Nuclear weapons production in America had been ramped up to an industrial, assembly-line scale under the Eisenhower administration. By 1955 the United States had amassed 2,280 atomic and thermonuclear bombs, a tenfold increase from 1951, representing an arsenal nearly twenty times greater than the Soviet stockpile. (As Dulles's doctrine evolved, the number of warheads would jump to 3,500 by late 1957, double to 7,000 by 1959, hit 12,305 by 1961, and top 23,000 two years later.) Meanwhile, billions of dollars were being poured into an armada of heavy long-range bombers to deliver the nuclear payloads. By 1956 the air force bomber fleet had almost doubled in size, and the Strategic Air Command kept a third of its 1,200 B-47 long-range bombers on the runway at all times, fueled and loaded with their nuclear cargo. Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping SAC commander, seemed to be on a personal mission to instill fear in Russian hearts. In January 1956, LeMay scrambled almost all his bombers in a simulated nuclear attack. In another exercise, Operation Powerhouse, his planes flew nearly one thousand simultaneous sorties from more than thirty bases around the world to intimidate Moscow. In a few weeks, he would launch yet another exercise called Operation Home Run--reconnaissance versions of his B-47 Stratojets would fly from Thule, Greenland, over the North Pole, and into Siberia to probe for gaps in Soviet radar defenses. The mission would culminate with a squadron of the metallic silver RB-47s, their undersides painted white to reflect the flash of a nuclear blast, flying in attack formation in broad daylight several hundred miles into Soviet territory. The Soviets would have no way of knowing that the bombers were not armed, or that an attack was not imminent. And that would be the point of the exercise: to expose the USSR's defenselessness against a polar attack and to drive home the message that the United States could strike Russia at will. "With a bit of luck, we could have started World War III," LeMay would later reminisce ruefully.
At times LeMay's antics even scared the CIA. "Soviet leaders may have become convinced that the US actually has intentions of military aggression in the near future," warned an ad hoc committee of CIA, State Department, and military intelligence agency representatives. "Recent events may have somewhat strengthened Soviet conviction in this respect."
From their American bases in Greenland, Norway, Germany, Turkey, Britain, Italy, Morocco, Pakistan, Korea, Japan, and Alaska, B-47s could reach just about any target in the Soviet Union, furthering LeMay's well-publicized goal of obliterating 118 of the 134 largest population and industrial centers in the USSR. (LeMay calculated that 77 million casualties could be expected, including 60 million dead.) And he was about to get an even bigger bomber, the intercontinental B-52 Stratofortress, which was just entering into service. The giant plane could carry 70,000 pounds of thermonuclear ordnance over a distance of 8,800 miles at a speed of more than 500 miles an hour. With the B-52, the Americans no longer even needed their staging bases in Europe and Asia to attack Russia. They could do it from the comfort of home without missing more than a meal.
Most distressing for Khrushchev, he had no way of striking back. The biggest Soviet bomber in service, the Tupolev Tu4, was an aging knockoff of the propeller-driven Boeing B-29 with a 2,900-mile range and no midair refueling capacity. It could not effectively reach U.S. soil. The Tu4 would either run out of gas as it approached the American eastern seaboard or crash in the coastal states of New England. In either scenario, planes and pilots would be lost on one-way suicide missions. Unfortunately for the Kremlin, the early prototypes for a pair of bigger bombers, the Mya-4 Bison and Tu95 Bear, which were designed to hit targets deep in U.S. territory, seemed to display similarly suicidal tendencies. Their test flights had been plagued by crashes, and it would be years before they were operational in significant numbers.