In the final hours of peace on 8 July, 1987, the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command found itself in a peculiar position. As the other major commands in the Air Force and in other service branches prepared for war, SAC was maintaining a low key, business-as-usual approach. It was strange development, but nevertheless true. Although diplomatic efforts had all but closed down by this time, a late afternoon discussion over the hotline between President Reagan and General Secretary Romanov had brought about an unexpected informal arrangement. The two leaders promised to keep the postures of their respective strategic forces untouched unless the alert level of the other superpower seemed to be changing. Whether by design or chance, Reagan, and his Soviet counterpart had come to a mutual agreement on the conduct of the war that was to come.
The Third World War would be fought conventionally. But if NATO or the Warsaw Pact fared badly on the battlefield all bets were off. At the very least, Reagan and Romanov wanted to keep the lid on the nuclear box for as long as possible.
These desires did little to assuage the nerves of SAC aircrews, and missileers. The next time the klaxons went off it would be the real thing. CINC-SAC, General John Chain and his operations staff were keeping current with what was happening in Europe and simultaneously preparing the command for action. The Looking Glass airborne command post would remain up at all times, as always. The Soviets understood Looking Glass and its mission. Moscow would not see the move as escalatory. Alert facilities at SAC bases were becoming cramped quarters. Additional aircrews were moving in as the number of tankers and bombers on alert was increased. Maintenance teams were combing over Minuteman and Peacekeeper ICBMs almost constantly to ensure the missiles would be combat ready if the time came.
Not all SAC bombers would be kept at stateside bases on alert, though. Just as during Vietnam, conventionally-armed heavy bombers were going to be in high demand in this conflict. Some SAC squadrons had been assigned conventional roles in a time of war and were trained up to execute those missions if it became necessary. Two B-52 squadrons, one at Andersen AFB on Guam, and the other at Loring AFB in Maine were tasked to employ Harpoon anti-ship missiles against Soviet warships in the Pacific, and North Atlantic. Other -52 squadrons were slated to support ground forces in Europe. Although they were in high demand, Chain was reluctant to part with more strategic bombers than absolutely necessary. This hesitation brought on an intervention by the Joint Chiefs. General Larry Welch, the USAF Chief of Staff and Chain’s predecessor at SAC, told him bluntly over a secure phone line, “Goddammit, John! Quit being so stingy. We both know your command has more than enough bombers and missiles to wipe Russia off the map. You can afford to part with a few -52s. Using them in Europe against Russian tanks might help to stop us from having to use the rest of your force over Russia later on.” Shortly after the phone call, warning orders went out to the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale AFB to prepare additional planes for movement across the Atlantic.
For the rest of SAC, though, it was the same watch-and-wait game it had been for years. God willing, it would become nothing more.
4 Replies to “SAC on the Eve of War: D-1 (8 July, 1987) **”
Sounds like ‘Bomber’ Harris in WW2 refusing to release around two squadrons of Liberators to cover the air gap in the Atlantic. If nothing else that illustrated his unfitness for command. He had to eventually.
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Bomber guys are a different breed. Harris was just foolish though, but whether WW2, WW3 or whenever, they don’t want to part with their planes.
The real story of the nuclear possibility of WWIII is utterly fascinating: until the mid-1980’s and the fallout from the famous ‘revolution in military affairs” and its NATO counterpart in AirLand Battle, the Soviets had fully intended to use nuclear weapons from the outset: there was no chance it wouldn’t have gone strategic, ie The End. Soviet generals weren’t just stupid, they were retarded on the issue, with one bragging that nuclear damned weapons were just “another bomb” in the Soviet inventory.
This makes me so thankful for Hiroshima and Nagasaki: I now think those bombings were the best thing to ever happen to mankind. Ever. If humanity had not seen shambling post-zombies melting before their very eyes, the horror of nuclear weapons would have merely been abstract: just another war figure. Had the United States just hit a lone island in a demonstration attack in order to back the Japanese down, a massive nuclear war would have happened by 1952 at the latest and none of us would be here now.
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James, thanks for your observations. They’re weighty and well thought out. Much appreciated for sharing