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Heritage: 20th Fighter Wing first tactical nuclear unit in '50s

  • Published
  • By Rebecca Grant
  • Air Force Magazine
Rewritten by Rob Sexton, 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

For decades through the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization depended on fighter aircraft armed with tactical (meaning "small") nuclear weapons. The job of preparing the first U.S. Air Force tactical nuclear fighters in Europe fell to the 20th Fighter Wing.

Since 1945, only heavy bombers had carried nukes. So there was some turbulence for the wing to endure before training and combat readiness occurred.

On Aug. 1, 1950 the 20th FW was reassigned directly under Tactical Air Command. Ninth Air Force resumed control over the 20th on Jan. 22, 1951. In November 1951, renamed a fighter bomber wing, the 20th moved from Shaw to Langley Air Force Base, Va., and transitioned to Republic F-84G Thunderjets.

Earlier, a cadre of seven members of the 20th had spent time at Langley secretly learning the ins and outs of nuclear weapons delivery. There they worked out procedures for accomplishing this using their soon-to-be-assigned, single-seat F-84Gs.

One big hurdle was to develop procedures for navigation to the target, on average 700 miles, in a single-seat jet without navigation aids except a compass.

Control swapped back to TAC on Dec. 1, 1951, just after the wing's relocation from Shaw to Langley, as the wing began flying the new G-models besides its F-84Ds.

Decades later, retired Col. George Lunsford recalled, "Colonel (John) Dunning said we would be the world's first atomic fighter outfit. We'd move up to Langley in the autumn of '51, pick up more than a hundred new airplanes, and reorganize completely."

After the 20th's move to Langley, the procedures developed by the initial cadre were passed on to the rest of the wing.

"We'd learn to drop that damned bomb and get away," Colonel Dunning added, "and we would do it all by the spring of '52 because we were going back to England again."

Remarkably, in just a few months, in 1952, the wing was ready to provide pilots trained for both nuclear and conventional missions. With orders from Tactical Air Command headquarters, the wing deployed its aircraft and Airmen to Great Britain.

The practice of keeping nuclear-armed fighters ready to launch at a moment's notice became known first as Quick-Reaction Alert, or QRA.

Over the decades, QRA forces supported shifting concepts of NATO strategy from the forward strategy of the early 1950s to flexible response of the 1980s.

Through the years, thousands of pilots and a handful of very prominent aircraft from the F-84 to the F-15E would endure the rigors of a fearsome mission that held the Warsaw Pact forces at bay throughout the Cold War.

Nuclear weapons on fighters?

The main reason for arming short-range fighters with nuclear weapons was to provide more firepower for NATO. The job of positioning nuclear weapons in quick reaction range fell first to B-29 detachments in England. But the administration of President Harry Truman was forced to change this strategy after the Soviet Union detonated its own atomic bomb in 1949. Nuclear weapons in Communist hands led to all-out preparation for a serious defense of Europe.

In early 1951, NATO's first supreme allied commander, Europe, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, dispelled any mystery about the willingness of American forces to use nuclear weapons.

"To my mind," General Eisenhower wrote, "The use of the atomic bomb would be on this basis: Does it advantage me, or does it not, when I get into a war?" Then he declared, "I believe in using what we have in defending ourselves."

The job of tactical nuclear weapons was to provide targeting options in Eastern Europe and make it too risky for the Soviets to concentrate conventional forces and firepower, as low altitude airbursts of nuclear weapons could decimate them.

Fighters with nuclear weapons instantly became a hinge of credibility in NATO's ability to deter Soviet attack. Of course, the catch was aircraft carrying those tactical nuclear weapons had to be ready at a moment's notice. NATO could not rely on attack aircraft launched from carriers in the Mediterranean and Baltic regions.

USAF responded by pairing fighters and nuclear weapons in a mission known under many names. Quick Reaction Alert, or QRA, was favored by analysts. To pilots and maintainers the new, nuclear mission became known as "Victor Alert."

In true 20th "can-do" tradition, the wing's pilots became fully trained in this new mission. Then the wing moved to England to add to the growing deterrent of Soviet aggression. The 20th FBW made its move to RAF Wethersfield in Essex, England, on June 1, 1952. It set up headquarters, along with the 55th and 77th FBSs, at Wethersfield a day later.

However, restricted space there compelled the 79th FBS to move into RAF Bentwaters in Suffolk, England, on the same day. (This squadron moved to RAF Woodbridge, three miles southeast of Bentwaters, on Oct. 1, 1954.) On June 5, Tactical Air Command relinquished control over the wing to the Third Air Force and the United States Air Forces in Europe.

Republic Aviation's F-84s were already a staple of USAF force structure when the decision to modify the F-84G for the nuclear mission came down in late 1950.

The weapon it would carry, the Mark 7 nuclear bomb, was purpose-built for the new mission. The so-called, "30-inch nuclear bomb" was a breakthrough in its own right. At just 1,680 pounds, it was far lighter than the 10,000-pound devices designed for bombers of the late 1940s.

Still, it was a tight fit aboard an F-84. Lacking ground clearance when hung under its fighter, the Mk 7 had a lower fin stowed in a retracted position on the ground, which extended once the fighter was airborne.

The Mk 7 had a yield of about one kiloton--considerably less than the 15-kiloton device detonated at Hiroshima. Low yields soothed doctrinal concerns in two ways. First, it was thought NATO ground forces would not be hampered by such low-yield bursts. In turn, the ability to maneuver ground and air forces on a battlefield after low-yield detonations increased the credibility of the arsenal.

Delivery techniques were another matter. This was no straight, level run borrowed from B-29s. In the days before digital cockpits, accuracy depended on the skills of pilots and some startling tactics.

Toss bombing

F-84Gs equipped for the delivery of nuclear weapons used the Low-Altitude Bombing System, where the aircraft would approach its target at low altitude, pull up sharply, toss its nuclear bomb, then loop and fly back in the opposite direction to escape the nuclear blast. Regular practice was the only way to keep pilots up to speed on the maneuver.

After the F-84s, next to take on the mission was the North American F-100 Super Sabre.

"The F-100 was powerful enough to carry one of the recently miniaturized fission weapons," recalled onetime fighter pilot and astronaut Buzz Aldrin in his 1989 book, "Men From Earth." Aldrin remembered, too, "the tense monotony of sitting nuclear alert, with our planes fully fueled at the end of the ramp, each with a streamlined nuclear weapon slung beneath its left wing."

Prior to the departure of the F-84 fleet, the 20th began conversion to both F-100Ds and F-100Fs on June 16, 1957.

Another young pilot among those flying F-100s in Europe at the peak of the Cold War was Charles Horner, the future commander of the Desert Storm air campaign.

He recalled the rigors of the nuclear alert mission. To remain qualified for the nuclear alert, pilots had to drop a certain number of practice bombs every six months and certify on their target. They also had to describe to a board how the weapon worked, and talk through their mission and the command and control procedures. This included who could release them to go on the mission and what arming procedures had to be used.

The Super Sabre's speed made it a natural for an over-the-shoulder delivery technique where the bomb was released with the aircraft's nose pointing up. The dummy nuclear weapon separated from the fighter, soared upward, until its weight turned it, nose down, to plunge toward the target.

Although the 20th had nuclear strike capability since 1952 it would only stand alert if specific world events called for it. In July, 1958 the wing established its Blast Off (Victor Alert) capability and would maintain this capability for nearly 30 more years.

American pilots and NATO allies were not the only ones mastering tactical nuclear procedures. Beginning with the Su-7, the Soviet Union equipped its Frontal Aviation (tactical air force) fighters with nuclear bombs, too.

A pilot's memories

In 1962, one of the 20th FBW pilots pulling Victor Alert at RAF Woodbridge was Capt. Tony McPeak, a future commander of the 20th FW (1980 to 1981) and future Air Force chief of staff.

"My first Victor Alert target is the airfield at Peenemünde, on the Baltic--the site of Germany's rocket-development effort during World War II and, at the moment, home station for an East German fighter regiment," General McPeak wrote in, "The Aerial View," a forthcoming book he has written.

"We keep a bulky target folder, which includes all these details, locked in a safe at the VA facility. In the event of a launch order, we'll grab this folder and take it with us as we run to the aircraft. But at night or in bad weather, an F-100 pilot would find it quite impossible to give much attention to maps, target photographs, checklists, and the like.

"Incapable of sustaining anything longer than momentary hands-off flight, the plane requires constant attention. In theory, if you memorized every detail of the planned flight, you could concentrate on flying the aircraft and just might find the target. At least, that's the premise.

"The target folder also contains a Moshe Dayan-style eye patch. As we strap in and crank up the airplane, we're supposed to put the patch on under our crash helmet, covering one eye. It's tough enough navigating with two eyes but, inbound to the target, nuclear bombs will be going off all around us, with a real risk of flash blindness. Using the patch, we'll protect one eye, giving us two shots at getting there . . .

"All aircrews must participate in the so-called Human Reliability Program, a documentation nightmare with enough tricky paperwork to guarantee technical noncompliance. It's supposed to ensure the mental and psychological fitness of anyone with access to nuclear weapons . . .

"We all drink too much and many are uncivilized to the point of clinical certifiability," General McPeak mused.

"None of this is disqualifying under the HRP. Paradoxically, were we to admit any (quite sensible) reservations about the benefits of launching an F-100 into the night and gloom to make one-eyed vertical delivery maneuvers over a designated ground zero, we'd be debarred and removed from the rolls."

As both East and West piled up nuclear arsenals, the tension between the Quick Reaction Alert forces ratcheted up. By the late 1970s, the United States had 1,000 aircraft (not including B-52 bombers) capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons. As many as 324 F-4s and 156 F-111s were in Western Europe.

The General Dynamics F-111 "Aardvark," was demonstrated for the first time in England at RAF Wethersfield. Not long afterwards, Headquarters, 20th TFW relocated from RAF Wethersfield to RAF Upper Heyford on June 1, 1970. Less than three months later, the wing began converting to the new F-111E. On Sept. 12, 1970, the first two F-111Es arrived at Upper Heyford.

The last of the 20th's F-100s transferred to the Air National Guard on Feb. 12, 1971 and in November of that year the wing's F-111s were declared operationally ready.

The possibility of a preemptive strike by nuclear-armed Warsaw Pact aircraft meant NATO's nuclear fighters, now primarily the F-111 and McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II,had to get off their airfields fast.

The F-111 wings in England in the 1970s were tasked with quickly launching up to 60 aircraft under certain war plans. F-111s could carry multiple B61 warheads.

The B61 was an external weapon designed in the 1960s to withstand the stress of fighter maneuvers such as supersonic flight, low-level ingress, and pop-ups prior to weapons release. During exercises, as many as three squadrons of F-111s had to be started from carts at once. Black clouds of smoke rose over the airfield as the F-111s taxied at 15-second launch intervals.

Of course, fighters weren't the only nuclear platforms. Yet by the 1970s, new questions emerged about the tactics of nuclear fighters. The sheer number of fighters on Victor Alert made analysts and diplomats nervous.

However, the reaction from the Warsaw Pact proved Victor Alert must have been working: Soviet negotiators expressed great interest in limiting nuclear-capable tactical aircraft as arms control talks got under way in the 1970s.

Life on Victor Alert

Under NATO's quick response mandates, two aircraft from each squadron in a wing of three squadrons might be on alert, with B61s loaded, at all times. The aircrews had to demonstrate they could take off within 15 minutes of an alert order.

The fighter wings also trained for conventional attack roles. Aircrews preferred the weekend alert missions, so as not to miss regular flying during the week. The rules allowed alert aircrew to move about on base and even dine at the officers club, as long as they could get back to the aircraft and airborne in less than 15 minutes.

The firm rule was never to taxi with the nuclear weapons loaded. Usually a security forces member or vehicle blocked the jet aircraft in its shelter just to be sure. Everything about a Victor Alert scramble was intense, from the security forces with side arms to the live ammunition on the jets. A single mistake could cause the entire fighter wing to be decertified.

After the scramble, there was still a mission profile to fly. Weapons loaders removed the nuclear weapons and security forces returned them to storage. Once the weapons were secured, pilots would return to fly the nuclear mission profile, without the weapons loaded.

One refinement was the tasking of selective response aircraft.

Under the selective response mission, fighters would have retaliatory targets to hit after a Soviet attack. These small, selective nuclear strikes were envisioned in hopes of deterring escalation to all-out nuclear exchange.

As the Cold War entered its last decade, the alert culture was still deeply embedded in the tactical forces providing extended deterrence. For the 20th FW, Victor Alert finally ended in 1986. The Soviet Union crumbled, without even requiring tactical nukes to be used against it, in 1991.

Art Sevigny, 20th FW historian, also contributed to this article. Reprinted by permission of "Air Force Magazine," published by the Air Force Association.