Always At War

Always At War-Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command 1946-62 by Melvin G. Deaile (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland. 2018, 296 p)

The book, Always at War, covers the time of Strategic Air Command (SAC); from its post World War II inception in 1946 through the addition of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and its mission in the very early 1960s. These were the early decades of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union. In 1946, the United States was the sole nuclear power in the world; however, drastic post-war defense budget cuts and the natural tendency for society to seek peaceful pursuits after decades of two bloody world wars led to a general decline in military readiness.

SAC was the inheritor of the men, aircraft, and weapons (including nuclear bombs) used by the Army Air Force for the strategic bombing campaigns in both the European and Pacific theatres of WWII. After the establishment of an independent Air Force in 1947, leaders in SAC used this change to implement a culture of combat readiness many of them sought after seeing the blood price paid for unpreparedness at the American entry into WWII. Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, combined with the Soviet attainment of nuclear capability in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, rapidly propelled the development of SAC into America’s nuclear shield and sword. SAC’s distinctive “always at war” mentality carried it through to the ultimate accomplishment of its mission with the fall of its archenemy, the Soviet Union, in 1991.

An easy and quite enjoyable read, Always at War is also a serious academic work, one of six books in the Transforming War series by the Naval Institute Press. The author, a SAC veteran B-52 and B-2 pilot, comes at the subject from a highly sociological perspective. The author writes, “people make the technology work, and even if the technology is not working properly, people will make the mission work”; I find this highly unique and insightful.

The book has over twenty-five photographs, highly relevant to the thrust of the story. Each chapter opens with a poignant quote, but providing the date of the quote would help in fixing the sentiment expressed in the timeline. The book includes a detailed glossary and bibliography and an appearance by a legendary figure in aviation in a consulting role to SAC will probably surprise many readers.

Takeaways

The story of the development and success of SAC can be a template on how to organize and implement new, groundbreaking weapons technology. SAC’s outstanding success can be seen in several ways:

-First, its focus on readiness and deterrence ensured that it never had to use its primary weapons, nuclear bombs, and missile warheads, ever.

-Second, its ruthless culture of safety and control resulted in no inadvertent, accidental nuclear detonations despite literally tens of thousands of potential opportunities over four decades. The legacy of SAC continues in the perfect safety record of follow-on Air Force organizations that inherited SAC’s strategic nuclear mission.

SAC adeptly adapted to changing paradigms that affected how it accomplish its core mission. Changing politics and attitudes required withdrawal from North African bases in use since WW II. As the Soviet Union developed its own intercontinental nuclear capability, the need to shift physical control of nuclear munitions from the civilian Atomic Energy Agency to individual SAC bases challenged SAC, while preserving the absolute civilian control on the use of those munitions.

-Third, although well known for its rigid culture of control and intolerance of individual failure down to the lowest levels, SAC is an organization; a prototype of today’s high-tech mantra of “fail faster” culture. SAC’s development is evidence of this but then quick phase-out of the B-58 Hustler bomber aircraft when changing circumstances negated the mission they designed it for. SAC was inventive, pioneering air-to-air aircraft refueling, highly refined ground and airborne nuclear alert, and the development of the concept of strategic reconnaissance and the assets needed.

Finally, SAC also excelled at the perennial, notoriously underachieved military aspiration of “taking care of people”. It clearly rewarded superior performance and punished unsatisfactory performance, fighting to have the only “spot” promotion program in the Air Force. To recognize that the typical military “open bay’ barracks design of the 1940s and 50s was incompatible with the 24/7 operations tempo of SAC’s enlisted force, construction of two-person, semiprivate latrine barracks rooms were a top priority in funding, right along with the aircraft and munitions. Many of the recreational amenities seen on most Air Force bases, such as auto/hobby shops and rod and gun clubs, originated at SAC bases. 

Always At War is an outstanding blend of history, organizational development and transformation, and technological innovation.  

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