The Soviets tested their first nuclear bomb on 29 August 1949. The test came as a surprise to the Western powers, as American and British intelligence agencies did not expect the Soviet Union to be nuclear capable until 1953 or 1954. With the Soviet Union capable of producing nuclear weapons, the Cold War entered a new and dangerous phase. The following decades would see an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union as the two superpowers developed and procured more nuclear weapons.
In the 1960s, the United States began implementing airborne alert flights to deter Soviet strikes on the west. As part of the airborne alert system, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) initiated Operation Chrome Dome. The operation consisted of a continuous flight of B-52s carrying nuclear weapons that would remain airborne 24 hours a day. The purpose of Operation Chrome Dome was to provide the US military with second strike capabilities to hit the Soviet Union. The program was an important aspect of the mutually assured destruction (MAD) doctrine. Should the Soviets hit the US or its Western allies, the US would be capable of launching a second strike.
During the tenure of Operation Chrome Dome, there were a series of accidents that occurred with nuclear-armed aircraft. In 1961, two B-52s were lost in accidents. The first occurred on 24 January, near Goldsboro, North Carolina. A B-52G, based at Seymour John Air Force Base (near Goldsboro) broke up while in flight, resulting in two nuclear bombs being released. Luckily the two bombs did not detonate; though in 2013 a report was released noting one of the bombs was very close to detonating. The second accident occurred near Yuba City, California. Like the incident at Goldsboro, the safety mechanisms on the nuclear bombs prevented accident detonation. Three other accidents occurred in 1964, 1966, and 1968.
As the United States began to implement intercontinental ballistic missiles, the need for a 24-hour airborne alert was reduced. In 1968, Operation Chrome Dome was ceased. In 1969, the United States launched Operation Giant Lance, a similar operation to the Chrome Dome program. From 10 to 30 October, flights of B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons were flown near the Soviet border. It was an effort by the Nixon administration to convince the Soviet Union the US was willing to use nuclear weapons, a concept later known as the “madman” theory (the concept was to deter Soviet and Communist bloc nations from interfering with US operations in Vietnam).
Look for more information regarding Operation Chrome Dome in the future Modern War issue #26 with the article “The Strategic Air Command: From Nuclear Deterrence to Desert Storm” and join the conversation on Facebook!