Michael KreponThe Bomber Gap

There is a long history of deceptive practices and bogus military displays designed to project greater firepower than is actually available. In my military dictionary, this is known as creative deterrence, or deterrence on the cheap. A classic case in point occurred during the July, 1955 Moscow Aviation Day, which stoked fears in the United States of a bomber gap.

The bomber gap preceded Sputnik; the missile gap would soon follow. President Dwight David Eisenhower took heavy flak for downplaying all three, believing these threats to be inflated and not as important as trying to hold the line against budget deficits. Ike’s public reaction to Sputnik, just six weeks after the Kremlin launched the world’s first ICBM, was purposely low key. The Soviets merely “put one small ball in the air” which did not raise his apprehensions “one iota.” Ike’s popularity plummeted.

As early as 1948, US proponents of air power were issuing warnings of dire consequences over a bomber gap, calling for ramped up production. The January 1948 Report of the President’s Air Policy Commission, “Survival in the Air Age,” better known as the Finletter Report, called for 120 more bombers than President Harry S Truman thought advisable.

The push to increase US production rates went into high gear after the July, 1955 air show, when the Soviets flew the same ten Bear and Bison bombers six times over the reviewing stand. Extrapolations of Soviet production rates, based on the sighting of 60 bombers, had the intended effect of unnerving an anxious country.

Senator Stuart Symington, a Democrat from Missouri with presidential ambitions who previously served as the first Secretary of the Air Force, convened three months of hearings in 1956 that painted an extremely bleak picture. The Airpower hearings concluded that the Soviets possessed more “B-52 class” bombers than the United States. Continuing fiscal constraints would mean the additional loss of qualitative US advantages in three to five years. And unless the Air Force got more money, the Kremlin would achieve strategic superiority in airpower between 1958 and 1960. In sum, “The vulnerability of the United States to sudden attack has increased greatly during the past decade and this vulnerability will continue to increase in the foreseeable future.”

General Curtis LeMay testified at the Airpower hearings that, “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.”

Henry Kissinger wrote in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957) that, “The consensus of Air Force testimony at the Symington hearings was that by 1959 the Soviet Long-Range Air Force would outnumber ours and for this reason we would be in dire peril.”

Columnist Stewart Alsop (brother of Joseph) warned in the New York Herald Tribune that, “The Soviets will soon attain a commanding lead in aircraft capable of operating efficiently at intercontinental ranges.” Alsop had plenty of company.

The bomber gap turned out to as fictitious as the Moscow air show fly-bys.


  1. bradley laing (History)


    —Avro Vulcan Bomber fansite link.

    • bradley laing (History)

      I read that the U.K. spent a fortune on the Vulcan Bomber, trying to play in the nuclear big leauges. Then the first ICBM was made, and made the Vulcan obsolete overnight.

      Does the Vulcan related to the “Bomber Gap?”

    • Captain Ned (History)

      No, the Vulcan doesn’t relate the Bomber Gap. The Operational Requirement was issued in 1947, the first full-size prototype flew in August 1952, the first operational plane flew in February 1955, and IOC was in July 1957.


  2. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    A look at the actual numbers of operational strategic bombers is illuminating, because the Soviet Union never came close to matching let alone exceeding what the United States put in the air. The bomber gap was illusory, but its effects on US bomber deployments and spending were anything but.

    Here’s what the US numbers look like from 1950-65:

    1950 – 462
    1951 – 569
    1952 – 660
    1953 – 720
    1954 – 1035
    1955 – 1260
    1956 – 1470
    1957 – 1605
    1958 – 1620
    1959 – 1545
    1960 – 1515
    1961 – 1395
    1962 – 1306
    1963 – 1055
    1964 – 785
    1965 – 650

    In all, between 1950 and the mid-1960s, the United States manufactured nearly 4,000 strategic bomber aircraft in eight variants (B-50, B-36, B-45, B-47, B-57, B-52, B-66, and B-58), as well as approximately 900 KB-29, KC-97, and KC-135 aerial refueling tankers to support the worldwide operations of this massive fleet.

    Here’s what the Soviet Union’s numbers look like from 1950-65:

    1950 – 0
    1951 – 0
    1952 – 0
    1953 – 0
    1954 – 0
    1955 – 0
    1956 – 20
    1957 – 58
    1958 – 85
    1959 – 115
    1960 – 138
    1961 – 150
    1962 – 160
    1963 – 168
    1964 – 172
    1965 – 173

    Sources: Robert S. Norris and Thomas B. Cochran, “US-USSR/Russian Strategic Offensive Nuclear Forces, 1945–1996,” NWD-97-1 (Natural Resources Defense Council, January 1997), Table 1; Pavel Podvig, ed., “Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (MIT Press, 2001), p. 350; Stephen I. Schwartz, ed. “Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940,” (Brookings Institution Press, 1998), pp. 108-09, 112-18.

    • Captain Ned (History)

      I do have a bit of an issue calling the B-45, B-57, and B-66 “strategic”, though their total numbers don’t mount up to much and with some of them the dedicated recon versions lost their bomb bays.

    • Alex W. (History)

      Just to flesh out the data a bit more, using the same NRDC dataset, here is a graph of US and USSR strategic bombers and missiles (both ICBMs and SLBMs), over the full time-scale:

    • John Schilling (History)

      I have to agree with Captain Ned on this one. The general point of the article is valid, but it isn’t served by citing numbers that seem to compare only the USSR’s Tu-95 and Mya-4 force against, basically, everything the USAF ever flew with a B- number. If the B-47 counts as a strategic bomber, so does the Tu-16A, and there were about 400 of those.

      The Soviet Union did suffer from a modest Bomber Gap during the early Cold War. The truly significant shortfall, buried in the footnotes, is the Tanker Gap. And I don’t recall any of Eisenhower’s critics bringing up that one.

    • Stephen Schwartz (History)

      “If the B-47 counts as a strategic bomber, so does the Tu-16A, and there were about 400 of those.”

      The B-47 was most assuredly a strategic bomber, as evidenced by the fact that it could carry eleven different types of nuclear bombs (not all simultaneously) and was fully integrated into US nuclear war plans. (For their part, the B-45 carried three types of nuclear bombs, the B-57 carried two types, and the B-66 four types.) True, the B-47 was not a very long-range aircraft, but SAC compensated for that by basing it in the United Kingdom and Morocco, and rotating it through other forward bases, and by purchasing more than 700 KC-97 aerial refueling tankers to get the planes to their targets and back again.

      As for the Tu-16A, it did carry nuclear gravity bombs (and was later configured to carry nuclear cruise missiles). But it was assigned to Soviet Naval Aviation. “None of these planes ever figured prominently in Soviet strategic plans vis-a-vis the continental United States. In the beginning of the 1960s, the United States believed that almost 20 percent of the Badger force (approximately 150 aircraft) could attack North American targets on two-way nuclear bombing missions. But by the end of the 1960s, Badgers were reassessed as not having a two-way intercontinental capability.”

      Source: Thomas B. Cochran, William M. Arkin, Robert S. Norris, and Jeffrey I. Sands, “Nuclear Weapons Databook-Volume 4: Soviet Nuclear Weapons” (Harper & Row, 1989), p. 229. Cochran et al cite the annual reports of the secretary of defense from 1964-68, which at first counted a portion of the Tu-16A force as strategic forces but then excluded it altogether.

  3. Mark Lincoln (History)

    I remember the Aviation Week issue with drawings of six-engined bomber resembling the Bear. About four years later we were assailed with a drawing of the Bounder, except it was billed as a super-sonic nuclear powered bomber.

    There was – and is – endless hype of impending threats none of which ever really happened.

    There was no ‘bomber gap’, nor ‘missile gap.’ Reports of Soviet spaced based lasers in the late 1970s, the ‘zap gap,’ were just hype to justify buying more bombers, missiles, and star wars.

    “The Window of Vulnerability” served to terrify Americans for decades, always receding into the future each year, ever ominous.

    Senator ‘Scoop’, Jackson (D-Boeing) described the Cold War as a ‘permanent jobs program.’ So it was, and with China, Iran, and Korea as the new ‘threat,’ we will continue to justify what are by far the most expensive armed forces in the world.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      “Myasishchev M-50, (NATO reporting name Bounder” wikipedia article link:


      Fansite article about “nuclear powered bomber” article of 1958:


    • Laser Sight Pro (History)

      Those are fascinating articles. It all kinda gives me the creeps and makes me want to stock up on guns and bunker down. Though guns wouldn’t do much good against a bomber.

  4. krepon (History)

    from an old friend and defense scribe:

    In the summer of ’79, when the Senate Armed Services Committee was chewing on SALT II, one of the hot buttons was the Soviet Backfire bomber, which was not covered by the treaty’s limit on strategic nuclear delivery vehicles.

    No matter, said SALT proponents — because the plane is too short-legged to reach U.S. territory.

    Ah, quoth the treaty’s gimlet-eyed opponents, but we’re dealing with fanatical commies, who would gladly immolate themselves in a one-way mission. And besides, the godless atheistic aircrew could always recover in Cuba. (As I recall it, the Cuba option was plausible, from a purely technical standpoint.)

    Well, who better to ask about the capabilities of a particular bomber than Gen. Russ Dougherty USAF (ret.), late CINCSAC and a guy who had spent his whole career flying bombers. And so Gen. Dougherty duly appeared before the committee.

    I don’t recall what Gen. Dougherty thought about the Backfire, but I recall with digital clarity his casual prefatory comment that, many years earlier, when he was a young B-47 driver, his wartime orders had been a one-way mission. [Dougherty did not elaborate, but my assumption was that he was to take off from one of the bases in Morocco or UK, refuel over Western Europe from one of those lumbering KC97s, hit a target in the western SU, and then turn south and pray that the fumes held out long enough to get him into (then) friendly airspace over Turkey, Iraq or Iran.)

    At this point, my friend and mentor Charlie Corddry from the Baltimore Sun leaned across the press table to me and whispered, “That’s the difference between guys like him and guys like us: he’s had a one-way mission.”

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Maybe not in 1950, but certainly long before ’79, nuclear war was already a one-way mission for nearly all of us.

  5. Bradley Laing (History)


    Lambda Chi Alpha website on Dougherty.

  6. William Hartung (History)

    Have you seen any parallels between the history of the “bomber gap” argument and the justifications for the next-generation U.S. bomber? Doesn’t seem to be any major public debate about it yet, but wonder if that will change as program progresses and deficit pressures persist.

    • John Schilling (History)

      The next-generation bomber is worth discussing, but not as a parallel to the “bomber gap”. There is little or no discussion of anyone else’s bombers in the justifications put forth for the US next-generation bomber. And certainly no concern that the United States will be attacked by anyone else’s bombers.

      In the 21st century, American bombers are a tool of asymmetric warfare. We don’t want or need to have more bombers than the Russians or the Chinese. We maybe do want or need to have more bombers than the next Hussein or Bin Laden has ratholes to hide in. And fast and stealthy enough that he never knows what hits him.

      Or maybe we don’t want or need that. But that is the (oversimplified, of course) case being made for a new bomber.