Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

’15 Minutes’: A look at the Cold War days when SAC dominated the U.S. military

By Lt. Col. Tom Cooper Best Defense guest columnist As I walked into a meeting the other afternoon a colleague asked if I thought the Air Force would be around in 50 years. We struck up a conversation about Strategic Air Command (SAC) and where the Air Force has been — an important thing to ...

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By Lt. Col. Tom Cooper

Best Defense guest columnist

As I walked into a meeting the other afternoon a colleague asked if I thought the Air Force would be around in 50 years. We struck up a conversation about Strategic Air Command (SAC) and where the Air Force has been -- an important thing to consider when thinking where the Air Force is headed and how to answer his question.  

By Lt. Col. Tom Cooper

Best Defense guest columnist

As I walked into a meeting the other afternoon a colleague asked if I thought the Air Force would be around in 50 years. We struck up a conversation about Strategic Air Command (SAC) and where the Air Force has been — an important thing to consider when thinking where the Air Force is headed and how to answer his question.  

I told him the best story I’ve read of the Air Force’s early days, SAC and the Air Force’s place in national security is L. Douglas Keeney’s 15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation. The book is more than just a story of LeMay, however, it shows his role in the establishment of SAC and SAC’s place in history is significant.

LeMay set the tone for the early Air Force and in many ways the story of SAC is the story of the Air Force. LeMay’s views on readiness were taught to him by Colonel Robert Olds.  (Interestingly, one of the Air Force’s most public faces during “the rise of the fighter pilot” was Robin Olds, the son of Robert Old. Fighter Pilot is the book to read on the son.) LeMay said that Olds taught him “the whole purpose of the Air Corps was to fly and fight in a war, and to be ready to fly and fight in that war at a given moment.” 

Keeney’s describes a LeMay-led SAC that dominated the nation’s military during this time and SAC’s readiness is clear throughout the book:

–In 1954, SAC had a direct fixed capital investment greater than an estimated $8.5 billion — only the cost of aircraft and installations. The largest company in the United States was Standard Oil of New Jersey which represented a $4.5 billion investment. SAC’s 185,000 personnel trumped Standard Oil’s 119,000 personnel as well. 

–In 1959, SAC hit its pinnacle. It had 2,921 bombers and tankers, a number that would steadily decline as missiles took their position in the triad. SAC had forty domestic Air Force bases plus twenty-five overseas, with 412 bombers and tankers on alert — 149 of which were on alert overseas. As a comparison, the Air Force currently has 159 bombers and 511 tankers.

–In 1960, with bombers and command and control aircraft airborne 24/7, SAC was completing an air refueling every 6.8 minutes. This is a testament to the training and readiness of Airmen during this period. A KC-135 and a B-52 joining to within feet of each other at jet aircraft speeds every 6.8 minutes is a level of readiness that sets a standard that would be difficult to achieve even today.

–In 1961, SAC ran tests to test the response time of the alert force. Reflecting Keeney’s choice of title, President Kennedy directed a fifteen minute alert posture. Amazingly, the sharp edge of SAC crews at the time was well beyond this capability. With 50% of the total SAC fleet on ground alert (664 bombers and 494 tankers at the time) it was proven that this whole fleet could get airborne in eleven minutes. In fact, in a single minute 200 SAC aircraft could take off.

–The tension within the Air Force between manned-bombers and the ICBMs necessary to deliver nuclear weapons is a great insight to those folks who wonder if the Air Force is culturally flexible enough to continue its progression towards more remotely piloted aircraft. The same fears about keeping a “man in the loop” are evident but you see in the book (and history), the Air Force was able to resolve concerns about autonomy.

SAC’s Cold War role winds down as the book ends in 1968 and is represented by the use of B-52s in Vietnam. “SAC wore Vietnam as a hair shirt,” writes Keeney. The transformation from SAC’s 1961 level of nuclear readiness to its support of conventional operations in Vietnam demonstrates a tension frequently evident within the Air Force. How does an Air Force balance its joint force support requirements and capability while ensuring its enduring strategic responsibilities are retained? Air Force operations since 9/11, the establishment of Air Force Global Strike Command and debates over numbers of F-22s during the recent period reflect this tension.

The book’s other main theme is the effort it took to establish a robust warning system to ensure there would be “15 minutes” for SAC to get airborne and the history of the nation’s nuclear weapons development enterprise. These stories, when presented in the context of a nation fearful of its destruction, are a fantastic history of the period.

A little known story was the Texas Tower early warning radars built off the east coast. He tells of the whole cycle from concept to eventual failure of this network of platform based radars. It is a great example of one Cold War activity that captures the fear of the period, the cooperation of industry and government, and most importantly good and bad leadership.  The tale of Texas Tower 4 is particularly useful to students of leadership and how to handle a crisis.

Military decisions during the early Cold War provide a great lens to reflect on our current austerity. The post-Korea draw down led the Army and Marine Corps to a level barely able to survive and the tactical air forces shrunk to an equal level of unpreparedness for small wars.  This imbalance is a lesson critical to our nation as we face the budgetary pressures of today. Favoring one way of fighting over another has proven itself to be more expensive and this book highlights that well. 

So 15 Minutes tells the story of a very different Air Force than exists today. A very different Air Force may exist in 2030, but the Air Force will continue to be the service that our nation and the joint force trusts to control its air, space, and cyberspace and to be in position to hold any target globally at risk. This is why America’s Air Force will endure.

However, it is important for a service built on technology to recognize that its culture has to adapt as fast as the technology while retaining its heritage, or people will continue to ask if it will survive another 50 years.

Lt. Col. Tom Cooper is the Air Force fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is spending this year reading following a career flying the E-3 Sentry, SAMFOX C-9s in the 89AW and C-40s as commander of the AF Reserve’s active associate 54 AS. He has served on the Joint Staff and the Air Mobility Command staff.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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