The History of the Strategic Air Command
The Strategic Air Command (SAC) was both a major command in the United States Air Force and a "specified command" in 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 (MAJCOMs). As part of this reorganization, SAC was disestablished as a MAJCOM on 1 June 1992, with its ICBMs and bomber, strategic reconnaissance, and command post aircraft reassigned to the newly-established Air Combat Command (ACC). Concurrently, SAC's tanker aircraft, including those in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, were predominantly reassigned to the new Air Mobility Command (AMC), followed by a select number of tankers being reassigned to United States Air Forces in Europe(USAFE) and Pacific Air Forces (PACAF). The ICBM force was later transferred from ACC to the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), a joint/unified combatant command, has now assumed the primary mission once held by SAC, to include being headquartered in SAC's previous facilities at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.
Early history 1946-1958
The Strategic Air Command was established March 21st, 1946 and placed under the command of General George C. Kenney during the reorganization and transition of the United States Army Air Forces into the independent Air Force. The command was created with the stated mission of providing long range bombing capabilities anywhere in the world. But because of multiple factors including the massive post World War II demobilization and Kenney's unhappiness with being assigned to SAC, for the first two years of its existence, SAC existed mainly on paper. That began to change when on October 19th 1948, then-Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay assumed leadership of the Strategic Air Command, a command he would continue to hold until June 1957, the longest tenure for any military force commander since Winfield Scott. It was under the leadership of LeMay that SAC developed the technical capabilities, strategic planning and operational readiness to carry out its stated mission of being able to strike anywhere in the world. Specifically, during LeMay’s command, SAC embraced and integrated new technological developments in the areas of in-air refueling, jet engines, and ballistic missiles into its operations.
The development of jet engine 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 atomic-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 the SAC had only sixty nuclear capable aircraft, none of which had the long-range capabilities he desired. First 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-air refueling. In addition, "Reflex" operations based in forward countries such as Morocco, Spain and Turkey provided infra-structure for temporary assignment (TDY) of US-based B-47 Bomb Wings.
In-air refueling, long a dream of airmen, became a reality in 1950 with the introduction of KC-97 Stratotanker into active service. The primary reason it originally became essential to SAC was because of the limited range of about 2000 miles of the mainstay B-47 bomber. In-air fueling therefore effectively meant that the B-47 could have unlimited range and could remain flying for extended periods of time. This new ability was not so subtly demonstrated to the USSR with several well publicized non-stop flights around the world. The development also meant that SAC was no longer dependant on stationing nuclear capable bombers in foreign countries like Spain and Britain, which had proved to be politically sensitive in the late 1940s/early 1950s. In 1956, SAC began the transition from the KC-97 to the KC-135, a variant of the Boeing 707 aircraft. Besides in-air 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 US Air Force had begun a missile development program in the 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 caused 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 704st 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.
During LeMay’s command, SAC was able to affect great changes to American nuclear strategy. At the beginning of the Cold War though, SAC was effectively powerless in shaping American nuclear strategy it was tasked with carrying out. The four main things that were instrumental in forming the nuclear strategy were technical limitations, availability of atomic weapons, lack of strategic thinking and political reasons. The first of the two factors of technical limitations and availability went hand in hand, as from 1946-1948, the US had only twelve atomic bombs and between five and twenty-seven B-29s capable of dropping the bombs. The lack of strategic thinking was largely a result of the newness 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 into this uncertainty that LeMay entered into upon assuming of command at 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 and plans. 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. The Eisenhower administration concurred with the new focus, with the President in 1954 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 11th 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 atomic capable bombers to 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.
Curtis LeMay left SAC to become USAF Vice Chief of Staff in 1957, and was succeeded by General Thomas S. Power, who served as SAC commander until December 1964. He was followed by General John Ryan (1964-67) and General Bruce K. Holloway (1968-72).
Looking Glass was the airborne command post of SAC; one if its EC-135 planes was constantly airborne from 1961-90. Looking Glass replicated the command and control capabilities of the SAC underground command post and ensured control of SAC forces at all times.
Post-Cold War History
In 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. The two U.S.-based war-fighting commands, SAC and Tactical Air Command, were reorganized into a single organization, Air Combat Command. ACC was essentially given the combined missions that SAC and TAC held respectively, with the newly-designated Air Mobility Command inheriting SAC's tanker force. Its land-based ICBM force, initially part of ACC, became part of the new Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). The USAF's nuclear component was combined with the Navy's strategic nuclear component, ballistic missile submarines, to form USSTRATCOM, which is headquartered at SAC's former complex at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.
On March 21, 1946, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) was divided into three separate commands: Tactical Air Command (TAC), Air Defense Command (ADC), and Strategic Air Command (SAC). SAC's original headquarters was Bolling Field, the headquarters of the disbanded Continental Air Forces (First, Second, Third and Fourth) in Washington, DC. Its first commander was General George C. Kenney. Seven months later SAC HQ moved to Andrews AFB, on October 20, 1946.
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 A. W. 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 running from the top to the bottom of the fuselage at an angle from 11:00 O'clock to 5:00 O'clock. 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.
Numbered Air Forces within SAC
Aircraft and missiles
Aircraft - primary mission
Aircraft - Support