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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

B-36 Peacemaker - >Complications

On 12 December 1946, General Kenney, who had been promoted to 4 star general in March 1945 and headed SAC since April 1946, suggested reducing the procurement contract for 100 B-36s to a few service test aircraft. After studying available performance estimates on the B-36, the SAC Commander believed it to be inferior to the forthcoming B-50. Known as the B-29D in July 1945, when 200 were ordered. This number was almost immediately reduced to 60. The future B-29D was redesignated B-50 in December because the many design changes resulted in a nearly new airplane. Except for the B-36, the B-50 was the only piston powered bomber produced in the postwar era of jet bombers.

Among the B-36 shortcomings cited by General Kenney were a useful range of only 6,500 miles, insufficient speed, and lack of protection for the bomber's gasoline load. Neither the Air Staff nor Lt. Gen. Nathan F Wining, Air Materiel Command Commanding General, agreed with General Kenney.

General Wining said that the B-36 could not be judged from the XB-36, which had just entered testing. All new airplanes encountered developmental problems, as exemplified by the B-17 and other successful aircraft. Moreover, many improvements could soon be expected, and the B-36 was the only suitable aircraft far enough along to serve as an interim long range atomic carrier until the B-52 arrived. General Twining also argued that the normal desire for the best could be deceiving. Keeping pace with the speed of technological advances was a tricky business. The Boeing B-52, then in the design stage, would probably become a better plane than the B-36, but a promising development could not be abandoned every time a better one appeared on the horizon.Gen. Carl Spaatz, the AAF's new Commander, wholly agreed with General Twining. Thus once more, the B-36 contract was retained in full.

Even though the B-36 program seemed to undergo one crisis after another, engineers kept on forging ahead. By mid 1947 Convair was confident that the 4 wheel landing gear would be ready for the first B-36 production model (B-36A). And while this B-36A and 21 others would retain the R 4360 25 engine of the XB-36, conversion of this engine had been approved in December 1946. The new water injection R-4360-41 engine with its 3,500 horsepower (500 more than the 25 engine) would allow ensuing productions (B-36Bs) to take off within a shorter runway distance. It would also yield slightly better performance at both high and cruising speeds. Nevertheless, more improvements appeared in order. Hence, an even more powerful version of the R 4360 engine, fitted with a variable discharge turbine (VDT), was under development. Convair also offered in February 1947 to install 8 Curtiss Wright T-35 gas turbine engines in one B-36. The installation was expected to cost less than $1.5 million and to be completed by April 1948. The proposal was turned down. The T-35 engine was too far in the future for the B-36, and the Curtiss Wright delivery estimates were overly optimistic.

Convair claimed that the VDT engine (also proposed for the B-50) would give the B-36 a top speed of 410 miles per hour, a 45,000 foot service ceiling, and a 10,000 mile range with a 10,000 pound bombload. To offset the cost of adapting the VDT engine to the B-36, Convair suggested financing the airframe modification for 1 prototype B-36 with the VDT engine by slashing 3 B-36s from the current procurement contract. This was approved by the Commanding General, AAF, in July 1947. Although Convair hoped additional VDT equipped B-36s (B-36Cs) would be ordered if the prototype proved successful, a decision on this matter was deferred.

The creation of an independent Air Force obviously meant more authority and greater responsibility in the choice of basic weapon systems. General Vandenberg, Deputy Chief of Air Staff, therefore wasted no time in forming the USAF Aircraft and Weapons Board. Through this forum, senior officers would recommend the weapons that would best support long range plans for the Air Force's development and gradual buildup. The board first met on 19 August and, because of the advent of the atomic bomb, the role of strategic bombing and the means of accomplishing such missions took precedence. The B-36 was the only bomber that could launch an immediate atomic counterattack without first acquiring overseas bases. Although vulnerable to enemy fighters because of its fairly low speed, the B-36 did offer an important advantage: its great range would promote the crew's chances of completing their mission. On the other hand, future supplies of atomic bombs were expected to be sparse. Hence, plans had to cover the possible use of conventional bombs. Large stocks of wartime B-29s were still in the inventory for economic reasons, although the Superfortress's range was inadequate without overseas bases.

The board members differed on how to solve these complex problems. Some considered the B-36 obsolete and favored buying fast jet bombers an obvious gamble since these would have insufficient range and would not be available for years. Others wanted to increase the B-36's speed with the new VDT engine and also use it as an all purpose bomber. Still others preferred the B-50, because it was faster than the B-36 and could attain even greater range and speed with the addition of VDT engines. After prolonged discussion, a consensus emerged to retain the B-36 as a special purpose bomber. This special purpose B-36 would eventually be replaced by the B-52 (At best not to be expected before 1953), if the latter proved satisfactory and no better means for delivering the atomic bomb came on the scene. Since the endorsed B-36 would be for specialized use, there were several reasons for not installing the VDT engine in a prototype B-36. No additional B-36 procurement would be needed. And even though the promised improvements were tempting, any retrofit with VDT engines would delay completion of the 100 B-36s on order and run up costs. General Spaatz (appointed by President Truman as the first Chief of Staff of the new United States Air Force in September 1947) promptly approved the board's recommendations and the VDT equipped B-36 prototype was canceled on 22 August.

Concern with weapon selection left many problems unanswered. Limited B-36 procurement was one solution; finding some use for the government owned Fort Worth plant, soon to be idle, was another problem. The Air Force could not stand by as Convair's dejected B-36 work force sought and probably secured more stable employment before completion of the B-36 program.

In mid 1948 the Air Force convinced Northrop that production of the future RB-49 (a development of the experimental YB 49 "flying wing") should be sub-contracted to Convair. To begin with, this would keep the Fort Worth plant in operation upon completion of the B-36 program. Of perhaps greater import, this cooperation would blend Northrop's engineering skill and Convair's experience in quantity production of large aircraft. Cancellation of the RB-49 project in January 1949 wiped out all this planning, although Northrop received a go ahead from Air Materiel Command for completion of a YRB-49 prototype, which was extensively flight tested.

There were further complications with the B-36 however. Funds had been appropriated during the war for the 100 B-36s, but any amount unspent by the end of June 1948 would have to be reappropriated by a Congress that might be of a different mind. Production speedup was one solution. If Convair turned out 6 aircraft every month, the hundredth B-36 would be delivered in January 1949. This would leave but 7 months of production (July 1948-January 1949) for which new funds would have to be provided. Chiefly because of shortages of government furnished equipment, accelerating production proved impossible. Production was also slipping (and more delay later occurred) because of defective propellers, landing gear door problems, corroded hinges, unsatisfactory magnesium castings, deficiencies in turret installations, and occasional malfunctions of the constant speed drive. Meanwhile, the government was spending $150,000 a day to keep the plant operating. This was just as well since it would have hastened the end of the Fort Worth activities. But the monthly production rate of 4 B-36s, as later endorsed, carried another pitfall postponing delivery of the last B-36 to November 1949. This would extend by 10 months the production time for which Convair would have to plan with no assurance that money would ever be available to complete the program. Convair was responsible for payment of work under subcontracts. Payments incurred before the expiration of a prime contract (30 June 1948 in the B-36's case) could be recovered, but the contractor's capital would remain tied up during the long drawn out process of going through the Court of Claims. The other alternative (and one the Air Force certainly did not want) was for Convair to throttle down the flow of supplies, trim plant operations, and lay off workers until the financial future of the B 36 program was straightened out. Aware of the contractor's predicament, the Air Force in late December 1947 promised to request a reappropriation of B-36 funds when Congress reconvened in early 1948.

The post World War II years spelled trouble for the aircraft industry. Competition was fierce, and no contractors could afford to forego any significant prospects. Cancellation ofthe VDT equipped B-36 prototype, therefore, did not deter Convair from reopening the project a few weeks later. The contractor this time proposed to offset the cost of installing VDT engines in the last 34 of the 100 B-36s under contract by simply reducing the contract's total to 95. No extra money would have to be found, other than enough to cover necessary government furnished equipment. Convair further offered to produce the new B-36s (B-36Cs) without delaying the current contract by more than 6 months (November 1949-May 1950). The possibility of retrofitting the remaining B-36A and B-36B aircraft was suggested, inasmuch as both types were much nearer completion. Afforded immediate attention, the Convair proposal of September 1947 was approved on 5 December, except for retrofitting the 61 B-36s, which could be dealt with later. SAC alone totally disagreed, having lost faith in the B-36 as a long range bomber. As a whole, SAC officials generally believed the relatively slow aircraft could better serve in such tasks as sea search and reconnaissance. For these purposes, General Kenney emphasized, the extra speed promised by the VDT engines was of no real importance. As it turned out, mating the VDT engine with the B-36 failed completely. There was nothing wrong with the engine itself (it was the basic R-4360 used in other B-36s), nor with the variable turbine that boosted the engine power. The problem stemmed from the cooling requirements (generated by the aircraft's high operating altitude), which degraded the engine's rated performance. The project died in early 1948, but not without repercussion.

The Berlin blockade of June 1948 came at the time the administration decided to give high priority to building an atomic deterrent force. The crisis increased the decision's urgency, and the concurrent cancellation of any important military program would have been psychologically unsound. Finally, the B-36 was the only intercontinental bomber available, and its shortcomings, whatever they were, were not that obvious. These facts undoubtedly prompted General Kenney to join in the decision, even though a month before he had still recommended that the B-36 production be halted.

When it became obvious that a faster B-36 (equipped with VDT engines and due to be known as the B-36C) could not be obtained, the Air Force once more thought of canceling the entire B-36 program. Yet, various factors had to be considered. Twenty two of the basic and relatively slow B-36s were nearly completed, and a great deal of money had already been spent on the controversial program. The Air Force, therefore, decided to postpone any decisions. It instructed the Air Materiel Command to waive the modification of several shop completed B-36s that had been awaiting adjustments, and to expedite their delivery. This would allow Convair to speed up the aircraft's flight test program, as consistently recommended by the Air Force. In addition, new yardsticks were established to compare the basic B-36's performance with that of other bombers under similar conditions. The new yardsticks measured the 4 most important and interdependent characteristics of any given bomber speed, range, altitude, and load capacity.

Test results, although not spectacular, favored the basic B-36. They showed that the slow B-36 surpassed the B-50 in cruising speed at long range, had a higher altitude, larger load capacity, and a far greater combat radius than the B-50 or B-54-a B 50 variant then being considered, but canceled in 1949. It now seemed that the B-36 might become a much better plane than had been expected. If so, any hasty reduction of the contract might wreck the program just as it was about to pay off. The beginning of the Russian blockade of West Berlin on 18 June 1948 spared the Air Force further indecision. On the 25th, Air Force Secretary W. Stuart Symington and other top USAF officials, deeply concerned by the Soviets' aggressiveness, unanimously agreed to stay with the B-36. The proposed VDT equipped B-36C (34 of them) would revert to the B-36B configuration. The Berlin blockade of June 1948 came at the time the administration decided to give high priority to building an atomic deterrent force. The crisis increased the decision's urgency, and the concurrent cancellation of any important military program would have been psychologically unsound. Finally, the B-36 was the only intercontinental bomber available, and its shortcomings, whatever they were, were not that obvious. These facts undoubtedly prompted General Kenney to join in the decision, even though a month before he had still recommended that the B-36 production be halted. The proposed VDT equipped B-36C (34 of them) would revert to the B-36B configuration, assuring the Air Force of getting 95 of the 100 B-36s under contract since June 1943. There could be no B-36Cs, but the 5 aircraft reduction remained necessary to meet the price rise and to pay for the ill fated VDT engine installation.

The B-36Bs joined the B-36As of SAC's 7th Bomb Group at Carswell AFB in November 1948. On 7-8 December, one of these new B-36s flew a nonstop, round trip, simulated bombing mission from Carswell to Hawaii. On the way back, the aircraft's 10,000 pound bombload was dumped a short distance from Hawaii. The distance flown in 35 hours exceeded 8,000 miles. Yet, because many "bugs" had to be worked out, the B-36 did not become truly operational until several years later. In 1951, many B-36s were available and, if called upon, were capable of accomplishing their longrange, high altitude bombing mission, with either conventional or special weapons. However, the aircraft were in a constant state of flux, either being reconfigured or awaiting modification. In reality, full operational capability was not achieved before 1952.

The Air Force possessed 59 groups in the fall of 1948, when the B-36 was just entering the SAC inventory. The soundness of the postwar 70 group objective had been confirmed and a 66 group force seemed possible within a near future. Hence President Truman's decision to hold the 1949 defense budget to a ceiling of $11 billion had been a drastic blow. The job of rebuilding the Air Force had to be done all over again, and this time from the opposite direction. The problem was no longer how to procure additional airplanes for 70 groups, but how to whittle current forces to 48 groups with the least possible harm to national security. Canceling the aircraft already on order, with minimum loss to the government, was the other difficult task facing the Air Force in early 1949. The B-36 actually gained from the crisis. The Air Force canceled the purchase of various bombers,fighters, and transports in mid January. At the time, however, it endorsed the urgent procurement of additional B-36s,as recommended by Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, SAC's Commanding General since October 1948. The Air Force proposed to spend $172 million (of some $270 million released by the cancellation of other aircraft) to buy 39 additional B-36s and to improve or reconfigure those already under contract. This was in line with General LeMay's testimony before the Board of Senior Officers hastily convened on 29 December 1948 by General Vandenberg, who had replaced General Spaatz as Chief of Staff of the Air Force on 30 April 1948. General LeMay insisted that the safest course called for an increase of 2 groups of B-36 heavy bombers (at the expense of 2 medium bomb groups), plus 1 strategic reconnaissance group of B-36s (in lieu of RB-49s).

A second augmentation of the program was approved in the spring, when RB-54s were canceled in favor of still more B/RB-36s, as again recommended by General LeMay. General LeMay was sure that the B-36 could do everything as well as, and in most cases better than, the B-54. The big B-36 required more parking apron space, but this was not a serious problem. Its maintenance so far had been surprisingly easy. Therefore, it was not impossible to raise the 18 aircraft authorization of every B/RB-36 group to the 30 aircraft level of each medium bomb group. This would slash personnel costs and boost SAC's offensive power. A larger B-36 fleet, General LeMay asserted, together with the approved stepped up production of Boeing's forthcoming B-47, was the best strategic way to face the near future. The President authorized the recertification and release of funds for the first increase on 8 April; for the second, on 4 May.

In its first year of operation (September 1948–August 1949), the Aircraft Scheduling Unit set up “voluntary cooperative agreements” in aircraft steel warehousing, aluminum production, aircraft alloy steel fabricating mills, and in magnesium alloy sheet rolling. In the latter instance, when Consolidated Vultee, prime contractor for the B–36, reported shortages of magnesium sheet, Aircraft Scheduling Unit representatives coordinated with Dow Chemical, the producer, to determine how much additional magnesium sheet capacity would be necessary to maintain the B–36 program. The organization then assisted the Eastern Stainless Steel Company of Baltimore, Maryland, in setting up a magnesium alloy sheet rolling capability.

In addition to quadrupling the number of planes that the Air Force could buy over the quantity purchased in FY 1948, the funds provided by Congress would also enable the service to distribute contracts more widely. In contrast to the original FY 1948 program, under which three firms received nearly 90 percent of the allocation for new aircraft purchases, the Air Force planned to “spread the business” in FY 1949. Although funds would still be concentrated among a few manufacturers, the FY 1949 program called for the share held by the top three to decline from 90 percent to less than two-thirds of the total. Initially, the three firms slated to receive most of the appropriation were Boeing, North American, and Northrop.

By mid-1949, however, Convair had replaced Northrop because of the Air Force’s decision to cancel procurement of the reconnaissance version of Northrop’s B–49 “flying wing” in favor of increased B–36 procurement. Counting those outstanding from prior years, the Air Force had procurement contracts with 16 aircraft manufacturers.

In the latter half of 1949, an instance of allegations of inappropriate behavior associated with the revolving door was very much in the spotlight. In late May 1949, charges surfaced in Congress that Secretary of Defense Johnson and Symington had wrongly used their positions to influence the Air Force’s purchase of Convair’s long-range B–36 bomber over Northrop’s B–49 and Boeing’s B–54. Before becoming secretary of defense, Johnson had been a director and Washington-based counsel for Convair, whose president was Floyd Odlum. Symington also knew Odlum, both professionally and socially. According to one of the allegations, Symington had been conspiring with Odlum to create “a huge aircraft combine,” entailing a merger of Northrop and Convair, that the Air Force secretary would direct after leaving government service.

Following cancellation of the USS United States super-carrier, the interservice dispute over roles and missions was publicly and acrimoniously aired during two-part hearings before the House Armed Services Committee in the late summer and early fall of 1949. The first hearings focused on alleged irregularities in the acquisition of the B–36. The Navy’s credibility was undermined by the revelation that one of its civilian employees had written an anonymous document charging Secretary of the Air Force Symington and Secretary of Defense Johnson with a conflict of interest. The document claimed that the two officials favored procurement of the aircraft because of their previous business and social connections with Floyd Odlum, president of Convair, the plane’s builder.

The second set of hearings centered on the relative merits of the B–36 versus the supercarrier and on the effectiveness of strategic bombardment. Francis P. Matthews, the newly appointed Navy secretary, appeared before the committee and played down the importance of the B–36 versus supercarrier controversy, attributing it to a small number of naval aviators unhappy with the cancellation of United States and other cuts in naval aviation. Several of the Navy’s highest-ranking officers, including Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, the chief of naval operations, followed with testimony that took a much different tack. While sharply criticizing the B–36 and strategic bombardment, they also vigorously affirmed the value of the supercarrier and naval aviation.

This episode, known as the “revolt of the admirals,” resulted in the firing of Admiral Denfeld, who had publicly contradicted not only the views of the secretary of the Navy, his immediate civilian superior, but also those of the secretary of defense.

Extensive congressional hearings into procurement of the B–36, the decision to cancel United States, and the effectiveness of strategic bombing captured public attention during the summer and fall of 1949. As a result of the investigation, the House Armed Services Committee cleared both Johnson and Symington of the allegations of unethical conduct. But the whole affair had long-term effects.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 26-08-2018 04:43:59 ZULU