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Secrets of the Cuban Missile Crisis

October 4, 2016

7thDuring recent decades more and more has been learned about the Cuban Missile Crisis, such as the Soviet tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba and the CIA’s deployment of saboteurs in Cuba at the time of the crisis.  Nevertheless, U.S. government agencies are still keeping significant elements of the history secret, including most of the agent reports on the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. A recent case of excessive secrecy is the U.S. Air Force’s release of a massively excised history of the Strategic Air Command’s 7th Air Division, which controlled strategic bombers and reconnaissance aircraft in the United Kingdom.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, SAC’s B-47 deployments in the UK figured in the total picture of the Command’s global nuclear alert. Besides the B-52 bombers that were on expanded airborne alert, SAC B-47 bomber forces, deployed in the United Kingdom, Morocco, Spain, and Guam, also went on alert.  These were the so-called “Reflex/ Air Mail” forces which were periodically rotated in and out of overseas bases, where specified numbers of bombers were on ground alert, ready for rapid launch.  A Strategic Air Command history declassified years ago provides useful detail on strategic bomber operations during the crisis, but histories of specific units and divisions would provide a granular view of SAC activities during the crisis. Towards that end, the National Security Archive’s nuclear project filed declassification requests with the Air Force for a number of its histories.


One of the requested histories is the 7th Air Division in the Cuban Crisis: A Study of Actions in the Emergency.  The entire document is hundreds of pages long, consisting partly of lengthy annexes of supporting documents and excerpts from published British parliamentary debates (Hansard).  Some interesting information was released, e.g. arrangements for landing of “post-strike” B-52 bombers on the bases after war broke out and a stand-down of U-2 flights at the height of the crisis, but important sections are heavily excised from the narrative that is the heart of the document.  Very little comes through about the B-47 deployments, much less that the bombers were nuclear armed.  While the above-mentioned SAC history indicates that bombers, including the Reflex forces, were nuclear ready, all such references have been withheld from the 7th Air Division history on the grounds that the information is “formerly restricted data,” exempt under the Atomic Energy Act.   Even the fact of the B-47 deployments and their numbers has been excised. An initial appeal led to the release of a few phrases and sentences but significant portions of the narrative remains classified (and the Air Force even scrubbed out a few words and phrases that had been previously declassified).

Despite the Air Force’s aversion to releasing information about its nuclear role in the United Kingdom during the Cuban crisis, the story cannot be kept wholly secret.  For example, a new book by Ken Young, The American Bomb in Britain: U.A. Air Force’s Strategic Presence, 1946-1964 (Manchester University Press, 2016) provides a concise account of the role of the SAC bases during the crisis in the context of a detailed history of the U.S. Air Force strategic nuclear presence in the United Kingdom.  Starting with the “atomic handshake” in June 1946 between Commanding General of the Army Air Forces Carl Spaatz and British Chief of Air Staff Lord Arthur Tedder, Young tells how the United States secretly installed atomic bomb loading equipment at Lakenheath and Sculthorpe airbases during 1946-1948.   This was the only instance when the United States acquired overseas bases on the basis of an “informal, unwritten agreement.”  By the summer of 1950, when the Korean War broke out, the Air Force was deploying atomic bombs (although initially without the fissile cores) at the bases, although British and U.S. records differ as to whether Prime Minister Clement Atlee was involved in the decision-making.

Young’s account sheds light on the complex problems that the U.S. presence posed for British defense policy, U.S. Air Force internal politics, Anglo-American diplomatic relations, and nuclear war planning.  His conclusions are especially interesting, for example, that British leaders showed a “lack of foresight in consenting to the [U.S.] acquisition of bases in 1946.”  Because of the informal nature of the base arrangements, British prime ministers found that they had no say over whether or how U.S. nuclear forces based in the United Kingdom would be used.  It was a sensitive, life or death issue; as British diplomat Evelyn Shuckburgh wrote to a British military representative in Washington: “His Majesty’s Government hope[s] the American Air Force will not go bombing the Russians from the United Kingdom without letting us know beforehand.”  Young provides a fascinating narrative of the complex and difficult interactions between British and U.S. defense officials, with the latter making half-hearted assurances about advance consultations in the event that war was imminent.

On the Missile Crisis itself, Young’s narrative is brief but to the point. The B-47 Reflex force deployed at the British bases, sanitized in the Air Force release, is central to the story. A week before the crisis, SAC had exercised B-47 forces: 8 minutes after the klaxons signaled an alert, 18 EWO (emergency war orders) bombers went airborne.  On 31 October, the Reflex force was strengthened and additional KC-97 tankers were deployed.  SAC kept the maximum number of bombers in EWO status by postponing non-essential maintenance and by assuring that any other work could be completed quickly enough so as not to interfere with bomber launch.  The B-47s stayed on a DEFCON 2 posture until mid-November; by 21 November they were on DEFCON 3.  The hallmark of the U.S. nuclear posture at the British bases during the crisis, Young observes, was its “unobtrusiveness” so as to avoid alarming the British public. This corresponded to the alert posture of British nuclear bomber forces, which was also low-key by design.

A pending appeal before the Interagency Security Classification Appeal Panel ought to lead to the declassification of more information from the 7th Air Division history.  This will be an interesting test of whether the Air Force is influential enough to prevent the declassification of such basic information as the number of alert B-47s at bases in the United Kingdom during the Cuban Crisis.

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