Before intercontinental ballistic missiles became the most prominent means of nuclear weapons delivery, the United States was faced with a very different–and terrifying–nuclear threat. By 1949, America’s Cold War competitors in the Soviet Union had developed their own atomic bomb, and were already hard at work developing long-range, heavy payload bombers they could fly across the Atlantic to unleash nuclear hellfire on the continental United States in wave after wave of bomber formations.
Jet fighters were just beginning to enter service at the time, but even the most advanced intercept fighters were still limited by the weapons technology of the day. Most fighters were still engaging enemy aircraft with guns or cannons, with rockets beginning to find their way into service and air-to-air missiles still a few years out.
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America, and its groundbreaking B-29 Superfortress, had just demonstrated to the world how effectively bomber volume could overwhelm air defenses, building nearly 4,000 B-29s alone to fly through the chaff-filled skies of far-flung targets. If the Soviets were to leverage their new nuclear weapons in a similar bombing strategy, there’d be almost nothing the United States could do to stop them. If hundreds or thousands of Soviet bombers appeared on the horizon, each carrying their own atomic ordnance, the best America could do would be to launch a counter-attack and respond in kind.
If America couldn’t defend its people, the best it could hope to do would be to avenge them. That is, until 1954, when Douglas Aircraft set to work on a new series of nuclear weapons meant specifically for use in the skies. The plan was simple: American fighters wouldn’t shoot down Soviet bombers one at a time… They’d take out entire formations all at once using nuclear weapons they could fire from their aircraft.
Watch the Sandboxx News Video Feature, “America’s Air-to-Air Nuke” to get the full story on these incredible nuclear weapons
Read the original story this video is based on here.
America’s new nuclear weapons would be rocket-propelled and set on a timer, with a large enough warhead to wipe out entire swaths of bombers with a single shot. Nuclear weapons may have been in their infancy at the time, but their destructive capability made them the only truly feasible weapon against the sheer volume of bombers America feared the Soviets might send.
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.
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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 seconds 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.
The AIR-2 Genie was only ever test detonated once. Captain Eric William Hutchison successfully fired one of these unusual nuclear weapons from the belly of his F-89J in 1957. The test not only proved the weapon could be fired from a fighter jet, but also confirmed that a high altitude detonation would have minimal effect on troops fighting below.
Remarkably, the Air-2 Genie remained in service until the mid-1980s.
Michael S. Kelly says
A former boss of mine was an F-106 pilot in the Air National Guard. The F-106 was the interceptor used to fire Genie missiles at Soviet bomber fleets. The plane was designed to take a 12 G turn, which it had to do in order to give the pilot a chance of surviving the intercept. The nuke on board the Genie had apparently only been tested twice, under conditions where the yield could be measured. In one test, it yielded 1.2 kilotons of TNT, and in the other, 1.6 kilotons of TNT. A rather large spread, though not unexpected for nuke design at the time. The office at Los Alamos responsible for bomb yield predictions was notorious for its wrong numbers, the worst being the 6 megaton prediction for the Castle Bravo shot (the actual yield was 15 megatons). In any event, the Genie warhead yield spread made the F-106 pilots rather nervous, and glad that they never had to chase down and destroy a wave of Soviet bombers.
Steven Lodahl says
Several AIR-2s could be carried by and launched from a A-12 [an interceptor version of the SR-71].
Ernie White says
Actually the YF-12A (the interceptor version of the A-12) was armed with Hughes GAR-9/AIM-47 Falcon long range radar homing missile, I do not believe the Genie was ever considered for the YF-12A.
During the development of the North American XF-108 Rapier, a nuclear version of the GAR-9 was under development, but later dropped in 1958 and replaced by 100-pound high-explosive warhead.
After the cancellation of the F-108 in September 1959 Lockheed pulled 3 A-12’s (s/n 60-6934, 60-6935 & 60-6936) from the assembly line to be modification into YF-12A interceptor flying for the first time on 7 August 7 1963.
Until the 1980’s, lower yield tactical nukes were common throughout the Navy for ASW and AAW uses. The general strategy later moved towards higher precision conventional weapons. For anyone who has ever endured a nuclear weapons inspection, the hassle factor was very high. Today, the vast bomber fleet would be eliminated with modern defense systems. Hence, ICBM’s.
was a great idea if RUS cooperated and sent bombers in formations; even if they did, the interceptors had to find them which would be tough if the tracking radars and associated comms, as well as airfields and fuel, were all dead from missile strikes. Maybe that’s why they built the interstates – emergency runways. RUS had ability by late 60s to make all this happen.
Shawn Santo says
Canada operated the CF-101 (Canadian version of the F-101 Voodoo) from 1961 to 1987. There were five squadrons at one time.
From 1965 to 1984, they were also armed with the AIR-2 Genie. The missiles and warheads were under US control and released if needed according to a Dual Key Arrangement under NORAD.
William Mills says
Only quibble: it was a Douglas product. McDonnell Douglas was not formed until the two firms merged in the 1970s.