The most important Cold War aircraft?

The Cold War took a brief rest between the early 1990s and the 2010s, but serious tension between the largest former Soviet nation and the West has now returned. At the forefront of the original Cold War was air power, and this fearful age sired a multitude of incredible and often long-lived warplanes. In the first of a series of articles written by pilots and subject experts, we consider the question of which Cold War military aircraft was the most important. Let us start with former reconnaissance pilot Robert Hopkins‘ case for the KC-135 family.

Traditional histories of the Boeing KC-135 focus on the means and methods of aerial refuelling, or upon the appearance and configuration of the dozens of unusual KC-135 variants. Similarly, existing studies of the evolution of Western defense policy since the Second World War are often restricted to the political and economic factors. To segregate the means from the motive fails to recognize their complicated interrelationships and concurrent gestation. In fact, weapons and weapon systems have frequently become determinants of strategy instead of merely implements of strategists. The KC-135 and its variants have been more than simple instruments of modern defense policy: for 60 years they have been crucial to its evolution. Their influence, direct or indirect, upon America’s strategic deterrence, conventional force projection, research and development, and intelligence-gathering policies remains unequalled. The KC-135 jet tanker is the first weapons system of the Cold War and, arguably, has proven to be the most important. KC-135s and their variants have affected the development of almost every existing notion of land-based air power today.

​Without the KC-135 tanker fleet, SAC bombers could not reach their strategic targets, effectively emasculating the national policy of Deterrence. Without tankers, tactical fighters and special operations aircraft could not engage in the conventional wars that punctuated and defined open conflict during the Cold War. Without tankers, heavy transports filled with troops and supplies could not fly across vast oceans to enable the rapid build-up of defenses to protect friendly nations under threat of imminent invasion. Without tankers, even advanced ‘silver bullet’ stealth aircraft like the Lockheed F-22 could not fly from their home bases in the United States to engage enemy forces on the other side of the world.

​Reconnaissance variants of the KC-135 have gathered intelligence essential to the assessment of foreign nuclear weapons programs and evolving technologies, provided tactical and operational combat intelligence in multiple wars, and verified foreign compliance (or lack thereof) with international arms limitation or reduction treaties. Most, if not all of these sorties, required air refueling from KC-135 tankers.

​Throughout the Cold War, airborne command posts and those of other nuclear-weapon-wielding commanders defined US (and Western) national security policy. SAC’s EC-135s – one of which was until 1990 always airborne, further reducing US vulnerability to sneak attack – could direct nuclear-armed bombers and their supporting tankers, launch ICBMs, and direct submarines to launch their SLBMs, effectively controlling all three ‘legs’ of America’s strategic triad, dissuading potential adversaries from attempting such an attack. At first these aircraft were little more than a survivable means to launch America’s retaliatory nuclear forces (including nuclear-tipped missiles) in the event of a surprise attack. As technology improved to enable more robust communication in a trans- and post-nuclear attack environment, EC-135 airborne command posts provided a genuine second strike capability, raising the possibility among some policy makers that a global thermonuclear war could be controlled and even won.

​KC-135 variants defined modern jet travel, first by providing the Boeing Company with the economic and logistical means to build its iconic 707 through coproduction, and later as test aircraft that evaluated high-altitude jet routes around the world or in evolving avionics and technology. The C-135’s shortcomings as a troop and cargo transport highlighted the crucial need for a dedicated jet transport. As the 1973 Arab-Israeli War demonstrated, even these capacious transports were effectively limited without the ability to refuel in flight.

​Science and technology benefitted as well from the KC-135. From basic aerodynamic research into large, swept-wing jet aircraft to advanced research in solar physics, the Aurora Borealis, and sending man to the moon, KC-135 variants served as high-altitude, long-endurance platforms capable of carrying delicate scientific equipment and researchers anywhere in the world. These aircraft also supported military research—especially associated with nuclear weapons—that developed and defined multiple weapons, defense and satellite communications, and even stealth technology.

​To be sure, other airplanes throughout the Cold War undertook each of these roles. KC-97s and KC-10s share a portion of the credit for America’s air refueling capability. The U-2 and SR-71, along with the rise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were part of SAC’s dedicated reconnaissance fleet. The US Navy’s EC-130Qs, E-6A/Bs, and SAC’s E-4Bs were all interconnected with EC-135 airborne command posts. C-141s, C-5s, and C-17s get the glory for moving men and materiel to hot spots and humanitarian crises around the world, but credit for pioneering international jet cargo goes to the largely forgotten C-135. A B-52 launched the X-15 and myriad research aircraft, and NASA’s C-141 offered a glimpse into the heavens. None of these aircraft, however, did it all.

Robert Hopkins, ex RC-135 pilot and author

Third Edition due out in November. Book signing by the author at SMW in Telford, 12 November 2022.

Third Edition due out in November. Book signing by the author at SMW in Telford, 12 November 2022.

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