Strategic bombing stood at the core of the argument for a separate U. S. Air Force. The use of airplanes to deliver bombs to targets far beyond the battlefield represented an independent, offensive mission that would justify the creation of an air arm equal in status to the Army and the Navy. During the 1920s and 1930s, American airpower enthusiasts developed the doctrine of strategic bombing that would shape the U. S. air campaign during World War II. In the post-war period, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) emerged not only as the central component of the U. S. Air Force, which was created in 1947, but also of the Cold War policy of nuclear deterrence.
In 1946, with an eye toward independence, the Army Air Forces reorganized. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, commanding general of the Air Forces, established three major operating commands: the Strategic Air Command, the Tactical Air Command, and the Air Defense Command. The Air Force would take control of these commands upon its formation. As the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union took shape in the late 1940s, it became clear that the SAC would take center stage, as it was the only organization within the U. S. military with the ability and experience to deliver atomic weapons.
At first, however, the SAC was in poor shape and seemed unfit to effectively carry out its mission. Not only had postwar demobilization left it with a bare minimum of personnel and increasingly obsolete equipment, but a plan that called for the extensive cross training of personnel resulted in weakly trained crews and strained morale. Its deficiencies were highlighted during the Berlin Crisis in 1948, when Soviet forces in eastern Berlin blockaded the U. S., French, and British-controlled sectors of the city. In response, Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg ordered Gen. Curtis E. LeMay home from Europe to take command of the SAC.
LeMay took command in October 1948 and immediately oversaw the transfer of the SAC headquarters from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska. Once settled, LeMay initiated an intensive training program. Although his reforms did result in some improvements, SAC remained understaffed and poorly equipped for its atomic mission until appropriations increased with the Korean War in the 1950s, and the United States formally adopted a policy of deterrence.
Under the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, SAC emerged not only as the largest component of the Air Force, but also as the centerpiece of the nation’s policy of deterrence, with its threat of massive retaliation. While overall the military shrank after 1953 and military budgets stagnated, SAC proved the exception to the general pattern. It was celebrated in the 1955 film Strategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart as Lt. Col. “Dutch” Holland and June Allyson as his wife Sally. SAC gained the personnel and the equipment needed to serve as a deterrent force. Surplus B-29s from World War II gave way initially to the B-50 and then to the B-47, the first generation all-jet bomber. The first intercontinental bomber, the B-36, remained the key to deterrence until the eight-engine, all-jet B-52 appeared in 1955. To support these bombers on their long-range missions, SAC adopted aerial refueling and acquired its first tanker aircraft, the KC-97. By the end of the decade, the all-jet KC-135 entered the SAC inventory.
Although bombers remained its most visible symbol, SAC also gained the responsibility for the manning and maintaining of the nation’s expanding inventory of ground-based missiles. In the 1950s the Air Force took the lead in the development of the first generation intercontinental ballistic missiles. Under the guidance of Maj. Gen. Bernard A. Schriever, the Air Force developed and fielded the liquid fueled Atlas, Titan I, and Titan II long-range missiles. In the 1960s, Atlas and Titan I were retired and Titan II was significantly augmented by the solid-fueled Minuteman.
Throughout its history SAC recognized its central mission as that of nuclear deterrence, while at the same time preparing for global thermonuclear war, a war it never had to fight. Instead, SAC often found itself struggling to maintain its central mission capability while participating in very different kinds of wars, especially in Vietnam. During that conflict, SAC B-52s flew a number of very limited strategic bombing campaigns, from Rolling Thunder to Linebacker II. In at least one case, the siege of Khe Sanh, B-52s even flew a mission best described as close air support. All, however, involved the use of conventional rather than nuclear weapons.
Following the Vietnam conflict, SAC returned its focus to its nuclear mission. The 24-hour airborne alerts, begun in the 1950s, remained in place, and the Air Force pushed for replacements for the aging B-52s, including both the B-1 and the stealthy B-2 bombers. Following a significant buildup in military spending under Pres. Ronald Reagan, including retirement of the Titan missiles and the fielding of the Peacekeeper, the late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed a series of world events that brought fundamental changes. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the formal collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought an end to the Cold War that had driven American foreign and military policy since the late 1940s. These events, combined with treaties that reduced the nuclear arsenals of both the United States and the Soviet Union, diminished the urgency of the nuclear deterrent mission. Symbolically, on September 18, 1991, SAC stood down from its alert status. In a massive reorganization of the Air Force, on June 1, 1992, SAC and the Tactical Air Command ceased to exist, replaced by a new, combined Air Combat Command.
Bibliography Wolk, Herman S. “The Quest for Independence.” In Nalty, Winged Shield, Winged Sword, Vol. 1, 1997.
Further Reading Borgiasz, William S. The Strategic Air Command: Evolution and Consolidation of Nuclear Forces, 1945-1955. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 1996. Nalty, Bernard C., ed. Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force. 2 vols. Washington, D. C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997.