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As far as I am aware nuclear powered bombers were the first attempt by the USSR and USA (either unintentional or not) at enhanced nuclear deterrence. Intending to place a nuclear reactor in a plane armed with nuclear bombs aloft for weeks at a time, serving as an every ready nuclear option (compared to the slower conventional bombers of the time).

Due to failure to contain the nuclear radiation of the reactor, the introduction of the more practical ICBMs and nuclear submarines, and other issues - such a vehicle was never successfully made or utilized.

However, if this series of nuclear weapons had been successfully deployed - would it have changed the course of the Cold War in any meaningful way?

Is there any reason to believe the side to first develop this technology would have had any notable advantage? Would civilian life be any different with nuclear powered bombers flying overhead?

Or perhaps would it have just accelerated the introduction of existing concepts like mutually assured destruction?

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    $\begingroup$ I think the Soviets considered building these things without shielding, and making them one-way suicide bombers. That's the Cold War for you. Fortunately, that was stupid enough no one decided to do it. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Aug 24, 2021 at 22:03
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    $\begingroup$ @DWKraus At that point that's not even a bomber. It is an oversized flying dirty bomb with a pilot. Thankfully someone realized that irradiated rain and damaged ecosystem will hurt everyone involved, but there were some crazy insane designs being floated around. $\endgroup$
    – Nelson
    Aug 25, 2021 at 3:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Nelson that's kinda the point of the mutually assured destruction. Make the prospect of the nuclear war to be as insane/unattractive as possible for every party and hope that no even more insane leader rises up to power to actually go through with it. $\endgroup$
    – Dan M.
    Aug 25, 2021 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ @DanM. That works just fine right up until Iran gets the bomb... 😛 $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2021 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ Iran is perfectly rational to want a bomb. Kaddafi and Iraq lacked it and were run over. North Korea has it and it makes it safer from the invasion. Why would Iran deny itself such protection? $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2021 at 21:48

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I think it would accelerate the understanding of mutual assured destruction. Essentially, a nuclear-powered bomber has advantages similar to a nuclear-powered submarine-it can stay operational longer.

Assuming nuclear bombers were invented, then Operation Chrome Dome would have had nuclear bombers flying around country borders. And since mechanical wear, as well as safety standards weren't a very well understood concept at the time, some of these bombers would inevitably drop out of the sky. The result being a large swath of contaminated ground somewhere along the flight path. People and leaders will know these are not attacks, but only after a while. In the meantime the political situation would be very tense.

After a few more cases of such similar incidents, the countries developing the planes would sit down and talk about how stupid it was to play this Russian Roulette using an easily triggered revolver. So they would do something more sensible, like stopping production of this kind of bomber cruise.

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    $\begingroup$ Your answer is good, but it's also possible that it's wrong. In some circumstances, it might have guaranteed the MAD outcome instead. Bombers that don't need to land are more difficult to recall... because for traditional bombers they end up auto-recalled when on patrol just by the needle nearing the big E. See the documentary Failsafe for additional details. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Aug 24, 2021 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnO Hmm, I don't see how that would make much difference. Sure, a conventionally-fueled bomber has to return to base pretty quickly compared to a nuclear-powered bomber. But it's not like they were patrolling the border just waiting for a moment when nobody at the Pentagon was paying attention so they could race in and drop their bombs. The chance that they would be "auto-recalled" at just the moment when some mistake led them to penetrate the other side's air space seems pretty small. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Aug 24, 2021 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ The practical limit on bombers (once refueling aircraft were developed) was the endurance of the crews, not the fuel in the planes. These would be worse - instead of a tiny, uncomfortable, cold deathtrap, you have a tiny, uncomfortable, cold and potentially radioactive deathtrap. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Aug 24, 2021 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnO "Nuclear armaggedon paranoia" is putting the answer in the question. The mission would be to loiter until further notice, with nuclear weapons on board. I don't know if that scenario has been tested, but I think saying it would automatically lead to a disaster is a fairly high claim. We have examples of people living for months in tiny metal caskets without going totally insane. That's also assuming the technical ability to keep a plane in the sky for months means you will keep them in the sky for months. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2021 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ @John O : I prefer the other documentary produced the same year from the same book... $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2021 at 11:33
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It May Have Ended the Cold War a bit Sooner

... or maybe longer: see comments, but I find that much less likely.

I mostly agree with the other answers in that it would not have provided a tactical advantage, but there are other ways this weapon platform may have impacted the Cold War in a meaningful way. The American strategy to winning the Cold War was to spend more than the Soviets could afford to spend and then dare the Soviets to keep up if they wanted to save face in front of the rest of the world. In this effort, the US launched some pretty silly projects like the space shuttle program knowing that they were hugely massive wastes of money. But what America knew was that they could bear wasteful spending more than the Soviets could; so, every RnD pissing match they could challenge the Soviets to was an automatic win for America.

Nuclear Powered Bombers would yield no actual tactical advantage to speak of, but if America announced they had a new squadron of stupidly over priced nuclear powered bombers, then the Soviets would of course have to build their own squadron if they wanted to maintain their political power in the international community. The best case scenario for the Soviets is that this would be an extra major cost to bear slowing their recovery following the severe devastation they suffered during WWII.

Furthermore, since we are talking 1950s, if the USA got the Cold War into full swing sooner, then the Khrushchev Thaw may have never happened. A big part of how the USSR recovered from WWII was by becoming a less strict society and opening up trade and good relations with the USA and other Western Powers in the years following the war. So, if the Soviets had seen the USA as a major threat right away, then the Stalinists would have had a political advantage against the Khrushchevists. Without the Khrushchev Thaw the political situation in the USSR could have quickly boiled over into a total economic collapse or civil war before the USSR even had time to fully recover from WWII.

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    $\begingroup$ It is also possible that the higher threat that such bombers pose to the USSR, the political and economical reforms of the 1980s would not be launched. Those reforms contributed immensely to the dissolution of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. If the USSR restructured and reformed its economy but did not start political reforms, it could've survived up to this day. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Aug 24, 2021 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Otkin Only if nuclear powered bombers presented an actual elevated threat. The 1980s was well after both nations had generous arsenals of ICBMs and long before anyone had any weapons capable of intercepting one. Bombers were considered an obsolete nuclear delivery system by then because they could be shot down. This question is about the 1950s before ICBMs were a consideration. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 24, 2021 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ My understanding is that this was an actual strategy. The US announced they were developing nuclear bombers in an effort to push the Soviets into spending R&D money even though the US had no intention of actually building the things. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Aug 24, 2021 at 21:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Good point. But if you are talking about the 1950s, then the USSR economy was healthier and the political problems were not present, yet. IIRC, the USSR was still not dependent on oil sales and the Afghan war hadn't started, too. So, it would be probably easier to restructure the economy. It is also the time of the [Khrushchev Thaw]( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khrushchev_Thaw), which could've led to political reforms further straightening the USSR. So, no reforms of the 1980s and no dissolution of the USSR. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Aug 24, 2021 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ I also think that adopting or ignoring that technology wouldn't have significant impact on Cold War process. The Soviets have lost not because military weakness and not because economic collapse, at least it was not inevitable. USSR have fallen because of traitors in the elites, that abandoned Stalins course of socialistic economy and pushed USSR back into capitalistic economy step by step. So it is plausible that Soviets could really have success with nuclear powered bombers in the 50-s, its not impossible. But anyway, it wouldn't be any ultimate weapon. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2021 at 10:18
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Chrome dome was carried out using conventionally powered bombers flying airborne alert duty in various places around the world. After several accidents involving loss of aircraft and weapons, but no nuclear detonations, an alternative ground alert was used to replace it. Bomber with weapons and fuel loaded where positioned near runways with crews in bunkers next to them. They could launch within minutes of being alerted that an attack was in progress. The key component often over looked was an early warning system that could detect an incoming attack in time to launch them. This concept remained operational until the 1990's.

The USA did add a nuclear reactor to a B-36 bomber to see if it could be done. The reactor did not power the aircraft, it was just a test to see if it could be done and if the shielding was adequate. It fly 47 missions demonstrating it could be done, but the project was canceled.

Having a true nuclear powered aircraft would not have changed much if any of the cold war. Ground alerts were far more feasible requiring much less maintenance and there was much less chance of an accident.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, you can see the ready ramps at airbases and airports all over the US and Canada if you know what to look for. (for "what to look for", look at Minot AFB). $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2021 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ I spent many hours working on the bombers and tanker sitting on the Christmas tree shaped alert parking ramps. Every klaxon caused everyone to stop and watch. They night start engines, they might even taxi. You prayed they did not take off. $\endgroup$
    – James Cook
    Aug 27, 2021 at 15:17
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The main problem with bombers was that they were pretty easy to take down with appropriate countermeasures, and building enough of them to saturate the enemy's defenses was too costly.

My feeling is that this problem will be present also with nuclear bombers.

This will likely result in a quicker rush to develop rocketry and ICBM, which are harder to counter in a defensive scenario. It would also push significantly the development of radars and air defenses, in order to enable better tracking of the enemy.

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There would be no difference in the military strategy of deterrence. One effective deterrence weapon is very much like another...as long as they work and war is actually deterred.

The inevitable aircraft crashes due to weather, pilot error, etc., would be rather more severe and much more expensive to clean up. This suggests placement of the servicing airfields in more remote locations, perhaps earlier development of automatic takeoff/landing systems, and earlier development of microcontrollers and sensors for those automatic systems. In turn, this suggests somewhat earlier development of microcomputers.

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I doubt it would have made any fundamental difference.

If, all things considered, the nuclear bombers proved to be no more effective than conventional bombers, then pretty much by definition it would make no difference at all. Which I think is pretty much what happened in practice. At least as far as either side got in developing such planes, there were big disadvantages that outweighed the advantage of longer range, so that while there were some experiments no practical models were ever developed.

If someone had managed to build such a plane and it was clearly superior, presumably that would mean that it would give that side an edge in a nuclear exchange. But even if it was a very big edge, would it have been enough to make it worth that side's while to launch a preemptive strike with such planes? Presumably their own nation would still suffer devastating losses from the counter-attack. To be able to say, "We lost 50 million people but you're side lost 100 million! Ha ha, we won!" isn't much to celebrate over.

Oh, need I point out that nuclear powered bombers would not reduce civilian casualties on your own side, just increase casualties on the other side. Maybe, possibly, if they were patrolling right on the border and took action very fast, they could knock out a few airbases before the enemy knew what was happening and got their planes in the air, but I doubt that would be a big factor.

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  • $\begingroup$ In the movie The Sum Of All Fears, the stealth bombers are nearly sent in to strike the Russians on the theory the Russians diminished capacity would mean they couldn't strike, and would be unwilling to engage in a full-scale exchange. THAT would be brinksmanship! $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Aug 24, 2021 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ The advantage of nuclear powered bombers was NOT for the greater range, but for permanent(-ish) airborne standby mode. Your bomber could be crewed, loaded with munitions, airborne and on station just outside the enemy's border indefinitely. It would reduce the time needed for a bomber strike on Moscow from 12 hours down to 2 hours, and could allow strikes on shipping and port cities within mere minutes of notification. The same, but greater, benefits derived from having a fleet of nuclear-launching submarines loitering in the Atlantic just offshore DC. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Aug 25, 2021 at 7:23
  • $\begingroup$ @PcMan Yes, when I said "greater range" I meant "able to stay aloft for a longer time", i.e. so that it could remain on station for a long time. The extra distance it could travel does not mean "deeper into the Soviet Union". Conventional bombers already could reach deep into the Soviet Union, that wasn't the point. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Aug 25, 2021 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ @jay There is a difference between "greater range" and the ability to loiter in the air for multiple weeks at a time. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Aug 25, 2021 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ @PcMan Well, I don't want to get into an argument over definitions of words. thefreedictionary.com gives as one of its definitions for "range", "3b. The maximum distance that can be covered by a vehicle with a specified payload before its fuel supply is exhausted." I've never understand that definition to imply "in a straight line". Vehicles routinely patrol a border or remain on station. That's the idea of "range" I had in mind. Sorry if that wasn't clear. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Aug 26, 2021 at 2:49
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It wouldn't have made very much difference once anti-aircraft missiles reached a certain point of competence. The missile strategy would have evolved a bit differently, probably batteries on coastal and offshore islands, with a greater standoff range, because obviously, you want the debris to land somewhere else.

But that's merely rocket science.

Alternatively, until missiles advanced that far, (to the Powers Incident level) there may have been the development of missile equipped nuclear powered fighters (about the size of the bombers), with the range and capability to track the other team's bombers for months, as happened undersea with hunter-killer submarines. A bomber infringing on your territory would be universally understood to be an act of war, as would taking down the fighter tailing it. (With some de-conflicting mechanism for genuine emergencies such as ditching a plane or serious medical issues on board)

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Nope

Both the Soviet and the American empires needed an enemy that could provide an excuse to suppress dissent at home and in their respective client states. The cold war had political roots not military. So any adjustment in the military balance would have had no effect. Keep in mind that the military balance never existed. The USA have always been overwhelmingly superior in technology and weapons production capacity. Generals and politicians always claimed the opposite just to justify their actions. Adding another element to the military situation could not tip the scale.

However such superiority was never used to put an end to the war, the war ended when the Soviet empire collapsed on itself with no influence from the outside.

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