SAC during the 13 Days of the Cuban Missile Crisis

BARKSDALE AFB, La. -- The year 1962 was a year full of noteworthy events; John Glenn orbited the earth, South Africa jailed Nelson Mandela, Marilyn Monroe passed away and Dr. No became the first in the series of James Bond movies. It was also the year that the world's two largest superpowers clashed in a nuclear standoff.

Twenty-twelve is the Year of the B-52, but this October is also the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. For 13 days the United States and the Soviet Union stood, as Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, "eyeball to eyeball," in a nuclear game of chicken. As we spend this year highlighting the B-52, this October, let's also highlight Strategic Air Command (SAC) and its contribution to preventing the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating.

Some people consider the Cuban Missile Crisis as the high point of the Cold War. In the summer of 1962, the Soviet Union placed strategic weapons in Cuba, weapons that could reach the U.S. in less than four minutes. This elevated the U.S. security stance to DEFCON 2, an unprecedented level.

In the years after the Soviet Union launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), SAC sought alternatives to prevent an enemy surprise attack. Gen. Thomas Power, then SAC commander, implemented the airborne alert force as a solution. SAC experimented with airborne alerts as early as 1958, but due to budget restrictions, it was not until the Missile Crisis that these sorties became fully operational.

Pilots flew these nuclear laden airborne alerts, commonly known as Chrome Dome missions, for 24 hours before another air crew assumed the same flight route. Chrome Dome ensured that a percentage of SAC bombers could survive an enemy surprise attack and that the U.S. could retaliate against the Soviets. At the height of the air alerts, SAC produced 75 B-52 sorties a day.

SAC operated more than just B-52s. Tanker crews supported the Chrome Dome missions by refueling the B-52s with its fleet of KC-135s. At the height of Chrome Dome, SAC launched approximately 133 KC-135s a day. Without the tanker crews, Chrome Dome would not have been possible.

In addition to the tankers, SAC also dispersed 183 B-47 bombers to both military and non-military airfields, so in the event of an enemy attack, the Soviets would be unable to destroy the total B-47 force.

Along with the Chrome Dome missions, SAC's responsibilities included gathering electronic and photographic intelligence. Since March 1962, the U.S. had been closely monitoring Cuba for evidence of offensive operations. From the reconnaissance gathered during these missions, intelligence officers identified enemy missile equipped patrol boats, surface to air missile sites, short range cruise missile sites, and fighter planes. One of the more important pieces of intelligence was the conclusive evidence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. SAC provided this information to President John Kennedy, who in turn, used it to make sound decisions. This intelligence led to the U.S. naval quarantine of Cuba.

Critical information gathered by the U-2, a reconnaissance aircraft, assisted America's leadership, but it came at a price. On Oct. 27, Soviet forces downed U-2 pilot Maj. Rudolf Anderson with a surface to air missile as he flew over Cuba. This gave SAC the sad distinction of having the only enemy induced casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Also, 11 other SAC personnel died in RB-47 crashes during takeoff, while supporting of the information reconnaissance mission.

In addition to the flying missions, SAC's missileers also played a role during the Crisis. As a form of deterrence, on Oct. 19, SAC placed 132 missiles on alert, and by Nov. 3, General Power ordered that number increased to 186. This included Atlas, Titan I, and the Air Force's newest missile, the Minuteman I. Because of the crisis, SAC wanted to put every missile in the inventory on alert, which meant converting missiles configured for training to operationally ready weapons. In doing so, the missileers rapidly ran out of missile propellant and acquired civilian resources to compensate. Special orders were also handed down to bypass certain safety regulations to make the missiles usable.

Lt. Gen. Jim Kowalski, AFGSC commander, quoted the book Black Swan stating, "Acts of prevention get no reward." Furthermore Kowalski said, "If we do our jobs right, then history will never remember our names." He is correct in his interpretation of SAC's place in history - history only remembers the glory and not the sacrifice.

Strategic Air Command receives little glory for its role during the Cold War. We must remember the sacrifices and deterrence that SAC provided during the Cuban Missile Crisis, especially on this, the 50th anniversary of the event.