The Strategic Air Command (SAC) was both a Major Command (MAJCOM) of the United States Air Force and a "specified command" of the United States Department of Defense. SAC was the operational establishment in charge of America's land-based strategic bomber aircraft and land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) strategic nuclear arsenal from 1946 to 1992. SAC also controlled the infrastructure necessary to support the strategic bomber and ICBM operations, such as aerial refueling tanker aircraft to refuel the bombers in flight, strategic reconnaissance aircraft, command post aircraft, and, until 1957, fighter escorts.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Air Force instituted a comprehensive reorganization of its major commands. As part of this reorganization, SAC was disestablished on 1 June 1992. As part of the reorganization, SAC's bomber aircraft, ICBMs, strategic reconnaissance aircraft, and command post aircraft were merged with USAF fighter and other tactical aircraft assets and reassigned to the newly-established Air Combat Command (ACC). This included B-52 and B-1 bomber aircraft assigned to the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, respectively.
At the same time, most of SAC's aerial refueling tanker aircraft, including those in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, were reassigned to the new Air Mobility Command (AMC). Tankers based in Europe were reassigned to United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), while regular air force tankers in the Pacific, as well as Alaska Air National Guard tankers, were reassigned to Pacific Air Forces (PACAF).
The ICBM force was later transferred from ACC to the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) on 1 July 1993. Another change in late 2009 and early 2010 resulted in the transfer of the ICBM force from AFSPC and the B-52 and B-2 strategic bomber force from ACC to the newly-established Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), which is a direct descendant of SAC.
Early history 1946 58
Special photo of Air Force bombers from the 1930s through the late 1940s. A Douglas B-18 "Bolo"; a Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortress"; a Boeing "B-29 Superfortress" and the B-36 "Peacemaker" dominating the group photo with a 230 Ft Wingspan. Taken at Carswell AFB, Texas after the receipt of the first B-36 in 1948. Note the SAC 7th Bombardment Wing marking on the B-29. SAC organisation 1947. Source: Ron Mixer, The Genealogy of the Strategic Air Command , Battermix. During the interwar period between World War I and World War II, a group of U.S. Army Air Corps officers colloquially referred to as the Bomber Mafia, convinced of the potential of strategic bombing, paved the way both for the massive strategic air campaigns in Europe and the Pacific in World War II and the later creation of SAC. SAC's United States Army Air Forces predecessor, the Continental Air Forces, was established on 13 December 1944 and activated on 15 December 1944. CAF controlled the numbered air forces within the United States (1st Air Force, 2nd Air Force, 3rd Air Force and 4th Air Force) and their training mission.
On 21 March 1946, CAF was disestablished as part of a major reorganization of the USAAF. Within the United States, the USAAF was divided into three separate commands: Tactical Air Command (TAC), Air Defense Command (ADC), and Strategic Air Command (SAC). Airfields formerly assigned to CAF were reassigned to one of these three major commands.
SAC's original headquarters was located at Bolling Field in Washington, DC, the headquarters of the disestablished Continental Air Forces, with the headquarters organization of CAF being redesignated as Strategic Air Command. Its first commander was General George C. Kenney. Ten days later, Fifteenth Air Force was assigned to the command as its first Numbered Air Force. There were thirteen bombardment groups assigned to Continental Air Forces just before its redesignation as SAC. These included the 40th (effectively became 43rd), 44th, the 93rd, 444th, 448th (became 92nd), 449th, 467th (effectively became 301st), 485th, and 498th (became 307th). There was also the 58th Bombardment Wing, Very Heavy, which supervised the Silverplate atomic-capable 509th Composite Group. Also active was the 73rd Bombardment Wing, Very Heavy, transferred from Third Air Force. However several of these units were quickly disbanded, or renumbered to preserve the heritage of other units. In June 1946 Eighth Air Force was also assigned. SAC HQ then moved to Andrews AFB, MD on 20 October 1946.
Strategic Air Command was created with the stated mission of providing long range bombing capabilities anywhere in the world. But due to the massive post-World War II demobilization of the U.S. armed forces, Kenney's position at the UN Military Staff Committee in New York, and Kenney's unhappiness with being assigned to SAC, for the first two years of its existence, there was some lack of urgency. Kenney's deputy, Maj. Gen. St. Clair Streett, wrote in July 1946: "No major strategic threat or requirement now exists, in the opinion of our country s best strategists nor will such a requirement exist for the next three to five years."
The situation began to change on 19 October 1948, when Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay assumed leadership of the Strategic Air Command, a position he held until June 1957, the longest tenure for any United States armed forces commander since Winfield Scott. Soon after taking command, on 9 November, LeMay relocated SAC to Offutt AFB south of Omaha. It was under the leadership of LeMay that SAC developed the technical capability, strategic planning, and operational readiness to carry out its strategic mission anywhere in the world. Among the technological developments that made this possible were the widescale use of in-flight refueling, jet engines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The development of jet aircraft, specifically the B-47 Stratojet, was a key component in building the Strategic Air Command s bombing capacity. When LeMay assumed command of SAC, his vision was to create a force of nuclear-armed long-range bombers with the capability to devastate the Soviet Union within a few days of the advent of war. But the reality when LeMay assumed command was that SAC had only sixty nuclear capable aircraft, none of which had the long-range capabilities he desired.
Introduced into active service in 1951, the B-47 was the first jet aircraft employed by SAC. Despite having a limited range, by the end of LeMay s command in 1957, the B-47 had become the backbone of SAC, comprising over half of its total aircraft and eighty percent of its bomber capacity. A key factor enabling the B-47 to become the mainstay of SAC (and to fulfill LeMay s desire for a long range bomber) was the development of in-flight refueling. In addition, "Reflex" operations based in forward countries such as Morocco, Spain and Turkey provided infra-structure for temporary duty (TDY) assignment of US-based B-47 bomb wings. Sixteenth Air Force managed SAC operations in Morocco and Spain from 1957 to 1966.
In-flght refueling, long a dream of airmen, became a reality in 1954 with the introduction of the KC-97 Stratotanker into active service. The primary reason it became essential to SAC was the limited range of about 2000 miles of the B-47. In-flight fueling gave the B-47 unlimited range and the ability to fly for extended periods of time. This new ability was openly demonstrated to the USSR with several well publicized non-stop flights around the world. The development meant that SAC was no longer dependent on stationing nuclear capable bombers in foreign countries like Spain and Britain, which proved to be politically sensitive in the late 1940s/early 1950s.
Along with in-flight refueling, another important element in the growth of SAC was the development of ballistic missiles. The rapid development of ballistic missiles in the 1950s provided SAC with another means of carrying out its mission of being able to strike anywhere in the world. While the U.S. Air Force had started a missile development program in 1946, it was not seriously pursued until reports surfaced about the progress of Soviet Union rocket technology and the threat it posed to the US. The perceived threat motivated the Eisenhower administration to make ballistic missiles a top priority and tasked Air Force Brigadier General Bernard Schriever with leading the development program. By 1958, roughly four years after Schriever had initiated his ballistic missile program, SAC activated the 704th Strategic Missile Wing to operate first the intermediate range Thor missile and then a year later the first true ICBM, the Atlas missile. Schriever followed up his quick development of the two missile systems with the development of the Titan II and Minuteman missile systems shortly thereafter.
From 1946/47 to 1957, SAC also incorporated fighter escort wings and later strategic fighter wings. Intended to escort bombers to their targets in a continuation of World War II practice, they were equipped with F-51s and later F-84s. There were a total of ten. Eighth Air Force was assigned the 12th, 27th, and 33rd Wings, and Fifteenth Air Force the 56th, 71st, 82nd, 407th Wings. They were phased out in 1957-58.
During LeMay s command, SAC was able to effect great changes in American nuclear strategy. At the beginning of the Cold War, SAC was effectively powerless in shaping the American nuclear strategy it was tasked with carrying out. The four main issues instrumental in forming the nuclear strategy were technical limitations, nuclear weapon availability, lack of strategic thinking and politics. The first of the two factors of technical limitations and availability went hand in hand, as from 1946 48, the US had only twelve atomic bombs and between five and twenty-seven B-29s capable of delivering the bombs. The lack of strategic thinking was largely a result of the unfamiliarity of the atomic bomb and the high level of secrecy with which it had been developed. That began to change in 1948 when reports of Bikini Atoll tests were circulated among the Air Force, which made information about the bomb more available to planners and helped to convince them of its strategic capabilities. The new strategic thinking found its place in the proposed Joint Emergency War Plan codenamed Halfmoon , which called for the dropping of fifty atomic bombs on twenty cities in the Soviet Union. At this point, politics entered into the formation of nuclear strategy in the form of President Harry S. Truman. The president initially rejected Halfmoon and ordered the development of a non-nuclear alternative plan, only to later change his mind during the Berlin Blockade. These four factors combined to create a high level of uncertainty and prevented the development of an effective nuclear strategy.
It was this uncertainty that LeMay entered into upon assuming command of SAC which emboldened him and SAC planners to attempt to unilaterally form American nuclear strategy. LeMay started shortly after his arrival at SAC, by having SAC planners draw up Emergency War Plan 1-49, which involved striking seventy Soviet cities with 133 atomic bombs over a thirty day period in an effort to destroy Soviet industrial capacity. But with the Soviet Union gaining possession of atomic weapons in 1949, SAC was forced to rethink its nuclear strategy. Under orders from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, SAC was told its primary objective was bombing targets in order to damage or destroy Soviet ability to deliver nuclear weapons, its secondary objective was stopping Soviet advances into Western Europe, and its tertiary objective was the same as before, destroying Soviet industrial capacity. The redefinition and expansion of its mission would help SAC to formalize and consolidate its control over nuclear planning and strategy. This was done by LeMay in a 1951 meeting with high level Air Force staff, when he convinced them that unreasonable operational demands were being placed on SAC and, in order to alleviate the issue, SAC should be allowed to approve target selections before they were finalized.
SAC s assumption of control over nuclear strategy led to the adoption of a strategy based on the idea of counterforce. SAC planners understood that as the Soviet Union increased their nuclear capacity, destroying or countering those forces (bombers, missiles, etc.) became of greater strategic importance than destroying industrial capacity. In 1954, the Eisenhower administration concurred with the new focus, with the President expressing a preference for military over civilian targets. While the Eisenhower administration approved of the strategy in general, LeMay continued to increase SAC s independence by refusing to submit SAC war plans for review, believing that operational plans should be closely guarded, a view the Joint Chiefs of Staff eventually came to accept. By the end of the 1950s, SAC had identified 20,000 potential Soviet target sites and had officially designated 3,560 of those sites as bombing targets, with the significant percentage being counterforce targets of Soviet air defense, airfields and suspected missile sites. LeMay and SAC s continuing efforts to assume greater control over nuclear strategy were vindicated on August 11, 1960, when Eisenhower approved a plan to create the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (dominated by SAC) to prepare the National Strategic Target List and the Single Integrated Operation Plan (SIOP) for nuclear war.
Besides developing and implementing new technology and strategies, SAC was actively involved in the Korean War. Shortly after beginning of the war in July 1950, SAC dispatched ten nuclear-capable bombers to Andersen AFB on Guam under orders from the Joint Chiefs. But SAC did more than just provide a nuclear option during the Korean War, It also deployed four B-29 bomber wings that were used in tactical operations against enemy forces and logistics All of this led LeMay to express concern that too many splinters were being whittled off the stick , preventing him from being able to carry out his primary mission of strategic deterrence. As a result, LeMay was relieved when the Korean War ended in 1953 and he was able to go back to building SAC s arsenal and gaining control over nuclear strategy.
Height of the Cold War 1959-1990
Original SAC patch The late 1950s and early 1960s heralded the arrival of two new bomber aircraft, the supersonic B-58 Hustler and B-70 Valkyrie. Both were intended to use a high-speed, high-altitude bombing approach that followed a trend of bombers flying progressively faster and higher since the start of manned bomber use. However, the 1960 shootdown of a CIA U-2 by an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile (SAM) while on a clandestine reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union suddenly complicated the introduction of these new aircraft. SAC now found itself in an uncomfortable position; new bombers which had been tuned for efficiency at high speeds and altitudes, performance that had been purchased at great cost. The B-70 was intended to eventually replace the B-52 in the long-range role, and while SAC initially thought it could eliminate the medium bomber role of the B-47, it had retrenched from this position and introduced the B-58 to replace the B-47 in the medium range role. However, the B-58 was expensive to develop and purchase, required enormous amounts of fuel and maintenance in comparison to the B-47, and was estimated to cost three times as much to operate than the much larger and longer-ranged B-52. Flying at lower altitudes, where the air density is much higher, drag on the B-58 was significantly higher and limited its range and speed. At low altitudes, the B-58 ended up with performance that was only a small improvement over the B-47 it was meant to replace. The net result was that the B-70 never entered operational service with SAC and the B-58 only served for 10 years until its withdrawal from service in 1970 and replacement by the FB-111A.
Despite SAC's establishment of "hardened" underground command and control facilities at its headquarters at Offutt AFB, LeMay and his planners knew that a direct nuclear strike by Soviet forces employing hydrogen weapons would likely destroy the facility. As a backup to this potentiality, the concept of a SAC airborne command post was developed. As envisioned, the airborne command post would be carried on a long range/long endurance aircraft, manned by a battle staff headed by a SAC general officer of at least brigadier general rank. The aircraft would be equipped with the latest in electronics and communications equipment so that it would be able to assume control of all of SAC's bomber, aerial refueling and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as SAC's land-based intercontiental ballistic missile (ICBM) force and the U.S. Navy's Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarine force in the event SAC headquarters was destroyed. Like the B-52, the airborne command post would also be hardened against electromagnetic pulse (EMP) radiation, making it capable of operating during a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. A fleet of these aircraft would also enable SAC to keep one such aircraft continuously airborne, 24 hours a day every day of the year. The aircraft selected for this duty was a derivative of SAC's KC-135 Stratotanker. Named the EC-135 Looking Glass, it realized the SAC vision of a flying command post. As a result, one of SAC's EC-135 Looking Glass aircraft was constantly airborne from 1961 until the dissoultion of the Soviet Union and the de facto end of the Cold War in 1990.
With the end of the war in Vietnam, SAC refocused its efforts back to deterrence of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Concurrently, the costs of the Vietnam War took a heavy stateside toll on SAC as many of its bases were either deactivated, transferred to other Air Force MAJCOMs, or transferred to other U.S. military services as part of cost-cutting moves during or shortly after the end of combat operations in Southeast Asia. Older B-52B, B-52C, B-52E and B-52F aircraft were retired, along with the B-58A, leaving SAC with an offensive force of several hundred B-52D, B-52G, B-52H and FB-111A strike aircraft, augmented by 1,054 Titan II, Minuteman II and Minuteman III ICBMs.
In an effort to augment the Looking Glass mission, a 1973 initiative resulted in the establishment of the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP), also known as "knee cap," resulting in the procurement of four Boeing E-4 aircraft derived from the Boeing 747. The E-4 aircraft were originally stationed at Andrews AFB, Maryland so they could be easily accessed by the President and the Secretary of Defense, with SAC also establishing three dispersed support squadrons for the E-4 at Westover AFB, Massachusetts, Barksdale AFB, Louisiana and March AFB, California. Basing for the E-4 aircraft was later moved to Offutt AFB, with one E-4 continuously stationed at Andrews AFB in order to be available to the National Command Authority.
In 1985, after waiting decades for a new penetrating manned bomber, SAC took delivery of its first B-1B Lancer, while concurrent development of the black project that would eventually result in the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit also continued until that aircraft was officially unveiled to the public in late 1988. On 27 September 1991, as the Soviet Union was dissolving after the August 1991 Soviet coup d' tat attempt, President George H. W. Bush began taking SAC bomber and associated aerial refuelling aircraft off continuous nuclear alert.
SAC's final major operational engagement occurred during the 1990-1991 time frame during the First Gulf War. SAC bomber, tanker and reconnaissance aircraft flew numerous conventional bombing, aerial refueling and reconnaissance missions over and near Iraq from RAF Fairford and other bases in Great Britain, Turkey, Akrotiri, Cyprus, Diego Garcia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Post Cold War history
On 31 May 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, SAC was eliminated in a major reorganization of USAF commands. Two of the air force's U.S.-based war-fighting commands, SAC and Tactical Air Command (TAC), were reorganized into a single organization, Air Combat Command (ACC). ACC was essentially given the combined missions that SAC and TAC held respectively, with the newly-designated Air Mobility Command (AMC) inheriting most of SAC's KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender aerial refueling tanker force, while a small portion of KC-135 aircraft were reassigned to United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), the latter to include PACAF-gained KC-135 aircraft of the Alaska Air National Guard. SAC's former land-based ICBM force, initially part of ACC, eventually became part of the new Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). The USAF nuclear component was then officially combined with the United States Navy's strategic nuclear component, its Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarines, to form United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), which is headquartered at SAC's former complex at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.
In late 2009, the ICBM force was transferred yet again, this time from AFSPC to the newly-established Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC). In early 2010, the B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress bomber force was also reassigned to AFGSC, while the B-1 Lancer bomber force remained in ACC due to the B-1's removal from the nuclear strike mission and reassignment to conventional roles only.
The Strategic Air and Space Museum, formerly the SAC Museum, was located adjacent to Offutt AFB till moved to its site off of I-80 between Omaha and Lincoln, preserves SAC's heritage in a fashion open to public view.
SAC included a large number of subordinate components. At the highest level, five Numbered Air Forces served within the command at various times, the Second Air Force, Eighth Air Force, Fifteenth Air Force, Sixteenth Air Force, and briefly, in 1991 92, the Twentieth Air Force. Large numbers of USAF Air Divisions served with the command and were typically respnsible for an average of three or four geographically separated wings. At lower levels, there were a large number of Strategic Air Command wings, groups such as the 1st Combat Evaluation Group, and large numbers of bases (see List of Strategic Air Command Bases).
Strategic Air Command in the United Kingdom was among the command's largest overseas concentrations of forces, with additional forces at bases in North Africa during the 1950s and 1960s in addition to SAC bomber, tanker, and/or reconnaissance aircraft assets at the former Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and at Andersen AFB, Guam, RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom and the former NAS Keflavik, Iceland through the 1990s. SAC "Provisional" wings were also located in Okinawa and Thailand during the Vietnam War and at Diego Garcia and in the United Kingdom during the first Gulf War.
Myriad smaller subunits included test, evaluation and acquisition activities serving as tenants with former Air Force Systems Command and Air Force Logistics Command entities, as well as ceremonial guard formations such as the SAC Elite Guard.
Wings of the command included:
Strategic Air Command insignia
The insignia of SAC was designed in 1951 by Staff Sergeant R.T. Barnes, then assigned to the 92nd Bombardment Wing. Submitted in a command-wide contest, it was chosen as the winner by a three judge panel: General Curtis E. LeMay, Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Air Command [CINCSAC]; General Thomas S. Power, Vice Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Air Command; and Brigadier General AW Kissner, Chief of Staff, Strategic Air Command. Staff Sergeant Barnes' winning design netted him a $100 United States Savings Bond.
It has a sky-blue field with two white shaded blue-gray clouds, one in the upper left and one in the lower right extending to the edges of the shield. Upon this is a cubit arm in armor issuing from the lower right and extending toward the upper left part of the shield. The hand is grasping a green olive branch, and three red lightning bolts.
The blue sky is representative of USAF operations. The arm and armor are a symbol of strength, power and loyalty and represents the science and art of employing far-reaching advantages in securing the objectives of war. The olive branch, a symbol of peace, and the lightning flashes, symbolic of speed and power are qualities underlying the mission of the Strategic Air Command.
The blue background of the SAC crest meant that SAC's reach was through the sky and that it was global in scope. The clouds meant that SAC was all-weather capable. The mailed fist depicted force, symbolized by lightning bolts of destruction. The olive branch represents peace.
In addition to the SAC crest, non-camouflaged SAC aircraft bore the SAC Stripe. The stripe consisted of a very dark blue background speckled with stars. The stripe appeared on the sides of SAC aircraft in the area of the cockpit on bomber aircraft and mid-fuselage on tanker and command post aircraft running from the top to the bottom of the fuselage at an angle from 11 o'clock to 5 o'clock. The stripe also appeared on ICBMs in the strategic missile force. The SAC crest was a bit wider than the stripe and was placed over the stripe. The stripe indicated that SAC was always ready to fulfill its mission.
Aircraft and missiles
Aircraft primary mission
Missiles fielded by Strategic Air Command
Boyne, Walter, Beyond The Wild Blue: A History of the United States Air Force 1947 1997, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
- Moody, Walton S. Dr., Building a Strategic Air Force, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998.
- Rosenberg, David A (June 1979), "American Atomic Strategy and the Hydrogen Bomb Decision", The Journal of American History, pp. 62 87
- Tillman, Barrett, LeMay, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
- Adams, Chris, Inside The Cold War; A Cold Warrior's Reflections, Air University Press, 1999; 2nd printing 2004; 3rd printing 2005.
- Adams, Chris, "Ideologies in Conflict; A Cold War Docu-Story,Writers' Showcase, New York, 2001.
- Clark, Rita F. Major, From Snark to Peacekeeper, Office of the Historian, HQ. SAC, Offutt AFB. NE. 1990.
- Clark, Rita F. Major, SAC Missile Chronology 1939 1988, Office of the Historian, HQ. SAC, Offutt AFB. NE. 1988.
- Clark, Rita F. Major, Strategic Air Command, U.S. Government Printing Office.
- Goldberg, Sheldon A., The Development of the Strategic Air Command, Office of the Historian, HQ. SAC, Offutt AFB. NE. 1986.
- Knaack, Marcelle Size, Post-World War II Bombers 1945 1973, Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force, Washington DC 1988.
- Knaack, Marcelle Size, Post-World War II Fighters 1945 1973, Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force, Washington DC 1986.
- Lloyd, Alwyn T., B-47 Stratojet in detail & scale, TAB Books, 1988.
- Lloyd, Alwyn T. A Cold War Legacy: A Tribute to Strategic Air Command, 1946-1992. Missoula, Mont: Pictorial Histories Pub, 2000. ISBN 1-57510-052-5.
- Mixer, Ronald E., Genealogy of the Strategic Air Command, Battermix Publishing Company, 1999
- Mixer, Ronald E., Strategic Air Command, An Organizational History, Battermix Publishing Company, 2006.
- Polmar, Norman, Strategic Air Command, 1st Edition, Nautical & Aviation Publishing, 1954
- Polmar, Norman, Strategic Air Command, 2nd Edition, Nautical & Aviation Publishing, 1996.
- Ravenstein, Charles, A., Air Force Combat Wings 1947 1977, Office of Air Force History, USAF, 1984.
- Yenne, Bill, History of the U.S. Air Force, Exeter Books, 1990.
- Yenne, Bill, SAC, A Primer of Modern Strategic Airpower, Presido Press, 1992.
de:Strategic Air Command es:Mando A reo Estrat gico fr:Strategic Air Command it:Strategic Air Command he: hu:Strategic Air Command nl:Strategic Air Command ja: no:Strategic Air Command ro:Strategic Air Command ru: sv:Strategic Air Command