Saturday, October 20, 2007

Who to blame for the USAF wayward nuke scandal

The official Strategic Air Command seal up until its untimely demise

Heads will be rolling in the Air Force for the August cross-country flight of a B-52 loaded with live nuclear weapons. And well they should. But the genesis of this colossal cock-up began in the early 1990s with then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak.

Prior to that time, the USAF's nuclear weapons arsenal was under the control of Strategic Air Command (SAC), a notoriously unforgiving organization when it came to deviation from established procedures. So unforgiving, in fact, that one SAC wit came up with the following parody of the official SAC shield:

And that was as it should be for the men and women responsible for a huge chunk of the nation's nuclear weapons.

But all that changed in the early '90s when Gen. Merrill McPeak took over the reins as Chief of Staff of the USAF. McPeak, a fighter pilot from what was then known as Tactical Air Command (TAC), arbitrarily decided to merge SAC and TAC to form the new Air Combat Command (ACC).

To clear up the question of who was now in charge, the former TAC headquarters at Langley AFB in Virginia became the new ACC HQ. The former SAC HQ was located at Offutt AFB in Nebraska. McPeak also took the opportunity to take away SAC's air refueling tankers and give them to Military Airlift Command (MAC), and redesignate MAC as Air Mobility Command (AMC).

TAC was responsible for tactical fighter aircraft, and the culture there was, shall we say, a bit more free-wheeling than that of SAC. But not in any bad way or to the detriment of the TAC mission. It was simply a by-product of the flexibility and adaptability to change required of an organization whose wartime mission required deploying to forward locations to fly and fight, compared with one whose wartime mission generally was confined to flying long-range missions from home station, and quite likely not returning due to the inconveniences of Armageddon.

While I can't speak authoritatively on how SAC culture gradually changed, and possibly softened over time after being combined with TAC culture, it doesn't take a behavioral scientist to know that such change is inevitable.

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