The Thin Aluminum Line
Supersonic airplanes and a screen of radar stood ready during the cold war to avert the end of the world.
- By Carl Posey
- Air & Space magazine, January 2007
David Peters; Sources: NASM (SI Neg. #85-16420); NASM (SI Neg. #1B44791); SOVFOTO
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To compensate, the F-89J was armed with MB-1 Genies, an unguided nuclear missile that could be fired at enemy bombers (See “Suicide by Genie?”, p. 33).
The inability to catch fast bombers was proof to some within the Air Force that the interceptor fleet needed to be upgraded, as part of a larger overhaul. What was required to deflect a Soviet attack was not a clutch of obsolescent aircraft guided by World War II-vintage radars but an impenetrable defensive umbrella. A new system to detect intruders was needed, and new airplanes to chase them down and kill them.
To explore ways to make North American nuclear defense less porous, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1952 convened a Summer Study Group. It started with the idea of creating a radar net around the northern fringe of North America.
The system the scientists created became a massive joint undertaking by the United States and Canada and relied on groundbreaking computer technology to manage information. To develop it, MIT created an air defense lab that later morphed into the Lincoln Laboratory, which remains famous for research in missile defense, space surveillance, and civilian air traffic control. The brains of the information management system would be called the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or SAGE.
Centrally located digital computers would monitor data from a picket line of new-generation radars, then vector interceptors toward targets. Surface-to-air missiles, as well as interceptors from southern U.S. bases, would also engage the Soviet bombers as the battle spread south. The MIT group estimated that such a system could exterminate 60 or 70 percent of the attackers.
Offense-minded officials in the Air Force were not impressed. Although the Battle of Britain in World War II had demonstrated that
contemporary interceptors guided by ground radar were more effective than fighters patrolling
on their own, pilots preferred keeping command and control in the cockpit.