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NEW! Read the 1950's interview!
At the outset of the 1950s, SAC was only at the threshold of its Cold War buildup. Invention of the powerful hydrogen bomb and the promise of long range rockets accelerated the arms race between the superpowers in the 1950s. With the end of the fighting in Korea, President Eisenhower, who had taken office in January 1953, called for a "New Look" at national defense. The result of this reexamination was a greater reliance on nuclear weapons and air power to deter war. Instead of maintaining the large Army and Navy that had fought the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration chose to invest in air power, especially in the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Key elements of the New Look--a reliance of America’s lead in nuclear weapons; an emphasis on air power, especially on strategic forces; support of NATO; and a strong nuclear deterrent--were already a part of the national strategy. The Eisenhower administration’s particular contribution lay in the doctrine of "massive retaliation," the threat that the United States might not limit its response to future aggression as it had in Korea. This was a matter of making the underlying deterrent threat more explicit to potential adversaries.
In choosing this New Look, deterrence-oriented military policy, Eisenhower challenged the Air Force to make it work, and the Air Force stood ready. Since taking over SAC in 1948, General Curtis E. LeMay had converted it from a training organization to a combat force immediately ready to retaliate against an aggressor. SAC’s first bombers were primarily World War II B-29s,
B-29 B-36 B-47
with the B-50 and B-36 arriving in the SAC inventory during 1948 and 1949. By the end of 1953 SAC had achieved an unprecedented level of striking power. Of the seventeen wings in the atomic force, eleven were equipped. The B-47 force had grown during the year from 62 to 329 planes, the B-36 force reached 185, and the reconnaissance RB-36 component numbered 137. Supporting the bomber force were more than 500 tankers and 200 fighters. In 1950 SAC had about 1,000 total aircraft—a figure that would triple by 1959, paralleling an increase in personnel strength from 85,000 to 262,000.
The "Do Do Bird", a B-36 assigned to Loring AFB, at Westover AFB Open House 1956
Early in the 1950s, SAC developed a reflex operation between its southern bases and Morocco, with B-36 and B-47 wings rotating to North Africa for extended temporary duty. During the middle and late 1950s, SAC adopted a dispersal program—spreading out its potential as a Soviet target by placing its aircraft, weapons, and personnel on many more bases, with each bombardment wing having two additional installations to which it could disperse. A ring of overseas air bases from Greenland to North Africa projected American nuclear might to within striking distance of the Soviet heartland. Personnel strength stood at nearly 160,000, based at twenty-nine bases in the states and ten overseas.
B-52 with AGM-28 Hound Dog Missiles
During 1954-1956, SAC significantly enhanced its posture in reaction to the changing world dynamic. SAC initiated construction of an underground, hardened command center at its Offutt headquarters in 1954, with completion in 1956.
AGM-28 Hound Dog Missile
Following the Soviet launching of its Sputnik satellite in late October 1957, SAC announced activation of formal operational alert crews. Initially, SAC placed 11 percent of its 1,528 bombers and 766 tankers on alert, thus readying approximately 170 bombers and 84 tankers. SAC reached a 20 percent readiness in 1959, attaining the 33 percent goal in 1960. SAC alerts were 24-hour, with precise requirements for ever-faster takeoffs dependent on the type of scenario in test. In March 1961 President Kennedy requested funding to increase the number of SAC aircraft on 15-minute ground alert from one-third to one-half the total force. The B-47 phase-out was accelerated to provide the aircrews needed to support the higher alert rate of B-47 and B-52 bomber forces, which was attained by July 1961.