Strategic Weapons: Hard Ass Perfectionists Win One


August 10, 2009: The U.S. Air Force has revived the Strategic Air Command (SAC), as the Global Strike Command. SAC was disbanded in1992, seen then as a useless Cold War relic. But because of a number of embarrassing problems with nuclear weapons security over the last three years, inspections became more strict and frequent. Scary inspections have become fashionable again, and commanders who don't get with the program are headed for early retirement. The word from on-high is that the units handling nuclear weapons have to be over-the-top fanatic about nuclear safety and security. This is a switch from more laid-back post Cold War practices.

All this heralded the return of the old SAC (Strategic Air Command) attitude. After the first few mishaps handling nukes, many in the air force began trying to revive SAC. Why just act like SAC, when what is really needed is a revival of SAC. This is one of those rare cases where it is recognized that the Good Old Days were better. Or, in this case; meaner, tougher, more effective and safer. The new Global Strike Command (GSC) will, as SAC once did, control all air force nuclear weapons and delivery systems (ICBMs and heavy bombers.) This comes after 17 years of trying to do without SAC.

In 1992, SAC, which had control of air force nuclear bombers and missiles since 1946, was disbanded and the ICBMs, and their crews, were transferred to the new Space Command. SAC had long been the butt of many jokes, for being uptight and fanatical about security and discipline. Everyone tolerated this because, after all, SAC had charge of all those nukes, heavy bombers and ICBMs. When Space Command took over, they eased up on the tight discipline and strictness about procedure that had been the hallmark of SAC for decades. The old timers complained, but many of the young troops liked the new, looser, attitudes.

Officers operating the ICBMs were no longer career "missileers", but Space Command people. Time that used to be spent on studying nuclear weapons security and missile maintenance issues, was now devoted to subjects of more concern to Space Command (satellites and communications, for example). Standards fell, efficiency slipped.

Then in 2005, the missile crews lost their Missile Badge, and had it replaced with a generic Space Command badge. Then, two years ago, there was much angst when it was discovered that six nuclear cruise missiles had accidentally been mounted on a B-52 and flown halfway across the country. How could this happen? The old timers knew. While many of these older officers and NCOs were pleased when SAC went away early in their careers, they knew that it was that act, and the subsequent "loosening up", that led to the lax attitudes that put those six nukes on that B-52. All this was part of a major, post-Cold War reorganization of the USAF. It was the beginning of the end of a decades old tradition of handling nuclear weapons safely and securely.

Two years ago, the air force brass reinstated the Missile Badge, for any missile crew member who belonged to a missile crew that was certified CMR (passed some strenuous inspections to be declared Combat Mission Ready). The badge was used for decades, until 2005, when it was withdrawn and replaced by the generic "Space Wings" of the USAF Space Command, which took control of the ICBMs in 1993. SAC, it turns out, has been coming back quietly for quite some time. And now it's back for real, with a new name, but the same old attitudes.



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