The Bomber Gap
Following the victory in the Great Patriotic War, Soviet fear of the West was well founded historically and psychologically. The Soviets also adopted a policy of fearmongering, trumpeting their superiority in weaponry. The Soviet leadership touted their lead in missiles and military technology and exaggerating their production figures and their stockpiles. Russian nationalism and Soviet communist ideology were one source of this attitude and behavior. But the Soviets had a well-founded fear of western hostility towards Russia: Napoleon burned Moscow, the British led anti-Bolshevik efforts after the Great War, and Hitler during the Great Patriotic War, suggested that Stalin's fears were not totally paranoid. And the Stalinists in the Politburo gained power through conspiracy and psychologically, saw the west in the same light, as conspirators.
The United States, less than a decade after Pearl Harbor, feared a surprise attack. The Soviets certainly possessed the capability to produce nuclear weapons but the best evidence suggested that they could not deliver them. Their long range bomber fleet consisted of the obsolescent TU-4 Bull, almost a carbon copy of the B-29.
Much of the political and popular opinion in the United States bought into the Soviet message of superiority. There were at least three reasons. First, the Republic Party used it to hammer the Truman administration. Second, the USAF, engaged in a budget battle with the US Navy sought the funding that would go with a buildup of the U.S. Bomber force. And third, there was almost no hard intelligence data to state otherwise. The outcome was the “bomber gap.”
This belief helped to bolster the U.S. military’s argument that in order to keep pace with the Soviets, the United States would need to increase defense spending and undertake a massive buildup of the Air Force’s bomber fleet. The continuing assurance of the Soviet buildup was compounded by a report by the President’s Air Policy Commission [A Report by the President’s Air Policy Commission, “Survival in the Air Age,” Washington, January 1, 1948], which stated, "But there is a new element through which this country may be attacked the air. And the new weapons which can be delivered through the air make it vital that we protect ourselves from attack by way of this new element. An air attack could be so terrible that we must at once create the best conceivable defense against it. This means an air force in being, strong, well equipped and modern, not only capable of meeting the attack when it comes but, even more important, capable of dealing a crushing counteroffensive blow on the aggressor."
The Commission believed that with the continuing advancement of the heavy bomber, the United States would no longer enjoy the benefit of being so geographically removed from the land of their enemies that they could not reasonably be attacked. As the Air Policy Commission continued, “The strategy to meet these new conditions is obviously that which we have described above to have in peacetime a force in being which will protect to the greatest extent possible our air space as well as our water approaches and hold out to anyone who thinks of attacking us the prospect of a counterattack of the utmost violence.”
The Commission pressed the administration to press forward with aerodynamic research and development, as well as, electronics and related areas, which result in the most advanced and effective aircraft and missiles. The result of this new aircraft and missiles would be the protection of the United States and its citizens from the Soviet Union. From 1950–1953, this endeavor would see the reserve Air Force increase its force to an estimated 8,100 new planes. In the end, the Commission was adamant that a new fleet of bombers was required to put the rest of the world on notice that if an attack on U.S. soil was done, then a swift and counterstrike would level its cities, factories, and crush its war machine.
The RAND project was established in May 1946 as a virtually autonomous department of the Douglas Company. In 1948, the independent and nonprofit RAND Corporation came into being. As RAND analyses made clear, a paucity of reliable intelligence information caused the Air Force endless worry in preparing to meet a Soviet strategic air offensive.
In October 1951, RAND, which had been performing air defense studies since early 1947, submitted a major study of requirements for 1952 to 1953. RAND reported that "Intelligence estimates indicate that there might be 1200 TU-4's in operational units by 1954. It was felt that some aircraft would be used for attacks in Western Europe, for mine-laying, etc., and that some would be held in reserve so that ihe mmher committed to one-way attacks on the ZI was estimated to be a maximtum of 500". Concluding that the Soviets would possess from 100 to 500 Tu-4 bombers armed with 100 atomic bombs by the end of 1953, RAND analysts warned that the air defenses would not be able to cope with such a threat.
A series of RAND Research Memoranda discussed aspects of the active air defense of the continental United States. The series is a part of RAND's study of high-attrition air defense, reported in RAND Report R-250, Active Air Defense of the United States, 1954-1960, December 1, 1953. The study evaluates various choices in development, procurement, and deployment for several budget levels, including budgets considerably higher than current ones. The time period studied includes operations between 1956 and 1960; the general framework of the study is similar to that described in RAND Report R-227, Air Defense Study, October 15, 1951, except that a wider range of questions is considered. In many ways this series served to extend, modernize, and modify R-227 and its supporting Research Memoranda.
By 1953, some U.S. officials were concerned that either the Soviets possessed or were in the process of building a significantly higher number of heavy bombers than the United States.
The Robertson committee [formally named the Ad Hoc Study Group on Manned Aircraft Weapon Systems] was born in the skies over and near Moscow. On May Day 1954 and in rehearsals for the annual flyby a year later, the Soviets showed off several new aircraft. They included a swept-wing, long-range jet bomber, with the NATO code name Bison, that was similar to the Strategic Air Command’s B–52; a four-engine, turboprop bomber, designated Bear, that U.S. intelligence believed might be configured as a tanker to refuel the Bison bombers; and an all-weather fighter that could intercept the relatively slow-moving B–36, which, for that reason, was limited to nighttime attacks.
The appearance of the bombers was a surprise. As recently as January 1954, JCS chairman Admiral Radford told a congressional committee that the Soviets would not have a longrange jet bomber, even in the prototype stage, until 1958. Also troubling was that the Bison, first seen in May 1954, appeared in combat formations of several aircraft only a year later, suggesting a very rapid progression from prototype to quantity production. In a memorandum for Secretary Wilson, Admiral Radford explained that the Bison’s evolution demonstrated the Soviet Union’s “exceptional ability to accomplish the task of executing a large aircraft project from design through production to probable operational status in a short period of time.”
With the administration under fire in Congress for allegedly allowing a “bomber gap” to develop, in part because the aircraft procurement cycle took so long, action on the Robertson committee report would provide some ammunition to answer the critics.
Worries over a possible “bomber gap” and growing Soviet strategic capabilities prompted President Eisenhower to establish the Technological Capabilities Panel (TCP) in 1954. The panel’s objective was to review the ability of U.S. military and intelligence to prevent a Soviet surprise attack. On the recommendation of the TCP, Eisenhower commissioned the Lockheed Corporation and the CIA, in cooperation with the Air Force, to build a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft to provide photographic intelligence on the Soviet bomber fleet. Less than ten months passed between the time President Eisenhower authorized the project and when the U-2 flew for the first time.
The Russians were making a show of producing strategic jet bombers much faster than the USA. Two new Soviet classes of bombers had been verified - one corresponding to the B-52, which Western intelligence identified as the Bison, and the other corresponding to the B-47, which was called the Badger. At the May Day demonstration in Red Square in 1955, Western air attaches were startled to see nine Bison bombers in close formation swing low over the Kremlin. If, as seemed logical, the bombers in the air represented only a fraction of those coming off the production lines, then it looked as if the Russians were also building up their strategic bomber force with the same prodigies of energy that they were investing in rockets.
According to U.S. Air Force projections that nervously materialized in the aftermath of the Moscow show, the Russians seemed to be aiming for a force of at least 500 heavy bombers by mid-1960. These estimates gave rise to the outcry in Congress and the press over what was called "the bornber gap," deriving from a supposed already dangerous and growing deficiency in the supply of B-52's compared to their supply of Bisons.
It is now the judgment of some analysts that the Russians set out deliberately to trick the Americans into intensified production of the B-52 jet bomber while they leaped craftily into the whole new technology represented by the ICBM's. Proof was forthcoming some years later, for example, that the nine Bisons which paraded over Moscow that day in May were the only machines of the class which were in a condition to fly that day. It is also possible that, having started down both paths, as the US did, and having decided at a much earlier date than the US did that the ICBM was the more promising weapon system, the Russians may have tried to hoodwink the Americans into believing that they still were pushing ahead with a massive manned bomber program.
The great Soviet bomber force, in fact, never materialized. But the threat intensified the conflict within the Eisenhower administration over how much to press the costly ICBM program at the expense of SAC's bomber inventory. The immense costs and fantastic risks inherent in the alternatives compelled the Government to reach out for surer, still better means of keeping track of what the Russians were up to. The rising danger also argued the neces- sity of devising a timely warning of a possible surprise attack.
The United States staged the first nationwide civil defense exercise on 15 June 1955. Later that month, B-52 intercontinental bomber deployment began in the United States. And in July 1955 fear of a “Bomber Gap” soared after the Soviets flew Bear and Bison long-range bombers multiple times past American visitors at an air show, causing an exaggerated assessment of Soviet inventories. In preparations for the 1955 air show, American observers saw a formation of 10 of these aircraft in flight. In mid-July 1955 came the real surprise.
At the Soviet Aviation Day fly-by open to foreign military attaches, the long range Myasishchev M-4 Bison bomber made an appearance which startled the observers. Colonel Charles Taylor, the U.S. air attaché in Moscow, counted no fewer than 26-28 Bisons as they flew past a review in two groups. This bomber now was obviously in mass production. In fact, Taylor had seen an elaborate hoax. The initial group of 10 Bisons had been real enough. They then had flown out of sight, joined eight more, and this combined formation had made the second flyby. The impression of a huge bomber force was made but actually, the 26 were about all that were operational.
The CIA promptly estimated that up to 800 Bisons would be in service by 1960. As classified estimates leaked to the press, Senator Stuart Symington, a former Air Force Secretary, demanded hearings and warned the nation of a "bomber gap." The flap forced Ike to build more B-52 bombers than he had planned, and to step up production of fighter aircraft in the bargain. Yet even when analysts discovered the Aviation Day hoax, they took little comfort. If Moscow was trying to fool the CIA, it might mean that the Soviets were putting their real effort into missiles rather than bombers.
Based on limited evidence, the Air Force projected a Soviet advantage of up to two-to-one in long-range bombers by the end of the decade. The other Services and the CIA suspected that the Air Force was playing fast and loose with its numbers to pad its budget requests. The give-and-take continued into 1956.
To reduce SAC’s vulnerability to bomber attack, the Eisenhower administration resorted to a series of costly countermeasures, including dispersed basing of SAC’s planes, the deployment of an integrated system of missiles and air defense interceptors, extension of the distant early warning (DEW) line, and the creation in 1958 of a combined U.S.-Canadian command and control organization known as the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). Nonetheless, SAC’s vulnerability persisted and gave rise to ever-increasing requirements to allow it to “ride out” an enemy attack, a process that kept alive and aggravated tensions within the Joint Chiefs over the allocation of resources.
The first U-2 flight over the USSR took place on July 4, 1956, and it brought back photos of Leningrad's shipyards. Several more flights followed, and the photos they produced helped the U.S. conclude that there was no "bomber gap" or "missile gap" in favor of the Soviets, as many feared. Eventually the CIA flew 24 U-2 missions over the USSR, and numerous flights over other communist nations. On 5 July 1956, a U-2 flight over the U.S.S.R.provided what DCI Allen Dulles referred to in later years asthe “million dollar photo.” It showed the Soviets commanded far fewer heavy bombers than originally believed. thephotograph put the bomber gap debate to rest and eased American apprehensions.
There were a number of errors in estimated Soviet military force projections in the 1950s, but these did not involve disputes within the US Intelligence Community, nor did they become public or policy issues. Some developments in the last half of the 1950s were more consequential. A serious overestimation of Soviet heavy bomber production and a corollary overestimation of refueling tankers from 1955 through 1957 led to a public outcry over an alleged "bomber gap" to Soviet advantage, imperiling US superiority and security. The error was a compound of insufficient information on the current situation in Soviet aviation development and mistaken assumptions as to Soviet military "requirements" for the future. CIA originally joined the other intelligence agencies in accepting Air Force projections, but later, detailed CIA analysis of Soviet aircraft production facilities -- information obtained from U-2 reconnaissance flights -- and other technical intelligence led to deflating the feared bomber gap by 1958.
By the time the "bomber gap" expired in 1958, concern over an even more ominous "missile gap" was brewing. Aafter the unfounded bomber gap had influenced defense spending, along came its evil twin, the Missile gap, which led Americans to believe the Soviet Union possessed a superior number of nuclear missiles in their inventory over that of the United States. John F.Kennedy is particularly connected with the phrase as he used it frequently during the 1960 presidential election campaign to attack the Republicans for their supposed complacency on the subject of Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.
Instead of the 700-800 heavy bombers projected from 1955 to 1957, the Soviet Union never fielded more than 150 (plus 50 others configured as tankers). In parallel, the large Soviet medium bomber force (much larger than initially expected) was, in US intelligence estimates, expected to enhance its possible intercontinental capability by aerial refueling from a tanker force estimated in 1954 to reach 850 aircraft by 1959 (even though the Soviet Air Force at that point had no experience in aerial refueling); as late as 1956 the estimate was 350-400 tankers by 1960-61. In fact, the Soviets did not acquire more than about 70.
Problems with Western estimates of Soviet medium bombers and medium range missiles were not primarily shortcomings in information, but error in estimating the Soviet view of their requirement for forces deployed to strike targets in Eurasia, especially forward-based US strike forces. Similarly, the erroneous assumption that the Soviet Union must be intending to build up a large aerial tanker force to enhance the weak intercontinental capabilities of the Bison and Badger aircraft was a case of projecting onto Soviet military planners the US view of priorities.
A 1963 RAND study [Counterforce and Damage-Limiting Capabilities in Central War. 1970 (U)" by Fred Hoffman, Harvey Averch, Manrin Lavin, David McGarvty and Sorrel Wildhorn - August 1963 R-420-PR] rehearsed three strategic postures that might evolve from the 1964 Soviet strategic force as currently characterized by the intelligence community. The proposed "posture III has a design embodying the choices that U.S. system analysts believe the Soviets "ought" to make for a secure retaliation capability. ... In posture III, Soviet decisionmaking is largely relieved of inflexibilities in strategic doctrine, bureaucratic inertias, concern for sunk investment in currently operational systems, and other such constraints that may well dominate real world Soviet decisions on strategic force composition....
"A multiple-purpose, long endurance [MPLE] aircraft has been introduced in place of the unimaginattve follow-on heavy type that appeared in posture I and II: further, the MPLE bomber had been provided with several sophisticated payload items including a standoff missile resembling tthe U.S. CLAM design, an AAM like the U.S. Eagle design, and recce-strike radar with terminal missiles. This type of aircraft with Eagle-1ike missiles is also introducedd as an anti-bomber area defense system in place of the traditional manned interceptors. ... The specific MPLE design ls a 500.000-pound aircraft that has a 100,000-pound payload and a three-day endurance. Its design is aimed at minimizing the cost of maintaining a large scale (at least one-third) airborne alert." Needless to say, the Soviets ignored the sage advce from RAND and opted for "the unimaginattve follow-on heavy type" ICBM, in the form of the SS-9.
As late as NIE 11-3/8-88 (the most recent substantially declassified strategic forces estimate), the Western projections for the future continued to be inflated. NIE 11-3/8-88 in December 1988 was still estimating deployment of some 80 to 120 Blackjack (Tu-160) heavy bombers, and up to 150 heavy jet tankers, by the late 1990s. The key judgments section of NIE 11-3/8-91--the next after the 1988 NIE to be available in part in declassified form and the last of the series, issued in August 1991-- noted that the Soviets were reducing the estimated future number of Blackjack bombers, down from the 80-120 by the late 1990s previously estimated to some 40 by the year 2000. (There was no longer even mention of heavy tankers.)
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