By the late seventies the USSR had developed a credible enough first strike capability that some strategic thinkers questioned whether the US bomber fleet was still an effective deterrent. Bombers are easy to destroy on the ground and hardening a large airfield against nuclear attack is impossible. There are a lot of reasons to have bombers, the most important of which is that you can turn them around if you’ve made a mistake. But the bomber was beginning to seem like a relic of the past compared to missiles. Bombers were still great as part of a first strike, but at least officially, the US had a no first strike policy. Why have so many bombers if they will mostly be destroyed and won’t be able to make a second strike?
In 1979 the USAF Strategic Air Command held the first Global Shield exercise. It was the largest SAC exercise up to that time. The point was to test whether the bomber was still relevant and to show that the bomber was still relevant to nuclear deterrence. Global Shield ’79 was a success. The exercise played well to its intended audience, the SAC staff and others who participated in it.
There was a second Global Shield exercise in 1980. This one was larger than the previous exercise. Global Shield ’80 had a much more important intended audience, the military planners of the Soviet Union. 1980 was one of the tensest years of the Cold War. The USSR had recently invaded Afghanistan, Iran was internally unstable, Soviet ally Iraq was eyeing Iran hungrily, and Pakistan was a little more unstable than usual for that time. The US needed to show that the Carter Doctrine would be backed up by ultimate force if necessary.
SAC made a movie about Global Shield ’80. Its intended audience was Air Force staff and House and Senate Committee members. Too much jargon for the general public and maybe a little too much for some readers of The Big Board. Still worth watching, this is what historians call a primary source.
A few things I found interesting about this video:
At 2:58 we see the first instance of the “two person rule” in this video. The US has a policy that most actions that lead to an increase in alert status that could result in the use of nuclear weapons must be confirmed by two people. And notice that that the sergeant who confirms the alert is a woman. USAF was hip to the second wave.
A bit later there is a reference to reservists and Air National Guard personnel being activated. These people will likely end up at your local airport, particularly in smaller cities with unusually long runways. These are part of the bomber and tanker recovery teams, mentioned later in the video, sent to take control of civilian fuel supplies.
4:08. It’s a Big Board. We’re looking at the Big Board.
5:23. SAC Security Police, just like the ones who fought on behalf of Gen. Ripper in Dr Strangelove.
13:45. That weird smoke coming from the engines is a Roman-candle type device that allows jet engines to start without sufficient warm up. They’ve already gotten a lot of planes off the ground. At this point they’re trying to get the rest of them in the air before the simulated missile attack hits.
A bit later they show file footage of an old nuclear test with a disclaimer that they did not carry any nuclear weapons during the Global Shield ’80 exercise. I think that’s not true. In 1980 the US always kept at least a few bombers fully loaded and ready to take off in ten minutes. I am sure those planes took off with a full load. The rest of the planes were likely unloaded.
21:20. The Emergency Rocket Communications System. Incredible. I never heard of this until I first saw this video a year ago. It can issue recall orders even if other communications fail. And it can send doomsday orders if other chains of command break down. This system promotes stability. It shows that we can send last orders during a decapitation strike. And it shows that we can limit the destruction of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear exchange. It is simply the most thouhtful and humane thing I have ever seen. We had an answer to 99 Luftballons even before that song came out.
According to the US DOD Archives, and you can download it, this movie was never classified as secret. I think it was intended that the KGB would acquire it. It was an intentional leak meant to start a discussion at the height of strategic tension. Also, since this is an unclassified video I am sure that everything about the alert confirmation and recall code is complete nonsense. The alert confirmation was surely staged and the recall sequence is obviously dubbed. That’s about all that would need to be kept secret in this video.
Global Shield ’81 was smaller than previous exercises, but was still quite impressive. The intended audience was Reagan’s cabinet. Later Global Shield exercises were little more than regular drills.