the general course of strategic operations.”

The common denominator in all of the Joint Staff’s early Cold War plans was the assumed dominant role of strategic atomic and then nuclear airpower. While the details changed over the years, that aspect, as everyone now knows, remained constant.

Phillip S. Meilinger is a retired Air Force pilot with 30 years of service and a Ph.D. in military history from the University of Michigan. He is the author of seven books and more than 80 articles on military affairs. His latest book is Into the Sun: Novels of the US Air Force. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Early Atomic Air,” appeared in March.