Strategic Air Command

Strategic Air Command
Strategic Air Command
SAC Shield.svg
Strategic Air Command emblem
Active 1946 - 1992
Country USA
Branch US Army Air Forces
US Air Force
Type Major Command
Garrison/HQ Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska
Motto "Peace is our Profession"
Curtis LeMay

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 as a MAJCOM 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.

Concurrently, most of SAC's tanker aircraft, including those in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, were reassigned to the new Air Mobility Command (AMC). A select number of tankers in the Regular Air Force were reassigned to United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), while another cohort of Regular Air Force and 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) circa 1994.



Original SAC patch

Early history 1946–58

During the interwar period, the Bomber Mafia, a group of Air Corps officers 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. One of SAC's United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) predecessors, the "Continental Air Forces" (CAF) was established on 13 December 1944 and activated on 15 December 1944. CAF controlled the numbered air forces within the United States (First, Second, Third and Fourth) and their training mission.

On March 21, 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 Bolling Field, the headquarters of the disestablished Continental Air Forces in Washington, DC. The headquarters organization of CAF was designated Strategic Air Command. Its first commander was General George C. Kenney.[1]:29–30 Ten days later, Fifteenth Air Force was assigned to the command as its first Numbered Air Force. In June 1946 Eighth Air Force was assigned. SAC HQ moved to Andrews AFB, MD on October 20, 1946.

Strategic Air 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. During this period, the United States Air Force itself was established on 18 September 1947. The situation began to change on October 19, 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.[1]:99 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 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-flight refueling, jet engines, and ballistic missiles into its operations.

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 atomic-armed long-range bombers with the capability to devastate the Soviet Union within a few days of the advent of war.[1]:102 But the reality when LeMay assumed command was SAC had only sixty nuclear capable aircraft, none of which had the long-range capabilities he desired.[2] 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.[1]:104 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 assignment (TDY) 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.[2]:108 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.[2]:108 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 US 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.[1]:112–13 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.[1]:117–18 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 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.[3] 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.[3]:67 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.[3]:68 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.[3]:68–9 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.[3]Template:Rp 70–1 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.[4] 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.[4]:18

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.[2]:100 In 1954, the Eisenhower administration concurred with the new focus, with the President expressing a preference for military over civilian targets.[4]:35 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.[4]:37 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.[4]:60 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.[4]:62

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.[2]:112 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[2]:114 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.[2]:113–4 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.

The EC-135 Looking Glass was the flying command post of SAC; one of its EC-135 planes was constantly airborne from 1961–90.

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. 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. A small portion of KC-135 aircraft were reassigned to United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and Pacific Air Forces (PACAF). 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 United States Navy's strategic nuclear component, ballistic missile submarines, to form USSTRATCOM, which is headquartered at SAC's former complex at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.

In 2009, the ICBM force was transferred to the newly-established Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC). In 2010, the B-2 Spirit and B-52 Stratofortress bomber force was 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.[5]

The Strategic Air and Space Museum, formerly the SAC Museum, preserves SAC's heritage in a fashion open to public view.

Subordinate components

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, 60s and 70s, and at Andersen AFB, Guam, RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom and NAS Keflavik, Iceland through the 1990s, SAC "provisional wings" were also located in Okinawa and Thailand during the Vietnam War and in Diego Garcia 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.

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.[6][7]

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.[8]

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.


List of Commanders-in-Chief, Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC)
No. Image Name Start of Term End of Term
1 George Kenney.jpg General George Kenney 01946-03-21 March 21, 1946 01948-10-18 October 18, 1948
2 Curtis LeMay (USAF).jpg General Curtis LeMay 01948-10-19 October 19, 1948 01957-06-30 June 30, 1957
3 Thomas S Power.jpg General Thomas S. Power 01957-07-01 July 1, 1957 01964-11-30 November 30, 1964
4 John Dale Ryan.jpg General John Dale Ryan 01964-12-01 December 1, 1964 01967-01-30 January 30, 1967
5 Joseph J Nazzaro.jpg General Joseph J. Nazzaro 01967-02-01 February 1, 1967 01968-05-31 May 31, 1968
6 Bruce K Holloway.jpg General Bruce K. Holloway 01968-08-01 August 1, 1968 01972-04-30 April 30, 1972
7 JohnCMeyer.jpg General John C. Meyer 01972-05-01 May 1, 1972 01974-07-31 July 31, 1974
8 Russell E Dougherty.jpg General Russell E. Dougherty 01974-08-01 August 1, 1974 01977-07-31 July 31, 1977
9 Richard H. Ellis General USAF.jpg General Richard H. Ellis 01977-08-01 August 1, 1977 01981-07-31 July 31, 1981
10 Bennie Davis.jpg General Bennie L. Davis 01981-08-01 August 1, 1981 01985-07-31 July 31, 1985
11 Larry D. Welch.jpg General Larry D. Welch 01985-08-01 August 1, 1985 01986-06-22 June 22, 1986
12 John T Chain.jpg General John T. Chain, Jr. 01986-06-22 June 22, 1986 01991-01-31 January 31, 1991
13 Butler gl.jpg General George Lee Butler 01991-02-01 February 1, 1991 01992-06-01 June 1, 1992

Aircraft and missiles

Boeing B-52D, AF Serial No. 56-0687 on display at B-52 Memorial Park, Orlando International Airport, Florida (formerly McCoy Air Force Base, Florida). Photo taken April 4, 2003.

Aircraft — primary mission

Aircraft — support

Missiles fielded by Strategic Air Command

Titan II missile launching from silo.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Boyne, Walter J (1997), Beyond The Wild Blue: A History of the United States Air Force 1947–1997, New York: St. Martin's Press .
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Tillman, Barrett (2007), LeMay, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 94 .
  3. ^ a b c d e Rosenberg, David A (June 1979), "American Atomic Strategy and the Hydrogen Bomb Decision", The Journal of American History, pp. 62–87,, retrieved 1 March 2009 , 65.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Rosenberg, David A (Spring 1983), "The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945–1960", International Security, Los Angeles: University of Southern California, pp. 3–71,, retrieved 1 March 2009 , 17.
  5. ^ "Factsheet", Information, USA: Air Force, .
  6. ^ "History", 7BWB‐36ASSN, .
  7. ^ "SAC", B‐29s over Korea, .
  8. ^ "Shield", Strategic Air Command, .


Further reading

  • 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.
  • Moody, Walton S. Dr., Building a Strategic Air Force, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998.
  • Narducci, Henry M (1 April 1988). Strategic Air Command and the Alert Program: A Brief History (Report). Offutt Air Force Base: Office of the Historian, Headquarters Strategic Air Command. Retrieved 18 October 2011. 
  • 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.
  • Russell, Ed, Air Division Histories, USAF Historical Research Agency historical documents. SAC Society, Strategic Air Command, Turner Publishing, 1985.
  • Yenne, Bill, History of the U.S. Air Force, Exeter Books, 1990.
  • Yenne, Bill, SAC, A Primer of Modern Strategic Airpower, Presido Press, 1992.

External links

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