Film: First Strike

You don't want to get a "strike" on these bowling pins.

Since the Second World War, the ultimate security of the United States has depended on the awesome destructive power of its strategic nuclear forces to deter thermo-nuclear war. The strength of this deterrence was based on the calculation that we would inflict terrible destruction in retaliation for a nuclear attack.

This doctrine of assured destruction is dependent on the certainty in the mind of an aggressor that we have the will and ability to retaliate. To always maintain this ability, a sufficient portion of our strategic forces must be able to survive any nuclear exchange, even a surprise FIRST STRIKE.

Whether America's strategic forces will be able to survive such a disarming preemptive attack is today a matter of increasing uncertainty.

First Strike is a 1979 documentary produced by the United States Air Force, first airing on PBS, that explored the potential for the contemporary threat posed by a nuclear surprise attack by the Soviet Union and then recommended a number of then-up and coming defense projects to guard against that threat. All of which were in the purview of the Air Force, of course.

It's important for modern viewers to understand the historical context of this documentary. First Strike was produced at the start of the "Second Cold War," in which the Soviet Union underwent a massive buildup of its own military forces, resuming an aggressive expansionistic political stance after the period of détente that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Aside from its historical value, the documentary is noteworthy because portions of the dramatization, as well as unused clips, were part of the Stock Footage employed in the 1983 Made-for-TV Movie The Day After.

The documentary's producer, Fleming "Tex" Fuller, has uploaded it in full on YouTube, viewable here.

Not to be confused with the Halo novel, Jackie Chan's movie, or the Call of Duty: Black Ops DLC.

First Strike provides examples of:

  • Bomber Launching Sequence: Ever wondered if a bomber squadron could scramble like a fighter squadron? Wonder no more! Too bad they get nuked in the opening dramatization.
    • A traditional Fighter Launching Sequence is shown when the documentary discusses ways to defend against the Soviet Union's then-new bombers.
  • Chuck Yeager: Major General Reinhardt of SAC Airborne Command Post never shows any sense of distress, even as reports come in that the Soviets are wiping U.S. strategic forces off the map.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: As part of the opening dramatization. The narrator puts it best—
    34 minutes into the attack, the strategic forces of the United States have suffered a crippling blow. Of the 1000 Minuteman missiles, only 45 remain operational, of the 330 B-52 Bombers, all but 22 have been destroyed on the ground, of the 41 ballistic missile submarines, 17 have been destroyed in port and an unknown number are presumed lost at sea. The attack has been restricted to strategic military targets. 8 million Americans are dead.

    The United States is given an ultimatum: Any attempt at retaliation will result in the certain annihilation of America's urban population.

    9 minutes later, the President orders all surviving U.S. forces to cease fire.
  • Crippling Overspecialization: The documentary brings up a contemporary proposal to retire the bomber and ICBM fleets, relying on submarines only. Dr. Schlesinger invoked this trope in response:
    Dr. James R. Schlesinger: If one becomes dependent on any single arm, such as submarines, the Soviets can devote a much higher percentage of their budget to solving their problems in anti-submarine warfare.
  • Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe: Dr. James R. Schlesinger is shown holding one during a shot.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Dr. William J. Perry hints at the existence of the Advanced Technology Bomber program—which gave birth to the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber—in his interview. It's now known that he played a major role in the development of American stealth aircraft technology through funding the related programs.
    Dr. William J. Perry: There's a pretty high level of interest in the Air Force in a new manned bomber, but I'd want to distinguish between a airplane that would be capable of penetrating modern active air defenses, and an airplane whose only function would be to deliver cruise missiles from the exterior of the air-defense system. Those are two quite different functions.
  • Misplaced Nationalism: Despite being what is now completely historical material, First Strike provokes this very easily—usually from people living in nations that were former members of the Soviet Union, or from those who view America as Eagleland Flavor #2 (both categories can overlap). Accusations of American warmongering and paranoia are very common, as is Cultural Posturing; even Russians who are glad that nuclear war never came (and wish it never does) will still boast in comments on this video that modern Russia (and the Soviet Union) could (have) easily crush(ed) the United States and NATO.
  • Mutually Assured Destruction: First Strike's purpose was to highlight problems that might have unraveled this assurance.
  • Narrator: Martin Sheen. Martin Sheen, people.
  • Necessary Drawback: American (and Soviet) nuclear forces were built on a triad of weapons platforms, each with their own advantages and disadvantages:
    • ICBMs were the only arm of strategic forces that had both the speed and accuracy to threaten "hard" (well-protected) targets, but as stationary silos, were highly vulnerable to attacks themselves.
    • Bombers had mobility and the ability to accurately deliver nuclear weapons, but wouldn't be fast enough to hit time-urgent military targets. The types of nuclear bombers used by the USAF and the location of their bases in 1979 also made them highly vulnerable to submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
    • Submarines could land nukes on enemy targets in mere minutes, since they could launch right off of the enemy's coast. As submarines, they were also the most well-protected of the three strategic arms—but their lack of accuracy (in 1979 at least) made them only useful for destroying "soft" targets (such as bomber airfields—or, as Dr. Schlesinger put it, "city busting").
  • Next Sunday A.D.: Aside from the dramatization which posited a surprise attack during the time in which First Strike was produced, most of the discussion among the experts plots out upcoming projects and problems for the U.S. in The '80s (and in some cases, The '90s).
  • Red Scare: First Strike certainly reflects the unease and tension of the time period. As Dr. Schlesinger put it—
    Dr. James R. Schlesinger: The Soviets, in contrast to the United States, over the last fifteen years have been serious about defense. They have been deadly serious about defense. At the moment, they are not only procuring more defense hardware than the United States by ninety or a hundred percent, they are outspending the entire free world in the area of military investment—and one must assume that they have some calculation and some motive for that behavior.
  • Reporting Name: The Tu-95 "Bear," M-4 "Bison," and Tu-22M "Backfire" bombers are mentioned.
  • Sitting Duck: Discussed at length, and depicted in the opening dramatization—none of the B-52s on alert at March AFB are able to fly away before they're nuked.
  • Stock Footage: The rights to footage shot for First Strike was purchased by ABC for use in The Day After; in addition, there's a few clips obviously meant for First Strike in The Day After that weren't actually used in the documentary.
  • Talking Heads: Most of the documentary is devoted to interviewing various contemporary experts in the military, government, and defense industry. Among them, with the credentials they held at the time of filming:
    • General Richard H. Ellisnote 
    • Dr. William R. Van Cleavenote 
    • Dr. James R. Schlesingernote 
    • Dr. William J. Perrynote 
    • Dr. William R. Grahamnote 
    • Dr. Edward Luttwaknote 
    • Walter Slocombenote 
    • Dr. Robert K. Squirenote 
    • Dr. Francis P. Hoebernote 
    • Major General Warren C. Moorenote 
    • Paul H. Nitzenote 
  • Whack A Missile: The plans for the MX ICBM (later called the LGM-118 Peacekeeper) was a rare non-game example of the trope. To strike a balance between having easily viewable missiles for the purpose of strategic arms reduction and the ability to conceal the missiles so that they wouldn't be easy targets for Soviet nukes, each missile was planned to have multiple shelters and launch sites, up to 23, in which they would be shuffled around randomly via underground railways. This would force the Soviets to commit much more of their nuclear arsenal just to destroy America's own.