SAC’s Achilles Heel

April 1, 1956
Pinecastle AFB, Fla. Dawn is breaking as your B-47 leaves the runway. As the airplane levels off upstairs, you get out of your parachute harness, hook on an oxygen bottle, and crawl to the bombardier-navigator’s post in the nose.

1st Lt. Glenn F. Morgan, Jr., gestures at the radar scope. The instrument is the main element of the airplane’s “K-system”—the “magic black box” that makes it possible bomb individual buildings accurately from above 40,000 feet through darkness or clouds. Both of yon fasten your oxygen masks so that you can talk on the intercom.

The thirty-two-year-old bombardier-navigator-radar operator — misnamed an “observer”—explains that the B-47 is turning to start its visual bombing run. From the pre-flight briefings, you know that this seven-and-one-half hour training mission simulates an actual nuclear attack on an enemy target thousands of miles across the world.

That includes flying a precision point-to-point course back and forth over the Southeastern states navigating by the stars; a rendezvous with a tanker plane for in-flight refueling; actual visual bomb drops of 500-pound conventional bombs to make sure the release mechanism works; and—the climax—the radar bomb run on the main target.

At lunch the day before, Col. Mike McCoy introduced you to the bomber crew. He told you that it cost the government $616,000 to qualify one B-47 pilot. You believe it.

Capt. Edward J. Albers, 34, the co-pilot saw extensive World War II service, like Morgan. Both were recalled when the Korean war broke out. The aircraft commander, Capt. John W. Rosenbalm, 27, had served in the Air Force continuously since becoming an air cadet after the war. A typical B-47 crew has an average age just over thirty, each is married and has a child.

You wonder what keeps the three top-flight men—still Reservists without assurance of an Air Force career—on the job. Then you recall what General LeMay had said about his “dedicated” people.

Rosenbalm asks if you’d like to fly the airplane and gingerly you take Albers’s seat. The bomber handles like your Buick. Then comes the approach to the target. Not Moscow, but Charlotte, N. C., where there is a radar bomb-scoring squadron, able to tell just where the B-47’s, load would land.

Morgan starts his bomb run, eyes glued to the radar scope. Countless hours of study of aerial photographs, he hopes, will enable him to pick out the obscure target through the clouds.

Morgan’s major problem is target identification. His target is unidentifiable on the scope, so he aims for some oil tanks a known distance away. He sets the “black box” for such “offset” bombing and adjusts for wind, speed, altitude, etc. The electronic brain should do the rest.

But the “black box” fails. Only one of the many instruments goes out—the true speed indicator—but it is enough. Morgan squeezes past you and checks his equipment. Finally he fixes it. But it is too late. The mission is an “abort.”

Some green airman mechanic had failed to adjust a set-screw properly and an overworked sergeant-supervisor had missed it. So the combined skills and efforts of the men who built the plane and base, planned the mission, readied the plane for flight, and then flew it well, all came to naught.

You begin to appreciate what had been stressed so strongly during the briefings here and at SAC Headquarters in Omaha—the grave shortage of skilled mechanics and the exceptionally high turnover of newly trained technicians. Too many B-47s are temporarily out of operation each day because of mechanical difficulties. Too many training missions cannot be completed satisfactory because something goes wrong in the air.

What was it General LeMay had said?

“The situation is critical and is our chief worry today. We still can carry out our mission, but at a high cost in efficiency and effort.”

Already, the manpower problem has seriously lowered the combat readiness of the Air Force’s long-range nuclear striking arm. It represents an ominous weakness in the nation’s defenses today. For if one small but vital element of SAC’s vast, complex, fighting machine breaks down, the end result could be catastrophic.

For the most part, SAC combat crews today still are experienced and fully qualified to do their job. But the experience and skill level among SAC maintenance crews is low. Ninetv-one percent of all SAC enlisted airmen have been in the Command less than four years. One day, a wing at one base had nearly a third of its B-47 s out of service due to K-system maintenance because of a lack of skilled technicians.

This is terribly costly both in dollars and in efficiency. SAC represents a tremendous investment—$8 billion worth of planes, bases, and other property alone. It costs $1 billion a year to operate, plus several additional billions for new planes and bases. The nation has $72.4 million dollars invested in each B-47 air division—counting trained personnel, planes, bases, and equipment.

During the last fiscal year, 1,900 SAC officers and 35,800 airmen left the service. SAC figures it had $777 million invested in them. That represents the cost of replacing them in their various specialties, including recruiting, training, paying, and supporting new people to bring them to the proper skill levels to do their jobs.

Foreseeing this loss, the Air Force last year had to start pumping in new people to replace them. The Air Training Command provided SAC with 12,000 basic airmen at a cost of nearly $20 million, 12,600 apprentice mechanics at a cost of $31.5 million, and 4,500 technicians, returned to schools for advanced training at a cost of $24 million.

In addition, SAC itself had to conduct on-the-job training to up-grade 67,000 airmen to fill the vacant specialties. SAC estimates that this cost $52 million, because scarce supervisors and skilled technicians had to be pulled away from their regular work to train them, and the trainees were unproductive during this period.

The initial cost last year to start replacing the 35,800 sergeants and airmen who left the service during that period, therefore, totaled an additional $127 million.

But the money aspect is relatively unimportant, as a detailed comparison of four B-47 wings shows. It was made to determine the precise effect of inadequately trained ground crews on the operational capability of combat units. All four were “combat-ready,” and 100 percent manned.

Two of the wings were SAC’s best-staffed units, being eighty-five percent “effectively manned” in the airmen technical skills. The other two were at the bottom, from a ground-crew standpoint, being only sixty-six percent effectively manned in “hardcore” skills.

The poorest-manned units were able to keep their B-47s in the air only eighty percent of the time they were supposed to. They completed eighty-seven percent of their training missions, only seventy-five percent of them satisfactorily.

On the other hand, the two best-manned units flew ninety-nine percent of their prescribed flying hours, completed ninety-eight percent of their training minimums, and ninety-one percent of these were acceptable to LeMay’s rigid standards.

It cost the two poorest-manned wings $468 per flying hour to operate, and the two best, $415.

But the real payoff came in the vital quarterly “Unit Simulated Combat Mission.” The two poorest-manned wings were twenty percent less effective in this big test of combat capability than the two units with the best ground crews.

“In other words,” said a SAC officer “under wartime conditions scratch twenty percent of the target assigned to the two wings with the less skilled ground crews.”

Why is the Air Force so pressed by the lack of a relatively small number of technicians? Take the “black box,” for example. In the first place, it takes a man with a fairly high IQ to be accepted for the K-system basic training school. Yet the Air Force has to take all sorts. It takes about two years of school and on-the-job training to advance such a man from apprentice to mechanic rating. During their fourth year, after advanced schooling, some gain the skill for upgrading to technician level and promotion to staff sergeant. By the end of the four-year enlistment, the Air Force will have spent $22,500 on such a mechanic in training, pay, and allowances. It will have received eighteen months’ productive service from him, and given him two-and-one-half years of highly marketable training.

If he reenlists, it costs the government $20,500 only for his pay and other maintenance for the next four years, and SAC gets full value received—ninety-two percent of his time in productive effort.

But only twenty percent of the “black box” men are signing up for a second enlistment.

Why do they leave?

An airman first class says he wants to go back to college when his four year enlistment expires.

An airman second class says he plans to marry and get an engineering degree under the GI Bill.

Service newspapers are full of ads reading, “Leaving the service? See us.”

Turnover in other key aircraft maintenance fields is as critical as among men servicing the black boxes. Lt. Col. Edwin J. Caudill, 813th Air Division personnel director, is concerned about his mechanics. His questionnaires show that 12.1 of 306 plane mechanics are eligible for discharge in June and July and only sixteen say they will reenlist.

Pinecastle AFB has only sixty percent of its authorized instrument maintenance men. By mid-April, this will drop to fifty percent. Of an authorized fourteen men to maintain its IBM machines, a vital factor in mission planning, only ten are assigned and but three of these are “effectives.” Only one out of the four comptometer repairmen allowed is “on board.”

The Air Force makes a strong effort to sell airmen on reenlisting. All airmen are interviewed on their future plans. Armed with full data about the cost of living, wage scales, etc., in the airman’s home town, the interviewing officer stresses the advantages of an Air Force career.

Fifty to sixty percent of those who leave say they are going into industry. Some have a job already lined up. Ten percent declare they are quitting for “family reasons,” and the rest say they are going back to school.

All the evidence indicates these factors are pulling airmen back into civilian life just as they become most valuable to SAC:

  • Competition from industry.
  • The GI education bill.
  • Housing shortages at most bases.
  • Periodic movement of servicemen, interfering with family life.
  • General dislike of military service.
  • The generally low esteem and prestige accorded an enlisted career by the American public.

SAC has a broad plan of action designed to cope with the problem. Some proposals require congressional or top Pentagon action.

One phase cans for less complicated, easier to maintain equipment. “We can get geniuses to design them but can’t have an Air Force of geniuses to service them,” said a SAC officer.

Another proposal is to let the Air Force raise its recruiting standards. Department of Defense regulations now force it to take a proportionate share of lower IQ men. SAC says many of the men it receives are “untrainable.”

Other recommendations are aimed at making life in SAC more attractive. Last year’s pay raise and increase in reenlistment allowance helped, boosting the SAC reenlistment rate from twenty-six to thirty-five percent.

But the trouble is that the percentage varies widely in various specialties. Sixty percent of SAC cooks are signing up for another term when their enlistments expire, while only ten percent of the Command’s skilled radarmen are reenlisting!

“By civilian standards we are overpaying some people and underpaying others,” said a SAC personnel officer. “Surveys show that the wage scale for cooks on the outside is $1.80 an hour or less, while an electronics supervisor gets $2.60 per hour.

“But the top pay of an Air Force cook and an Air Force electronics supervisor, both master sergeants, is the same-$2.35 an hour based on a forty-hour week. We have 239 job specialties and only seven pay grades.”

The plan, not yet in final form, would apply to officers as well as airmen. Personnel officers stressed that SAC aircraft commanders make only $500 to $700 a month, while a commercial airline pilot makes from $15,000 to $20,000 a year-more than SAC’s top generals.

Other proposals urged to improve career attractiveness include:

  • More family and military housing.
  • Medical care for all dependents.
  • Expansion of commissaries and BXs, and cancellation of the present restrictions on the goods they can carry and prices charged.
  • Amendment of the GI educational act, so that men who remain in service can go to school in off-duty hours at government expense.
  • Correction of a present situation that is causing much bitterness among many airmen. Officers receive a subsistence allowance on a monthly basis, enlisted men on a daily basis. When individuals or units leave their permanent base on temporary duty at schools or other stations-and this is frequent in SAC-the airmen lose their allowance and the officers don’t.
  • Additional allowance to ease rough spots, such as extension of quarters allowances for airmen with dependents, per diem payments while on maneuvers, and raising rental and subsistence allowances in high-cost-of-living areas.

Much has been done during recent years to make life more attractive to servicemen and to boost reenlistment rates. Congress has raised pay and allowances. The Defense Department and Air Force Headquarters have taken other action. General LeMay has established hobby shops, designed new and more livable barracks, set up SAC flying clubs and dependents’ assistance programs, and taken many other morale-building moves.

All these things help. But SAC needs assistance to solve its critical manpower problem. It must have sympathetic and prompt attention to its proposals by top-level Pentagon officials and Congress. And public understanding and support.

For too much rides on SAC’s Combat readiness in the world today to let correctible weaknesses continue. Survival is everyone’s business.

The author, John G. Norris, is a staff reporter for the Washington, D.C., Post & Times Herald. The above material, which has been adapted by the author for this magazine, appeared originally as a four-part series in Mr. Norris.’s paper March 11-14. Our use of the material is with special permission of the paper.—The Editors.