Strategic Air Command

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Emblem of the Strategic Air Command

The Strategic Air Command, or SAC (1946-1992), was the air command in the United States Air Force that was chiefly responsible for the deployment and maintenance of nuclear-armed bombers and missiles during the Cold War. This command finally stood down in 1992 with the recognition that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United States' chief nuclear-armed adversary, had itself disbanded.



The Strategic Air Command traces its roots to the Continental Air Forces, consisting of the First, Second, Third, and Fourth numbered Air Forces during World War II and the days of the United States Army Air Forces.[1] The mission of the Continental Air Forces was homeland defense, and at the time of its creation in December 1944, this mission was largely a reactive one, not the pro-active mission that SAC would have.

The CAF's headquarters was at Bolling Field (the future Bolling Air Force Base), which lies a few minutes' drive from downtown Washington, DC.[1]

Foundation of SAC

The surrender of Germany in May 1945, and that of Japan in August 1945, precipitated a tremendous reduction in forces in all the branches of the service. In the immediate aftermath of victory, most politicians calculated that the massive land, sea, and air forces that the United States had built were no longer necessary. Large quantities of aircraft—including B-29 Superfortress bombers, some factory-new—were flown to the States (then consisting of the original forty-eight States) and melted down to their original aluminum, if they were not destroyed on site in the Pacific theater.

On March 21, 1946, the Army Air Forces underwent a drastic reorganization. Continental Air Forces changed their name to Strategic Air Command. At the same time the Army Air Forces gained to other air commands: the Tactical Air Command and the Air Defense Command. SAC inherited CAF's original Bolling Field headquarters and most of CAF's air, ground, personnel, and other assets.[1]

The first commanding officer of SAC was General George C. Kenny, though he did not actually assume that command until October 15, 1946.

On October 21, 1946, SAC moved from Bolling Field to Andrews Field, now known as Andrews Air Force Base, near Upper Marlboro, Maryland, where it would remain headquartered for another two years.[2]

Mission of SAC

General Carl Spaatz, the commanding general of the USAAF, gave SAC its lasting mission statement:

be prepared to conduct long-range offensive operations in any part of the world, either independently or in co-operation with land and naval forces; to conduct maximum-range reconnaissance over land or sea, either independently or in co-operation with land and naval forces; to provide combat units capable of intense and sustained combat operations employing the latest and most advanced weapons; to train units and personnel of the maintenance of the Strategic Forces in all parts of the world; to perform such special missions as the Commanding General Army Air forces may direct.

Two Years of Inaction

For the first two and a half years of its existence, SAC virtually languished from inaction, inattention, and lack of funding. Ten days after SAC's establishment, the Second Air Force was deactivated. The Fifteenth Air Force with its ten groups replaced it, but eight of the ten groups would be deactivated before the year was out.[1]

On June 7, 1946, the Eighth Air Force, which had distinguished itself in the European theater during World War II, was assigned to SAC. Technically its base was to be MacDill Field (the future MacDill Air Force Base), but in fact no physical movement of assets occurred at that time. For the rest of the year, several new bombardment groups were added to the Fifteenth and Eighth Air Forces. But at the close of 1946, SAC had in all only 148 B-29 Superfortress bombers, nearly all of which were equipped to drop conventional bombs only.[1]

On September 16, 1947 the Army Air Forces gained a separate identity as the present United States Air Force. The uniforms, insignia, and facility names all changed, but command structure, organization, and operations remained the same.[1]

SAC began to expand in July 1947, with the addition of seven more groups. Only two of these received any air assets; the other five were established only on paper. Four of these latter five were deactivated by September 1948; only the 306th Bombardment Group survived. It moved to MacDill AFB in August 1948 and received a complement of B-29 bombers.[1]

The Cold War Begins

The actions of the Soviet Union in 1948 were probably the one single event that saved SAC from total oblivion. On June 22, 1948, the Soviets imposed the infamous blockade of Berlin. In response, SAC dispatched several bombardment groups to Europe to prepare to go to war with the Soviet Union. That war never began. Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay, then the commander of the Air Force in Europe, saw an opportunity to demonstrate American air power by resupplying Berlin from the air—without using direct military force to lift the siege. He selected an officer having direct experience in aerial supply operations and placed him in command of what became the Berlin Airlift.[1] Beginning on July 1, 1948, hundreds of C-54 cargo planes began dropping foodstuffs and other supplies into the besieged city.

On July 22, 1948, SAC staged another incredible show of force by flying three Superfortresses around the world.[1]

The Soviets were completely unprepared for these demonstrations of Western air power. Eleven months, 213,000 airlift flights, and 1.7 million tons of food and fuel later, the Soviets discontinued their blockade.[3]

General Curtis LeMay

General Curtis LeMay, from the National Museum of the USAF

On October 19, 1948, General LeMay was placed in charge of SAC, a post he would hold for ten years. At once he set out to make SAC a combat-ready force that could deliver devastating blows to any point in the world.[1]

This process began in November 1948 with the relocation of SAC from Andrews to Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska. Offutt was and is centrally located, and at the time it had one of the few runways long enough to land a fully loaded B-29.[1]

Once again the Soviet Union showed its hand, this time by successfully detonating an atomic bomb in 1949. In response, the United States began developing a stockpile of nuclear devices, and building more planes to carry them. The largest of these was the B-36 Peacemaker, with its six turboprop engines and four extreme-outboard jet engines.

LeMay, who earned his fourth star on June 1, 1953,[1] never stopped pressing for the development of faster and longer-range bombers. He introduced the first all-jet bomber, the B-47 Stratojet, which was of more limited range than the Peacemaker, but much faster and requiring a far smaller crew. In 1955 he introduced the B-52 Stratofortress, an eight-jet long-range bomber. LeMay introduced the KC-135 Stratotanker, an all-jet tanker able to carry out air refueling of bombers to extend their range. (In 1957, three B-52s flew around the world, non-stop, using those tankers to keep them in the air.[4]) LeMay retained the concept of fighter escort for bombers for a number of years, but eventually realized that no fighter could ever keep up with a long-range bomber. (He also might have concluded that intercepting a bomber still allows its crew to detonate its load—and even a mid-air nuclear detonation would be devastating to those on the ground below it.)

General LeMay did not consider mutually assured destruction a real possibility during his tenure. He quite reasonably observed that the Soviet Union could not deliver nuclear devices as quickly or at such great range as SAC could. This was true enough while he held the command but no longer true in an era of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

But LeMay definitely believed in nuclear deterrence, and was determined to carry it out. Everything he did in SAC was directed toward that end, from the network of bases he created (including several oversea bases) to the strict training regimen and discipline that he brought to SAC.[5]

The Missile Age

General LeMay laid down his command in July 1957 to accept an appointment as Vice-Chief of Staff for the Air Force. (He became Chief of Staff in July 1961.) Before he left SAC, he laid the foundation for the land-based ICBM force that SAC would control almost since their invention.[6]

During General LeMay's tenure, the motto of SAC had been, "War is our profession; peace is our product." In 1958, after LeMay left SAC, the motto was changed to "Peace is our profession."

ICBMs changed the nature of the American nuclear deterrent in a fundamental way. Long- and mid-range bombers were still important, but now they were only one part of what became the Nuclear Triad of bombers, ground-launched ICBMs, and sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The first two parts of the Triad still belonged to SAC; the third belonged to the Navy.[7]

In 1960, the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) was formed and tasked with developing a single, uniform war-response plan for the use of nuclear weapons in mass retaliation. SAC headquarters hosted this agency during its lifetime. Beginning in that year, a significant proportion of SAC's assets were placed on permanent ground alert, with orders to be ready to launch in 15 minutes or less.[4]

In 1961, SAC instituted the first airborne command post, named Looking Glass after the famous Lewis Carroll novel. Looking Glass took this name because it could mirror all the functions of the ground-based command post at Offutt AFB even if an enemy managed to destroy the base itself.[4][6] From that year to 1991, SAC would always have at least one aircraft flying a Looking Glass mission.

In October 1963 came the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the Soviet Union placed missiles in Cuba, targeted at several of America's largest cities. This was probably the closest that SAC came to having to fire a shot in anger.[1] Following the successful resolution of this crisis, SAC established the Post-Attack Command and Control System to support Looking Glass with several other planes carrying "personnel, cargo, and intelligence platforms."[6] At the same time, the first National Airborne Emergency Command Post was established at Andrews AFB. The NAECP, an aircraft and crew that can mirror the functions of the White House Situation Room, remains today.

In 1964, the United States began full-scale military operations in Vietnam. B-52's from SAC participated in this by dropping large quantities of conventional bombs on enemy strongholds in the jungle, a procedure called carpet bombing.[6]

Toward the end of the 1960s, SAC began retiring many of its older bombers. One interesting replacement was the FB-111 Aardvark, a medium-range bomber that could also dogfight. It replaced the B-58 Hustler introduced in the 1950s.

In the late 1960s came the first experiments in anti-ballistic missile technology. But deployment of these "anti-missiles" became politically infeasible, and in 1972, President Richard Nixon negotiated a treaty with the Soviets that neither side would deploy anti-missiles against the other's incoming missiles. The prospect of mutual assured destruction would remain.

SAC's involvement in Vietnam climaxed with Operation Linebacker II in December 1972. SAC's successes with this operation are credited with forcing the North Vietnamese to resume peace negotiations.[4]

SAC had planned to acquire a new long-range bomber, the B-70 Valkyrie, capable of carrying far heavier loads. However, persistent rumors arose that the Soviets were developing a rocket fighter-interceptor that would easily destroy the B-70 before it got close to target.[8] For that reason, and because of budgetary and political constraints, Congress cancelled the B-70 bomber. (The Soviets did produce a high-speed, high-altitude interceptor, the MiG-25 Foxbat. But only when Lieutenant Viktor Belenko escaped with his MiG-25 on September 6, 1976 and thus allowed American analysts to examine one first-hand did the Americans realize that, while the MiG-25 would have been a devastating interceptor, it would have been useless as a fighter.[8])

The Reagan Era

In 1981, Ronald Reagan became President of the United States. He challenged the notion of mutual assured destruction, and also held that American industry and military planners could out-develop the Soviets in strategic weapons if they really tried. His tenure in office saw the development of one new major missile system (the LGM-118A Peacekeeper or "MX") and two new long-range bombers:

  1. The B-1 Lancer, and specifically the B model based on the earlier B-1A model that Reagan's predecessor Jimmy Carter canceled.
  2. The B-2 Spirit, a flying-wing bomber with an ultra-low profile rendering it nearly invisible to radar.

President Reagan also announced plans to develop a radical new anti-missile technology, that would be space-based instead of ground-based. This started a controversy as to whether such a technology would be in violation of the 1972 ABM Treaty. That controversy remains unsettled to this day.

Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, essentially continued his policies. The second year of President Bush's term saw three key geopolitical events:

  1. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990.
  2. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact
  3. The dissolution of the Soviet Union into its component "republics," which each now exist as a separate nation-state.

The End of SAC

On June 1, 1992, both SAC and the JSTPS were disbanded.[1] The mission of nuclear deterrence is now the responsibility of the combined United States Strategic Command, which oversees planning, targeting, and deployment of all three elements of the Nuclear Triad.

SAC Emblem

The arms of SAC are displayed on a shield. The heraldric description is: Azure two clouds blanc shaded azure-gris, the one issuing from sinister chief and the other from dexter base, a cubit arm in armor in bend, issuing from sinister, the hand grasping a branch of olive vert and three lightning flashes gules. That is, on a blue field, two white-and-blue-gray-shaded clouds, one entering from the upper left-hand corner (as the holder of the shield might face the viewer, instead of the viewer looking at the shield itself) and the other from the bottom right, and an armored and extended-and-bent forearm, entering from the left, the hand holding a green olive branch and three red lightning flashes.

The blue field represents the sky, which was SAC's theater of operations. The clouds signify SAC's ability to strike in all kinds of weather. The armored hand represents power; the lightning, speed; and the olive branch, peace—the thing that SAC tried to keep by being ever-ready to fight war on a devastating scale.

SAC in popular culture

The Strategic Air Command Museum in Ashland, Nebraska maintains exhibits to commemorate SAC's mission and all aircraft used by SAC at any point in its history.[9]

In addition to the museum, a monument is now (July 2007) in the final stages of construction on the site of the former Carswell Air Force Base near Fort Worth, Texas.[10]

The number of novels, stage plays, motion pictures, and television shows referencing SAC and/or its mission in some manner is too great to count. Not all of these projects have presented a favorable impression of SAC or of the concept of nuclear deterrence.

General LeMay specifically exhorted Hollywood producers to produce at least two films showing SAC in a sympathetic light:

  1. In 1955, Actor James Stewart appeared in Strategic Air Command as an Air Force reserve officer recalled to duty by General LeMay (whose name is changed in the film) in the early years of LeMay's tenure as SAC commander. The period covered includes the then-current use of the B-36 and the introduction of the B-47.[11]
  2. In 1963, Actor Rock Hudson appeared in A Gathering of Eagles as a hard-nosed Air Force regular officer assigned to command a SAC wing whose previous commander has allowed it to become operationally unready. For this film, General LeMay gave specific orders to the 456th Strategic Aerospace Wing (Beale Air Force Base, California) and its personnel to allow filming on their base and cooperate fully with the producers of this film. He also allowed the producers to visit the command post at Offutt AFB.[12]

The second film illustrates the B-52 bomber and KC-135 tanker and also contains a few brief sequences showing Titan missiles. It also contains an early sequence in which Rock Hudson's character demonstrates the tight positive control that SAC always maintained on its nuclear arsenal, with its authentication codes and required checking and crosschecking at every level of command, from SAC headquarters to the cockpit of every nuclear-armed bomber. This is an obvious counter-message to the unflattering inferences that General LeMay (then Air Force Chief of Staff) knew that two upcoming films would encourage viewers to draw:

  1. In Dr. Strangelove, a SAC wing commander launches a totally unauthorized attack on the Soviet Union on nothing but his own personal authority, using a war plan that precluded any interdiction from the President. Unless the rogue wing can be recalled, a Soviet-built "doomsday system" will set off multiple thermonuclear detonations—automatically, and not subject to interdiction by anyone.[13]
  2. In Fail-Safe, a false-positive missile-launch registration leads an airborne alert squadron of bombers to pass their "fail-safe points." Their crews then refuse to heed repeated and fervid appeals to turn back—and the President resorts to a very drastic action to ensure that the incineration of Moscow does not lead to all-out, full-scale, unlimited war.[14]

No one has yet adduced any hard evidence that either scenario could possibly have played out during the Cold War era. However, Broyhill[1] maintains that any of a number of human beings at SAC could have yielded to panic during the Cuban Crisis and for years afterward—and speaks with high praise of everyone in SAC because this did not happen.

SAC Major Military Base: A Likely Nuclear Target Structure

SAC formerly being a major United States Armed Forces military base with nuclear weapon capabilities made it one of the primary targets among the world's major nuclear target structures in a possible nuclear war.[15] SAC formerly being a "first strike" nuclear war target was mostly due to missile silos, bomber bases, and command and control (C2) centers. The enemy must neutralize these assets immediately to prevent or minimize American nuclear or other military retaliation.

Relevant Lists













  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 Broyhill, Marvin T., site adm. 1998-2007. Retrieved July 28, 2007. Mr. Broyhill is a veteran of SAC, formerly assigned to the 380th Bombardment Wing, Plattsburgh AFB, New York. He regularly solicits contributions to his site from other SAC veterans like himself.
  2. Andrews AFB is now the host of the 89th Airlift Wing, Air Mobility Command. This wing includes, among other assets, the two VC-25A Presidential Transports that typically fly under the call sign "Air Force One."
  3. Authors Unknown. "Gen. LeMay & Bomber Deterrence" 1950-1974. Retrieved July 29, 2007.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Authors Unknown. "Strategic Air Command (SAC)." Retrieved July 29, 2007
  5. Authors unknown. "The Emergence of the Strategic Air Command." Air Force Historical Studies Office, United States Air Force, n.d. Retrieved July 31, 2007.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Pike, John, site adm. "Strategic Air Command.", 2007. Retrieved July 31, 2007.
  7. Authors Unknown. "Strategic Air Command." US Centennial of Flight Commission. Retrieved July 29, 2007.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Barron, John. MiG Pilot: The Final Escape of Lt. Belenko. New York: Avon Books. 1981. ISBN 0380538687
  9. Authors Unknown. "Strategic Air Command Museum." Aviation Enthusiast Corner. Last updated February 14, 2000. Retrieved June 31, 2007.
  10. SAC Monument Committee and Seventh Bomb Wing B-36 Association. A Monument to All Who Served with the Strategic Air Command. Retrieved July 31, 2007.
  11. Strategic Air Command. Directed by Anthony Mann. With James Stewart, June Allyson, Frank Lovejoy, and Barry Sullivan. Paramount Pictures, 1955. Retrieved July 31, 2007, from the Internet Movie Database.
  12. A Gathering of Eagles. Directed by Delbert Mann. With Rock Hudson, Rod Taylor, Mary Peach, Barry Sullivan, Robert Lansing, Kevin McCarthy, and Leif Erickson. Universal Pictures, 1963. Retrieved July 31, 2007, from the Internet Movie Database.
  13. Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. With Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens. Hawk Films, 1964. Because most of the characters' names carry connotations of mature themes, this film is cited without an outside link.
  14. Fail-Safe. Directed by Sidney Lumet. With Dan O'Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Ed Binns, and Henry Fonda. Columbia Pictures, 1964. Retrieved July 31, 2007, from the Internet Movie Database.
  15. Nuclear Country Profile, Washington, DC: Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Last updated: May, 2014. Accessed January 15, 2015

External links