How plausible in reality were the plots of Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe in regards to the bombers getting through?

I know I’m missing the point with those movies, but the plot of each movie is kick-started with a single wing/formation of bombers is tricked into thinking nuclear war has started and goes to bomb Soviet targets despite it actually being peace. The rest of the movie is the US Governments and Soviet defenses trying to recall/stop the bombers no matter the cost.

Now in Strangelove it was 34 B-52 bombers attacking from all directions trying to hit ICBM silo’s within Soviet territory while in Fail-Safe it was six B-58’s attacking from the Arctic trying to bomb Moscow. Both films take place in the early 60’s so we’re dealing with 1963 max Soviet tech. But even without forewarning no way in hell any of those aircraft get through right taking the sting out of the plots? I can’t imagine a fully aware Soviet air defense system at the height of the Cold War allowing any of the bombers through when it was hell even trying to get over Hanoi using the exact same tech.

Not implausible if you want to do a little handwaving.

The specific concept behind the SR-71 was that it was supposed to be fast enough, and flew high enough, that nothing could possibly scramble to intercept it before it was long gone. The original design spec, from what I recall, included the capability of being a bomber, and it also had a reduced radar cross-section. All this in a plane that flew in the early 60s.

I don’t think it’s a huge ask, with that in mind, to presume a small number of high-speed, high-power, low-capacity semi-stealth bombers (say, your B-58s) could do a run on Moscow from the arctic, drop a low-precision, high-powered nuke from extremely high altitude, and get out before getting caught.

What Turgidson actually says is, “If the pilot’s good, see, I mean if he’s really sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low— you ought to see it sometime, it’s a sight— a big plane, like a '52— VROOM— its jet exhaust, frying chickens in the barnyard…”

In both films, I believe only one bomber completed its mission. Not that big of an ask.

A number of big shots in the Soviet Military were fired when Mathias Rust flew a Cessna 172 from Helsinki into Red Square in 1987.

The key to both mentioned stories was that the bomber wings needed a special code to be told their mission was cancelled, and the tension was high command could not figure it out. Not sure how true that was, but presumably there is some sort of code. OTOH, the theory is only the president can issue the code to launch a nuclear strike. The stories hinged on the idea(? fact?) that in the event a pre-emptive strike took out the president, the base commander had the option to order a retaliation strike, and misused that privilege. I assume the author of Failsafe had some inside knowledge of this?

As I recall, the problem was that once Gary Powers’ U2 was shot down, it was seen the “fly too high” strategy was a failure. Subsequent designs for cruise missiles and newer bombers looked to grund-hugging as a way to avoid radar. The stories mentioned rely on the old B-52 fleet which AFAIK had no such evasive maneuvering and either relied on surprise of that the Soviet air defenses were in disarray already.

IIRC, the starting point for Fail Safe was the failure of a single capacitor in a piece of electronic equipment, which in in its death throes sent out a coded order for one group of bombers to attack. The chances of that happening are so remote that it spoiled things somewhat for me. The rest of the book is superb, though probably not entirely realistic.


This was pre-WWII tech but the logic still exists today.

Defending against air attack is a hard problem. Even knowing the one remaining bomber is heading towards the missile complex at Laputa does NOT mean the defenses can concentrate all their forces there. The reality is the vast majority of all forces are much too far away to be brought to bear on Laputa.

Said another way, the defense must be designed to be strong enough everywhere, and the attacker just needs to be a bit stronger at one single spot. Radar coverage and interceptor coverage was spotty then. And still is now.

Major Kong may well choose a different nearby target for whatever reason. In fact the complex at Laputa was a back-up target of opportunity. Had President Muffley told Premier Kissov the originilly intended target and they concentrated their interceptor forces there as best they could, they might have been a couple hundred miles from where the attack actually took place.

At the end of the day, air defenses are a filter. Layers of filters in fact. Maybe they’re 70% effective, maybe 90%. But not 100%. And remember that statistics apply only to large sample sizes. As to any given bomber the defense will either be 100% effective, or zero percent effective.

The Failsafe scenario is similar. More and better attackers going against a more well-defended target. Given the real world data one could crunch the real world probability. But the small numbers issue still applies.

We have never really tested top notch air defenses against top notch air offense in recent times.

My impression with the B52’s was that they were not terribly well protected electronically, and certainly had minimal maneuverability or protective firepower compared to contemporaneous defense fighters. I suppose they relied on early SAM tech that was nowhere near current reliability, and the acceptance of high attrition as acceptable in all-out nuclear war; plus the possibility that some action had already weakened air defenses.

There’s a reason the emphasis since then has been on assorted missile strategies, also allegedly far harder to defend against and with far less warning time. I assume too that they don’t come with self-destruct codes that can be triggered after launch?

Plus, the third arm was sea-launched ICBM’s, although I don’t think that (other than Bedford Incident ) the submarine angle of rogue attack has been exploited much.

AIUI, Soviet command structure was also extremely centralized. So many things required permission from higher-ups that the bombers might get to Moscow before air-defense batteries had permission to shoot them down.

A certain philosopher/engineer named Murphy ahems from the shadows.

‘If that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will.’ - Capt. Edward Aloysius Murphy.

In Strangelove they directed the Soviet forces to protect the primary and secondary targets, but the plane attacked another one. It was also originally marked as being shot down. So it getting through, without being harpooned, is reasonably plausible.

The implausible part is the policy to allow base commanders to launch an attack.
BTW Strangelove does a callout to Fail Safe - one of the books on Turgidson’s table is “Equivalent Cities in Megadeaths” IIRC.

The binder is labeled “World Targets in Megadeaths” and is actually a joke about how Gen. Curtis LeMay would evaluate the effectiveness of firebombing campaigns in Japan by the number of tons of munitions dropped per estimated enemy casualty. Actual strategic targeting in the nuclear era looked more in terms of industrial capacity destroyed per weapon (which does not scale linearly with warhead yield) although an obvious factor to that were the number of potential workers eliminated by a strike.

In the film, Gen. Ripper invoked “Plan R”, which was intended to be applied in the case that the National Command Authority (e.g. the President and everyone else in the line of succession) was destroyed. It was assumed that base commanders with the authority to invoke Plan R were of sound mind and would not misuse their authority, which was supposed to be ensured by the “human reliability tests”:

Kubrick wasn’t really shooting for plausibility per se; he found the concept absurd, and someone introduced him to the essays (mostly transcribed speeches) of RAND Corporation strategic analyst and Hudson Institute founder Herman Kahn who managed to put a lot of black humor into his speeches, and who felt that the mentality of ‘Assured Destruction’ as a deterrence strategy was unworkable in practice. The film is, of course, satire, and yet elements of it such as the emergency kit contents and the Strategic Air Command motto (“Peace Is Our Profession”) were largely drawn from fact.

At the time the film came out (1964) the LGM-30A ‘Minuteman I’ missile was coming up to full operational deployment and the -30F ‘Minuteman II’ was in serial production, as well as the limited LGM-25C ‘Titan II’ fleet but the UGM-27 ‘Polaris’ SLBM was still in its infancy and was not considered accurate for counterstrike targeting, so the bomber force was still considered an essential arm of nuclear deterrence and nuclear response capability. The later development of the AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missile as a standoff weapon allowed the continued use of the B-52, but the operationally bomber mostly filled in as a saturation bombing platform and secondary nuclear response capability rather than being a primary first response weapon.


Unlikely, perhaps, but not implausible. Here’s a 1957 memo which outlines how lower level commanders might be given authority to launch a strike. (See pg. 20, paragraph 5b.

At some point, for deterrence to have effectiveness against the threat of a disabling first strike that eliminates the NCA and the command infrastructure of (then) SAC, there has to be a procedure for releasing launch authority to individual wing commanders. And it isn’t as if there is a literal button that the President pushes to enable the ICBM or SLBM fleets; ultimately there are multiple levels of decision-making where someone could potentially inject a false order or take independent action to send a valid-seeming launch order to missile wings and submarines. The real fail-safe in the system is that it would require multiple conspirators instead of a single individual to authenticate and distribute the order, but even at that, the more I learn about nuclear deterrence theory and nuclear weapon incidence, the more nervous I get about some kind of accidental order or apparent threat starting a chain of events that spirals out of control.


As you note, “the bomber will always get through” is based on pre-WWII thinking…specifically, the lack of radar. Once bomber aircraft had speed roughly equivalent to fighters, geometry dictates that only interceptors coming from certain directions have any hope of reaching the bombers before they bomb.

That’s what “stealth” technology is for. Unfortunately, no one has yet discovered how to make an aircraft so invisible that you could land it in the middle of Golden Gate Park and nobody would see or run into it, but we have the transparent aluminum now so perfect cloaking devices are not far behind, I’m sure.


Radar coverage is not 100%. Consider it like a bunch of overlapping circles with the outer edge of the circle being a maximum detection range.

If you lower that detection range (via stealth design, stealth materials, jamming or flying lower and so on) gaps appear in that coverage. The planes then fly through those gaps.

I guess stealth would be better but could you in theory create some fake radar signature that looks like a flock of birds, that would be ignored nowadays?

I know there’s that story about Russia almost launching nukes during the Cold War over some kind of confusion with a flock of birds showing up on radar.

Flocks of birds flying at 600 MPH tend to attract attention.