Throughout the 50s and early 60s, World War III meant unleashing the strategic bombers. The nuclear strike would be delivered by dedicated bomber crews, waiting at the ready for exactly this mission. If the enemy were to launch their bombers, we might know of their coming hours in advance and may even have a chance with our defensive fighters to stop, or at least mitigate, the attack. Our imagination was driven, both in the public at large and in the strategic planning, by the massive bombing raids at the end of the second world war. Just bigger bombs.
Until the development of the hydrogen bomb, the combination of yield and accuracy for a rocket-launched atomic bomb far under-performed the delivery of atomic weapons via bomber. For this reason, as well as the political machinations within the armed forces, the post-war focus was on perfection of the strategic bomber capability. Strategic Air Command was founded in 1947 and, in late 1948, was given the mission of delivering a massive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. For the next decade, the service acquired more and better strike planes plus a refueling fleet, leading to an ability by 1957 to have a 24 hour bomber/tanker alert force.
Leading up to that point, the US had developed a decisive technological edge. US bombers, using refueling, could travel across the globe to their targets. The speed and altitude capabilities of the B-47 and B-52 were such that they were largely unreachable by the MiG-15 interceptors used by the Soviets.
As the 50s drew to a close this began to change. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were developing hydrogen bombs and the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to carry them, providing an alternative nuclear strike capability to the massed bombers. The Soviet Union, with its MiG-17 and more capable air-to-air missiles, became capable of countering the unescorted bomber attack. While this was hardly the end of American’s Strategic Bomber forces, the mid-50s represented a high-tide of sorts for Strategic Air Command.
Flying High Again
CMANO has two community-made scenarios looking at this particular period. The first explores the missions of aerial reconnaissance variants of the B-47, which were the closest this aircraft ever came to actual combat. On October 15th, 1952 a B-47B flew out of Alaska. Using special photographic and radar equipment, they captured intelligence on Soviet airfields in Siberia. The missions carried no offensive weapons, although they were armed with tail guns. Interceptions by the Soviets were generally evaded through superior speed and altitude. According to Wikipedia, at least five B-47s were fired upon and at least three aircraft were lost while overflying Soviet airspace.
The CMANO mission appears to be based on a May 8th, 1954 top-secret reconnaissance mission, detailed here (it is story #2 from this website). It describes an unexpected encounter with the new Russian MiG-17s. The pilots expected that they were flying outside of the reach of the Russian defenses, and instead found themselves being fired upon by the new Soviet fighters.
The scenario itself is another boundary-pushing use of the CMANO engine. As the player, we have only six aircraft under our command and four of those are the refueling aircraft. That means we are actually commanding two aircraft in the assigned mission. This is pushing us out of the operational space and almost into the flight simulator territory.
In several attempts at the scenario, I’ve lost the first of my planes almost immediately several seconds after the appearance of a threat. Practically speaking, it means I’m left flying a single plane using the “manual” controls of the game engine.
Oh no. Here we go now. I’ve detected a SAM launch, which I manage to avoid. Not so easy is when those MiGs suddenly appear on my tail.
As I’ve written before, I’m not a fan of the puzzle-style scenario in strategy games. It’s one thing to make a scenario winnable only through planning, preparation, and judicious use of the available factors. It’s another to require that you get everything just right, or lose.
In this case, reading the story of the similar mission, we can see that the reality was considerably less deadly than the game version for a number of reasons. I wrote about this in the Korean War, how the computer pilots are much more aggressive than their communist counterparts. In this case, part of his success he credits to the fact the MiG-17 pilots didn’t push their advantage.
At the debriefing in Omaha, General LeMay asked, “Why were you not shot down?” My answer was that there was no doubt in my mind the Mig-17 pilots could have shot us down, if they had been willing to come right up our tailpipes! He made the statement that he was “. . . convinced that most fighter pilots are basically cowards anyway.”
Another problem with the scenario was found by a player and posted online. As distributed, the MiG-17s are armed with Kaliningrad K-5 (NATO designation AA-1 Alkali) air-to-air missiles. The scenario hints that one way around the Russian air defenses is to fly a night mission, but these missiles are in the CMANO database as day/night capable, as they use the aircraft radar for guidance. The missiles weren’t actually deployed on any MiGs until 1957. The scenario designer said he added them in after the original scenario development when play-testers complained that the scenario was too “easy.”
Makes me feel even more incompetent than I already did.
With the missiles in the scenario, I would tend to notice them headed for me seconds before my planes were destroyed. So I edited them out of the scenario.
Even without the missiles, and even at night, I’m continuously taken by surprise when one of the MiGs is suddenly upon me. While this part does seem to match the narrative, most interceptions become a fight to the death. As the saying goes, I have to get it right every time and the Russians only have to get it right once. So far, I’ve not been able to get it right every time.
I don’t know what the “secret” to this mission is. Taking hints from Colonel Austin’s story, it may be necessary to manage energy defensively. He was able, in some cases, to outrun his attackers by diving. It may be that the mission requires multiple sorties to gradually expose the defenses (although historically these were one-off, surprise incursions). I also wonder if I’m misusing the B-47s defensive capabilities. I don’t see any defensive measures on board, but maybe I’m missing something. I also assume that I should be flying “dark,” using my own radar only for ground surveillance. Perhaps I should also be looking for approaching enemies. I will say, though, that they’ve seemed even to sneak up on me when I have my radars on.
As interesting as it is to have a unique mission in a unique time period, I don’t think I want to keep rerunning the same scenario with no clear idea of what I’m doing wrong. For now, I’ll take a break from Strategic Air Command to look at the intervening Suez Crisis, and I’ll come back to the 1957 scenario a little later.