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US nuclear defenses: B-1 Bomber, NORAD & beyond (1977)

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The B-1 Bomber

The principal launch pad for the airborne cruise may be the new swing-wing B-1 bomber. Designed as a successor to the 25-year-old B-52, the B-1 could be armed with 24 cruise missiles.

At 150 feet in length and with a full wingspan of 137 feet, the B-1 is two-thirds the size of the B-52. But it can carry twice the payload (including 25,000 lbs of nuclear weapons), take off in half the runway space, and, with its four 30,000-lb-thrust engines, is much faster (up to 1,320 mph, approximately twice the speed of sound, compared with the B-52’s top speed of 660 mph).

The most distinctive feature of the 390,000-lb B-1 is its ability to penetrate radar defenses by flying at speeds of 600 mph only 70 or 80 feet off the ground. It can do this because of an aerodynamic device called called the structural mode-control system, which reduces turbulence at low altitudes. Estimated to use 25% less fuel than the B-52, the B-1 can fly 6,100 miles before refueling. Its crew is four, compared with six in the B-52.

>> World’s biggest bomber: The new B-36 (1946)

NORAD Combat Operations Center

Buried half a mile deep inside the pink granite of Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs is the North American Air Defense Command center, jointly staffed by Americans and Canadians. NORAD’s purpose: to alert both countries to impending missile or bomber attacks.

Trident I

Still being tested, the long-range (4,600-mile) Trident ICBM (above) will be fired from the still unfinished Trident submarines. The missile, 34 ft long and 6 ft in diameter, will carry a MIRVed (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle) payload of up to ten nuclear warheads.

Minuteman III

Backbone of the US missile arsenal is a force of 550 land-based 38-ton 60-ft-long Minuteman III ICBMs. Each carries three independently targeted nuclear warheads (total wallop: 510 kilotons of TNT). With a range of 8,000 miles, the warheads are accurate to within 1,200 ft of their targets – a figure that may soon be halved. The US also has 450 Minuteman II missiles.

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