The MB-1 ‘Genie’ – The USAF’s Unguided Air-To-Air Nuke

The MB-1/AIR-2 ‘Genie’ was the world’s first nuclear-armed air-to-air weapon and remains the most powerful missile ever deployed aboard U.S. Air Force interceptors. Developed as the Cold War began to heat up it would be carried aboard a succession of aircraft including the F-89, F-101B Voodoo, and the F-106 Delta Dart.

The MB-1 (later the AIR-2) was an air to air rocket with a 6 mile range and a 1.5 kiloton W25 nuclear warhead. It was ostensibly a tactical nuclear weapon designed to take on Soviet strategic bomber formations. The early 1950s saw the Soviet Union’s strategic bomber capability expand from the Tu-4, B-29 Superfortress copy, to include the Tupolev Tu-16 and Tu-95 and the Myasishchev M-4. These new long-range, nuclear capable bombers posed a serious threat to the continental United States. It was decided that only nuclear anti-aircraft weapons could counter the new high-flying Soviet bombers. Development began in 1954 with the project code-named “Genie” by the Air Research and Development Command.

We’ve previously looked at the Boeing BOMARC, the world’s first long-range surface to air missile, whose role was similar to the air-launched MB-1 – to engage incoming Soviet bombers. During the early 1950s, before the emergence of ICBMs, the USAF expected the main nuclear threat to the United States to come via massive attacks by Soviet long-range bombers carrying atomic bombs.

The USAF hoped that weapons like the BOMARC and the MB-1 would be able to engage and neutralise large soviet formations before they reached their targets. This would be achieved by USAF interceptors scrambled to meet the incoming Soviet aircraft, the interceptors would move into engagement range and launch their MB-1 missiles, turning away to avoid the blast. The Genie would detonate inside or near the Soviet formations breaking up their attack. For this role, attacking massed enemy aircraft, the Genie certainly appears to be an efficient weapon concept. However, like the BOMARC it quickly became obsolete as the Soviets moved away from strategic bomber aircraft and embraced long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles.

BOMARC Site No. 1 at McGuire Air Force Base (USAF)

Development of the MB-1 was carried out by the Douglas Aircraft Company. Physically, the plump-looking air-to-air nuclear rocket was 9ft 2in long and 17.5in in diameter, weighing in at just over 820lbs (372kg). The weapon had four fins, which spanned over 3 feet, these deployed once launched and helped to stabilise the Genie’s flight.

The Genie carried a 1.5-kiloton W-25 nuclear warhead and was powered by a solid-fuel rocket engine developed by Thiokol. It could reach speeds up to Mach 3.3 and travel just over 6 miles before detonating. It’s effective blast radius was estimated to be just short of 1,000 feet (300m), the Genie relied upon this area effect as guidance systems small enough to be fitted to a missile were in their infancy, as a result the Genie was essentially an unguided rocket with no onboard guidance. 

An Northrop F-89J has the distinction of being the only aircraft to fire a live MB-1 Genie during the Operation Plumbbob tests on 19th July, 1957. The F-89 was flown by Captain Eric W. Hutchison, with Captain Alfred C. Barbee acting as Radar Intercept Officer. They launched the Genie at around 18,500 feet, the nuclear-tipped Genie accelerated to Mach 3 and travelled 2.6 miles in less than 5 seconds. While operationally the weapon would have detonated by a time-delay fuse the Plumbbob detonation was triggered by a signal from the ground.

The F-89, flown by Captain Eric W. Hutchison, firing a live MB-1 during Operation Plumbbob’s Test Shot John, 1957 (National Nuclear Security Administration)

Test shot John was a form of controlled human testing, with not only those on the ground, beneath the blast tested for radiation dose sizes but also the crews of the aircraft that launched the rocket. This contemporary film about the test notes that “neutron and gamma doses for the three crews did not exceed 5 Reps and 3 Roentgens respectively.

A later report noted:

“Neutron and gamma radiation dosages received by the crew members were less than had been predicted. To some extent this may he attributed to the effect of aircraft shielding. which was not utilized in the theoretical predictions. No crew member received more than 5 Reps neutron and 3r gamma during his participation. The experiment proved that the MB-1 air-to-air rocket can be successfully launched by the F-89 aircraft at 19,000 feet MSL with a radiation dose to the delivery crew within acceptable limits.”

The yield of the explosion was estimated to have been 1.7 kilotons. 18,500 feet below, at ground zero, five USAF officers and a photographer volunteered to stand under the blast to prove that the weapon was safe for use over populated areas. The radiation doses received by the F-89 crew and the men on the ground were reportedly small.

An F-106 Delta Dart aircraft after firing an ATR-2A missile over a range. The aircraft is assigned to the 194th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, California Air National Guard (USAF)

The MB-1 became the primary air to air weapon of the F-106 Delta Dart, this footage includes and illustration showing how the MB-1 was deployed from the F-106 as well as some of the live missile tests with inert missiles during the development of the Delta Dart’s launch system for the Genie.

Douglas built more than 1,000 Genie rockets before terminating production in 1962. In June 1963, the MB-1 Genie rockets were re-designated in the AIR-2 and later the ATR-2A. The USAF’s operational deployment of the Genie ended in late 1980s with the retirement of the last F-106 Delta Darts. The Genie’s other operator, the Royal Canadian Air Force, continued to operate the Genie aboard until 1984.


OPERATION PLUMBBOB, Technical Summary of MiIitary Effects, 1962, Defense Atomic Support Agency, (source)

‘MB-1 Documentary’, Douglas Aircraft Company via US National Archives, (source)

‘Five Men at Atomic Ground Zero’ Operation Plumbbob Test Shot John footage, Atomic Central, (source)

‘The F102A – F106A Annual Review 1957’, technical review of the Delta Dagger, USAF via San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives, (source)

’19 JULY 1957 – FIVE AT GROUND ZERO’, CTBTO, (source)

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The B53 ‘Bunker Busting’ Thermonuclear Bomb

In the late 1950s the US military began development of a bomb capable of destroying deeply buried bunkers. The result was a bunker busting unguided thermonuclear bomb. Durng a visit to the Atomic Testing Museum, in Las Vegas, Matt had the chance to take a look at a decommissioned B53 up close.

B53 on display at the Atomic Testing Museum (Matthew Moss)

The B53 is a two-stage high-yield thermonuclear weapon, designed as a bunker buster, that could deliver a massive shockwave deep underground to the deepest Soviet command and control bunkers. Developed between 1958 and 1961, the B53 was intended to combat deeply emplaced Soviet bunkers with a yield of 9 megatons. It used a highly enriched uranium core as its primary fission stage with Lithium-6 deuteride as its second stage fusion element. The warhead itself was developed from the earlier Mk46 warhead, the experimental TX-53 was tested at the Pacific Proving Grounds as part of Operation HARDTACK I, which saw no less than 35 nuclear test detonations. Codenamed HARDTAK OAK, the TX-53 was detonated aboard a floating barge on 28th June 1958, with a yield of 8.9 megatons. The detonation created a cloud 78,000 feet (23.8 km) tall.

Cloud produced by HARDTACK OAK (Los Alamos National Laboratory Archive)

Designed to be dropped from the Strategic Air Command’s B-47, B-52 or B-58 bombers, the B53 is a gravity bomb which free fell to its target and could be air or surface detonated. The bomb itself weighed 8850 lbs or 4014kg and the casing is 12.5 feet long (3.8m) and just about 50in (1.27m) in diameter. The bomb’s outer-casing is split into a nose section, a two-piece central casing and the rear assembly with four fins which housed the parachute assembly. They were built by the Atomic Energy Commission between 1962 and 1965, over 340 bombs were built. Initially designated the Mk53 it was re-designated the B53 in 1968, when the US Air Force updated its ordnance nomenclature.

The bomb itself could be deployed in four ways: a delayed surface burst, a free fall air burst, a parachute retarded air burst (the B53 had five parachutes at the rear which can be deployed) or an immediate contact surface burst. Here we can see the panel to control the parachute deployment, with markings for safe, free fall and retard.

Declassified general diagram showing the assemblies of the B53 (US DoD)

The B53 was obsolete in terms of its safety by the early 1980s with none of the more modern safety features such as an Enhanced Nuclear Detonation Safety (ENDS) additionally its explosive lens, consisting of a mix of RDX and TNT was not an insensitive munition – meaning it wasn’t designed to resist detonation from external stimuli or damage. The B53 also had no Fire-Resistant Pit (which prevents the spread of radioactive material in the event of a far), Permissive Action Link (which prevent unauthorised arming) or Command Disable safety measures.

B53 at the Pantex Plant in Texas about to begin the dismantling process (National Nuclear Security Administration)

Many of the B53s in US inventory were decommissioned in the mid-1980s, and by 1987 just 50 were retained in inventory. The last of these were disassembled and decommissioned by October 2011 – after being in service for 50 years. The B53 was replaced in its bunker busting role by the smaller B61 Mod 11.

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Operation Hardtack I Fact Sheet, US Strategic Command Centre for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction, (source)

Operation Hardtack I 1958, US Defense Nuclear Agency, (source)

‘Scrapping the Unsafe Nuke’, Federation of American Scientists, (source)

Hardtack OAK footage courtesy of Atomicarchive