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Nuclear Weapons: Bombers
The first nuclear bombs, used to end World War II, were delivered by strategic bombers, the only means available at that time. Over the following decades other means were developed, based on inter-continental missiles and submarine based missiles.
Bombers remained part of the strategic delivery system, under the Strategic Air Command, and have a role to play even in the 21st century.
The First Atomic Bombers
In August of 1945, the first nuclear bombs were expected to be delivered to their targets by bombers, the only long range delivery system then in operation. The bombs used at the end of World War II against Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) were delivered by means of the B-29 Superfortress' of the 509th Composite Group based on the island Tinian.
The bombs used were the Mk-I "Little Boy" uranium bomb with yield of about 15 kilotons and the Mk-3A "Fat Man" plutonium bomb with yield of about 22 kilotons. (A kiloton is the explosive equivalent of one thousand tons of TNT, a megaton = 1 million tons of TNT.)
Following World War II, a new threat emerged from the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and the nuclear-capable Soviet Union. The first U.S. response was to field bombers capable of delivering atomic and later hydrogen bombs against targets in Soviet territory, thereby deterring Soviet ambitions. Later, U.S. defense evolved to encompass the "Strategic Triad" approach, a highly-survivable trio of nuclear delivery options including bombers, inter-continental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. This deterrent assured that no first strike could eliminate the U.S. retaliatory capability and created a stable world order that endured until the rise of terrorist organizations in the late 20th century.
The Strategic Air Command (SAC)
On 21 March 1946, the United States Army Air Forces were reorganized into three combat commands: the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the Tactical Air Command, and the Air Defense Command. SAC had to be ready to conduct long-range offensive operations in any part of the world. This organization was retained when the United States Air Force was formed 16 September 1947. In the decades to come it was SAC that carried the nuclear weapons in American bombers, ready to go to war at any moment.
SAC bombers included the B-36 Peacemaker, the first intercontinental bomber, that was designed during World War II but not put into operational use until 26 June 1948. More than 380 B-36s were built for the U.S. Air Force through August 1954. In 1958-59, the B-36 was replaced by the B-52 Stratofortress. A total of 744 B-52s were built with the last, a B-52H, delivered in October 1962. The B-52H model remains in Air Force inventory, assigned to Air Combat Command based at Barksdale AFB, LA and Minot AFB, ND. Originally a conventional bomber, the B-52 has been modified as a cruise missile platform.
Other important SAC bomber aircraft included the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, the world's first swept wing bomber, 1800 of which served SAC from 1951 to the late 1960s. SAC today relies on the B-1 as the backbone of America's long-range bomber force, and the B-2 Spirit (low-observable, or stealth technology) as a multi-role bomber capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear munitions.
Although formerly highly classified, the nature of the bombs designed to be dropped from bombers are now public information. Numerous designs followed "Fat Man" in the U.S. arsenal during the late 1940s through the 1990s bearing "Mk" or "B" nomenclature starting from Mk-4 that followed the Mk-3A "Fat Man". The photo to the left is the Mk-53 (or B53), a nine megaton thermonuclear device first produced in 1962 for delivery by B-52 and other strategic bombers. (Bomb numbers have no dashes to distinguish them from aircraft.) The last strategic bomb (not missile warhead) to be produced was probably the B83, first built in 1983.
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