During the Cold War, America developed a single air-to-air nuke that could devastate entire bomber fleets in mid-air. Thankfully, it was only ever fired in testing.
In today’s world, nuclear weapons are seen primarily as strategic weapons, rather than tactical, as the second and third order effects of a nuclear detonation are quite possibly further reaching than the first. Even the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon is now seen as perhaps the most egregious violation of international norms a nation can undertake, as leveraging a single weapon could bring about a cascade of nuclear attacks that could end life as we know it. But then, it wasn’t always this way.
There was a time when nuclear weapons were held in a similar regard to other conventional ordnance — when the tactical applications of nuclear weapon systems were the primary consideration for development. Long before the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, the United States and its Soviet competitors established a variety of nuclear weapons that, in hindsight, seem more like the musings of a Bond villain than a defense program.
Some of these weapons, like the B-54 Special Atomic Demolition Munition, were little more than miniaturized nuclear bombs that could be smuggled into a target zone via Special Operations troops in a backpack. Others, like the McDonnell Douglas Air-2A Genie Rocket, were designed for even more dramatic uses: Namely, destroying an entire fleet of Soviet bombers in mid-air with a single weapon.
The threat of Soviet nuclear bombers
In 1949, the Soviet Union conducted its first successful nuclear weapons test, codenamed RDS-1. The 22-kiloton test was more powerful than the 15-kiloton weapon the United States had dropped just a few years prior on Hiroshima, and in an instant, America’s concerns about the Soviet Union were significantly amplified. Almost immediately, President Truman announced the development of a new, even more powerful atom bomb — a “super bomb” as it was called at the time, which is now commonly known as a hydrogen bomb. Of course, Soviet efforts to develop their own super bomb mirrored America’s, raising the stakes on the burgeoning Cold War ever higher.
With the first operational intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) still years away, the understanding at the time was that any hydrogen bomb attack would have to come by way of heavy bomber — with development already underway for what would become the Soviet Tu-95. This new heavy payload bomber was designed by upscaling the previous Soviet Tu-4, which had been based largely on America’s B-29 Superfortress; widely considered the most advanced bomber of World War II.
Aware that the Soviet Union’s atomic arsenal could eventually be brought to bear with heavy payload bombers prompted the United States to invest heavily in aircraft and weapons systems that could intercept inbound bombers before they could reach American shores. The driving need to monitor, deter, and potentially intercept Soviet nuclear bombers led to the development of a number of weapons and aircraft in the United States, but few were quite so far-reaching as the McDonnell Douglas Air-2A Genie program.
The world’s first nuclear air-to-air weapon
The U.S. Air Force had its sights set squarely on neutering the Soviet Union’s nuclear bomber threat, but the vast majority of air-to-air weapon systems at the time were based on machine guns and cannons. America knew that stopping a fleet of Soviet bombers before they reached the United States would require far more effective weapons systems than were readily available at the time, and the first air-to-air missiles were still in their relative infancy. As a result, rockets became an area of increasing focus.
In 1954, one such rocket program, under the banner of Douglas Aircraft, began playing with the idea of a rocket that was armed with a nuclear weapon. In theory, the premise was rather straightforward: Rockets had proven to be an effective weapon for intercept aircraft to leverage, and in fact, a nuclear tipped air-to-air weapon could be developed as a fairly simple package, as the massive blast radius would eliminate the need for any sort of guidance system.
By 1955, development was officially underway on what would come to be called the McDonnell Douglas Air-2A Genie. This new nuclear rocket carried a 1.5 kiloton W25 nuclear warhead and was propelled through the air by a solid-fuel Thiokol SR49-TC-1 rocket engine. The engine would fire for just two seconds, propelling the rocket up to Mach 3.3. The fuse mechanism did not begin until the engine itself had burned out, giving the weapon a total of about 12 second of flight time prior to detonation — giving the launching aircraft just enough time to turn tail and get out of dodge before the massive 1,000 foot blast radius erupted from the warhead.
Because of the Genie’s short flight time and massive blast radius, it would be nearly impossible for a bomber to get out of the way fast enough to avoid utter destruction, and in fact, a single Genie could be used to engage and destroy an entire fleet of Soviet bombers approaching the United States in a formation.
Production on the Genie, which was dubbed the MB-1 Genie in service, continued until 1963, with a total of around 3,150 built. A fleet of 268 U.S. Air Force F-89 Scorpion interceptors were modified to be able to carry the nuclear rocket on hard points, and over time, the weapons were even modified to include longer burning rocket engines to give the F-89 more time to escape the fury of the rocket’s detonation.
Testing the Genie over American troops
Although the Genie would remain in service until the decidedly recently past of 1985, only one Genie was ever actually fired and detonated.
Operation Plumbbob (yes, that’s really how it’s spelled) was a series of nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site between May 28 and October 7 of 1957, and would go on to be considered by many to be the most controversial series of nuclear tests conducted by the United States. A total of 27 nuclear detonations and 29 total explosions were carried out under the supervision of twenty-one different laboratories and government agencies — one them being the test fire and detonation of a Genie nuclear rocket.
Firing a live Genie from beneath an F-89J was a dangerous undertaking to begin with. In order to escape the blast radius of the weapon, the F-89’s pilot, Captain Eric William Hutchison, would have to immediately execute a high-G turn, placing the rocket behind the aircraft. While Hutchison and his radar operator, Captain Alfred C. Barbee, would need nerves of steel to complete the test, they wouldn’t be the only people putting their lives on the line for the Genie’s only test detonation. Five U.S. Air Force officers also volunteered to stand at ground level, directly beneath where the nuclear weapon would detonate in the skies, to prove that the Genie could be utilized without causing any harm to those on the ground below.
Estimates of the altitude in which the Genie detonated vary from source to source, with some claiming an attitude as low as 10,000 feet and others claiming an altitude as high as 20,000. The five volunteer officers stood below utterly unprotected, wearing only their summer uniforms.
“I was busy behind the camera. Then I could see the flash go off out of the corner of my eye. There was this huge, doughnut-shaped cloud in the sky where the blast went off.”-George Yoshitake, U. S. army cameraman
The five men were exposed to negligible amounts of radiation, and seemed to prove that the Genie could be used above ground troops with little risk.
You can actually watch footage of that very test below:
Putting the Genie back in the bottle
The Genie remained in service until the mid-1980s, though by then, American concerns about Soviet bombers dropping hydrogen bombs on American soil had given way to the ICBM age. By 1974, the Soviet Union had their R-36 series of nuclear missiles in service, each of which could cover nearly ten thousand miles and carry a positively massive 25 megaton –or 25,000 kiloton– nuclear warhead.
In truth, it was the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction that would come to replace the Genie as a nuclear deterrent. America now knew they had no hope of intercepting the full breadth of Soviet nuclear missiles as they careened toward the United States, so the nation opted to leverage a good offense as the best form of defense; developing America’s nuclear triad to ensure its ability to respond. In other words, Mutually Assured Destruction promised exactly what the name suggested: If the Soviets launched a nuclear attack, America would as well. There would be no winners in such an apocalyptic exhchange, and that alone has served as a powerful deterrent for nuclear aggression ever since.