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The US designed a strategy to have several nuclear bombers flying over the border areas with the USSR 24 hours a day. The detachment of the bombs in Palomares (Almería) was only one of the different accidents for which the US Government ended up canceling the operation.
January 17, 1966. Four thermonuclear bombs are released from an American bomber while it flies over the municipality of Cuevas de Almanzora (Almería) at the height of the Palomares district. The first of those bombs was found intact; a second was rescued months later from the sea floor; the remaining two broke, spreading the radioactive material from the inside through the area.
44 years after what could have become the greatest catastrophe in our history, the obscurantism around this episode, as well as the management of its direct consequences , continues to raise questions. Why four nuclear bombs of a destructive power 300 times higher than the one launched in Hiroshima flew over Spanish territory? Were these frequent flights? Was there an explicit consent of these maneuvers by the Franco government?
A custom agreement
To find some answers, we must refer to the defensive agreement signed between the Governments of Spain and the US in the framework of the Cold War, in particular, the ‘Additional note to the second paragraph of Article III’ of the agreement. Under this title of apparent irrelevance, the epigraph included one of the key points of the agreement: the regulation of US military bases installed in Spanish territory.
As journalist Rafael Moreno Izquierdo explains in his book The Secret History of Palomares bombs , two were the assumptions in which US air bases in Spain could be used for military action. The first of them appealed to an “obvious communist aggression” that “threatened the security of the West,” and only required mere communication to the Spanish authorities to become effective. The second, also referring to cases of “emergency” or “threat of aggression against the West,” was linked to a consultation between the two governments to assess “the circumstances of the situation created.”
A brief regulation that could be interpreted in a totally open way that, in addition, did not distinguish in any way whether the armament transported by airplanes would be conventional or nuclear, nor did it incorporate an ordering of the flight system over Spanish territory. Two key aspects for the interests of the United States in which – unlike what is stipulated in other agreements, such as the one signed between the United States and Canada – the Franco government offered free access to the Americans. In other words: a ‘tailored suit’ designed by and for the US Army in order to operate at will in Spain.
The American strategy against World War III
In the mid-1950s, concern among senior US Air Force officials about Washington’s real ability to avoid World War III was increasing. According to their estimates, by 1963 the Soviet Union would be able to destroy in a single attack most of the US strategic fleet and thus position itself with a remarkable military and moral advantage in the face of the consequent start of the conflict.
The growing fear of being surprised by the Soviets had a strong response from the US strategy. This went through the idea of having a certain number of bombers flying over the 24-hour border areas of the USSR and ready to, at any time, unload the four nuclear bombs with which each aircraft would be loaded.
The words of the commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command, General Thomas Power, included in the book by Moreno Izquierdo, explicitly define this new strategy: Day and night, I have a percentage of my command in the air. And the planes are loaded with bombs … They don’t carry bows and arrows.
By 1966 – that of the Palomares accident – the destructive capacity of this military operation, which had up to eleven bases away from the US territory located in five countries, reached 1,607 targets simultaneously, all of them in the Soviet Union. The calculation in human lives was around 65 million potential deaths.
One of the missions that were part of that strategy was called ‘Chrome Dome’ [chrome dome]. Started in 1960, the flights of this operation, carried out by B-52 bombers, more modern and with a greater radius of action than the previous ones, crossed the Atlantic for the first time taking off from US territory.
One of the routes of that operation, the south, crossed the ocean to fly over Spain and cross the Mediterranean to the Turkish-Soviet borders. Once the mission was completed, the aircraft, loaded with nuclear devices in their warehouses, were resupplied in full flight by KC-135 aircraft before returning to the American territory.
The ‘broken arrows’ ignored
Among the possible complications of these missions, the most threatening was the detachment of any of the four bombs that each bomber carried. This scenario received from the US military authorities the name of ‘Broken Arrow Code’. Given the technical complexities of the operations necessary to keep such a number of aircraft in constant activity, the accidents soon took place.
The first of these ‘broken arrows’ emerged only one year after the mission was launched. In January 1961, one of these B-52 bombers, with problems in the fuel tank, crashed in the city of Goldsboro, North Carolina. None of the bombs exploded, although they were fragmented and freed during the collision.
Also on US territory, in January of that same year, one of these aircraft crashed in Yuva City (California) because of a decompression; and already in 1964, a snowstorm would cause a new accident in Pennsylvania, at the height of Savage Mountain. In both cases, the bombs that collided during the incidents remained virtually intact.
The ‘Danish Pigeons’ that put an end to the ‘Chrome Dome’
Despite these three experiences, in which significant material and even human damages were recorded – several of the pilots and crew members died during the accidents – and the catastrophe was touched, the maelstrom of the Cold War rejected any type of rectification of the missions. Two more accidents raised the alarm level.
That of Palomares, caused by a problem in the refueling maneuver of a B-52, which was to return to the US, would be the first of them. On this occasion, the consequences did have a greater severity than in the previous incidents, with significant levels of contamination of the area affected by the detachment of the bombs that resulted in serious consequences for the health of inhabitants and cleaning agents that, on a daily basis Today, they remain unrecognized by the US authorities.
The severity of this new accident did not put an end to the operation, although it did reduce the number of troops with constant flight: from twelve to four. Despite this, and the attempts of then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to cancel the missions completely, two years later, Thule’s air base in Greenland would be the scene of a new accident.
A human error was the cause of this last ‘broken arrow’ that spread the material of the bombs dropped on a large mass of ice along the bomber itself through Danish territory. The work of the Danish and American security forces managed to contain a disaster that, as in the case of Palomares, again caused diseases and premature deaths due to radiation whose responsibility has been systematically evaded by the US authorities.
A BBC investigation published in 2008 also uncovered some documents, hitherto classified, that certified the existence of a fourth bomb that until now had been publicly lost and that, it is suspected, could end up lost among the ice , despite the fact that the Pentagon denied this fact in its day.
Thule was the straw that broke the glass. The threat of these accidents and the diplomatic consequences that they entailed, as well as the risk of accidentally provoking the start of a worldwide conflict with the USSR, eventually convinced the senior US military officials of the extreme danger of the missions ‘Chrome Dome’. Five accidents and hundreds of those affected, which would eventually become fatalities, later, one of the most significant episodes of the Cold War military paranoia was ended.