The Strategic Air Command (SAC) was both a major command and a "specified command" in the U.S. Air Force and was the operational establishment in charge of America's land-based bomber aircraft and land-based ballistic missile strategic nuclear arsenal from 1946-92. SAC also controlled the infrastructure necessary to support the strategic bomber and ICBM operations, such as tanker aircraft to refuel the bombers in flight, strategic reconnaissance and command post aircraft, and, until 1957, fighter escorts. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, SAC was succeeded in June 1992 by the U.S. Strategic Command.
SAC's original mission statement, expressed by General Carl Spaatz, then commanding general of the USAAF, was:
The Strategic Air Command will 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.
That mission makes no specific reference to nuclear weapons, which in any case SAC did not yet possess. In the wake of World War II, the United States underwent a major drawdown of military forces, and the few USAAF units involved in the dropping of the atomic bombs were not spared.
SAC retained its organization and mission after the USAAF became the U.S. Air Force on September 18, 1947.
On October 19, 1948, Lt. General Curtis LeMay took over as commander of SAC and set about a dramatic rebuilding of the command's forces, as well as their mission. Subsequently promoted to the rank of full General, LeMay, who had masterminded the American attacks on the Japanese mainland during the war (including the firebombing of Tokyo and other cities), was a staunch believer in the power of strategic bombing: the destruction of an enemy's cities and industrial centers. LeMay believed that the existence of the atomic bomb made this type of warfare the only workable strategy, rendering battlefield conflicts essentially obsolete.
Under LeMay's command, SAC became the cornerstone of American national strategic policy during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This policy was based primarily on nuclear deterrence. In 1962, there were 282,723 USAF personnel assigned to SAC (217,650 airmen, 28,531 civilians and 38,542 officers). SAC's motto became "Peace is Our Profession," symbolizing the intention to maintain peace through the threat of overwhelming force.
From its initial handful of wartime B-29 Superfortress bombers, only a few of which were "Silverplate" aircraft capable of dropping a nuclear weapon, SAC transitioned to its first, truly intercontinental bomber, the Convair B-36. Though a major improvement over the under powered B-29, the B-36, with its six piston and four jet engines, was slow to get to its target. SAC built up a substantial force of jet-propelled bombers. At its peak, the SAC force included more than 1,500 bombers, most of them the swept-wing B-47. Airborne command post arrangements were also developed, resulting in the EC-135 Looking Glass program.
When the first operational intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) became available in the late 1950s, they were placed under SAC command. This led to a gradual decline in SAC's bomber strength.
Wartime experience in Europe had shown the inability of bombers to survive without fighter escort, so for a number of years SAC had a fighter force as well as bomber squadrons. Despite some USAF efforts to develop long-range escort fighters, the range of fighter aircraft was too limited for truly intercontinental range, and SAC philosophy held that interception of bombers was of limited value in the atomic age. As a result, on July 1, 1957, SAC's fighter squadrons were either disbanded or passed to TAC.
Curtis LeMay left SAC to become USAF Vice Chief of Staff in 1957, and was succeeded by General Thomas S. Power, who served as SAC commander until December 1964. He was followed by General John Ryan (1964-67) and General Bruce K. Holloway (1968-72).
In 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. 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 Navy's strategic nuclear component, ballistic missile submarines, to form USSTRATCOM, which is headquartered at SAC's former complex at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.
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 left and extending toward the upper 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.
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 running from the top to the bottom of the fuselage at an angle from 11:00 O'clock to 5:00 O'clock. The SAC crest was a bit wider than the stripe and was placed on over of the stripe. The stripe indicated that SAC was always ready to fulfill its mission.