Economics / History

A History of Military Delusion Part 1: The Bomber Gap and the Origin of MIC

Last month, I attempted to link the remarkably positive contribution the destructive arts played in the creation of the modern world.  Too often private enterprise and the “miracle” that is capitalism received out-sized credit for such advances, which does humanity a great disservice when it fails to answer the why and how in research and development.  But the effects of innovations, especially in the military arena, are not uniformly positive.

This series of posts mostly revolves around a historical perspective, and again one is in order.  Once again, I’ll focus on Robert Gordon’s phases of the industrial revolution:

  • IR #1 (steam, railroads) from 1750 to 1830;
  • IR #2 (electricity, internal combustion engine, running water, indoor toilets, communications, entertainment, chemicals, petroleum) from 1870 to 1900; and
  • IR #3 (computers, the web, mobile phones) from 1960 to present.

I’m a little puzzled; where is jet aviation in all this?  I suppose Gordon lumps this in with IR #2 (the first aircraft relied on the internal combustion engine), but this misses the importance of the 1950s.

Aviation became an economic powerhouse only after turbine engines debuted in civilian airliners on the Vickers Viscount (1950, turboprop) and the de Havilland Comet (1952, turbojet).  In the case of the turbojet and later turbofan engine spinoffs, jets have the benefit of almost double the velocity and lower overall costs (mostly maintenance) over piston airliners.  Turboprops are slower than jets with one exception (Russian manufacturers—more on that later) but have lower operating costs compared with modern-day turbofan engines.  When American aircraft manufacturers rolled out their first generation jets later that same decade (707 in 1958 and DC-8 in 1959) with double (sometimes triple) the seating capacity of earlier turbine-powered airliners, an explosion of passenger traffic resulted that ushered in “rapid developments in airport terminals, runways, airline catering, baggage handling, reservations systems, and other air transport infrastructure.”  This growth has been so significant some seriously argue Las Vegas owes its very existence to commercial aviation.  Growth led to still more aircraft innovations, chief amongst them the introduction of the first twin-aisle airliner (the 747) in 1970 doubling aircraft seating capacity yet again.

But something has gone awry since those heady days.  Tom Friedman is rightly mocked for trotting out a “Jetsons versus Flintstones” metaphor all too frequently, but it really does fit when describing La Guardia and J.F.K. compared to Hong Kong, Singapore, or Zurich’s airports.  Beyond aesthetics and potentials for business (many airports outside the U.S. are veritable malls), transport infrastructure lags significantly.  Asian and European transit authorities recognize the obvious immense economic benefits from building a central hub for rail and other ground transportation near large airport hubs or directly on airport property, but in the U.S. only Miami-Dade County has made the “gamble” that its Miami Central Station (also known as Miami Airport Station) will have similar benefits.  This assumes ground links other than roads are even considered.  In New York, La Guardia still lacks train access and the AirTrains to JFK and Newark (EWR) are more of an afterthought (opened 1996 for EWR, 2003 for JFK).  Washington-Dulles (IAD) will finally be connected into the Washington Metro system—in 2016.

Innovations in actual aircraft are also underwhelming.  The newest American designed and manufactured airliner, Boeing’s 787, is much smaller than its predecessor the 777.  Both are considerably smaller than the current model of Boeing’s pioneering widebody 747 airliners.  As with the first jet airliners, the major selling point of the 787 is improvements that are geared at significantly reducing operating costs—important to airline customers that have lost $33 billion over the course of their entire existence (losing $40 billion in the just the first half of the last decade).  Boeing crows about the passenger comforts on its newest entry, but one has to question this declaration.  Boeing (and other aircraft manufacturers) must consider the cabin requirements from customers all over the globe, and there are striking differences between passenger comforts on U.S. flagged air carriers and the flag carriers of the Hong Kong SAR, Malaysia, Qatar, Singapore, South Korea and Switzerland.  U.S. carriers’ planes tend to be considerably more spartan (not to mention filthy—see the above losses).  While this might seem to be a small segment of the American economy that suffered immensely in the wake of the 2001 recession, in reality the rot runs far deeper and is endemic throughout the American economy.

Part I: Tricking the Gap

Jet aviation, like many other earth-shattering twentieth century innovations, sprang from military development.   The heady days of the 1950s and 1960s were made possible by the contributions of Frank Whittle and Hans von Ohain to the development of the first turbojets in the 1930s for the Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe.  During the subsequent world war, German aeronautical engineers also fielded the first transonic swept-wing prototype, an important advance when combined with powerful turbine engines because the design reduces drag overall and reduces compressibility issues by delaying the onset of supersonic shockwaves from disrupting airflow over the plane’s wings and ailerons at high subsonic airspeeds (raises critical mach number).  This design combination quickly outclassed everything else in the air—the swept-wing MiG-15 drove the piston-powered U.S. Air Force (USAF) B-29 bombers and straight-wing USAF F-80 and F-84 jet fighter escorts from the skies over Korea until the USAF committed its first swept-wing jet fighter, the F-86, to the fray.

The jet era of commercial aviation was born over Korea.  As F-86 pilots fought to reassert American aerial dominance in MiG Alley, the B-29 manufacturer decided to make what Boeing itself calls “a huge gamble,” otherwise known as ‘betting the company:’

In 1952, the Boeing board of directors decided to invest $16 million of company profits—two thirds of company net profits from the postwar years—into a prototype jet transport, the Model 367-80 or “Dash 80.” The airplane featured then-revolutionary features such as jet engines and swept wings. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off. The Dash 80 became the prototype for both the KC-135 Stratotanker, the first jet aerial tanker, and the Model 707-120, the first in the long line of Boeing commercial jet airliners.

The 707 debuted in Pan American World Airways fleet in October 1958 and for the first time ever outsold Douglas aircraft outside the military market, ending Boeing’s long disfavor with the airline industry.  Wait, what disfavor?

Boeing’s first passenger-carrying aircraft was made available predominately to the predecessor companies which later became United Airlines (formed by combining Model 40 customers Varney Air Lines, Pacific Air Transport, and Boeing Air Transport with National Air Transport in 1934).  The Air Mail Act forced Boeing to divest of its airline holdings that same year, but the Seattle-based manufacturer still showed excessive deference to United when it was permitted to acquire 60 out of the 75 total Model 247 airliners Boeing constructed.  The Douglas Aircraft Company, by contrast, dominated the market—producing 16,079 DC-3/C-47/C-53s, 1,242 DC-4/C-54s, 704 DC-6/C-118s, and 338 DC-7s from the mid-1930s until the mid-‘50s.  This spelled doom for Boeing in the civilian transport market, as its nepotism branded the manufacturer unreliable in the eyes of the airlines for 30 years.  After 247 production ceased, Boeing managed to sell a grand total of 78 airliners until Pan Am took delivery of the first 707.

Part Ia: A Gamble…

By the early 1950s, one would have to question whether civilian air carriers would ever trust Boeing again.  In the preceding decade Boeing had become renowned primarily for its city-killing combat aircraft.  The 12,731 B-17 Flying Fortresses Boeing built rained destruction on World War II Germany and occupied Europe, and Boeing’s 3,970 Superfortresses burned most of Japan’s cities to the ground even before the B-29s Enola Gay and Bock’s Car consumed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear fission hellfire.  Boeing was also very capable politically—it managed to prevent the B-29D re-engined variant of the Superfortress from being canceled in the huge American military drawdown after the Japanese surrender by changing the designation to B-50, and lucked out when the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) elected to retain one battle-tested piston bomber after the war.

Was the Dash 80 prototype a huge gamble as Boeing’s executives like to say?  Maybe, but the aircraft manufacturer was still producing huge numbers of piston aircraft for the military at the time the prototype jet transport was designed and built.  Boeing’s fortunes only grew in the postwar era as aerial refueling became a top priority starting in 1950.  Boeing produced a single heavy lift transport aircraft for the USAAF starting in 1944, the C-97 Stratofreighter.  The C-97, essentially a transport fuselage married to the B-29’s original engines and the B-29D’s wings and tail, was selected to become the USAAF’s (later USAF when the Air Force became an independent service on September 18, 1947) first purpose-built refueling tanker and designated the KC-97 Stratotanker (all USAAF/USAF aircraft with the K prefix are aerial refueling tankers).  Boeing built a total of 888 C-97s, 816 being the KC-97 variant that entered USAF service in 1950.  This contract might have been somewhat superfluous, as the C-97 was itself essentially a variant of the B-29 and hundreds of B-29s and B-50s were converted into KB-29s and KB-50s that served into the 1960s.

So, was Boeing at risk because their USAF contracts were all for piston-powered tankers and transports?  Here the answer in unequivocal—no.  Boeing was already delivering a turbojet-powered combat aircraft to the USAF in 1952, the B-47 Stratojet swept-wing bomber.  Nor is Boeing in danger of falling behind its competition.  B-36 Peacemakers, the largest bombers attached to Strategic Air Command’s (SAC) fleet are six piston engine/four turbojet boondoggles nicknamed “The Flying Cigar” so prone to engine fires “Cigar” crews grumble ‘two turning, two burning, two smoking, two joking, and two unaccounted for’ instead of the regulation ‘six turning and four burning’ callout after engine start.  Convair, the harried manufacturer of the massive bomber SAC wants to replace, attempts in April 1952 to demonstrate to the USAF a B-36 airframe modified with swept wings and powered with eight J57 turbojets is a better choice than a brand-new heavy bomber.  Already building a jet described as the “fastest known bomber in the world,” the Stratojet-maker’s expertise wins out when the YB-52 swept-wing (naturally) prototype takes to the sky three days earlier and is 100 mph faster than Convair’s hapless YB-60 experiment which suffers severe handling problems to boot.

I’m really starting to have trouble seeing where Boeing was gambling heavily.  From the day of SAC’s inception in 1946, Boeing practically owned the Strategic Air Command.  From the outset, they have cornered the market with respect to USAF aerial refueling contracts.  With respect to bomber contracts, the switch from piston engines to high subsonic swept-wing jets favors Boeing just as strongly.  In 1952, Boeing is the only manufacturer of American jet bombers save for the North American B-45 Tornado, a steadily-becoming-obsolete straight-wing plane that also suffers from engine problems.  Where exactly, is the severe risk?

Part Ib:or a Calculated Decision?

March 2, 1952.  President Truman loses New Hampshire primary and withdraws from race for the Democratic nomination. 

April 15, 1952.  B-47 Stratojet production is in full swing in Wichita.  The YB-52 takes flight for the first time. 

April 18, 1952.  Convair’s YB-60 lifts off.  It immediately becomes apparent to Boeing, Convair and the USAF that the YB-52 has vastly better performance than the experimental “Cigar” prototype.  Later that month, Boeing’s executives approve construction of the prototype Dash 80 jet transport.  To this day, no one seems to question why the Dash 80 is a suffix to the Model 367 (Boeing’s designation for the C-97, of which 816 were constructed as KC-97s).

November 4, 1952.  Dwight D. Eisenhower elected.

January 20, 1953.  Eisenhower inaugurated.

February 15, 1954.  Aviation Week runs an article speculating the Myasishchev M-4, a Soviet four-engine swept-wing turbojet bomber, can reach the United States with nuclear payload from the U.S.S.R.  No one bothers to ask whether the M-4 has the range to be able to fly back, or if the Russians have the capability to build more than 93 of these fairly defenseless bombers.

July 1955.  Soviet air show tricks the West into projecting the M-4 bomber fleet will soon numbers in the hundreds.

Following the article and air show stunt, SAC commander General Curtis LeMay takes advantage, even going as far as testifying before Senator Symington’s 1956 hearings: “The only thing I can say is that from 1958 on, he [the USSR] is stronger than we are, and it naturally follows that if he is stronger, he may feel that he should attack,” a tactic later termed “policy by press release.”  Over the next eight years the bomber mafia will trick the Eisenhower Administration and the U.S. Congress into purchasing 3,579 Boeing swept-wing turbojet aircraft: 2,032 B-47s, 744 B-52s, 803 KC-135s and the massive infrastructure and support apparatus required for at least half of the force to fly deterrence missions continuously.

July 15, 1954.  The Dash 80 takes off for the first time.  Boeing’s executives tell the world they’ve taken a big risk…except by that point it obviously isn’t risky at all.

Why?  Simple—Truman isn’t in office.  Historians take Boeing executives at their word that the Dash 80 was a risky gambit the military aircraft manufacturer needed to build to show airlines a completed jet transport, but forget that Boeing had sold them a total of 78 airliners in 30 years.  The Dash 80 is Boeing Model 367-80…otherwise known as a swept-wing, turbojet C-97.  This is curious because when the USAF put out specifications for the first turbojet tanker in 1954, the Air Force did not chose Boeing initially:

In 1954, the Strategic Air Command held a competition to replace the KC-97 tanker, which had been deemed unsuitable for refueling jets. A year later, Lockheed’s proposal to modify its L-193 as a refueling tanker was declared the winner.

But Boeing’s KC-135, an adaptation of Boeing’s 367-80 (commonly known as the “Dash-80”) into an aerial tanker, was already flying and could be delivered two years earlier than Lockheed’s proposal. Secretary of the Air Force, Harold Talbott, ordered the purchase of 250 KC-135s until Lockheed could build the adapted L-193s.  Eventually, the Air Force cancelled its order rather than support two tanker designs.

So, the KC-135 was a SAC project to replace Boeing’s KC-97.   Considering Boeing’s niche was SAC, I think it’s safe to categorize the Dash 80 “gamble” as an insider’s bid to fill the turbojet tanker contract before the USAF even considered needing a jet in that role. The dates speak volumes: the KC-135 first flew on August 31, 1956; the 707 would not follow its sibling into the sky until December 20, 1957.  The immense rise of jet aviation in the late 1950s was made possible because of the fevered dreams of the Strategic Air Command; dreams that Boeing planted into those commanders’ heads…

Part II: Seize the Day (screw it—let’s seize the defense budget)

The bomber gap is credited with unleashing 2,500 or so jet bombers into SAC’s inventory.  That assumption is flawed—the bomber buildup was inevitable by the time the YB-52 flew.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously coined the phrase “military-industrial complex” in his 1961 farewell speech.  Strangely, history doesn’t seem to notice Eisenhower in all likelihood created the military-industrial complex (I’m going to abbreviate it MIC).

5,000 aircraft orders—gone, evaporated.  Boeing faced a steep cliff at the close of the Second World War if military production came to a screeching halt, and that is exactly what happened in September 1945 after the Japanese surrender.  The USAAF had ordered 5,000 B-29C models, and the entire order was canceled.  Before a hammer could be taken to the B-29D variant, Boeing reclassified it as the B-50 to prevent the total shutdown of the Wichita assembly lines.  Here again, numbers speak volumes: 3,970 B-29A & B models built during World War II, 0 B-29C and 370 B-29D (sorry, B-50) postwar.  Harry S. Truman drove a hard line during peacetime—balanced budgets, full stop.  He started with cutting defense spending 75% in the years after Japan signed the instrument of surrender but before North Korea invaded South Korea.  I found someone who has created a table:

(The table below gives yearly expenditures in millions of inflation-adjusted dollars (2008 $)):















































































































































This should be obvious from the above data, but I think it bears emphasizing: President Truman had no problem cutting the defense budget.  Defense spending was cut back so far it made the job of Truman’s first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, so difficult the man suffered a psychotic break and committed suicide on May 22, 1949.  Boeing had reason to fear that should Truman serve another term after the end of the Korean War (the 22nd amendment was specifically written to exempt Truman from being barred from seeking reelection in 1952), he would savagely cut the defense budget yet again.  Until Truman’s New Hampshire loss on March 2, 1952, that possibility in all likelihood gave nightmares to Boeing’s executives.  With Eisenhower (or any other 1950s American president that wasn’t a true balanced budget zealot willing to punch the Pentagon repeatedly between the eyes) in office, defense contractors and their allies could finally push for policy by press release.

Eisenhower was played to a T by the MIC.  Western observers during a 1955 Soviet air show were duped (as in stupid enough to not question whether a group of large airplanes could fly over the same location more than once) into thinking ten M-4 bombers overflying the stands repeatedly numbered at least sixty. These observers apparently reported to the CIA, because the Agency projected the Soviets would have 600-800 M-4s in service by decade’s end (again, the Russians would build 93 in total).  Eisenhower and his advisors, instead of questioning the methodology the CIA used, set forward a policy to build an ever-growing nuclear deterrent force.  This set the bomber gap hysteria into hyperdrive, to the Boeing Company’s immense benefit.

Presiding over a massive increase in American nuclear armament and strike delivery systems, Eisenhower supposedly became “suspicious” of the purported bomber gap at some point.  Rather than forcing intelligence agencies to actually gather useful information on the subject, in November 1954 Eisenhower authorizes the CIA to procure and operate a fleet of U-2 spy planes for reasons that include determining the veracity of the CIA’s own projections.  Not a Boeing project, but the province of proud MIC member Lockheed.  As no one in the Eisenhower Administration apparently understood what confirmation bias is, the initial conclusion from a U-2 photographing 20 M-4s at Engels-2 Air Base outside Saratov on July 5, 1956 was that hundreds more were deployed at other air bases (in reality, the U-2 had photographed the entire M-4 fleet).  The Supreme Allied Commander must have never had experience with deception and misdirection during the Second World War….

Alright, isn’t this just a quibble with history?  No, it isn’t.  This leads down a dark, dangerous road—a road the United States is still trapped upon.  This is just the beginning of the story—a story which began with a small cadre of USAF generals essentially seizing control of the American defense budget and handing most of the proceeds to a single private corporation.

Part IIa: Weaponized Keynesianism?

If Paul Krugman were to read this entry (another dubious proposition) he and/or his readers would recognize the term I’ve just purloined.  He (or they) might ask: isn’t this an example of weaponized Keynesianism?  We had a positive civilian effect, after all; Boeing produced 1,010 707s for the civilian airline market and launched a massive civilian infrastructure buildup.  At best, shouldn’t we want to replicate this remarkable advance in technology if we can?  At worst, isn’t this whole episode just a side effect of wartime weapons purchases?  Sorry, but it’s not.

The Boeing episode did not occur during wartime, and the massive overbuilding did not produce new technology (de Havilland started delivering swept-wing turbojet transports to airlines in 1952).  Douglas and Lockheed, the two American piston airliner manufacturers that had essentially cornered the market before the introduction of the 707 had their own jet transport design proposals (Douglas’s DC-8 would enter production, selling 556 copies). Boeing built at least 3,000 aircraft that it would not have otherwise because of this episode.  That number might be low; it could easily top 4,000 jets.  This was unprecedented in peacetime.  The 2,000 B-47 medium bombers never saw combat, and B-52 production almost certainly would have shot past the 1,000 mark had reconnaissance photographs not (page 111) eventually shut down the bomber gap hysteria.  SAC released the B-52 fleet for conventional bombing missions over Vietnam only reluctantly (thankfully no bomber was ever needed for its original nuclear purpose).   Because of a couple of hoaxes and paranoid hysteria, Boeing sold 3,579 bombers and KC-135s to the USAF.  One company—if this incident were to reoccur in 2013, the book value of 3,500 large jets would top $1 trillion.  Again, the spending for the 1950s Strategic Air Command buildup almost exclusively flowed into the coffers of a single private corporation.  I can almost feel contemporary parallels to this 60 year old episode…

Nor was this episode a one-off thing.  Myasishchev made it into Aviation Week yet again with the December 1, 1958 hoax that posited a conventionally jet-fuelled M-50 bomber prototype was nuclear powered.  This could easily have extended the bomber hysteria if the SAC had not already goaded the USAF into researching airborne nuclear reactors with the NB-36H (all stupid ideas find the “Cigar” apparently) and abandoned the project for lack of feasibility and crew safety concerns.  The goofiness surrounding bombers came to a head in 1959, when the U.S. Navy almost made operational the Martin P6M SeaMaster, a swept-wing turbojet flying boat bomber.  Cooler heads prevailed when the USN instead elected to cancel the P6M to instead focus on deploying the first fleet ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) armed with Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs).  Oh Hell…

5 thoughts on “A History of Military Delusion Part 1: The Bomber Gap and the Origin of MIC

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