back to article An anniversary to remember: The world's only air-to-air nuke was fired on 19 July, 1957

The date was 19 July, the year was 1957 and America was worried that the Soviet Union could amass too many bomber squadrons to be stopped. That's why it ran its one-and-only test of one of the oddest ideas to emerge in the Cold War: a nuclear-armed air-to-air missile? The resulting armament, the AIR-2 Genie, was made by …

Jubilant morons.

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Anonymous Coward

And the sons and daughters are now obsessed building 'white elephant' Hinkley Point C.

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Who cares if the elephant is white or not, as long as it can carry the load.

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Better than sitting in the dark when all the green wind turbines stop turning when the wind stops.

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I'm sure its mentioned below but this is a tl;dr forum. As far as unique one offs the nuclear bomb artillery shot was my favorite.

Then you have shit like this - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davy_Crockett_%28nuclear_device%29 and realize this is not a topic to glorify at all. Nukes were grand until nearly human on earth for the first time in our species history had significant amounts of Strontium-90 in their bones. The Boomers still do.

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Stupid

They could have just built a (admittedly rather high) wall to keep the rooskies out

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Re: Stupid

And get the Russians to pay for it?

Are you Donald Trump in disguise?

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Re: Stupid

You are the stupid one. If they had built a wall then how on Earth would Sarah Palin have gotten her foreign policy experience.

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Re: Stupid

ahhh.... dooyyyy... You put a *window* in the wall. so she can see Russia from her house. ugh! do I have to think of evvvvverything?

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A 300 metre fatal blast radius for a bomber formation? I wonder how many bombers that would have taken out? Were they expecting the Russians to launch mass bomber raids as the Allies did in WWII? I remember hearing about the Genie when I was a kid, and not too many folks where I lived bought the idea. But then, we lived near a SAC/TAC base too....

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@Mark 85 - Given the size of a bomber formation 300 meters does seem like it would take out more than a handful of planes. However, the warhead would have more efficient than WW11 flak as it would more likely for one warhead to take out 2 or 3 planes completely.

If this was nuclear strike, one question I have always had, what happens to the bombs and warheads on the destroyed bombers? Presumably they are already armed.

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In WW!!, the arming pins weren't pulled until the bomb bay doors were opened. I have no idea about nukes. I thought the bombs dropped on Japan were armed in a similar fashion. I could be wrong. There were some B-52 crashes with live a-bombs on board and none of them blew. One did contaminate a large (for some value of large) area on the east coast.

The big fear we had where I lived wasn't bombers but the ICBM's coming in from the north. The base we lived near was supposedly high on the target list.

Very weird time back in the '50's and '60's. There were even places in Nevada that offered "resort weekends" or something like that to tourists to come and watch the nuke tests. I think my mom still has a brochure from some hotel in a town next to White Sands.

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"one question I have always had, what happens to the bombs and warheads on the destroyed bombers?"

Well, I'm not a nuclear physicist, but I'd hazard that any armed bombs on planes in the fireball might detonate, but most likely "fizzle", making the blast cloud that much more radioactive.

Outside the fireball, but near it, some might detonate or "fizzle", most would have their detonators wrecked (along with the plane and crew) and crash. A few might survive to detonate when they hit blast altitude.

Safely outside the blast radius, lots of brown stains on the seating and uniform trousers of the bombing crews.

I hope they were planning on this taking place over the oceans, because there would be a lot of highly radioactive debris coming down! (and downwind!)

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@Mark 85 - They were unguided rockets, not guided missiles. Air to air guided missiles were in their very early days when these were developed. I imagine they would be happy if one rocket took out one bomber, considering how much damage a single bomber could do.

Canada had them as well. The warheads technically remained the property of the US in order to get around non-proliferation treaty rules.

In the event of a war, the Soviet bombers would have come over the Arctic Ocean. There were three successive lines of radar stations to track them as they approached - the DEW, Mid-Canada, and Pine Tree Lines (going from north to south). The objective would have been to shoot the bombers down before they reached heavily populated areas.

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@Mark 85 re: blast radius.

While the blast radius on any one rocket might be limited, they didn't intend on launching only a single rocket at anything. They envisioned sending *swarms* of them at any single target & essentially giving "overkill" a grisley new definition.

If you detected 100 bombers inbound then you sent up a thousand fighters & loaded each one with it's full compliment of rockets. If even only one rocket in ten did it's job, there would STILL be a 100:1 rocket:bomber ratio to guarantee the elimination of the threat.

I also lived near a SAC/TAC base - specificly McClellan AFB in Sacramento, California. My dad worked there & at Mather AFB doing gods know what in the war effort, & I was made _all_too_well_aware_ of the kinds of capabilities Our Boys In Whites could get up to in the air. It was a very scary/impressive thing to see the ramps at Mather full to bursting with "Launch Ready" fighters sitting on the tarmac, even more at "Zero Plus Five" or "Plus Ten" minutes waiting nearby, & every single one of them armed to the talons with rockets, missiles, & bombs galore. When my dad told me that "what you see there [at Mather] was just the *back up* to what was ready [at McClellan]", it was nearly enough to make me soil my shorts. It may have been officialy a "Cold War" but that doesn't mean the men & women of the military weren't ready, willing, & hot blooded to do what had to be done. =-/

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Amusing reactions when you talk about growing up during the cold war to someone young and waiting for the advertisements to finish, a public information film would be shown now and then telling you what to do if the sirens went off.

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300 meter blast radius

What stops you from spacing the bombers further apart than that to prevent a bomb from taking out more than one bomber?

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Re: @Mark 85 re: blast radius.

If you detected 100 bombers inbound then you sent up a thousand fighters & loaded each one with it's full compliment of rockets. If even only one rocket in ten did it's job, there would STILL be a 100:1 rocket:bomber ratio to guarantee the elimination of the threat.

Unless those fighters don't have anything like the ceiling or the speed of the bombers (and it looks like the Scorpion would), then surely that sort of numerical advantage would mean that cannon fire would be just as effective (and a lot less messy)? No-one wants a nuclear aerospaceageinferno in their airspace if they can possibly avoid it.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: 300 meter blast radius

Remember the main Soviet bomber of the 1950s was an "unlicensed" B-29 - actually an exact copy of it made reverse engineering captured ones after emergency landing following strikes over Japan.

Spacing bombers may make it easier for air defense to take down one after another. Sometimes you may need to "overload" a single area to ensure enough bombers gets past layers of heavy defenses because they're simple unable to take down enough. Remember also navigation technology of the time required sextants and the like to fly over long routes with enough precision, formation flying make it less problematic.

Moreover AA missile of the 1950s were still primitive, and unguided. Korea air fights were made still using guns. A formation of bombers was still effective to counter interceptors using guns, while unguided missiles could have been not enough effective. A missile with a large lethal radius could have looked a solution.

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"In WW!!, the arming pins weren't pulled until the bomb bay doors were opened. I have no idea about nukes."

Fat Man (Nagasaki) was a complicated beast, so it had to be armed before takeoff. Causing some, ahem, anxiety for the bomber crew.

Hiroshima bomb was activated midflight. No nice red buttons though. Weaponeer had to crawl into the bomb bay and attach explosives to the bomb.

Later designs have undoubtedly been improved a bit.

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Very weird time back in the '50's and '60's. There were even places in Nevada that offered "resort weekends" or something like that to tourists to come and watch the nuke tests

Wasn't there even an Abbot and Costello film where they were in one of the dummy towns and got irradiated, so that every time they passed a slot machine in Vegas it paid out? Weird times indeed.

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Anonymous Coward

AFAIK to arm the Hiroshima bomb all the crew had to do was to replace green pins with red ones. Then the bomb emitted a sound to confirm it was armed. IIRC one of the original green pins was found when Enola Gay was restored.

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it's worse than you think

They really didn't think this through. Those bombers just outside the immediate death threshold would evolve mutant superpowers. Then you really would be screwed.

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IIRC, the specialist on Enola Gay was so worried about the possibility of the thing going off if something went wrong on takeoff, he elected to remove the fuse and explosive trigger. Reassembling same in the bomb bay while in flight was both painful and time-consuming, as the thing hadn't been designed to provide access when in situ.

Tests on the ground had proved it was possible to do this, but only just.

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"The big fear we had where I lived wasn't bombers but the ICBM's coming in from the north. The base we lived near was supposedly high on the target list."

There were enough ICBMs on both sides to take out _all_ bases on both sides and drop a few on Podunk Idaho/Siberia just to make a point.

Nuclear brinkmanship was a lose-lose game.

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"I hope they were planning on this taking place over the oceans, because there would be a lot of highly radioactive debris coming down! "

Bomb grade Plutonium/Uranium isn't particularly radioactive (but it is fairly chemically toxic).

These are small bombs (1500tons of TNT eqwuivalent) so in the event of a detonation/fizzle there's not much leftover and we already know from atmospheric tests what to expect downwind (don't forget that "highly radioactive" == "very short lived")

FWIW, the vast majority of the nukes on both sides were fairly small - this size or smaller. I'm just glad they were never used.

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Isn't that 300 meter fireball, plus shockwave, plus EMP*, plus heat flash thats of a larger radius than a fireball. Figure the additional invisible effects would cause problems.

*Maybe not consideirng the electronics.

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Yup, that's a good recollection.

"Parsons, the Enola Gay's weaponeer, was concerned about the possibility of an accidental detonation if the plane crashed in takeoff, so he decided not to load the four cordite powder bags into the gun breech until the aircraft was in flight."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Boy

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Re: @Mark 85 re: blast radius.

I don't suppose it occurred to them that the radioactivity caused by thousands of those air-to-air missiles would probably do just as much damage as the bombers they were trying to stop.

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Re: @Mark 85 re: blast radius.

"...surely that sort of numerical advantage would mean that cannon fire would be just as effective (and a lot less messy)?"

Very true. But much less profitable.

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Mushroom

Re:Weaponeer had to crawl into the bomb bay

Did anyone else hear 'When Johnny comes marching home' at this image?

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@Baldy50

I don't think enough small children get to go to school nowadays and come back terrified after the cartoon they thought they were going to watch turns out to be "When the wind blows".

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@Phil O'Sophical

There's also the plans to use Nukes as basically big digging machines, (project ploughshare), at one point I think they contemplated making the Panama canal by just nuking a trench across Panama.

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Mushroom

WOPR got it right

"Nuclear brinkmanship was a lose-lose game."

ITYM

"THE ONLY WINNING MOVE IS NOT TO PLAY."

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It was a fairly pointless safety measure too, the weapon had a cadmium safety wire which was inserted into the stationary part of the warhead but if surrounded by water there was enough uranium 235 to reach critical mass. Had the aircraft gone into the water if it couldn't maintain altitude it is quite likely that a low-yield nuclear explosion would have occurred.

The Little Boy design fired a hollow piece of U235 onto a solid cylinder containing more U235, because there was essentially no compression the design relied on very large amounts of fissile material. It was a stopgap weapon and there was no intention to build more than one, although in fact more were built because of the need to prevent the Hanford reactors being damaged by the Wigner effect (stressing the reactor cores due to unexpected nuclear reactions).

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Re: @Phil O'Sophical

Ummm... the Panama Canal opened in 1914, so I doubt they were considering nukes as a way of building it!

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Anonymous Coward

ICBMs was the end of air to air nukes etc

Once ICBMs become common, it was excepted that shooting them down was not an option, so "air to air nukes" etc stop being made.

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Re: @Mark 85 re: blast radius.

No-one wants a nuclear aerospaceageinferno in their airspace if they can possibly avoid it.

Given what the scores of Russkies were presumably intending to do, I'd say a relatively small nuclear conflagration in the troposphere in a sparsely populated area would be more desirable than a nuclear armageddon at ground level in your cities.

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Mushroom

We, it turned out, lived near a Nike missile launch site (Needham, MA, outside Boston). Details easily Googleable, but these bad boys were ground to air missiles, launched to defend against incoming Russkie bombers. Aside from the nuclear versions, the biggest hazard to us civilians was the fact that they were two stage, and the expended first stage was dropped not too far from the launch site.

Duck and cover, indeed.

It's now a park, but I remember exploring the remains of the site as a teen, and parts of the structures were still present, though the site had been abandoned for 10 years or so. It's now a park.

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"...A 300 metre fatal blast radius for a bomber formation? I wonder how many bombers that would have taken out?..."

Don't forget the EMP. I would doubt very much that the bombers of the day would have had hardened systems to cope with it.

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Re: @Mark 85 re: blast radius.

Surely the Russians would send up decoy bombers and fighter escorts? In that scenario, one in a hundred carrying a nuclear bomb.

I assume that a nuclear attack by bomber would be a Dresden style raid, ie: the full force of the Russian Airforce. I can't imagine they'd send one bomber per bomb and leave it at that.

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Fat Man and Little Boy were armed by people crawling over them in the bomb bay to do various things (including inserting fuses iirc).

More modern bombs were/are armed electronically by the weapon engineer or bombardier.

In the crash cases the regular explosive in the bombs went off in a few cases, but because the bombs weren't armed all it did was scatter casing and nuclear material over a wide area, rather than nuking the east coast of the USA or Southern Spain or a bit of ocean etc.

The one in Spain was a bit of an embarrassment, as the US had to pay to resettle people and haul away millions of tons of topsoil for burial in the US.

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"Don't forget the EMP. I would doubt very much that the bombers of the day would have had hardened systems to cope with it."

Do valves/tubes need to be hardened to resist EMP? No doubt a strong enough EMP would damage them, but I'm pretty sure they're more resistant than those new-fangled transistor thingies.

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EMP blast

I suspect they'd probably loose radio comms for a short while, but would otherwise go (relatively) unharmed outside of the primary blast/heat area.

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Re: ICBMs was the end of air to air nukes etc

Actually no. The Safeguard (US) and Galosh (USSR) ABM systems used nuclear warheads to intercept ICBMs. At least the US system had both Space (Spartan) and Air (Sprint) interceptors.

The ABM treaty was a clever Commie Plot since it allowed two systems per nation only. Doable in a dictatorship (The system still exists and has been upgraded quite a few times) not doable in a democracy...

And according to some sources the S-300 and S-400 SAM (that do have an ABM capacity designed in) do have the option of a nuclear warhead as well for exactly that job...

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In the 1950s they likely still used vacuum tubes...

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"...In the 1950s they likely still used vacuum tubes..."

Vacuum tubes are not entirely resistant to EMP. Also, take into account the fact that the nuclear explosions would be relatively close.

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Valves...

Which are not that bothered.

And gears and bicycle chains.

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Which was exactly the point. It's called 'Mutually Assured Destruction.'

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Re: @Phil O'Sophical

They also planned on diverting rivers in Western Europe so as to not serve Eastern Bloc nations, to modify the weather and expel all the heavy rain to Russia (only allowing light, gentle rain to fall on the US wheatfields), and to use the moon as a test target (largely destroying it by the time they had finished).

There were even plans for atomic artillery, and atomic bullets with roughly the power of a hand grenade to blow up enemy (commies naturally) forces.

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