38. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Johnson1


  • Release of Nuclear Weapons to National Guard Air Defense Units

The Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended that authority be delegated to the Commander in Chief, Continental Air Defense Command (CINCONAD) and the Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC) to release nuclear air defense weapons to National Guard air defense units under their operational control prior to their federalization in surprise attack situations or upon the declaration of Defense Condition 1 or Air Defense Emergency. Further, JCS the have recommended that CINCONAD and CINCPAC be authorized to redelegate this authority to their designated representatives. The foregoing release of nuclear weapons from federal custody would be effected only in accordance with approved emergency action procedures, rules of engagement, and applicable safety rules.

National Guard units constitute a significant proportion of the forces available in the Continental United States (CONUS) and Hawaii for the air defense mission. The National Guard forces available to the Commander in Chief, North American Air Defense Command are shown on a comparative basis as follows:

Of the total of 130 Nike Hercules batteries within the Continental United States, 28 are now Army National Guard (ARNG) and an additional 20 are to be transferred from the U.S. Army to the ARNG by 1 July 1965. None of the ARNG Nike Hercules batteries (in being or programmed) is located in Alaska.
Of the total of 61 fighter-interceptor squadrons within the Continental United States, 24 are Air National Guard (ANG) squadrons. Seventeen (17) of the 24 ANG squadrons are, or are programmed to be, nuclear capable. None of the ANG squadrons is located in Alaska.
Air defense forces in the State of Hawaii consist of one ANG F–102 squadron, which is programmed for a nuclear capability in late 1964, and six ARNG batteries of Nike Hercules. All of the air defense capability in Hawaii, with the exception of Naval air defense on ships at Pearl Harbor, are National Guard units.

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Under existing authority, [3 lines of source text not declassified]. In such circumstances there would be no opportunity for the immediate federalization of NG air defense units. The full realization of the air defense potential of NG units, under operational control of JCS Commanders, is precluded at present unless arrangements are made whereby nuclear air defense weapons can be released to these forces under emergency conditions for use prior to their call to federal active duty.

Appropriate arrangements have been made between Continental Air Defense, Pacific Command component Commanders and the appropriate state authorities to place the majority of national guard air defense units under the operational control of CINCONAD/CINCNORAD and CINCPAC. These units are to be made available for participation in active air defense missions prior to federalization. Similar arrangements are contemplated for all National Guard air defense units.

The advantages of nuclear weapons over conventional weapons are:

The kill probabilities for single aircraft are considerably higher with nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons provide an effective deterrent against mass bomber attack.
Weapon kill of enemy nuclear weapons in bomber aircraft is significantly enhanced by the use of nuclear air defense weapons.

In an examination of this proposal to release nuclear air defense weapons to National Guard air defense units, the following considerations are relevant:

a. Present Alert Status of Army and National Guard Units

(1) Periodically (now about one-third of the time) the Army National Guard Nike Hercules units, manned by National Guardsmen employed by the State on a full time basis and paid from federal funds, maintain the same alert status (15 minutes) as maintained by active Army Nike Hercules units. With the exception that nuclear warheads cannot be released to them until they are federalized, the National Guard units are capable of responding in an emergency on a basis similar to that of the active Army.

(2) The time for National Guard Nike Hercules units to achieve readiness to launch is 15 minutes (for those units in the 15 minute alert status). However, this time is contingent upon weapon release authority being granted within the first five minutes. The readiness preparation would be suspended at that point (ten minutes prior to achieving a readiness to fire) because the warhead cannot be placed in the proper configuration until it is released from custody.

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(3) The Air Force maintains nine aircrews on federal active duty in each Air National Guard air defense squadron. Two of these crews are on five minute alert and two are on one hour alert. The other five aircrews on federal active duty are in a crew rest status. The aircrews of the squadron which are not on federal active duty cannot participate in nuclear air defense operations under present arrangements until they have been federalized and the squadron has been notified of the federalization.

b. Time Required for Federalization

The time required for federalization of National Guard air defense units has not been specifically war gamed or tested. The Joint Staff has estimated that it could be accomplished quickly, within six to ten minutes after receipt of BMEWS warning. However, there is no assurance that federalization will be accomplished on this time schedule or even within the estimated 15 minute period of time between receipt of warning and missile impact. If federalization were not accomplished prior to arrival of weapons on CONUS targets, conditions subsequent to the attack might preclude federalization for a matter of hours or days.

c. Time Lapse Between USSR Aircraft Detection to Penetration Over the Location Indicated

Alaska (Northern Border)—about 30 minutes

Alaska (Anchorage area)—about 1–1/3 hours

U.S.-Canadian border—about 3 hours

(Times are based on Bison/Badger speed of .8 mach at 40,000 feet)

d. Time Lapse Between USSR Aircraft Detection and Launch of Defensive Aircraft

This would depend upon an evaluation of the specific tactical situation and instructions issued at the time. It could be as soon as possible (about 5–10 minutes) for the purpose of deploying aircraft forward from CONUS and establishing combat air patrols at designated locations over Canadian air space.

e. Commanders [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]


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f. The Sequential Steps that an Air Defense Commander Takes in Going to a Nuclear Defense Mission


[3 paragraphs (8 lines of source text) not declassified]2

CONAD Region Commanders

[1 paragraph (8 lines of source text) not declassified]

(1) Establish Air Defense Warning [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]

[1 paragraph (3 lines of source text) not declassified]

(3) Immediately advise CINCONAD of action taken.

[1 paragraph (1–½ lines of source text) not declassified]

g. Variations in Attack Strategy/Loss of Communications

[12 paragraphs (48 lines of source text) not declassified]

Robert S. McNamara
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Agency File, Department of Defense, Vol. II, 12/64, Box 12. Top Secret.
  2. In the event of surprise attack with no time for consultation as contemplated in 2 above, CINCONAD can [3 lines of source text not declassified]. Region Commanders would conduct air defense missions as directed by CINCONAD/CINCNORAD. [Footnote in the source text.]