A Brief History of the USAF

On September 18, 1997, the United States Air Force (USAF) celebrated its 50th birthday. One-half century earlier, the National Security Act of 1947 created the USAF as a separate armed service. Appropriately enough, President Harry Truman had signed the legislation for this while aboard his "Sacred Cow," the C-54 presidential aircraft that served as the "Air Force One" of its day.

From Signal Corps to Air Corps

The official lineage of today's USAF began four decades earlier. On Aug 1, 1907, the US Army Signal Corps formed an Aeronautical Division. This action came only three years after the Wright Brothers flew the world's first powered airplane at Kitty Hawk. At first, however, the Aeronautical Division was mainly interested in balloons and dirigibles instead of heavier-than-air flying machines. The Army had already used manned balloons for aerial observation during the Civil War and Spanish American War in the 19th Century. The Aeronautical Division accepted delivery of its first airplane from the Wright Brothers in 1909. Under the leadership of brave pioneers such as Capt Benjamin D Foulois, a small band of early Army airmen experimented with various aircraft and formed an operational unit, the 1st Aero Squadron, in Dec 1913.

On July 18, 1914, as a result of Congressional legislation, the Army established the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps to improve its fledgling flying capabilities. Just a few weeks later, Europe plunged into the massive military struggle that became known as World War I. The Central Powers (primarily Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire) fought the Allied Powers (led by Britain, France, Italy, and Russia). By April 1917, when the United States entered the war on the side of the Allied Powers, each of the major combatants had developed aircraft industries far superior to that in the United States.

Despite optimistic plans and ample funding, the United States proved unable to catch up to the European nations in aviation technology. Responding to criticism of the American aircraft effort, President Woodrow Wilson created the Army Air Service and placed it directly under the War Department on May 24, 1918. By the time of the armistice in Nov 1918, the Air Service had grown to more than 19,000 officers and 178,000 enlisted men, while American industry had turned out 11,754 aircraft (mostly trainers like the JN-4 Jenny). The Air Service soon lost most of these people and planes in a rapid demobilization right after the war.

Although failing to deploy competitive combat aircraft, the United States had sent many fine airmen to Europe. Flying mostly French-built planes, they distinguished themselves both in allied units and as part of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) led by Gen John J Pershing. By the time Germany surrendered, BrigGen Billy Mitchell had honed many of the AEF's aero squadrons and groups into a formidable striking force. While the outcome of the Great War was decided primarily by horrible attrition on the ground and a strangling maritime blockade of Germany, air power had shown its potential for autonomous offensive operations as well as providing valuable support to surface forces. The United Kingdom had recognized the importance of air power by creating the Royal Air Force, independent of the British Army and Royal Navy, in April 1918.

Notwithstanding a bitter struggle by visionaries such as Billy Mitchell, the United States did not follow the British lead and create a separate air force. The Army Reorganization Act of 1920 made the Air Service a combatant arm of the Army, and the Air Corps Act of 1926 changed its name to the Air Corps on July 2 of that year. On March 1, 1935, General Headquarters Air Force (GHQ AF) assumed command of U S-based Air Corps tactical units, which previously had been parceled out to regional Army corps commands. Yet even after Germany, Japan, and Italy began to build up their armed forces, the Air Corps (as well as the rest of the Army) remained a small, peacetime establishment with only limited funds for growth or modernization.

Air Power Comes of Age in WWII

After Sept 1939, when Adolf Hitler launched World War II by invading Poland, the Air Corps began a steady growth from 26,000 personnel and fewer than 2,000 planes. On June 20, 1941, the Department of War created the Army Air Forces (AAF) as its aviation element and shortly thereafter made it co-equal to the Army Ground Forces. The Air Corps remained as one of the Army's combat arms, like the Infantry.

Expansion of the AAF accelerated after the surprise Japanese attack on Hawaii in Dec 1941 propelled the United States into the war. Under the leadership of Gen Henry H ("Hap") Arnold, the AAF oversaw mobilization of the nation's aviation industry and deployment of the largest air armada of all time. The AAF's inventory encompassed a wide range of training, transport, pursuit, attack, reconnaissance, and bomber aircraft. These included the ubiquitous C-47, the splendid P-51, the rugged B-17, and the awesome B-29. Drawing upon American industrial prowess and human resources, the AAF reached a peak strength of 80,000 aircraft and 2.4 million personnel organized into major commands, numbered air forces, air divisions, groups, and squadrons. AAF units conducted a wide range of air operations over every theater of battle — from the islands of the Southwest Pacific to the deserts of North Africa, from the icy waters of the North Atlantic to the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

By the last year of the war, the quantity and quality of AAF aircraft and airmen dominated the skies over both Germany and Japan, all but paralyzing their war economies. Air power did not win the war by itself, but did make possible the Allies' total victory over the Axis powers — punctuated in August 1945 when two B-29s dropped atomic bombs on Japan.

Much as it did a quarter century before, the United States immediately demobilized its armed forces after World War II. Based on the AAF's wartime achievements and future potential, however, the U S Air Force won its independence as a full partner with the Army and the Navy on Sept 18, 1947. Stuart Symington became the first Secretary of the Air Force, and Gen Carl A Spaatz its first Chief of Staff. Within a month — on Oct 14, 1947 — test pilot Chuck Yeager flew the Bell XS-1 past the speed of sound, launching the new USAF into the supersonic era.

Countering the Communist Threat

The threat posed by the Soviet Union and communism soon convinced American leaders to strengthen US military forces—especially air power. The role of the new USAF in breaking the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 demonstrated the value of air capabilities in this new "Cold War." The USSR's detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949 accentuated the importance of long range bombers, such as the Air Force's giant B-36 Peacemaker, and modern air defenses. The Air Force expanded its efforts to foster science and technology with an ambitious Research and Development (R&D) program.

The Soviet-backed invasion of South Korea by communist North Korea in June 1950 drew the USAF into a brutal 3-year conflict. The Air Force soon used new jet fighters, such as the deadly F-86 Sabre, to establish air superiority over the Korean peninsula. In concert with Navy and Marine aviation, the USAF helped protect United Nations ground forces with close air support and the interdiction of enemy reinforcements and supplies. The war ended in 1953 after an armistice with China and North Korea, but the Air Force kept a large number of units stationed in the Pacific to help contain communism. It also began a massive buildup of the forward-based US Air Forces in Europe, from England to Turkey. USAF units provided the cornerstone of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) capabilities against the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact for the next four decades.

Invention of the powerful hydrogen bomb and the promise of long range rockets accelerated the arms race between the superpowers in the 1950s. Under the bold leadership of Gen Curtis LeMay, the Air Force's Strategic Air Command (SAC) became the preeminent instrument of American defense strategy. Standing continuous alert for the rest of the Cold War, SAC's arsenal of bombers, such as the long-range B-52, was joined in the 1960s by intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as the Titan and Minuteman. Together with the Navy's missile-launching submarines, these powerful weapons comprised America's nuclear deterrent "triad." With the development of launch vehicles and orbital satellites, the Air Force mission also expanded into space.

Possession of strong strategic forces helped the United States prevail in crises provoked by Soviet probes in Berlin and Cuba during the early 1960s. Communist expansion in Southeast Asia posed new and difficult challenges. In 1964 the United States began full-scale military operations on the side of South Vietnam, and in 1965 launched Operation Rolling Thunder against targets in North Vietnam.

With the use of air power constrained for political reasons, both Air Force and Naval Aviation had to support a protracted and unpopular counter-insurgency effort against a determined and elusive foe. Tactical aircraft, such as the versatile F-4 Phantom II, performed in a wide variety of roles from aerial combat to close air support, the F-105 Thunderchief specialized in bombing raids against North Vietnam, while SAC B-52s "carpet bombed" remote jungle strongholds. All were enhanced by "force multipliers" such as aerial refueling by KC-135 Stratotankers. Not until the Linebacker Operations of 1972, however, was air power brought fully to bear against North Vietnamese forces and facilities. Although this compelled the enemy to sign a peace treaty in January 1973, US forces were no longer available in 1975 when North Vietnam launched a successful invasion of the South.

In the 1970s the USAF invested as much of its reduced budgets as possible in modernizing its aircraft and missiles while continuing to expand its role in space. The Air Force developed new weapon systems, like the A-10, F-15, F-16, E-3, and M-X Peacekeeper. It also made great progress on satellite-based communications, reconnaissance, warning, weather, and navigation systems. With its large fleet of aerial refueling tankers and long range transports, the Air Force also expanded its world wide airlift capabilities, as demonstrated during the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973 when C-141s and giant C-5s formed an airborne bridge to Israel (Operation Nickel Grass). But the Air Force did not receive adequate resources to maintain full readiness of its existing conventional forces. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union continued to develop and produce new and improved weapons at an even faster pace while building up its combat forces in Europe and the Far East to alarming levels.

The military balance began to shift back in America's favor after 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the humiliation of the American hostages in Iran confirmed the need to improve US military capabilities. The ensuing American defense buildup of the 1980s allowed the Air Force to expand its force structure, enhance its training and readiness, and deploy a wide range of advanced new weapons and other systems. These included the revolutionary F-117A stealth fighter. USAF units engaged in several contingency operations, including the seizure of Grenada in 1983 (Urgent Fury), the raid on Libya in 1986 (El Dorado Canyon), and the invasion of Panama in 1989 (Just Cause). These operations demonstrated steadily improving capabilities of the Air Force and its sister services to conduct joint operations.

At the time, the progress the United States was making in new technologies — "stealthy" airframes, sophisticated information networks, and space-based systems — helped convince a more flexible Soviet leadership that their inefficient economy could no longer afford to compete in the Cold War. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked thefinal days of the Warsaw Pact and presaged the breakup of the USSR itself a few years later.

Global Reach, Global Engagement

Ending of the Cold War did not mean completion of the USAF's mission. Even though no longer having to keep nuclear forces on constant alert against a Soviet first strike or to base large forces overseas ready to fight World War III, the USAF's inherent speed, range, precision, lethality, and flexibility gave America what Secretary of the Air Force Donald B Rice called "global reach, global power."

The Air Force's well-trained personnel and sophisticated weapons lived up to this vision during Operation Desert Storm in early 1991. Deploying half-way around the world in Operation Desert Shield after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, they helped win one of the most lop-sided battlefield victories in military history. Advanced aircraft, such as the unstoppable F-117 Nighthawk, delivered an arsenal of precision guided munitions with the help of sophisticated information and navigation systems, including those on space satellites. Under the control of Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, the intensive 6-week air campaign neutralized Iraq's air defenses, decapitated Iraq's command structure, and demoralized its once feared army. Air power allowed Coalition ground forces to liberate Kuwait and quickly drive into Iraq — with fewer casualties than those suffered by the United States in a typical week of the Vietnam War.

Without the Soviet threat, the United States no longer needed the large force structure that stood guard during the Cold War. Recognizing the need for streamlining, the Air Force in the early 1990s underwent the most complete reorganization since its establishment. The USAF consolidated from thirteen to eight major commands (for example, replacing the Strategic Air, Tactical Air, and Military Airlift Commands with Air Combat and Air Mobility Commands) and did away with various lower echelon headquarters. The Air Force also inactivated many proud wings and squadrons, closed once valuable bases, and downsized from more than 600,000 military personnel in the late 1980s to under 388,000 in 1996.

Although smaller in size, the post-Cold War Air Force has been called upon for increased participation in contingency operations. In addition to maintaining units in the Persian Gulf area (Southern Watch) and Turkey (Provide Comfort) to deter Saddam Hussein from threatening his neighbors, the Air Force has supported humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in places like Somalia (Restore Hope), Rwanda (Support Hope), Haiti (Uphold Democracy), and the Balkans (Provide Promise and Deny Flight). To help stop a barbaric civil war in Bosnia, Air Force aircraft made precision strikes against Serb targets in Operation Deliberate Force during late 1995. After this first air campaign ever conducted by NATO, the Air Force then supported implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords through Operations Decisive and Joint Endeavor. On the volatile Korean Peninsula, the Air Force continued to keep units combat ready for action at any time.

Today the pace of technological change moves ever faster, while America's role in protecting against aggression and fostering world democracy is more complex. In recognition of anticipated challenges the Air Force will face in the 21st Century, Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall and Chief of Staff Gen Ronald Fogleman have inaugurated the year of the Air Force's 50th anniversary with a long range planning effort reminiscent of Toward New Horizons, the compendium of scientific forecasts instigated by Hap Arnold at the end of World War II. Under the umbrella concept of Global Engagement, today's Air Force has set forth a vision of how its people, technology, and infrastructure must adapt to assure the Air Force will become more effective and influential than ever.

With these challenges in mind, the Air Force commemorates its 50th anniversary looking eagerly to the future while remembering the lessons and achievements of the past as well as honoring the memory, sacrifices, and contributions of those who succeeded — often in the face of skepticism — in building what is now the world's only truly global Air and Space Force.

(— Lawrence R Benson,Office of the Air Force Historian)