From Trinity To The Triad
by U.S. Air Force Glenn Robertson
90th Missile Wing Public Affair
"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of
worlds." Robert Oppenheimer recalled those words from the
Hindu Bhagavad Gita when they tested the first nuclear weapon at the
Alamogordo weapons testing site in New Mexico.
July 16, 1945,
changed the world in a flash of unprecedented light and heat,
ushering in a new world in an instant. The new day that came with
that flash laid the groundwork for the existence of Strategic Air
Command, which would in turn become the foundation for U.S.
Strategic Command – the unified command responsible for all the U.S.
military’s nuclear assets.
Though it is unlikely that the
ones responsible for that initial detonation at the Trinity Site on
Alamogordo would have foreseen what would become the nuclear triad,
the scientists and engineers who harnessed the atom are undoubtedly
the giants’ shoulders on which the missile and bomber wings and the
“Boomer” subs now stand.
Sustaining the Nuclear Triad image created by USA Patriotism! from the original graphic created by U.S. Air Force Kent Bingham, 75th Air Base Wing Public Affairs.
The path to becoming those giants
was far from easy, however.
The Manhattan Project, as it was
called, was led by Oppenheimer and called upon the brilliance of
some of the greatest scientific minds of the age, as well as more
than 120,000 construction workers, plant operators, military members
and others, working tirelessly across nearly 20 sites to create the
infrastructure and materiel to create a weapon that would end the
war and ultimately, change the world.
tirelessly in Los Alamos, New Mexico, trying to crack the code to a
nuclear detonation. Those months of work bore fruit, culminating in
the creation of a plutonium core weapon, nicknamed “Gadget.” Two
other weapons were made, one with a uranium core and the other with
plutonium. The complexity of the plutonium weapon, which required an
implosion-style detonation, required a test to ensure that the
weapon would respond appropriately when used.
others settled on the Alamogordo testing range, and ground zero for
the detonation was designated Trinity, inspired by the poet John
Donne. The Gadget was to be dropped from a 100-foot tower onto the
sand below, with bunkers built to shield onlookers from the blast.
As they waited for the blast, bets were taken on whether the
Gadget would work as expected, and in fact, some privately guessed
that it would not work at all. Despite those concerns, precautions
were taken in case of a potentially dangerous partial detonation,
called a fizzle, as well as for the release of radioactivity into
At exactly 5:30 a.m. that Monday morning in the New
Mexico desert, the atomic age began.
A New Age
The atomic age
brought a great deal with it, to include a near-global fear of
nuclear annihilation throughout much of the Cold War. What kept
those fears at bay for many was the doctrine of strategic
deterrence, though most would never know it by those words.
Both sides maneuvering to gain an upper hand while
building their own nuclear arsenals to ensure they could respond to
any threat and deter the other from a preemptive attack would keep
the U.S. and Soviet Union on the brink of mutually assured
destruction for nearly 50 years.
The responsibility of
ensuring the effectiveness of that deterrent was given to Strategic
Air Command, which had been borne out of World War II as an Army Air
Forces unit, and then transferred to the U.S. Air Force upon the
branch’s establishment as a separate military service. The unit
deteriorated in terms of morale and function until Lt. Gen. Curtis
LeMay assumed command and moved the unit’s headquarters to Offutt
Air Force Base, Nebraska.
Under his guidance, infrastructure
and equipment was built to deter Soviet attack, and one-upmanship
ensured that one side would not gain the upper hand over the other.
Yet, all things end and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991
would end the Cold War. Its end would cause upheaval within the Air
Force and aspects of that upheaval included SAC’s disestablishment
in 1992 and Air Force nuclear assets parceled out to other major
However, a unified command, USSTRATCOM, would be
formed the same year with a new vision of nuclear warfare in U.S.
defense policy and in alignment with policy dictating strategic
nuclear weapons fall under a single command responsibility.
USSTRATCOM's principal mission was then to deter military attack,
and if deterrence failed, to counter with nuclear weapons.
is no small coincidence that the motto of both SAC and USSTRATCOM is
and remains “Peace is our Profession,” as STRATCOM was intended as
the spiritual successor of SAC.
Echoes of the Manhattan Project
Upon its incorporation in April 2009, Air
Force Global Strike Command took up the heavy mantle of SAC as the
major command response for Air Force nuclear assets. Twentieth Air
Force and the ICBM assets would realign under AFGSC Dec. 1, 2009,
and the Eighth Air Force with their bombers would join the MAJCOM
Feb. 1, 2010.
That mission has continued since then, with the
missile wings of the Twentieth and the bombers of the Eighth
remaining alert for any threat to the United States.
drive of that guided the minds of the Manhattan Project drive the
minds of those innovating the deterrent systems to come, with the
B-2 Spirit and the LGM-135 Sentinel on the horizon to provide the
next generation of deterrent against America’s adversaries.
Though he could not have guessed what we now know of the dawn of
strategic deterrence, Oppenheimer knew that world had changed
forever in the New Mexico sand.
“We knew the world would not
be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people
were silent,” Oppenheimer said. “I remembered the line from the
Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the
Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his
multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of
worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
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