A Short History of USAF’s Strategic Air Command in the Cold War

wallpaper_SAC_logoDuring the latter 1940s, although some demobilization took place after World War II, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union precipitated the creation of a strategic force that could strike an enemy with nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. The U.S. Army Air Forces established the Strategic Air Command (SAC) on March 21, 1946, for the specific purpose of executing “long-range offensive operations in any part of the world, either independently or in co-operation with land and naval forces.” Under its first commander, Gen. George C. Kenney, SAC began the effort of creating a strategic strike force.

Armed mostly with the B-29—and a few nuclear delivery variants, the B-50—any capability to strike an enemy worldwide proved at best a hollow threat. It would take many years to develop the global reach necessary to accomplish SAC’s mission of attacking any potential enemy either before that enemy had a chance to inflict significant damage on the United States through its own attack or in retaliation for a nuclear attack. Not until the mid-1950s did SAC truly possess such a capability.

Although American leaders always denied the possibility of making a first strike against a foreign nation with nuclear weapons, SAC’s war plans always offered that scenario. And on more than one occasion Air Force leaders advocated using it. For example, Gen. Nathan Twining advocated deploying SAC to use nuclear weapons to relieve the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 before the French withdrew from Indochina. He argued that three tactical nuclear bombs would have allowed the French to win the battle and thereby remain in control in Southeast Asia. The use of nuclear weapons in Indochina, Twining also suggested, would have done more than just allow the French to hang on. It would have demonstrated the resolve of the United States to employ these weapons in virtually any combat scenario. Such a demonstration, he believed, would ensure that the Soviet Union would treat the possibility of U.S. interventions in other theaters more seriously.

In the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay advocated air strikes against the Soviet missiles in Cuba, but President John F. Kennedy refrained believing that such an action would result in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. LeMay believed that would have been better than the alternative, which he told the president was “the greatest defeat in our history” as he pounded the table where they met. Political leaders, fortunately, did not accept these arguments. SAC’s ability to decimate the world remained a potent fear in the public consciousness; perhaps most famously stated when film director Stanley Kubrick satirized its first strike mentality in “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” released in 1964.

Even so, the very public idea of massive retaliation for any attack on the United States carried out by SAC was an important part of the nation’s overall Cold War strategy. This doctrine of deterrence guided significant expenditures for weapons systems within the Department of Defense (DoD), with SAC always at the head of the line for new aircraft, missiles, and support elements. Ensuring the health of the so-called nuclear triad of U.S. continental-based long-range strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) operated by SAC, as well as the Navy’s sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) carried on submarines, dominated thinking about Cold War nuclear strategy. All of these could strike the Soviet Union—or anywhere else on the globe—and therefore ensure an enemy’s nuclear annihilation. Sometimes referred to as mutual assured destruction, this doctrine was known by the most appropriate acronym ever used by the military—MAD.

Ensuring SAC’s global strike capability received a boost with the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” at national defense. As a means of reducing the cost of the military, Eisenhower chose to rely less on traditional combat arms and to invest in air power, especially SAC, and to rely more on the nation’s nuclear arsenal with the threat of “massive retaliation” should anyone attack the United States or its allies. This led to the development of an exceptionally capable strike force. The first truly capable intercontinental bomber, the B-36, came into SAC inventory in the latter 1940s, but it was the most famous and exceptional strategic bomber ever, the B-52 “Superfortress,” that made SAC such a powerful force.

A B-52 strategic bomber is being aerial refueled a KC-135. This refueling capability gave SAC global reach.

A B-52 strategic bomber is being aerial refueled a KC-135. This refueling capability gave SAC global reach.

In all, 744 B-52s of seven different models have served with SAC over the years, with the last model, the B-52H, being delivered between May 1961 and October 1962. Some of the B-52Hs remain in the Air Force inventory to the present. Based in northern tier bases in the United States, the crews for these bombers stood continuous alert from the point they became operational in 1954 and served through the 1980s. These alerts required precise requirements for ever-faster takeoffs dependent on the type of scenario, and by 1961 they could launch within 15-minutes of receiving an order.  To keep the B-52s airborne for long periods, refueling aircraft performed perfected the art of aerial refueling. Later, SAC received the B-1 bomber in the 1970s and the B-2 stealth bomber in the 1980s.

A U.S. Air Force LGM-25C Titan II ICBM undergoes a test launch from an underground silo. Unlike Titan I missiles, which had to be raised to the surface before launch, the Titan II’s liquid rocket engines were ignited while it was still in the silo. Therefore the silo had to be constructed with flame and exhaust ducts as shown in this photograph.

A U.S. Air Force LGM-25C Titan II ICBM undergoes a test launch from an underground silo. Unlike Titan I missiles, which had to be raised to the surface before launch, the Titan II’s liquid rocket engines were ignited while it was still in the silo. Therefore the silo had to be constructed with flame and exhaust ducts as shown in this photograph.

Land-based ICBMs also entered operational service with SAC beginning the 1960s, particularly the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman. Hardened missile launch sites, eventually placed underground throughout the central and northern U.S., provided launch capability within minutes of receiving an attack order. The Atlas ICBM, first test fired on June 11, 1955, entered service in 1959 and served on alert until 1964. The Titan entered operational use in 1963 and enjoyed a long service life until finally retired by SAC in 1986.

The Minuteman, however, enjoyed the most extended use. As a solid-fuel rocket it proved much easier to maintain over long periods, entering service in 1962 in small numbers but 500 of a more recent variant are projected to remain operational through 2012. The most recent ICBM to be developed, the solid-fuel Peacekeeper, entered service 1986 and 50 remained in use until September 19, 2005. In the middle of the cold war during the latter 1960s and 1970s, SAC had 1,054 ICBMs in its operational inventory with more than 2,000 nuclear warheads.

More than any other individual, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay is identified with transforming SAC into an effective nuclear strike force. Commanding SAC between 1948 and 1957, LeMay may well have been as coarse and irascible an officer as the Air Force possessed. He argued that the nation’s first line of defense—perhaps its only line of defense—was the nuclear deterrent that SAC provided. SAC’s bombers, and later its missile forces, had to be prepared to carry out effectively the nuclear strike mission at any time for the deterrent to have any viability. With a broad mandate to resolve SAC inadequacies in the latter 1940s, LeMay embarked on an aggressive program of intense training, alerts, and realistic exercises. Headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, LeMay’s SAC also refined the procedures for strategic bombardment, both with ICBMs and strategic bombers, and made them increasingly effective.

The preparedness of SAC to execute its mission in the LeMay years was legendary and the organization achieved standards of excellence still idealized within the Air Force, as it maintained a state of extreme readiness throughout the Cold War era between the 1940s and 1980s. To extend SAC’s global reach, LeMay secured the first jet bombers and tankers for aerial refueling, at the same time increasing the SAC infrastructure to support the impressive strategic bombardment capability he built.

Possession of a strong nuclear deterrent certainly served the purpose with the Soviet Union for which it had been created. Fortunately, nuclear war never did take place. In an effort to create a more “flexible response” during the 1960s SAC accepted a reemphasis of more conventional warfare. Its B-52 force served in Southeast Asia and engaged in such bombing missions as Operation Rolling Thunder conducted against targets in North Vietnam in 1965 and the Linebacker 1 and 2 aerial interdiction campaigns executed against North Vietnam in 1972. In the early 1980s 98 SAC B-52s received modifications to carry air launched cruise missiles (AGM-86), enhancing their flexibility in conducting a range of strategic bombardment operations, both nuclear and conventional.

With the end of the Cold War on December 25, 1991—when the Hammer and Sickle Flag of the Soviet Union was lowered for the last time above the Kremlin and replaced with the flag of the Russian Federation—SAC’s traditional role in the national military establishment ended. Accordingly, on June 1, 1992, the Air Force inactivated the Strategic Air Command, assigning its aircraft to the Air Combat Command, and a year later it assigned the ICBM force to Air Force Space Command. Also on June 1, 1992, the Department of Defense activated the United States Strategic Command, containing vestiges of the old SAC, under the Joint Chiefs of Staff rather than the Air Force to coordinate planning and targeting of strategic forces into the future.

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One Response to A Short History of USAF’s Strategic Air Command in the Cold War

  1. marx73z@aol.com says:

    Great article, Roger. I flew KC-135As from Castle AFB in CA and Loring AFB in ME. Great airplane. What fun those 7 day alert confinements away from family were; however, we never forgot that ” Peace was our profession – but war was our hobby.” Mark Jones Downtown Docent


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