Washington Watch: No More SAC, TAC, and MAC

Oct. 1, 1991
A big issue that bedeviled the Air Force at birth has risen again forty-four years later amid moves to restructure the service. Should USAF and its missions be subdivided along strategic and tactical lines?

To the general public, the issue may seem academic. In the Air Force and in the defense community at large, it is anything but. It touches on nearly everything that the Air Force is and does, and it strikes the same raw nerves that it did in 1947.

At that time, USAF answered the question in the affirmative and, as a result, created Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command as bedrock major commands. SAC and TAC have held sway over missions and operations ever since and have come to seem indestructible.

They may not be. The question is before USAF again, and the answer may well be different this time around. It now seems likely that the Air Force, intent on reorganizing to apply airpower with maximum effect in a changing world, will categorize its missions as nuclear and conventional instead of strategic and tactical and will replace or revamp SAC and TAC with the new missions in mind.

[As this column went to press, the Air Force was expected to announce plans to dissolve Strategic Air Command, Tactical Air Command, and Military Airlift Command and combine their missions and assets in two new commands: Air Combat Command (ACC) and Air Mobility Command (AMC). As conceived, ACC would embody all fighters, all bombers, all ICBMs, all reconnaissance aircraft, some tankers, some tactical airlift, and all command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) aircraft. AMC would enfold all strategic airlift, most tactical airlift, some tankers, and all rescue and aeromedical evacuation aircraft and operations.]

Ideas in this vein are percolating in Air Force leadership circles. They spring from the notion that longtime distinctions between strategic and tactical forces and operations have become anachronistic and artificial in the new heyday of globe-girdling, multipurpose US airpower [see p. 26]. They also appear to be compatible with reorganization proposals, some quite bold, that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill A. McPeak and/or Air Force Secretary Donald B. Rice have already put into play.

It has been evident for some time that the case against strategic/tactical terminology and subdivisions has caught on in four-star country. General McPeak said as much early this year at an Air Force Association symposium in Florida.

“The difference between strategic and tactical has become very fuzzy, and the problem is that this gets in our way when we start thinking about how to employ airpower, ” the Chief of Staff declared.

Gen. John M. “Mike” Loh, commander of Tactical Air Command, struck the same theme not long ago at a session with defense writers in Washington. “There are strategic sets of targets and strategic levels of warfare, and there are tactical sets of targets and tactical levels of warfare,” said General Loh, “but when you use ‘strategic’ or ‘tactical’ to distinguish between missions or between aircraft types, it’s improper.”

He noted, for example, that F-15Es categorized as tactical aircraft struck strategic targets during the war against Iraq while B-52s stereotyped as strategic aircraft were used to bomb tactical targets, such as Iraqi Republican Guard positions, in the Kuwait theater of operations.

B-52s bombed tactical targets during the Vietnam War too, and the Air Force sent F-105s and other so-called tactical aircraft against strategic targets around Hanoi.

“So the distinction between tactical and strategic has become very blurred, and we need to keep that in mind as we look at the whole range of how we organize the Air Force,” General Loh declared.

The Air Force’s reorganization plan resulting from that examination is partly out in public and should become obvious in all its dimensions very soon. The plan’s initial phase is already being implemented along lines proposed by Secretary Rice or General McPeak.

Central to the plan are big changes in the composition and command structures of air wings, keystones of USAF’s combat capability. New “composite wings” combining different kinds of airplanes for a wide variety of missions–strategic and/or tactical as traditionally defined–are central to General McPeak’s initial proposals for remodeling the Air Force.

One such wing, called an “air intervention wing,” is being formed at Mountain Home AF8, Idaho. It will be commanded by a brigadier general and will combine air combat and attack fighters, tankers, reconnaissance aircraft, AWACS planes and B-52 bombers, and perhaps, in due course, other types of planes.

The B-52s will be organic to the wing even though they will continue to operate from a SAC base after the wing is formed. The problem with basing them at Mountain Home right off is budgetary and has nothing to do with any intransigence on SAC’s part about giving them up, Air Force officials maintain. The bombers will need special facilities at Mountain Home, and the Air Force has yet to come up with enough military construction money to build them.

USAF’s “new look at airpower” showed that strategic and tactical considerations are often one and the same and “is the reason why we’ll have fighters and bombers in this composite wing,” said General Loh.

The TAC Commander was asked whether the Air Force’s new emphasis on intermingling strategic and tactical aircraft and missions in discrete units foreshadows the end of SAC and TAC as major commands. “We don’t have anything specific in mind right now,” he replied. “We’re still in the investigative stage, looking at the whole range of how we’re organized, at the entire command structure of the Air Force.”

General McPeak’s remarks at the AFA symposium early this year provided historical perspective on the question. The Chief of Staff recalled that “there was a big controversy after the Air Force was formed in the late 1940s about whether we ought to have a Tactical Air Command and a Strategic Air Command and other subdivisions categorizing airpower.” Some Air Force leaders “were bitterly against any breakdown of that kind,” he said. “Their argument was that we had spent years trying to convince the Army that airpower was an indivisible entity and that the minute we got it to ourselves, we wanted to start dividing it up again into little compartments.”

He continued, “It seems to me it was right that we did [subdivide the Air Force) at the time. In the beginning, it was a rather straightforward proposition because Strategic Air Command supported the long-range nuclear deterrent and Tactical Air Command supported the airpower needs of the theater commander.

“Those distinctions have gotten fuzzier over the years. It is no longer the case that one [command) is nuclear and the other conventional. Tactical forces have been nuclear-capable for many years. SAC has not only conventional capabilities but also some aircraft that are dedicated to the conventional role and [that) no longer have a connection with the SIOP [Single Integrated Operational Plan).”

General McPeak also made the point that differences in range and payload once signified whether a plane was strategic or tactical but mean nothing nowadays. He noted that an F-15E can carry a bigger payload a greater distance without refueling than World War II strategic bombers could and that aerial refueling enabled eighteen squadrons of Air Force air-to-air and ground-attack fighters to fly nonstop from the US to the Gulf region just as expeditiously as did B-52 strategic bombers.

The number of engines on a plane marked it as strategic or tactical in bygone days but not now. General McPeak observed that “anything with two engines or less” was once considered tactical but that this has not been the case for some time. SAC flies twin-engine and single-engine reconnaissance planes, and TAC flies four-engine radar-picket and command-post planes, he reminded his audience.

Strategic and tactical have become “relative concepts” in describing warfare. “One man’s strategic is another man’s tactical,” he said. “For us, invading Panama was tactical. For Noriega, it was strategic.”

The Chief of Staff asserted, “So I don’t know what the division is between tactical and strategic. It seems to me the distinctions never made much sense and are less relevant today.”

He claimed that rapid-deployment, mixed-aircraft wings make sense for USAF at a time of “two trends that I can identify: the merging of strategic and tactical missions [and] the move from a garrison Air Force with a garrison mentality to an expeditionary Air Force with an expeditionary mentality–one that moves quickly from a CONUS location to a forward position ready to fight.”

The Chief of Staff was asked at the AFA symposium whether reorganizing the Air Force around nuclear and conventional missions and commands might coincide with a unification of Air Force and Navy nuclear operations.

“Yes,” he replied. He elaborated that such a joint-service arrangement could result from the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s reexamination of the Unified Command Plan, “the document that specifies how the command and control arrangements work for joint activities of all kinds, including the nuclear deterrent force.”

He emphasized that all this would have no bearing on the Air Force’s plans for nonnuclear B-52s. Those bombers, he said, “are more like tactical assets, if we could only break our mental block about tactical and strategic, and it’s conceivable that, at some point, they would move over and become part of Tactical Air Command or some other successor command with a different name.”

Indications of major structural changes in store throughout US military commands, including those of the Air Force, surfaced in the months following General McPeak’s symposium remarks. Four new unified US commands seemed likely: Strategic Command, Atlantic Command, Pacific Command, and Contingency Command. The joint strategic command (probably to be known as “STRATCOM”) would enfold Air Force intercontinental ballistic missiles and Navy submarine-launched ballistic missile units. There was even speculation that the Air Force component of such a joint command will be a “strategic rocket command” carved out of SAC. One knowledgeable Air Force officer said flatly near the end of summer that “SAC and TAC are gone.”

A month or so ago, General McPeak unveiled his initial plans for composite wings. The first such wing to blend tactical and strategic missions and assets would be the one at Mountain Home AFB. Shortly thereafter, General Loh addressed the question of how B-52s now belonging to SAC will fit into that wing to be run by TAC.

The TAC Commander noted that the wing is designed for “air intervention” overseas and that its B-52s, like all its planes, will come under the operational control of the theater commander in chief once it arrives. This is the way things worked in the Persian Gulf War, for example, with US Central Command’s Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and his air boss, Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, Jr., controlling all US air units and assets in the theater.

Things will be different when the wing is at Mountain Home. TAC will have operational control of it and will own its aircraft, including the B-52s, General Loh explained.

He took note of a roughly comparable command setup for the new composite 4th Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, N. C. That wing combines a former TAC wing of F-15Es and a former SAC wing of KC-10s, both of which were based at Seymour Johnson, and dispenses with their “tactical fighter” and “aerial refueling” designations.

General Loh left no doubt as to which major command owns the 4th Wing. “It is a TAC wing with both fighters and tankers,” he asserted. “They train together to deploy together.” As a result, the wing’s fighters and tankers “will be able to get to anywhere in the world faster and to function more efficiently on arrival.”

A different sort of composite wing, paired tightly with the Army, is in the offing for Pope AFB near Fort Bragg, N. C., home of the 82d Airborne Division. TAC plans to base A-10 close-support aircraft at Pope “to work more closely” with the 82d and with other units of its parent 18th Airborne Corps.

“I hope to be able to bring additional types of airplanes to that wing as well,” General Loh added. The goal: “A quick reaction operation, so that when [the airborne troops] deploy, we can deploy with them and provide immediate offensive air support–close air support.”

The new wing at Seymour Johnson and the one planned for Pope are much narrower in scope than the composite wing now taking shape at Mountain Home AFB. General Loh called that one “our first major composite wing” and said it will have “F-15s for air superiority, multirole F-16s, F-15Es for long-range interdiction, B-52s for long-range strike, AWACS aircraft, and some tanker aircraft.”

He continued, “With that kind of package, when a crisis arises we will be able to deploy immediately with a whole spectrum of capabilities, including mission planning and command and control arrangements, and ready to fight on arrival.”

At this writing, there apparently are no plans to include F-117 Stealth fighters in the Mountain Home wing. This could change, although prospects are highly speculative. F-117s would almost certainly work closely with composite intervention wings even if they are not organic to them. The stealthy “black jets” showed in the Gulf War that they are tailor-made for the kinds of missions that those wings would likely be called on to perform.

F-117s and B-52s formed a powerful partnership on at least one occasion in that war.

From the start of operations around the Gulf, allied air commanders had their eyes on a vast expanse of Iraqi military warehouses and maintenance facilities–mostly for Scud missiles and main battle tanks–at Taji, just north of Baghdad. The vital area was heavily defended by surface-to-air missiles.

“We wanted to attack Taji,” General Horner later recalled, “but its size and defenses just didn’t justify the exposure of airplanes carrying one or two bombs, because they’d take out [only] one or two buildings. So we had to send the B-52s against it.”

Unlike the fighters, the B-52s carried enough bombs to devastate the sprawling Taji complex in fairly short order, but the bombers were more vulnerable to fire from the formidable arrays of SAMs. Those SAMs had to go. General Horner called in the F-117s. Throughout one night, the stealthy attack jets struck every SA-2, SA-3, and SA-6 site positioned to defend Taji, opening the way for highly successful B-52 attacks that followed.

Missions deep into Iraq were the exception for the B-52s. They flew far more “tactical” sorties near the front.

Lt. Gen. Michael A. Nelson, Air Force deputy chief of staff for Plans and Operations, observed that the B-52s “in some cases did very close-in bombing–detonating land mines, helping the Army build corridors to get through [front-line] defenses”–and that this showed how versatile big bombers can be.

Incorporating B-52s in the intervention wing at Mountain Home makes the same point. “It influences people to think differently about big bombers and what we can do with them,” General Nelson declared. “The point is, don’t think of them as being nuclear bombers only; think of them as being a flexible capability.”

Flexibility is the name of the game these days for Air Force planners and decision-makers amid dwindling forces and tight budgets in a rapidly changing world. “First we determine what it is we need to do, then we look at all the capabilities available to us for doing it and use those that are the most helpful,” General Nelson said. “We need to keep our options open and not get in a position where we fence off any capability because of doctrine or anything else.”

This philosophy is reflected in the Air Force’s approach to getting the most out of all big bombers, not just its B-52s. It envisions dual-role responsibilities for the B-1B and the B-2A: deterring or waging nuclear and conventional warfare. Both bombers figure in plans for the expeditionary air force now emerging.

At least some B-1Bs will be modified for conventional combat in the fairly near future. The Air Force maintained that B-1Bs were not needed in the Gulf War and could not have been used because all were armed exclusively for the SIOP mission. However, the Air Force said it had planned all along to equip the planes to carry conventional bombs, and it is now moving to do so.

“It’s really a matter of training to get the B-1B into the conventional business, and it takes a while to do that,” General McPeak said. He explained that the training involves such procedures as “putting the bombs on the pylons,” practicing “dropping them off to make sure that they don’t bang on the side of the airplane,” and charting their trajectories in order to “establish ballistic tables for the aircrews to use in figuring their offset aimpoints.”

Air Force officials emphasize that there is no nuclear connection between the composite wing being formed at Mountain Home AFS and the B-52s destined to be part of it. Those bombers will be “only the B-52Gs that have only a conventional role and [that] are not part of any nuclear plans,” General Loh explained.

At some point, the Air Force may combine elements of TAC and SAC in a new composite command just as it is combining their airplanes in new composite wings. Teamwork between the commands is in fashion.

“With SAC and TAC working together, we intend to employ conventional B-52s more regularly in our day-to-day training and in our deployment plans,” the TAC Commander declared.

As it became increasingly apparent that the Air Force reorganization meant big changes for SAC and TAC, its meaning for Military Airlift Command, which does business with both, also began to emerge. MAC seems secure as steward of intercontinental airlift, but it may lose its hold on intratheater airlift operations overseas.

At the AFA symposium early this year, General McPeak was asked about MAC’s fate in light of the possibility that the Air Force would be reorganized along lines other than strategic and tactical.

The Chief of Staff praised MAC’s performance prior to and during the Gulf War as “remarkable” and said it had been possible “only because airlift is commanded and controlled in the way it is now, as a functional area with one guy in charge.” He predicted that intercontinental aircraft–the C-5s and the

C-141s–would always be part of Military Airlift Command or something like it and declared that “the airlift mission is an essential one and is properly organized now for the most part, so I don’t see any change in that general approach.”

He indicated, though, that the intratheater (tactical) part of the airlift mission is ripe for change. The Air Force’s new look at “the way we conceive of missions” may result in “an evolution of the way we handle our overseas [airlift] aircraft,” said the Chief of Staff.