UFOs as a US Air Defense Issue
Part 1: The 1950 "Blue Book Plan"
In 1948, when America was the world's only nuclear power and looked to be so for years to come, its air defense network was a remarkably primitive apparatus. Not counting small war-surplus mobile units, it consisted of a paltry nine permanent military radar stations: four in Washington state (the closest portion of the country to the Soviet Union, and home to the strategic Boeing bomber plant and the Hanford nuclear facility), one in Oregon, one in California, two in Sign in New Jersey, and one on Long Island. Incredibly, most of these radars did not even operate on a 24-hour basis.
mediocre that they could barely reach the cruising altitude of the average bomber. A senior air defense officer expressed the opinion of many Air Force officials when he called them "practically worthless" as serious weapons. Only three years after the end of World War II, American defensive airpower was a travesty.
US strategic air doctrine favored a strong offense, and the Air Force had come out of World War II with an unparalleled wealth of experience in massive long-range bomber operations. Strategic Air Command (SAC) dominated the post-war military infighting over nuclear resources. The pervasive feeling in strategy circles was that the next war would be deterred not by vowing to stop an enemy strike in its tracks, but by the threat of overwhelming counterattacks on the aggressor's vital military, industrial, and governmental centers. Based on their World War II experience, the generals commanding SAC strongly believed that no matter how well-organized the opposition, the bombers would always get through, and when they carried a nuclear payload, this meant that their targets would most likely be destroyed. SAC was by far the most politically powerful branch of the Air Force and consumed the lion's share of funding, and consistently resisted proposals to organize a serious air defense arm. But even the staunchest believers in offensive airpower acknowledged that some type of functional air defense system would be necessary for the United States.
A continental air defense system, as envisioned in the late 1940s, would serve three basic functions. Pragmatically, the Air Force and the Truman administration recognized the need to reassure the public that it had some type of protection against enemy air attack. Second, a radar warning network would be essential to alert SAC to enemy penetrations of US airspace which might be the prelude to a full-scale attack, giving the bomber force time to prepare to counterattack. Finally, although there was skepticism within the Air Force over the ability of interceptors to blunt a major Soviet strike, at least a degree of damage limitation for vital military and urban sites could be provided by defensive fighter forces.
In December 1948, the Air Force submitted a plan for an interim air defense radar network composed of any equipment and communications links that could be made available in the shortest possible time. The system, appropriately named "Lashup," was built from off-the-shelf World War II heavy radars and a limited number newer radar units that were just becoming available. The deficiencies of Lashup were well understood by CONAC, the Continental Air Command, the organization in charge of air defense, but while the network would have little effectiveness against future high-speed jets or evasive intruders using electronic jamming, it would be barely adequate to give warning of a massed attack by current propeller-driven Soviet bombers. One of the most glaring defects of Lashup was its limited coverage, both in area and altitude. The network consisted of only 44 fixed sites, and even the so-called Permanent System intended to succeed Lashup would have only about 85 fixed sites. The airspace of the continental United States was simply too vast to be effectively guarded against incursions by enemy aircraft at all altitudes with the technology available in the late 1940s.
Since radar is generally a line-of-sight device, the curvature of the earth and other technical factors set limits on the minimum altitudes a radar site could scan. Below these limits, aircraft had a good chance of sneaking through a radar network undetected. Lashup's old AN/CPS-5, and even its newer General Electric AN/CPS-6B surveillance units, were unable to paint targets below roughly 5,000 feet, an uncomfortably high base which could allow a large aircraft to approach a target undetected. As Lashup went operational, the Air Force began the long process of designing a permanent, full-coverage continental radar network.
In the fall of 1949, in the wake of the detection of the first Soviet nuclear test, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General Muir Fairchild assigned the task of defining an adequate air defense radar network to General Samuel Anderson, Director of Plans and Operations. Anderson appointed his deputy, Colonel T. J. Dayharsh, to head a study group on the problem. The study group's proposal was to be known as the "Blue Book plan." First presented at a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on March 2, 1950, the "Blue Book" air defense plan envisioned a functioning permanent national radar network to be put in place by July 1, 1952. However, this date was also thought to represent the "critical date when the Soviets would pose a dangerous threat." The Air Force's Director of Intelligence, General Charles P. Cabell, projected that by that time the USSR would possess as many as 90 nuclear bombs and enough Tu-4 bombers - copies of the Boeing B-29 - to carry them to US targets. The Blue Book plan recommended that squadrons of radar-equipped jet interceptors be put on alert at the earliest opportunity to guard the nation's most vital facilities. In order of priority, the air defense Blue Book identified SAC nuclear weapons facilities; the Hanford nuclear plant; Washington, DC; New York, and other major cities as primary sites to be guarded by fighters.
See: The Soviet Tu-4 Bomber Threat To The US
Dayharsh's Blue Book team strongly suggested that a coordinated, interservice air defense structure would need to be implemented to give the United States a reasonable chance of confronting a Soviet attack. To help give sufficient early warning of incoming intruders, radar-equipped naval patrol craft off the coasts would have to transmit radar tracking reports to Air Force control centers. Army anti-aircraft gunners likewise would have to work closely with their Air Force counterparts. This would require more than just planes and electronic systems, it would mean a change in national consciousness about vulnerability to air attack. Furthermore, until greater numbers of improved radars could be installed, the Air Force had no choice but to turn to the public to help fill Lashup's low-altitude gaps. Until more radars could be put in place, CONAC proposed boosting the number of spotters in the ranks of the largely inactive Ground Observer Corps, the civil defense organization responsible for keeping a lookout on American airspace.
The Ground Observer Corps was something of a political hot potato. There was a general reluctance to incorporate a civilian organization into the military chain of command, and the Defense Department worried correctly that a sudden urgent request to watch for enemy aircraft would create public unease. Moreover, the poor performance of civilian observers in their one operational test during World War II - "Sunset Project", the defense against the Japanese Fu-Go balloons - gave little encouragement to Air Force officers who might have to rely on them to detect a nuclear sneak attack. Despite these drawbacks, the service felt that it had no choice but to reactivate the GOC until greater numbers of more capable radars became available. There had been 6,000 GOC posts at the height of WW II operations, but after the surrender of Japan the organization had been mothballed. Until the announcement of the existence of the Soviet bomb in 1949, response to requests for GOC volunteers was apathetic. In February 1950, in spite of the mediocre performance of test units of the GOC, Air Force Headquarters authorized planning for the activation of a full-time, permanent GOC as an arm of the air defense system.
As the Air Force was unwilling to play up the idea that the country was at risk from Soviet attack, the public remained largely unresponsive to calls for GOC volunteers. By mid 1950, only five percent of the desired posts had been staffed. The outbreak of the Korean War, coupled with increased publicity, helped somewhat, and at the end of that year, 26 filter centers and several thousand observers were trained and operational on a part-time basis. The seeds of trouble were sown as early as June 1950, when Flying magazine ran an article soliciting GOC observers, titled "Wanted: 180,000 Spotters." The cover story of the same issue was "Flying Saucers -- Fact or Fiction?" by Curtis Fuller, Flying's editor, who also wrote for Fate, Raymond Palmer's flying saucer pulp. The cover plane was the Vought V-173 "Zimmer Skimmer."
[GOC] spotters won't be plane identification experts. In fact, the Air Force won't ask them to spend time memorizing aircraft silhouettes. Today's bombers and fighters fly so high and so fast -- and attack so often at night -- that key officers believe it's useless to train civilians on the fine points of identification.As proof of this, it should be noted that the "GOC Guide," the training manual for GOC observers, contained no illustrations of the Tu-4 bomber that was considered the only Soviet aircraft capable of reaching the US. It may have been considered futile to train the GOC observers to search for planes that were essentially indistinguishable from the still ubiquitous US B-29 -- overeager observers probably would have reported every US plane as a Soviet intruder.