In the HBO made-for-tv movie "By Dawn's Early Light", the commander of the navy (codename "Harpoon") explains to the US President that USAF nuclear bombers are at their positive check points and await further orders. Asked about why those bombers weren't yet sent for a nuclear strike against Soviet Union, Harpoon responds that it's meant to give a moment of pause and make both sides reconsider their actions.

Does it have any basis in real-life procedures, or was it made up for the movie? For such a procedure to work, it would have to be reflected in analogous Soviet procedure, too.

1 Answer 1


Such points indeed existed, which is one of the reasons both sides always hung on to long range bombers even though ICBMs and SLBMs would be much more rapid to reach their targets.
Bombers would regularly loiter for hours at locations outside enemy airspace. In fact during the 1950s and into the 1960s both sides (and especially the USAF) would have aircraft loaded with nuclear weapons over the north polar region 24/7, refueled every few hours by tankers so they were always ready to proceed to their preselected targets in the USSR at a moment's notice were the order ever given.
Later, after several accidents that led to the loss (usually temporary, but some were never recovered) of nuclear weapons (no nuclear detonations, through luck as well as design, but nuclear material was leaked into the countryside in some places as bomb cases cracked)) and improved early warning systems that allowed longer response times, the practice was abandoned and the aircraft kept on hot alert at forward bases instead where they could take off given a few minutes' warning.
From there they'd fly to basically the same points and await the positive launch order as described in your movie.
That the officer in question was a naval commander is pretty much irrelevant, the duty for that function rotates between the branches.

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    But IIRC, the reason for those flights was not "to give a moment of pause", but to prevent a preemptive attack from the enemy against the air bases to neutralize all of the atomic bomber force. I do remember reading that those flights were kept well after ICBMs were fully operational because the high command still prefered bombers -which could be recalled after the order of attack was given- to missiles -which once fired would not stop until reaching their target-.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 13:27
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    Yes, but having the aircraft later halt before committing had that effect. The primary reason may have been different, but the procedure also provided the NCA options.
    – jwenting
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 17:03
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    I agree "pause" isn't the right word. The technical term was "fail safe" I believe. Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 20:33

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