Strategic Air Command Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A part of the United States Air Force tasked with delivering nuclear and conventional weapons against strategic targets, primarily in the Soviet Union.

Early Years

Established on March 21, 1946, in preparation for an independent Air Force, SAC inherited most of the Army Air Force’s personnel and equipment geared toward strategic bombing of enemy targets worldwide. Strategic bombing targets were those that would destroy the will and the means of an enemy to wage war, such as the industries and infrastructure that enable a nation to wage war, and population centers that a nation cannot bear to risk losing to a retaliatory strike. Although in 1946 SAC had no real nuclear capability, the vast bomber fleets left over from World War II were central to SAC’s early power.

Lieutenant General (later General) Curtis E. LeMay held the position of commander in chief of SAC from October 19, 1948, through June 30, 1957, and left a strong impression on the command. Under his leadership, SAC changed from a peacetime force using airplanes remaining from World War II, with training taken only half-seriously, into a global force of jet bombers and support aircraft on permanent war alert. LeMay forced SAC to assume a constant wartime posture. Originally, SAC units rotated between bases within the United States for training and bases in Great Britain, Spain, Guam, Newfoundland, and Libya, which were closer to their targets in the Soviet Union. As longer-range aircraft entered service, SAC kept more of its assets inside the United States.

SAC’s ICBM Force

The original mission of SAC was the delivery by heavy bombers of conventional and, by 1949, nuclear weapons to targets around the world, primarily in the Soviet Union. In the mid 1950’s, SAC began the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to counter the Soviet threat in this area. With its bombers and missiles, SAC controlled two-thirds of the Triad, the combination of land-based bombers, land-based missiles, and the Navy’s submarine-based missiles, all capable of delivering a catastrophic nuclear strike, which the United States maintained during the Cold War. SAC and the Air Force as a whole saw ICBMs and later, shorter-range missile systems as complementary to its crewed bombers, and never sought to replace the crewed bomber. This was because the crewed bomber gave the president more options during a crisis. A bomber could be called back from a mission, but a missile, once launched, would proceed to its target and could not be recalled.

SAC received the lion’s share of the Air Force’s budget, on the theory that its mission was the most vital. Throughout its existence, SAC remained tightly organized. SAC functioned as a specified command, meaning that it had a defined mission under the authority of the National Command Authority. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Department of Defense became more centralized and the secretary of defense, rather than the secretary of the Air Force, held direct operational control over SAC. This change reflected the major technological developments that had occurred since World War II. The threat of Soviet air attacks on the United States meant that SAC needed to respond to the orders of the president immediately. This required the most direct and short chain of command possible.

Other Missions

Although less known, SAC also held missions related to control of the seas, including reconnaissance, mining, and attacking of enemy ships. The Navy was never comfortable sharing its mission to control the seas with SAC. However, SAC’s reconnaissance missions over land, using the U-2 aircraft for many years, provided invaluable intelligence throughout the Cold War. The U-2 that discovered Soviet intermediate- and short-range missiles in Cuba in 1962 flew as part of SAC.

Types of Aircraft

Originally, SAC operated with a mixture of propeller-driven B-29’s and B-50’s, which were an improved version of the B-29. Later years saw the adoption of a few wings of B-36’s, which were originally equipped with six pusher-type propellers, and later retrofitted with four additional jet engines. SAC’s first all-jet bomber was the B-47. The success of the B-47 led some in Congress to push to end development of its successor, but LeMay pushed to field the B-52, which first flew in 1952. The B-52, with eight jet engines and enormous payload, had intercontinental capability. The B-52 remained the backbone of the SAC throughout the existence of the command and beyond. In 1960, the B-52 fleet was augmented by the B-58, which was the first supersonic bomber. The B-58 proved to be a maintenance nightmare and changes in strategy led to its removal from the Air Force inventory in 1970. The FB-111 joined the SAC inventory in the 1970’s and 1980’s, while limited numbers of the B-1 entered service in the 1980’s. Even fewer B-2 stealth bombers joined SAC shortly before the reorganization that ended the command. Through the end of SAC and for decades after, the B-52 remained the Air Force’s primary strategic bomber.

In-flight Refueling

SAC leaders soon realized that if true intercontinental power was to be realized, it would need an effective method of in-flight refueling. After early experience with propeller-driven tankers proved difficult and dangerous, SAC pushed for the adoption of a jet tanker. This requirement was answered by the KC-135, first flown in 1954. With the KC-135 and the B-52, SAC no longer needed to maintain forward bases in order to attack the Soviet Union. The American bomber fleet, and hence the nuclear weapons it would carry, could be based in the United States or its territories. In the late 1980’s, SAC augmented its KC-135 tanker fleet with the KC-10.

Détente

Throughout its existence, SAC focused on its ability to deliver a devastating counterstrike against the Soviet Union after the Soviet Union had attacked the United States. This formed part of the strategy known as mutual assured destruction (MAD), whereby the United States and the Soviet Union were discouraged from launching a first-strike nuclear attack against the other because of the ability of the other nation to inflict a major counterstrike that would cause an unacceptable level of damage to the nation that struck first. This ability to withstand a nuclear attack and maintain enough assets to strike back, thereby discouraging the Soviet Union from attempting a first strike, became known as deterrence. In order to provide a creditable deterrent, SAC physically and operationally adopted measures to allow it to function after receiving a Soviet attack. This included burying Titan and Minuteman missile silos, surrounding them with steel-reinforced hardened concrete, and keeping them on constant alert status. Beginning in 1955, SAC kept one-third of its bombers on alert, with crews trained and ready to take off within fifteen minutes of notification. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy raised this to 50 percent of SAC aircraft. During periods of increased tensions in the early 1960’s, SAC kept part of its B-52 fleet airborne at all times, to allow a retaliatory strike against the Soviet Union in the event of a surprise attack on the United States. SAC also maintained the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP), also known as “Looking Glass,” which consisted of several EC-135’s, one of which was airborne at all times from 1961 through 1990. After 1990, it remained on quick reaction ground alert and was able to take off within a few minutes.

SAC in War

Although SAC was created and existed primarily to provide deterrence against the Soviet Union, the command also played a part in several armed conflicts. In theory, during a conventional war SAC filled the role that strategic air forces had played during World War II: destroying the industry and national infrastructure that allowed an enemy to wage war. However, during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, political considerations of limited warfare prevented SAC from fulfilling that mission.

The Korean War

When the Korean War broke out, SAC became involved in the war, although indirectly. SAC bombardment groups were attached to the Far East Air Force for strategic bombing missions against North Korea. Using a combination of B-26’s and B-29’s, the airmen flew missions from South Korea and Japan to wreak havoc on Communist convoys, trains, and industrial targets. However, they were forbidden to attack the sources of most of the Communist supplies inside China and the Soviet Union.

The Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, SAC became involved with bombing Vietcong base camps in South Vietnam and providing close air support to U.S. and South Vietnamese forces operating in South Vietnam. Neither use can realistically be defined as a strategic use of air power. SAC bombers, primarily B-52’s, flew from American bases in the Philippines and on Guam to perform these missions. At the same time, tactical U.S. Air Force elements and naval aviation were bombing strategic targets in North Vietnam as part of Operation Rolling Thunder, which ran from 1965 to 1968. In 1972, under the Nixon administration, SAC carried out the Linebacker I and II bombing campaigns against strategic targets in North Vietnam.

Operation Desert Storm

During Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 war against Iraq, seven SAC B-52 bombers flew missions from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. The B-52’s flew fifteen hours to their launch points to release air-launched cruise missiles with conventional warheads against strategic targets inside Iraq. The B-52’s then returned to Barksdale after a nonstop thirty-five-hour flight, with numerous in-flight refuelings.

The End of SAC

After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union in 1989 and 1990, the Air Force began to implement a major reorganization to reflect the changing world situation. Under the plan, most of SAC was incorporated with most of Tactical Air Command to create the Air Combat Command in 1992. A year later, the ICBM force was transferred to Space Command. SAC’s crest, which consisted of a shield-shaped image of a mailed fist holding lightening bolts and olive branches set against a background of the sky, became the basis for the new U.S. Strategic Command. Strategic Command, a joint service command, controls most Air Force and Navy assets geared toward strategic missions.

Bibliography
  • Borgiasz, William S. The Strategic Air Command: Evolution and Consolidation of Nuclear Forces, 1945-1955. New York: Praeger, 1996. An institutional history of the creation of the Strategic Air Command in the context of the separation of the Air Force from the Army and against the backdrop of the Cold War. Emphasizes the role of SAC in the development of nuclear deterrence.
  • Boyne, Walter J. Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force, 1947-1997. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A solid overview of the first fifty years of the Air Force as a separate branch of the American military establishment, emphasizing the people, equipment, and missions that shaped the development of the U.S. Air Force.
  • Moody, Walton S. Building a Strategic Air Force. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1996. A description of the early years of the SAC showing that the need for continental range for SAC aircraft drove technological developments in air power.
  • Neufeld, Jacob. The Development of Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force, 1945-1960. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Air Force History, 1990. An institutional history of the Air Force’s development and fielding of several missile systems, with the Air Force fielding the Atlas ICBM after a long period of technical and political development.

Air Combat Command

Air Force bases

Air Force, U.S.

Air Force bases

Bombers

Missiles

Stratofortress

Superfortress

Tactical Air Command

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