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 forcesespecially 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)