SAC Reunion

By General C. Robert Kehler | Offutt AFB. Neb. | June 2, 2012

General Kehler: Thanks, Jim. Jim has joked a couple of times today that he missed a couple of meetings and wound up being the speaker. I missed a meeting as well, and wound up being the lunch speaker. It's a pleasure for me to be here today.

Let me just pause for a moment and make a few acknowledgements of my own because there are a number of community leaders as well. I see some others in the audience. Thanks for being such great partners. And one thing, as I mentioned yesterday at a smaller group, one thing that you can be certain has remained the same in Omaha, Nebraska in the last 20 years is the great support we get out of our community here. It is a partnership and one that has been forged with a great deal of care on both sides since really the military first came to Omaha, Nebraska in the year 1868. So this military and Omaha grew up together and that relationship still endures today.

I would also notice that we have an advisory group in addition to the STRATCOM Consultation Committee. We have a Strategic Advisory Group that advises me, advised my predecessors, with a great range of issues and problems that we have. Of course I need to acknowledge that General (Retired) Larry Welch, who was not only a former Commander of SAC and a former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, but former head of the Strategic Advisory Group is here with his wife Eunice, so thank you for being here as well. [Applause].

On the occasion of her fifth birthday a young girl convinced her parents to take her to Disney World because she had always thought that that would be an exciting thing to do. So they go to Disney World. As they're walking through the park they get to the Space Mountain ride. If you've ever been to Disney World and you've been to the space Mountain ride, there are caution and danger signs everywhere around that ride. If you have a heart condition you have to be careful about going, if you're afraid of heights, if you get vertigo. The signs are really pretty intimidating as you approach the front of the line.

As they approached the front of the line her father said, "Now Honey, are you sure you want to do this?" She said, "Yes, absolutely." He said, "Are you positive?" "Yes, absolutely."

Sure enough, they get on the ride, she loves it. She loved it so much that she decides they'll go ride it again, and they do.

On her sixth birthday she convinces her family to take them back again. They get to the Space Mountain ride. They go through the same routine. The father says, "Are you sure you want to ride?" "Yes, I do." "Are you positive?" "Yes." They go through, she loves it, they ride it twice.

On her seventh birthday they go back. When they get to the front of the line the young girl grabs hold of the crowd control barrier and will not let go. Her father says, "What's wrong? Last year you liked it. The year before you liked it." She said, "This year I can read." [Laughter].

As it turns out, this year I can read. I have a speech here which has been very carefully prepared, I'm sure. I bet it's marvelous. And I don't intend to use it. [Laughter]. That's for a couple of reasons. I will use a piece of it, but what I really want to do is just take a couple of minutes and remind all of you who have been part of Strategic Air Command at many many different levels for a very long time what a phenomenal job you did.

I feel like a part of the SAC team, in fact I was in SAC one way or another from 1975 at one time or another, through really its stand-down in 1992. I know from first-hand experience what you all did.

I was able to be raised, if you will, on the dedication and professionalism that were hallmarks of that command. Some of those attributes I believe we walked away from, and found much to our disappointment why it was that you all were so dedicated in that regard.

We promise you we won't do that again. There are a number of things that I think we've put back in place that would be familiar to just about everyone in this audience, certainly as you recall and we were listening to some wonderful war stories yesterday that actually put chills down my back. Not chills of emotion as much as they were chills that I was afraid that in the next couple of minutes the SAC IG was going to step out of an airplane and force me to go into some kind of a stand-eval ride and all the emotion that that conjures up. Why was that? That was because when SAC started there was no rule book about how to provide nuclear deterrence. There was no rule book about how you went about being stewards of the most awesome and compelling weapons that have ever been devised by man. It took all of you to figure out how to do that, and it took all of you to bring to closure one of the nation's largest and longest continuous conflicts called the Cold War.

SAC's proud legacy isn't just in the preparation to fight a war that we never had to fight, and thank heaven for it. The outcome was what we wanted. We wanted a victory in the Cold War. We did not want to have to fight that war had it ever turned from a Cold War to a "hot" war and we knew the consequences of why we didn't want that war to be fought. Yet I would completely agree with the comments that were made this morning, the Cold War was won -- it didn't just end. It was won. I think that story hasn't been told yet. Your story hasn't been told yet about the tremendous sacrifices and the tremendous honor and dedication and commitment that you all brought to that wonderful command.

When minimum interval takeoffs were invented no one had done those sorts of things before. The screen was showing B-29s taking off probably from [Kenyon], I didn't have a chance to look at it very closely. Probably so. And B-17s, also, if you watch some of the footage of B-17s in Europe in World War II, they took off pretty close together. They had to do that because they had to assemble large raids and they were burning gas up there waiting for everybody to get off the ground and get on their way to the target.

So some of those concepts existed. But the notion that you would take fully armed nuclear bombers and fully loaded supporting tankers and command and control aircraft and position them 24 hours a day 365 days a year in such a way that they could be off the ground and on the way to their targets within minutes was a phenomenal achievement.

The fact that we could put Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in siloes and put them on continuous alert is a phenomenal achievement. Those achievements echo through the force that we have today in U.S. Strategic Command.

We saw from you unprecedented vision, unprecedented innovation, unprecedented leadership. We saw a deep commitment to the principles of deterrence. What we accept today as a given in the sense of deterrence you developed and invented. What we saw was an exhaustive analysis of the threat and not just the skill to defeat it but the will to defeat it which in that context of deterrence is of equal important.

We saw leaders who set and enforced the standards of excellence and accountability.

There are some wonderful fairly new books out about Curtis LeMay. Many people don't really know that while he was permanently scowling, that was because he had a medical condition. People joked when they said why isn't he smiling? People say, he is smiling, when you look at his picture. The fact was, he was smiling. That was him. But boy, it sure helped. When you think about the image that he had to portray and the way that SAC had to go about its job from the highest leadership level on down, then you begin to remember why it is that the discipline associated with these kinds of weapons is so high and that demand continues to exist today.

America, I think, was fortunate to have all of this. I think America was fortunate to have all of you when we needed you the most.

You gave us rapid incorporation of cutting edge technologies. You put that into a ready and trained force. The football analogy is forever in a three point stance, waiting for somebody to start the play. While on the practice field people can see what your capabilities are. It was a tremendous achievement.

You instilled a perception of credible deterrence in the minds of our adversary and that's because you had flexible and resilient combinations of platforms and forces and command and control and infrastructure and industry. Supported by and really brought into life by the most important element of all of that, which was you, the officers, the enlisted force, the leadership of Strategic Air Command.

You forged a warrior spirit that enshrined perfection as the standard. And by the way, we use those words today. I just used them in a Council on Foreign Relations speech that I gave in Washington two days ago where I reminded everyone present that regarding nuclear weapons there is only one standard -- perfection. It's the only standard we can have. It is what our country demands of us, and it is certainly what the world expects of us.

You forged a warrior spirit. You made sure that your perseverance seemed to be indomitable and you established a set of bars for us that remain the highest, the bars against which we can aspire.

You gave us a legacy where there was never what we feared the most which was a nuclear exchange, particularly one with the Soviet Union. That's because no one more than all of you in SAC knew what the consequences of such an exchange would have been. Unthinkable for us, but deterred because we were ready to do just that if the need ever arose.

What you provided to the President of the United States was options, a way for him to respond to crises and a way for him to respond to conflict that also echoes through to this day in U.S. Strategic Command.

You gave us the courage and the capability to stand in places like Korea and the space race and the Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam. And stand, I believe we did. Today we continue to stand, but this time it's on your shoulders.

So your legacy for excellence lives on in United States Strategic Command today. What was your number one priority, which was to deter strategic attack with a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent remains our number one priority.

I tell visitors who come to visit us, this is not your father's Strategic Command. This is certainly not your father's Strategic Air Command. Sometimes we joke, if you listen carefully, that whirring noise. That's Curtis LeMay spinning in his grave -- [Laughter] -- about what has happened to his command, some would say. But I don't think that's true at all. I think he might be whirring in his grave, but if he is he's probably wondering why Kehler can't go faster to get this command oriented to where it needs to be against today's threat. Because I think, although I never met him personally, what I know about him is he believed that you fight the war you have today, prepare for the one you might have tomorrow, and you forget the one you had yesterday. Except for where it gives you the guidance on how to go forward. I think that's something that we have taken forward in U.S. Strategic Command today. It is something that we can be proud of in our own way, based upon the magnificent things that you gave us to build on.

Things are different today. We often say around Strategic Command that we have never ever seen before an operating environment like we have today. It is different in terms of time and distance and boundaries and symmetry which is an interesting word that we use today to mean the threats that we face are not like the threats that maybe would be familiar to those of us who have worried about typical threats over the years. Cyberspace, for example, is one of those areas where today we are faced with new threats. We're faced with new threats perhaps in space as well, and we're trying to deal with those.

There's an old saying that you all sometimes use, may you live in interesting times. Well, today's Strategic Command does the same thing that SAC did. We're not paid to live in interesting times, we're paid to deal with interesting times, and that's certainly the focus that we have today.

I think General LeMay today would recognize that success breeds success. And while the characteristics of our operating environment have changed, as I've said, the nature of war as an ugly business between human beings for political purposes has not really changed. Certainly the principles of deterrence have not changed as well. We know that deterrence works. We know that it has to be tailored to an adversary and the circumstances. When it is, we know that it works. We know that deterrence today is about more than one weapon system, no matter how powerful. It is about our nuclear deterrent, but it is not exclusively about our nuclear deterrent today. All of the tools in today's Strategic Command must be brought together to provide deterrence of our enemies and assurance to our allies. It's what all of us can bring together as a whole.

We also know that achieving success in the face of a determined and capable opposition requires a greater degree of joint integration than ever before. In fact I think interoperability which is something that's familiar to everybody in this room no matter how far back you go, and integration are two familiar words. What I think is true today, though, in today's joint force is not just those two words, but interdependence. We've learned this now from ten years of combat where your sons and daughters, in some cases your grandsons and granddaughters have performed spectacularly. As you heard Command Sergeant Major Alston say yesterday, today we have the most remarkable young men and women in our armed forces and in U.S. Strategic Command that we have ever had. The most dedicated, professional, bravest people that you would be proud of if you were too see them in action every day.

We're not without our problems today. Some of those are very difficult. What I would remind all of us about is that we still have young American men and women in harm's way today and will have until we finally come out of Afghanistan in the next several years as is being planned today.

I would also remind you that ten years of war has resulted in a new group of veterans that we must treat well as they return. And a new group of wounded warriors who have survived horrific wounds on the battlefield today that would not have been survivable before. But now when they come home are faced with new challenges as double or triple or quadruple amputees, with other problems that are not visible like blast trauma that might not be visible but is affecting them nonetheless.

So your job is not over. You handed to us the way forward and the wherewithal to continue this tremendous legacy of deterrence and assurance as we go through the 21st Century, but we continue to need you. We continue to need your support and your help to this latest generation of wounded warriors and veterans who are returning from very difficult conflicts in very difficult parts of the world.

So I would close with one final thought. I'm going to issue my own challenge to you today. As we were working with General Smith and others in the planning of this reunion, and planning this around the dedication of that wonderful, wonderful memorial that I think is in a perfect place, Scott, wherever you are. I think that's a perfect place inside the museum to display the SAC memorial. I listened to the comments about the SAC Association and whether or not there's some view that its mission complete for an association like that.

What I would ask you is to think about that. Whether that really is mission complete. And whether there's a place in the future for a continuation of an activity like this that will get you together periodically, will allow you to continue to share your stories and your legacy with us as our youngsters come along and can benefit from your experiences and your mentoring.

So my challenges to you is to go forth and consider whether there is something that should endure that all of the talent, all of the expertise, all of the professional pride that came from Strategic Air Command, I believe would have a place in our service today. Certainly, as I said yesterday, the Air Force saw fit to stand up Air Force Global Strike Command which has the major command legacy of SAC. That's the direct descendant of SAC in an Air Force major command sense. And Jim Kowalski takes that responsibility very seriously. Someone yesterday, in fact one of the Chiefs, said I'm not sure where the flag went that was furled when SAC stood down. Jim and I looked at one another yesterday and said I know where it sent. It's in Jim Kowalski's headquarters. That's where it is. So there is a legacy here that you are connected to.

On the combatant command side, we are the descendants of SAC in U.S. Strategic Command. You've got a home both at Barksdale and in Omaha. And I would encourage you to consider whether there is some way that you can capitalize on those homes and look to how you might continue to serve in the future.

Thanks for everything you've done. I appreciate this legacy that I am the beneficiary today of the people who are sitting at these front tables and the hard work that they have done. And I recognize, like any commander does, that I am a timeshare kind of a guy. I am in that job for a short period of time, yet I see the benefit of every one of those portraits that hang in the hallway outside my office every single day.

I would make one final comment. Present company excluded, I think a lot of those portraits, those guys look older than us. [Laughter]. What I know from seeing the former commanders who are here, is there's hope after -- When I look in the mirror in the morning I know that if I just hand on as long as they have I'll look as good as they do.

Thanks very much.