United States Air Force, Strategic Air Command (SAC)
The Strategic Air Command was established on 21 March 1946, with a mandate to build an organization capable of conducting long-range air operations in any part of the world. In its dual role as a specified command of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a major command (MAJCOM) subordinate to Headquarters USAF, Strategic Air Command grew to become the operational establishment of the USAF in charge of America’s bomber-based and ballistic missile-based strategic nuclear arsenal until the end of the Cold War in 1992.
In the early 1950s, many senior officials within the Air Force were necessarily concerned about spending limited resources in the development of long-range missiles, which ultimately may not prove to be technically feasible. By late 1951, however, these concerns were overshadowed by covert reports from the Soviet Union revealing the planned development of huge rockets, lending renewed urgency to the task of making the SAC’s retaliatory capabilities so overpowering that it could counter any Soviet aggression.
These Soviet plans precipitated a difficult period in Cold War history. For the first time the United States would no longer be isolated from potential conflicts, since the warning time for crises was quickly plummeting from years to a literal matter of minutes. The only way the threat could be countered was with our own system of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), in such strength that the retaliatory power would discourage the leaders of the Soviet Union from even considering a first strike. In August 1953, less than a month after the Korean War ended, the first test explosion of a Soviet hydrogen bomb underscored the escalating nuclear threat, and the arms race was effectively underway.
On 30 October 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower formally approved National Security Council Paper No. 162/2 (NSC 162/2). The top-secret document made clear that America’s nuclear arsenal would be maintained and further expanded to meet the communist threat. As a result, the SAC mission grew rapidly while defining the concept of deterrence as “instant massive retaliation.” SAC implemented the long-range B-52 Stratofortress strategic nuclear bomber force in the 1950s; extending that capability in the development of the ICBM, culminating in the 1960s with the Minuteman missile program; and the eventual third leg of the strategic nuclear triad, U.S. Navy submarines with launch capabilities for ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Under this strategy, the country’s nuclear defense was assured by the use of three distinct and versatile weapons delivery systems.
In June 1955 SAC took delivery of the first B-52B Stratofortress from Boeing, which has proven to be one of the Air Force’s most successful and long-lasting weapons systems. The turbo-jet bombers could reach speeds of 650 miles per hour cruising at altitudes up to 50,000 feet, while carrying a heavy load of 43,000 pounds. With aerial refueling the B-52 had a proven intercontinental range able to strike any target on the face of the earth. However, in 1962 a crew commanded by Major Clyde Evely from Minot AFB set a distance record when they flew their B-52H aircraft 12,519 miles from Japan to Spain without refueling.
With the introduction of ICBMs, production of the B-52 ended in the summer of 1962. In October, the last production model, the B-52H, was delivered to the 4135th Strategic Wing at Minot AFB. Although physically resembling the other B-52’s, this marked the first time in the history of strategic bombing that an aircraft had been designed explicitly for a low-altitude penetration mission, allowing the B-52H to fly under enemy defense radar to its target. Along with the airborne refueling capability provided by the KC-135 Stratotanker, the B-52 became SAC’s principal strategic bomber. At its peak in the early sixties, more than six hundred B-52’s were allocated to thirty-eight Bombardment Wings stationed at SAC airbases worldwide, and many continue in service to the present day.
The first generation Atlas and Titan ICBMs were activated in 1958, though by 1962 these were already being replaced with the smaller, more sophisticated second-generation Boeing Minuteman. The Minuteman was a three-stage solid-fuel propelled missile, which could be launched directly from an underground silo. Each missile stood nearly 60 feet tall, and could attain a speed of more than 15,000 miles per hour with a range of 6,300 miles. At its peak the Minuteman force numbered 1,000 missiles housed in widely dispersed underground Launch Facilities in the countryside of the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Missouri, establishing the backbone of strategic deterrence.
Minot Air Force Base
Following the Soviet Union’s detonation of its first atomic bomb in 1949, U.S. military strategists realized that the main attack route for enemy bombers would be over the Arctic. They therefore sought to locate radar stations and military bases in the northern tier states along the Canadian border. One of these long-range defense radar stations, Minot Air Force Station was established south of Minot, ND in 1951. A few years later, Minot was chosen as a location for a fighter-interceptor base and construction of the new facility began in May 1956. Officially activated on 10 January 1957, Minot AFB began as an Air Defense Command (ADC) base until the first permanent Strategic Air Command unit, the 4136th Strategic Wing, was activated in September 1958. Gearing up for the permanent SAC mission, in 1959 the 906th Airborne Refueling Squadron (ARFS) was assigned to Minot AFB, which grew to include a squadron of fifteen KC-135 Stratotankers providing air refueling for the defense operations and the eventual introduction of SAC aircraft.
In 1961, SAC’s mission continued to expand when the 4136th SW received a squadron of fifteen B-52H bombers, and the Air Force selected the land around Minot for a new Minuteman ICBM complex. Construction of the missile sites commenced in January 1962. In May, it was announced that the 810th Strategic Aerospace Division (SAD) would be activated at Minot AFB, and assume an intermediate level of command of both wings, subordinate to the Fifteenth Air Force. On 30 June 1962, control of Minot AFB passed from ADC to the commander of the newly activated 862nd Combat Support Group, which assumed administrative responsibility for the base, while providing operations and logistical support for both wings. Thus Minot AFB was officially designated a Strategic Air Command base. With the bombing and air refueling missions well underway, all eyes turned to the missile complex.
As the complex took shape, in November 1962 SAC activated the 455th Strategic Missile Wing (SMW). Although the missile complex was far from operational, training began in order that the wing could support its mission once the construction was completed. In February 1963, SAC activated the 450th Bombardment Wing-Heavy to support the B-52 and KC-135 operations. The first Minuteman I missiles began to arrive in September 1963, and from that day on missiles arrived almost daily until the last missile was emplaced in February 1964. By April, the 455th SMW was fully operational with the Minuteman I weapon system. In just over two years, the North Dakota plains were implanted with a combat-ready ICBM system born of the latest technological advancements, and Minot AFB became the home of two powerful legs of the American strategic triad.
Throughout the 1960s, Minot AFB continued to modify and upgrade its operations and strategic arsenal. Base organizations were reassigned in July 1968 when the 91st Strategic Missile Wing assumed operations from the inactivated 455th SMW, and was selected as the first wing in the Air Force to be upgraded to the triple-warhead Minuteman III. At the same time, the 5th Bombardment Wing-Heavy took control of the assets and personnel of the inactivated 450th BW, and in support of American forces in Southeast Asia sent B-52 crews for conventional bombing missions under operation Arc Light, and tanker squadrons under operation Young Tiger. Minot AFB grew to be one of the largest dual-wing SAC airbases, covering over 5,000 acres of land; with the Minuteman complex distributed over 8500 square miles in the eight counties surrounding the base. There were 5,742 officers and enlisted personnel working at the base with another 468 at the radar sites, making Minot one of the largest of the forty-nine Strategic Air Command bases in the world.
The importance of the base cannot be overemphasized. It fielded a full arsenal of weapons for nuclear deterrence, including 150 Minuteman ICBMs in underground silos; 15 B-52H Stratofortress nuclear bombers, also capable of air-to-ground missile launch systems; 15 KC-135 Stratotanker refueling tankers; Huey rescue helicopters; and the 5th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron of twenty F-106 Delta Darts. Conductors on Amtrak often told their rail passengers as they stopped at the station in Minot that if North Dakota withdrew from the United States the state would have the third-largest stock of nuclear weapons in the world, behind only the United States and the Soviet Union.
5th Bombardment Wing-Heavy
The 5th Bombardment Wing (5th BMW) at Minot AFB consisted of the 23rd Bomb Squadron flying the B-52H Stratofortress, and the 906th Air Refueling Squadron flying the KC-135 Stratotanker. Its primary mission was to train in global strategic bombardment and defensive warfare in accordance with the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) and specified by the SAC Emergency War Order (EWO). At all times there were B-52 crews poised on alert status that could be airborne within 10 minutes on their way to targets in the Soviet Union.
Rotating crews would routinely spend seven days confined in the alert facility, prepared to swiftly respond to Operation Readiness Inspections (ORI), simulating actual combat missions as though we had gone to war. They would also regularly fly airborne alert flights in which the combat-ready bombers would remain on station orbiting the North Pole, poised to go to predetermined targets in the Soviet Union. When not on alert status they routinely flew 10-hour Combat Crew training missions, involving airborne refueling, navigational legs that included simulated bombing runs, low-level flying, and overall crew proficiency exercises to maintain ratings.
When a B-52 crewmember first arrived at Minot, they were initially placed with a non-ready crew (N-crew) that trained together under the supervision of instructors at the base. Once proficient and ready for a check ride, certified instructors administering the Standardization and Evaluation Board (STANEVAL, or STANBOARD) program evaluated the crewmember. Following the evaluation, the crewmember would brief the mission to the wing commander, and subsequently be certified a combat-ready E-crew to begin flying training missions. As proficiency advanced, individual crewmembers would receive promotions to a higher-level crew. Above E-crews were R-crews, and the top of the hierarchy were designated S-crews, who were rated to be instructors and administer STANEVAL protocols. The system reflected the legendary SAC Commander General Curtis LeMay’s style, which had the best crews setting the highest standards, while providing plenty of training and flying time for other crews to reach those standards.
By the late 1960s, the Air Force was undergoing a change in regime and overall reorganization. Many of the officers and pilots who had enlisted during World War II and the Korean War were approaching retirement, and a new generation was taking their place. At the time of the 24 October 1968 UFO events, the B-52 crewmembers in this report were certified as an S-crew. As one of the top crews at Minot AFB, they did less of the day-to-day training missions, while spending more time instructing and evaluating other crews. In fact, an additional pilot, Maj. Partin, was onboard during this mission being evaluated by the Aircraft Commander Captain Don Cagle. At the time, Cagle was the youngest STANEVAL Instructor Pilot to achieve this position in SAC. In his words:
Ours was one of the first new-generation STANEVAL crews. Those guys were so good, and I was fortunate enough to put those guys together, and we kind of blazed a trail and left a pretty good wake that I’m rather proud of.
91st Strategic Missile Wing
The second wing assigned to Minot AFB was the 91st Strategic Missile Wing (SMW). Its primary mission was to develop and maintain the operational capability to conduct strategic warfare according to the SAC Emergency War Order (EWO). The 91st SMW was responsible for 150 LGM-30B Minuteman I ICBMs dispersed over an area of 8,500 square miles surrounding Minot.
The wing was comprised of the 740th, 741st, and 742nd Strategic Missile Squadrons. Each squadron comprised five Flights, responsible for 50 missiles dispersed over a wide area to prevent any attack from destroying more than a handful. Each Flight consisted of a centralized Launch Control Facility (LCF) and underground Launch Control Center (LCC), with primary control and responsibility for 10 missiles housed in hardened underground silos at remote Launch Facilities (LF).
Since the missile Launch Facilities were unmanned, two Missile Combat Crew Commanders (capsule crew) stationed for 24-hour tours of duty in the underground Launch Control Center (capsule) constantly monitored missile status and security. For purposes of secure command and control communications, hardened underground cables linked the Launch Control Centers to the Launch Facilities, and ultimately to the Wing Command Post at Minot AFB.
Above ground, the Launch Control Facility (LCF) was constantly manned by a minimum of six security personnel, who were responsible for the security requirements of the Missile Combat Crew Commanders who remain locked in the underground capsule for 24-hour tours of duty. The security personnel were divided into two teams of three people each, consisting of a Flight Security Controller (FSC) and two Security Alert Team (SAT) members. Each team operated in 12-hour shifts over a three-day period. There was also a facilities manager and cook at each facility totaling eight personnel at all times.
The Flight Security Controller supervised the LCF, providing flight-area security status and entry control into Launch Facilities with the assistance of the Security Alert Team, who could quickly respond to the security requirements in the field. Additionally, Camper Teams consisting of a SAT team in a camping vehicle with enough food to last the duration of their stay would be posted at Launch Facilities whenever the missile and nuclear warhead were exposed during work, or the security systems were malfunctioning.
At the time of the 24 October 1968 UFO events, a Camper Team was posted at Oscar-6 providing security for a Target Alignment Team working underground in the silo. In addition, teams from the 862nd Missile Maintenance Squadron (MIMS) would systematically visit the missile sites to perform routine maintenance and repairs in the Launch Support Building, coordinating site access with the FSC. Exacting procedures were required in order to enter the Launch Facilities, including the SAC two-man Nuclear Safety Policy, keys, and coded identification procedures.
Airborne Launch Control System (ALCS)
By the late 1960s, the accuracy of ICBMs on both sides had improved tremendously, and Air Force planners worried that it might be possible for the Soviets to stop an entire squadron of missiles by destroying just the Launch Control Centers. The requirement for a back-up method of launching the underground Minuteman missiles became crucial. In response, the Post Attack Command and Control System (PACCS), and the Airborne Launch Control System were established, consisting of five alert EC-135 aircraft that could serve as a SAC Airborne Command Post should ground-based facilities and command centers become inoperable.
Strategic Air Command began the mission on February 3, 1961. One of the five assumed the codename “Looking Glass” because the mission mirrored ground-based command, control, and communications. From that date, a Looking Glass aircraft was continuously airborne out of Offutt AFB, NE.
The other four EC-135 aircraft were parked at the end of the runways at Ellsworth AFB, SD, and Minot AFB ready to takeoff with less than 10 minutes warning. When warned, the four alert ALCS aircraft flew to orbits near the Minuteman bases they were responsible for assisting. If the “Go Code” had ever been received, the airborne launch control officers on each aircraft would begin polling the underground LCCs to see if they were still functioning. If the underground crews did not respond, the ALCS officers could launch all of the Minuteman missiles by directly transmitting commands via UHF radio.
End of the Cold War
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, world conditions eased to the extent that the Strategic Air Command ended its Looking Glass operations after 29 years of continuous airborne alert. More than 281,000 hours were flown without an accident or any requirement for action. The quiet cessation of this mission seemed to speak volumes for the prospects of peace. The Cold War as we knew it in the 20th century was over.
The many years researching this case have presented an opportunity to appreciate the significant accomplishments of the Strategic Air Command and the dedication of the service personnel who ultimately prevailed in the Cold War. With a nuclear striking power that exceeded the powers of every nation combined, no other military organization in all of history has possessed such awesome power, and it reflects well upon the United States that such supremacy was used to deter war.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. noted in “Origins of the Cold War” (1967), “The orthodox American view, as originally set forth by the American government and as reaffirmed until recently by most American scholars, has been that the Cold War was the brave and essential response of free men to communist aggression.” However, he asserts that this view is simplistic and quite inadequate to an understanding of the Cold War, concluding, “Each side believed with passion that future international stability depended on its own conception of world order. Each side, in pursuing its own clearly indicated and deeply cherished principles, was only confirming the fear of the other that it was bent on aggression… Each side felt compelled to adopt policies which the other could not but regard as a threat to the principles of the peace. Each then felt compelled to undertake defensive measures… So the machinery of suspicion and countersuspicion, action and counter-action, was set in motion.”
No matter what personal opinions one has on the Cold War, nuclear weapons policies, and the actions of the United States and the Soviet Union, all must recognize that the Cold War’s lasting social, economic, political, and cultural legacy is a significant part of the nation’s history, which demands to be better appreciated and understood.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
In 1999, Congress established the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, to "preserve, protect, and interpret for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations the structures associated with the Minuteman ICBM missile defense system." National Park Service staff provide tours of an intact Minuteman Launch Control Facility, and Launch Facility
A special Historical Resource Study was prepared by the National Parks Service to provide history and context for the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota. See: Jeffrey A. Engler (Mead & Hunt Inc.), The Missile Plains: Frontline of America’s Cold War, Prepared for United States Department of the Interior, NPS, 2003.
Panoramic photographs of Minuteman Launch Facilities.
Bruce Ecker has produced spherical panoramic images depicting some of the major features of the Delta-01 LCF, and Delta-09 LF facilities at Ellsworth AFB, including several sections of the missile silo and launch support buildings not normally accessible. Available from the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
The Nuclear Vault: Resources from the National Security Archive’s Nuclear Documentation Project
The National Security Archive is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University. For students of the field, The Nuclear Vault is an excellent source of information on the history and role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, including reading lists, bibliographic information, links to key documents, and significant contributions in the form of Electronic Briefing Books. Available online from: The Nuclear Vault: Resources from the National Security Archive’s Nuclear Documentation Project.
Three short films produced by the USAF in response to growing public concerns about safety and U.S. control of nuclear weapons are available from The Nuclear Vault at: The Air Force versus Hollywood.
- “Operation Headstart” (1959), depicts SAC’s first airborne alert test by B-52 bombers operating out of Loring AFB, ME, in the fall of 1959.
- “Development of the Soviet Ballistic Missile Threat” (1960), intelligence briefing originally classified “secret,” which illustrates the role of Air Force intelligence in the “missile gap” debates in the years before the 1960 presidential election.
- “SAC Command Post” (n.d, 1963-64), provides a detailed picture of the Strategic Air Command’s command-and-control system stationed in the lower levels of SAC headquarters at Offutt AFB, NE. The film emphasizes SAC’s place in the chain of command and the mechanisms for preventing the “unauthorized launch” of bombers and missiles that could start a nuclear war. The film was produced to refute early 1960s novels and Hollywood films such as Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which raised questions about U.S. control over nuclear weapons.
 Specific information regarding SAC’s mission (Basic War Plan), available resources, and organizational changes at the time of the UFO events is available in the Archive section: Department of the Air Force. History of the Strategic Air Command, FY 1969, Vol. I, Chapter I: “Mission, Resources, Organization.”
 NSC 162/2 defined Cold War policy during the Eisenhower administration. Central to the assessment was the requirement for the development and maintenance of “a strong military posture, with emphasis on the capability of inflicting massive retaliatory damage by offensive striking power” [quote on p. 5]. Available from: http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsc-hst/nsc-162-2.pdf.
 For more information on the origins and history of the Cold War, see: The Missile Plains: Frontline of America's Cold War, Section I, Chapter 1: The Cold War (1945-62).
 For more information and a concise history of the U.S. ICBM programs , see: The Missile Plains: Frontline of America's Cold War, Section 1, Chapter 2: “U.S. Strategic and Missile Armament Systems (1950s-60s).”
 810th SAD USAF Fact Sheet from: http://www.afhra.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=10152. The Fifteenth Air Force, March AFB, CA was a level of command subordinate to Strategic Air Command. The Numbered Air Forces are tactical echelons that provide operational leadership and supervision.
 For more information on the history and development of the Minuteman ICBM, see: The Missile Plains: Frontline of America's Cold War, Section 1, Chapter 3: “Minuteman and the Next Generation (1960s-present).”
 The Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) is a blueprint which specifies how American nuclear weapons would be used in the event of nuclear war. The first plan was developed in 1960, consisting of a list of targets ( National Strategic Target List) and the assets to be used against each target. This was extensively revised to become SIOP-62, a massive strike with the entire U.S. arsenal of 3,200 warheads against the USSR, China, and Soviet-aligned states. In 1963 the Kennedy administration revised the plan, resulting in SIOP-63-a strong counterforce strategy with a number of options in which the “no first use” policy became implicit. See also: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB130/index.htm.
 Cagle, Don 2001. Transcript of interview by James Klotz, 18 March (Sign Oral History Project), 18.
 For a more complete description of the principal assignments for each of the Air Force personnel assigned to a Minuteman LCF and LCC, see: The Missile Plains: Frontline of America's Cold War, Section II, Chapter 5: “Missileer Culture: Day-to-Day Life (1960s-91).” In addition, spherical panoramic images of Minuteman launch facilities at Ellsworth AFB, SD are available from: http://nonplused.org/panos/minuteman/index.html.
 Original article available from:
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., “Origins of the Cold War.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 46, no. 1, October 1967, 22-52. See also: http://www.shafr.org/newsletter/2002/sep/letters.htm.