For @aveanexalea , since he requested it and it was on my vote list.
Back in the early portion of the cold war, US air planners and air defence controllers had a major problem. In the day and age of a single modern bomber being able to take out an entire city, or multiple in a single mission, the US had to guarantee that to the best of their ability to be able to take down as many soviet bombers as possible, preferably all of them, in the event of an atomic conflict.
From past experience, they knew that the “bomber would always get through”, especially when used in mass bomber swarms, or combat boxes, as was the US term. (More of a specific bomber formation doctrine, but eh). Conventional Anti-aircraft measures could and would down some of the bombers, but a large volume would get through. Any Soviet bombers escaping air defences would more than likely result in destroyed US cities and the millions of preventable casualties that would follow.
This was unacceptable. The USAF, taking a page from their Army comrades, decided to go nuclear. The US army’s doctrine was to use atomic munitions to vaporize soviet armoured divisions if they were able to roll through any conventional weapons, for the defence of Western Europe. The USAF decided that an atomic device air-burst in the middle of a soviet bomber formation would do just the trick.
New developments in US Atomics research had allowed for the development of sealed pit devices.
“A weapon “boosted” by tritium and deuterium gas would use much less fissile material to produce a large explosion. Right before the moment of detonation, these hydrogen gases would be released into the weapon’s core. When the core imploded, the gases would fuse, release neutrons, multiply the number of fissions, and greatly increase the yield. And because the fissile core would be hollow and thin, a lesser amount of explosives would be needed to implode it. As a result, boosted weapons could be light and small.“
Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. (New York: The Penguin Press, 2013), Pg. 103.
This new development allowed for more powerful weapons in smaller packages.
This allowed the Air-2 Genie to pack the punch it required.
The Air-2 Genie represented the first sealed-pit weapon to enter US stockpile. With conventional air-to air weapons proving inadequate, and the threat of a single Soviet aircraft wreaking havoc on the mainland US, the USAF deemed the safest option for the downing of US bombers was the detonation of small atomic devices over the skies of the mainland United States, Alaska, and Canada.
This “view was endorsed in March 1955 by James R. Killian, the president of MIT, who headed a top secret panel on the threat of surprise attack”. - “The Genie would be carried by Air Force fighter-interceptors. It had a small, 1.5-kiloton warhead and a solid-fueled rocket engine. Unlike conventional air defense weapons, it didn’t need a direct hit to eliminate a target. And it could prove equally useful against a single Soviet bomber or a large formation of them”.
The Genie was to be fired upon contact with a Soviet bomber. The sooner the better for the sake of the US, as will be explained in detail below.
The on board fire computer would calculate the distance to the bomber, or bombers, and set the on board timer for the Air-2 Genie. After launch, the US fighter would bank hard and roll out and away from the projected device initiation point. Initiation of the device would occur once the timer ran out. The rocket would speed towards the hostile aircraft at Mach 3.3 powered by a solid fueled Thiokol SR49 rocket motor. Primary kill effects were caused surprisingly enough not by blast or heat, which, despite the low yield of 1.5 kilotons, were still effective out to a great distance. The Fireball would consume any aircraft within a hundred yards, yet the most effective killing agent of this device was the prompt radiation released. Even a bad miss could still kill, given that the lethal envelope of the prompt radiation had a radius of about a mile with “the “probability of kill” (PK) within that envelope [found] to be 92 percent”.
“The Soviet aircrew’s death from radiation might take as long as five minutes—a delay that made it even more important to fire the Genie as far as possible from urban areas. Detonated at a high altitude, the weapon produced little fallout and didn’t lift any debris from the ground to form a mushroom cloud. After the bright white flash, a circular cloud drifted from the point of detonation, forming an immense smoke ring in the sky”.
The discussion of permission to fire these devices was brought up, and how a request to fire the devices may be delayed to the point where several US cities may well have gone up in smoke. In response to these concerns, the use of these devices were pre-delegated to the USAF, by Eisenhower in April 1956, with the actual order coming into effect in December.
In effect, the USAF was able to fire atomic air-to-air rockets at any target that was deemed ‘hostile’. While the joint chief’s of staff demanded that these devices were to be locked up in storage igloos, and never to be flown over the United States except in war time. Presumably, the reality of this was that a large volume of air interceptors were on the deck ready to jet in the event of a conflict. At first warning of the DEW line, Mid-Canada line or the Pine-tree Line, the aircraft would be armed, with Genies extracted from their storage sheds, with the air interceptors, now armed with atomic rockets, sent to intercept the soviet waves of bombers.
To prove the device safe in use, the USAF conducted Operation Plumbbob on 19 July 1957. This proved to be the only live firing of a Air-2 Genie missile, which initiated somewhere between 18,500 and 20,000 ft (5,600 and 6,100 m) above mean sea level. (Sources vary). A group of five USAF officers volunteered to stand hatless in their light summer uniforms underneath the blast to prove that the weapon was safe for use over populated areas. They were photographed by Department of Defense photographer George Yoshitake who stood there with them. Gamma and neutron doses received by observers on the ground were negligible. Doses received by aircrew were highest for the fliers assigned to penetrate the airburst cloud ten minutes after explosion.
As shown in the video above, with the description just above, “The
officers wore summer uniforms and no protective gear. A photograph, taken at the moment of detonation, shows that two of the men instinctively ducked, two shielded their eyes, and one stared upward, looking straight at the blast. “It glowed for an instant like a newborn sun,” Time magazine reported, “then faded
into a rosy, doughnut-shaped cloud.”
Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. (New York: The Penguin Press, 2013), Pg. 105.
Inevitably , problems began to arise. Given that sealed-pit weapons were quite new, with this model of weapon being the first in stockpiles, how safe were they? This was a bit of an unknown, one that needed to be found out when thousands of these devices would be put on airfields and storage facility’s across the country, many within city limits.
The U.S. government was quite public about the Genie missile.
“When atomic bombs were first transferred to SAC bases in French Morocco, the French government wasn’t told about the weapons. But the deployment of Genies at air bases throughout the United States was announced in an Air Force press release.”
“The possibility of any nuclear explosion occurring as a result of an accident involving either impact or fire is virtually nonexistent,” Secretary of Defense Wilson assured the public”.
His press release reported “that someone standing on
the ground directly beneath the high-altitude detonation of a Genie would be exposed to less radiation than “a hundredth of a dose received in a standard (medical) X-ray.”
However, it should be noted that “His press release about the
Genie didn’t mention the risk of plutonium contamination”, not from an airburst anti-bomber detonation, but from an accidental surface burst.
“The risks of plutonium exposure were becoming more apparent in the mid-1950s. Although the alpha particles emitted by plutonium are too weak to penetrate human skin, they can destroy lung tissue when plutonium dust is inhaled. Anyone within a few hundred feet of a weapon accident spreading plutonium can inhale a swiftly lethal dose. Cancers of the lung, liver, lymph nodes, and bone can be caused by the inhalation of minute amounts. And the fallout from such an accident may contaminate a large area for a long time. Plutonium has a half-life of about twenty-four thousand years. It remains hazardous throughout that period, and plutonium dust is hard to clean up. “The problem of decontaminating the site of [an] accident may be insurmountable,” a classified Los Alamos report noted a month after the Genie’s onepoint
safety test, “and it may have to be ‘written off’ permanently.” “.
Understandably, this would drive the civilian members in charge of safety quite quickly to protest, with the very thought of having to inform the public that a section, or perhaps all of a major US city would be uninhabitable for an extremely extended period being almost unthinkable.
There was heavy debate actually among those in the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), as to whether use a plutonium, or uranium-235 base for the fission products in the genie devices.
“In one respect, uranium-235 seemed to be safer. It has a half-life of about seven hundred million years—but emits radiation at a much lower rate than plutonium, greatly reducing the inhalation hazard. And yet a Genie with a uranium core had its own risks. Norris Bradbury, the director of Los Alamos, warned the AEC that such a core was “probably not safe against one-point detonation.” In effect, shrapnel, or a stray bullet, or what have you from an aircraft crash, or sabotage, or whatever incident may well cause the device to, quite frankly, initiate. Heck, even a fire could cause it.
In short, using uranium as the base fission product, the Genies would fail the one-point safety test, and could be set off very easily. Using Uranium as the base fission product, “Impact tests revealed that when the Genie was armed, it didn’t need a firing signal to detonate. The Genie could produce a nuclear explosion just by hitting the ground”.
Understandably, “given the choice between an accident that might cause a nuclear explosion and one that might send a cloud of plutonium over an American city, the Air Force preferred the latter. Handmade, emergency capability Genies were rushed into production, with cores that contained plutonium”.
Even with the one-point safety test proven, there was still the potential for complications.
“The one-point safety tests at Nevada Test Site had provided encouraging results, and yet the behavior of a nuclear weapon in an “abnormal environment”—like that of a fuel fire ignited by a plane crash—was still poorly understood. During a fire, the high explosives of a weapon might burn; they might detonate; or they might burn and then detonate. And different weapons might respond differently to the same fire, based on the type, weight, and configuration of their high explosives. For firefighting purposes, each weapon was assigned a “time factor”—the amount of time you had, once a weapon was engulfed in flames, either to put out the fire or to get at least a thousand feet away from it. The time factor for the Genie was three minutes”.
Ibid.- Pg 109
Heck, there was concern that the fire may even start the standard detonation process.
“The heat of a fire might start the thermal batteries, release high-voltage
electricity into the X-unit, and then set off the bomb. To eliminate that risk, heat-sensitive fuses were added to every sealed-pit weapon. At a temperature of 300 degrees Fahrenheit, the fuses would blow, melting the connections between the batteries and the arming system. It was a straightforward, time-honored way to interrupt an electrical circuit, and it promised to ensure that a high temperature wouldn’t trigger the detonators”.
In 1977, a study was completed that reported that “despite being the oldest sealed-pit weapon in the stockpile, vulnerable to lightning, and fitted
with an outdated accelerometer, the Genie was still being loaded onto fighter planes”.
Ibid. Pg. 223
In the end, over 3000 Genie’s were produced, being used by both the USAF from 1957 to 1985, and the R.C.A.F. from 1965 to 1984.
Schlosser, Eric. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. New York: The Penguin Press, 2013.