by Austin Bay
October 6, 2015
The Pentagon insists it isn't reviving the Strategic Air Command. The Cold War is over -- supposedly. SAC and its workhorse B-52 became uncomfortable symbols of that long, weary struggle waged on the edge of thermonuclear destruction.
However, the U.S. Air Force's decision to consolidate control of its strategic bomber fleet into a single headquarters certainly has SAC-like Cold War mission echoes. This also applies to the behavior of Vladimir Putin and his imperialist Kremlin. Thermonuclear threats continue. Despite President Barack Obama's assurances, Iran will acquire nuclear weapons. If Iran goes nuclear, Saudi Arabia and Turkey may, as well. It's an echo of the Cold War's mutual assured destruction.
Speculation? Sure. This isn't: On Oct. 1, the USAF transferred 63 B1-B Lancers (from two bomb wings) to its history-rich Eighth Air Force.
History-rich the outfit is. In World War II, the Eighth Air Force played a huge role in defeating Nazi Germany. In 1945, the Eighth Air Force commanded over 2,000 heavy bombers and over 1,000 long-range fighter escorts. It became an air warrior legend, and deservedly so.
In a vastly different geopolitical and technological era, the Eighth Air Force now controls all operational USAF heavy bombers. The USAF's current fleet numbers 159 (63 B-1s, 76 B-52H Stratofortresses and 20 B-2 Spirits). Skeletal by World War II and Cold War standards, the U.S. bomber fleet is still the world's largest in number and the most powerful.
It also possesses genuine worldwide reach. This is no secret. The Eighth Air Force is a component of the Air Force Global Strike Command, which also controls USAF intercontinental ballistic missiles.
America's air-refuelable heavy bombers give Washington a unique three-pronged capability: to threaten to launch devastating strikes globally, to launch global strikes but recall them before they are conducted and to actually conduct global strikes. ICBMs really don't have that third option.
The threat and recall options were the SAC bomber fleet's operational Cold War assets. The U.S. could signal readiness by having B-52s on the runway, in the air or approaching Soviet airspace. Deploying capital ships to sea zones near disputed areas is comparable; they are diplomatic, as well as military, signals.
The U.S. still employs its heavy bombers in this role. In late 2013, when China unilaterally expanded an air defense identification zone, two B-52s flew through it en route to South Korea. The tough message became a mixed message when the Obama administration advised commercial carriers to respect the new ADIZ.
Until its demise in 1992, SAC controlled land-based U.S. heavy bombers and ICBMs. Its assets were then divided among several headquarters, including the post-Cold War Air Combat Command, wager of nonnuclear expeditionary air warfare. U.S. Strategic Command absorbed SAC's headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
Why consolidate the bomber fleet? Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James provided a jargon-rich explanation: "Consolidating all of our Air Force assets in this critical mission area under a single command will help provide a unified voice to maintain the high standards necessary in stewardship of our nation's bomber forces."
SAC maintained high standards. Two years ago, Air Force Global Strike Command discovered severe problems with its missile force. The USAF's 159 heavy bombers may have no rivals, but its B-52s are over 50 years old. The B-2s are overworked. Consolidation could raise the operational readiness rate.
That matters. If Iran goes nuclear, the U.S. may have to conduct a simultaneous strategic bombing strike to destroy Tehran's arsenal and weapons manufacturing capabilities. In such a strike, several thousand conventional munitions would hit targets at the same time. The blasts and seismic wave just might crack deeply buried facilities. Eighth Air Force heavy bombers delivering conventional munitions would play the key role in this operation.