How the U.S. Air Force Planned to Drop a Hydrogen Bomb on Russia

 In CIS, Russia, Air, Forces & Capabilities, P5

Key Point: The mis­sile took its name from an Elvis Presley tune — the Hound Dog.

As peer oppo­nents field ever more sophis­ti­cat­ed air defens­es the U.S. Air Force requires ever more inge­nu­ity to get its B‑52 bomber force to its tar­gets. The Air Force needs a large mis­sile its bombers can carry with them to strike radars, mis­sile sites and air bases hun­dreds of miles ahead of the slower manned air­craft.

Is it 2018 and the sub­ject the Long Range Stand-Off Weapon (LRSO)? No, it’s 1956 and the sub­ject the AGM-28 “Hound Dog” cruise missile. Choosing the same solu­tion (for the same air­craft!) decades apart seems like eye-roll mate­r­i­al, but modern drone makers can draw much inspi­ra­tion from the older mis­sile.

By the mid 1950s Soviet air defens­es could shoot down American bombers well before they got within bomb­ing range of impor­tant tar­gets. In 1956 the Strategic Air Command (SAC) asked for a super­son­ic cruise mis­sile big enough to carry an H‑bomb sev­er­al hun­dred miles, and small enough for a B‑52 to carry along with its bomb load.

In late 1958 North American Aviation won the con­tract with a design based upon its rather trou­bled Navaho missile. The result­ing weapon was as ele­gant as a rapier — a long sleek thin fuse­lage sport­ing small delta wings and canards perched atop a stout engine pod over a third its length. The pod con­tained a com­pact Pratt & Whitney J52 tur­bo­jet like those pow­er­ing the Navy’s A‑4 Skyhawk, hot-rodded to push the mis­sile to Mach 2.

The missile’s onboard iner­tial nav­i­ga­tion system — a key devel­op­ment of the Navaho pro­gram — updat­ed by a star track­er in its mount­ing pylon, let it place its 1.45-megaton W‑28 war­head within two miles of its target at six-hun­dred-miles range.

It ran like a scald­ed dog and took its name from an Elvis Presley tune — the Hound Dog.

In a pro­cure­ment envi­ron­ment mod­erns can only marvel at, the Hound Dog went from offi­cial request to deliv­ery in only thirty months. A few days before Christmas 1959 SAC chief Gen. Thomas Power for­mal­ly accept­ed the first pro­duc­tion Hound Dog at North American’s plant in Downey, Calif.

Those were heady years between the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but the fact that much of the Hound Dog’s engi­neer­ing had already been worked out on the Navajo pro­gram helped a lot.

New Tricks

Even as its Dogs achieved Initial Operational Capability they learned new tricks. In 1960 SAC worked out how to turn the big mis­siles into jet boost­er pods by con­nect­ing their fuel sys­tems to the B‑52s. The heav­i­ly-bur­dened bombers now took off on ten engines instead of eight. Once in flight the Hound Dogs refu­eled from the B‑52.

A year later in 1961 an improved model flew for the first time that could tap its car­ri­er air­craft for nav­i­ga­tion­al updates as well as fuel. Hound Dogs became stealthy too, decades before it was cool — their already small radar cross-sec­tions reduced by newly-devel­oped absorbent mate­ri­als.

By October 1962 SAC had some twenty-three B‑52 squadrons equipped with Hound Dogs and over 550 in its arse­nal. During the Cuban Missile Crisis General Power put six thou­sand mega­tons aloft — includ­ing the Dogs and their H‑bomb war­heads ready to vapor­ize enemy air defens­es. Mercifully none of the B‑52s saw combat that October, and the Hound Dogs never slipped their leash­es.

Peak deploy­ment of the system spanned the 1960s into the middle 1970s, with up to twenty-nine bomber wings car­ry­ing Hound Dogs on patrol. But as early as 1966 Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sought to retire the Dogs. The Hound Dog mis­siles went to the ken­nels in 1975 for dead stor­age, and the last one (save for a few museum dis­plays) was scrapped about a year after Elvis him­self died.

The Hound Dogs lin­gered long enough for their whiz-bang ter­rain-match­ing guid­ance system to become per­fect­ed and minia­tur­ized in America’s modern cruise mis­sile weapons deployed in the late 1970s and 1980s. Future drone moth­er­ships are cer­tain to adopt and adapt the Hound Dog’s close bond with its owner — the fuel, thrust, elec­tri­cal and data hosted by the moth­er­ships will be essen­tial to swarms. The Dogs will shed their fleas, indeed.

Steve Weintz, a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to many pub­li­ca­tions such as WarIsBoring, is a writer, film­mak­er, artist, ani­ma­tor.

This arti­cle first appeared in 2018.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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