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From Trinity to the Triad: the heritage of nuclear deterrence

  • Published
  • By Glenn S. Robertson
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs

 

 

The Road to Trinity

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Robert Oppenheimer recalled those words from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita when they tested the first nuclear weapon at the Alamogordo weapons testing site in New Mexico.

July 16, 1945, changed the world in a flash of unprecedented light and heat, ushering in a new world in an instant. The new day that came with that flash laid the groundwork for the existence of Strategic Air Command, which would in turn become the foundation for U.S. Strategic Command – the unified command responsible for all the U.S. military’s nuclear assets.

Though it is unlikely that the ones responsible for that initial detonation at the Trinity Site on Alamogordo would have foreseen what would become the nuclear triad, the scientists and engineers who harnessed the atom are undoubtedly the giants’ shoulders on which the missile and bomber wings and the “Boomer” subs now stand.

The path to becoming those giants was far from easy, however.

The Manhattan Project, as it was called, was led by Oppenheimer and called upon the brilliance of some of the greatest scientific minds of the age, as well as more than 120,000 construction workers, plant operators, military members and others, working tirelessly across nearly 20 sites to create the infrastructure and materiel to create a weapon that would end the war and ultimately, change the world.

Scientists worked tirelessly in Los Alamos, New Mexico, trying to crack the code to a nuclear detonation. Those months of work bore fruit, culminating in the creation of a plutonium core weapon, nicknamed “Gadget.” Two other weapons were made, one with a uranium core and the other with plutonium. The complexity of the plutonium weapon, which required an implosion-style detonation, required a test to ensure that the weapon would respond appropriately when used.

Oppenheimer and others settled on the Alamogordo testing range, and ground zero for the detonation was designated Trinity, inspired by the poet John Donne. The Gadget was to be dropped from a 100-foot tower onto the sand below, with bunkers built to shield onlookers from the blast.

As they waited for the blast, bets were taken on whether the Gadget would work as expected, and in fact, some privately guessed that it would not work at all. Despite those concerns, precautions were taken in case of a potentially dangerous partial detonation, called a fizzle, as well as for the release of radioactivity into the area.

At exactly 5:30 a.m. that Monday morning in the New Mexico desert, the atomic age began.

 

A New Age

The atomic age brought a great deal with it, to include a near-global fear of nuclear annihilation throughout much of the Cold War. What kept those fears at bay for many was the doctrine of strategic deterrence, though most would never know it by those words.

Both sides maneuvering to gain an upper hand while building their own nuclear arsenals to ensure they could respond to any threat and deter the other from a preemptive attack would keep the U.S. and Soviet Union on the brink of mutually assured destruction for nearly 50 years.

The responsibility of ensuring the effectiveness of that deterrent was given to Strategic Air Command, which had been borne out of World War II as an Army Air Forces unit, and then transferred to the U.S. Air Force upon the branch’s establishment as a separate military service. The unit deteriorated in terms of morale and function until Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay assumed command and moved the unit’s headquarters to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.

Under his guidance, infrastructure and equipment was built to deter Soviet attack, and one-upmanship ensured that one side would not gain the upper hand over the other. Yet, all things end and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 would end the Cold War. Its end would cause upheaval within the Air Force and aspects of that upheaval included SAC’s disestablishment in 1992 and Air Force nuclear assets parceled out to other major commands.

However, a unified command, USSTRATCOM, would be formed the same year with a new vision of nuclear warfare in U.S. defense policy and in alignment with policy dictating strategic nuclear weapons fall under a single command responsibility. USSTRATCOM's principal mission was then to deter military attack, and if deterrence failed, to counter with nuclear weapons.

It is no small coincidence that the motto of both SAC and USSTRATCOM is and remains “Peace is our Profession,” as STRATCOM was intended as the spiritual successor of SAC.

 

Echoes of the Manhattan Project

Upon its incorporation in April 2009, Air Force Global Strike Command took up the heavy mantle of SAC as the major command response for Air Force nuclear assets. Twentieth Air Force and the ICBM assets would realign under AFGSC Dec. 1, 2009, and the Eighth Air Force with their bombers would join the MAJCOM Feb. 1, 2010.

That mission has continued since then, with the missile wings of the Twentieth and the bombers of the Eighth remaining alert for any threat to the United States.

The same drive of that guided the minds of the Manhattan Project drive the minds of those innovating the deterrent systems to come, with the B-2 Spirit and the LGM-135 Sentinel on the horizon to provide the next generation of deterrent against America’s adversaries.

Though he could not have guessed what we now know of the dawn of strategic deterrence, Oppenheimer knew that world had changed forever in the New Mexico sand.

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent,” Oppenheimer said. “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

For those interested in seeing the site where Manhattan Project personnel detonated the first nuclear weapon in history, more information can be found here; however, the White Sands Missile Range only opens the doors to the site during two open houses, one in April and another in October.