Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Strategic Air Command

Primary U.S. air command for nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. The Strategic Air Command (SAC), a combat command of the U.S. Air Force, was responsible for long-range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), two-thirds of the nation's strategic nuclear triad. SAC's main goal was to maintain a strong, credible strategic nuclear force that could swing into action within minutes, either to prevent a nuclear strike or to inflict one on an enemy nation.

SAC was formed in 1946, a year before the U.S. Air Force became a separate military service. Originally, SAC consisted of World War II B-17 and B-29 bombers. Its first commander was General George Kenney. On 19 October 1948, Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay took command and oversaw the move of SAC headquarters from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to Offutt Air Force Base outside Omaha, Nebraska. He quickly established stringent standards of performance, strict evaluation procedures, and incentive and retention programs. He also changed the way that personnel viewed the command.

During LeMay's tenure, SAC added B-50 and B-36 bombers. In its early years, the command had its own jet fighters for bomber protection and its own airlift. B-29 bombers were modified to be used as aerial tankers, with aerial refueling becoming an integral part of SAC and the nuclear war plan. In 1951, SAC began taking delivery of the all-jet B-47 bomber and the KC-97 tanker. These two aircraft were the mainstays of SAC forces into the early 1960s. In 1955, SAC received its first B-52 Stratofortress eight-engine bomber. SAC entered the missile age with the Snark subsonic intercontinental cruise missile and the Rascal, designed to be launched against ground targets from the B-47. The following year, the KC-135 Stratotanker, a four-engine jet air refueling aircraft, entered service.

At least one-third of all aircraft and almost all missiles were on alert at SAC bases twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. During the 1960s, B-52 bombers armed with nuclear weapons were on airborne alert, ready to strike targets from orbits outside the Soviet Union. The airborne alerts were terminated in late 1968.

In 1959, SAC employed 262,600 personnel, 3,207 aircraft, and 25 missiles, including the Snark, the first Atlas ICBMs, Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), and the Hound Dog, an air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) carried by the B-52. By 1959, SAC's bomber force was an all-jet force. In 1960, the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) was formed with SAC's commander as director and a vice admiral as deputy director. The JSTPS was established to provide centralized planning for the entire U.S. nuclear triad, SAC bombers and missiles as well as submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), nuclear-armed tactical aircraft, and IRBMs. In the early 1960s, the Snark and Thor missiles were deactivated to make room for the new Atlas and Titan I ICBMs. B-47s and KC-97s were phased out, and the supersonic B-58 bomber was put into service. By 1962, the new Titan II and Minuteman I ICBMs came on-line. SAC reconnaissance aircraft included the U-2 and the SR-71, which was commissioned in the late 1960s. At its peak strength peak in 1962, SAC employed more than 282,000 personnel.

During the next thirty years, SAC's mission remained unchanged. Missile forces stabilized with a mix of 1,000 Minuteman II and III ICBMs (with 50 Peacekeeper ICBMs replacing 50 Minuteman IIIs in the late 1980s) and 54 Titan II ICBMs (phased out in the mid-1980s). SAC aircraft included, at various times, a mix of B-1, B-52, and FB-111 bombers armed with gravity weapons, short-range attack missiles, and ALCMs; a tanker force of KC-135s and KC-10s; and U-2 and SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft.

SAC B-52 bombers played a major role in the Vietnam War. The SAC airborne command post, dubbed "Looking Glass," with an airborne battle staff commanded by a general officer, was on alert with at least one EC-135 aircraft airborne at all times during 1961–1992. The number of people in the command remained near 200,000 until reductions in the bomber force caused a slow exodus. SAC had about 110,000 personnel when it was deactivated on 1 June 1992.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. Air Force underwent a fundamental reorientation in structure and doctrine. Air force leadership acknowledged that SAC had accomplished its mission. It had maintained nuclear superiority—and peace—for forty-six years. After it was deactivated, SAC's aircraft became part of new U.S. Air Force operational commands.

Charles G. Simpson


Further Reading
Coard, Edna A. U.S. Air Power: Key to Deterrence. Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1976.; Freedman, Lawrence. The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy. 3rd ed. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
 

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