History of the United States Air Force

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The United States Air Force became a separate military service on September 18, 1947, with the implementation of the National Security Act of 1947. The Act created the United States Department of Defense, which was composed of three branches, the Army, Navy and a newly created Air Force. Prior to 1947, the responsibility for military aviation was divided between the Army (for land-based operations) and the Navy, for sea-based operations from aircraft carrier and amphibious aircraft. The Army created the first antecedent of the Air Force in 1907, which through a succession of changes of organization, titles, and missions advanced toward eventual separation 40 years later. The predecessor organizations leading up to today’s U.S. Air Force are:

  • Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps (August 1, 1907 to July 18, 1914)
  • Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps (July 18, 1914 to May 20, 1918)
  • Division of Military Aeronautics (May 20, 1918 to May 24, 1918)
  • U.S. Army Air Service (May 24, 1918 to July 2, 1926)
  • U.S. Army Air Corps (July 2, 1926 to June 20, 1941) and
  • U.S. Army Air Forces (June 20, 1941 to September 17, 1947)

U.S. aircraft cockade, or roundel, of late World War I
U.S. aircraft cockade, or roundel, of late World War I

World War I and between wars

In 1918, upon the United States’ entry into World War I, the first major U.S. aviation combat force was created when an Air Service was formed as part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Major General Mason Patrick commanded the Air Service of the AEF; his deputy was Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. These aviation units, some of which were trained in France, provided tactical support for the U.S. Army, especially during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne offensives. Among the aces of the AEF Air Service were Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and 2nd Lieutenant Frank Luke. Concurrent with the creation of this combat force, the U.S. Army’s aviation establishment in the United States was removed from control of the Signal Corps and placed directly under the United States Secretary of War. An assistant secretary was created to direct the Army Air Service, which had dual responsibilities for development and procurement of aircraft, and raising and training of air units. With the end of the First World War, the AEF’s Air Service was dissolved and the Army Air Service in the United States largely demobilized.

In 1920, the Air Service became a branch of the Army and in 1926 was reorganized into the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC). During this period, the USAAC began experimenting with new techniques, including air-to-air refueling and the development of the B-9 and the Martin B-10, the first all-metal monoplane bombers, and new fighters. In 1937, the B-17 Flying Fortress made its first appearance. In a spectacular feat of navigation, three B-17s intercepted the Italian passenger liner Rex at sea. Though intended to demonstrate the ability of the Air Corps to defend the nation’s coasts, the mission also indicated the emerging doctrine within the Air Corps of the supremacy of strategic bombing.

In 1935, as a result of recommendations from two civilian review boards, the next advancement toward independence for the Air Force occurred when all flying units, which heretofore had been distributed to various ground commands, were grouped together as an aerial task force under one air commander as the General Headquarters, Air Force. The Air Corps, headed by the Chief of the Air Corps, continued as before but now held responsibility only for supply, airfields, and training, in effect splitting the Air Force into two parts. Both components were commanded by major generals (Frank Andrews and Oscar Westover, followed by Henry H. (“Hap”) Arnold).

During World War I, aviation technology developed rapidly; however, the Army’s reluctance to use the new technology began to make airmen think that as long as the Army controlled aviation, development would be stunted and a potentially valuable force neglected. Air Corps senior officer Billy Mitchell began to campaign for Air Corps independence. But his campaign offended many and resulted in a court martial in 1925 that effectively ended his career. His followers, including future aviation leaders “Hap” Arnold and Carl Spaatz, saw the lack of public, congressional, and military support that Mitchell received and decided that America was not ready for an independent air force. Under the leadership of its chief of staff Mason Patrick and, later, Arnold, the Air Corps waited until the time to fight for independence arose again.

World War II

U.S. aircraft roundel primarily of the interwar years to early World War II
U.S. aircraft roundel primarily of the interwar years to early World War II

1943 USAAF raid on ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt, Germany.1943 USAAF raid on ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt, Germany.

The Air Force came of age in World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the lead, calling for a vastly enlarged air force based on long-range strategic bombing. Organizationally it became largely independent in 1941, when the Army Air Corps became a part of the new U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), and the GHQ Air Force was redesignated the subordinate Combat Command. In the major reorganization of the Army by War Department Circular 59, effective March 9, 1942, the newly created United States Army Air Forces gained equal voice with the Army and Navy on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and complete autonomy from the Army Ground Forces and the Services of Supply. The reorganization also eliminated both Combat Command and the Air Corps as organizations (the latter became a combat arm until 1947) in favor of a streamlined system of commands and numbered air forces for decentralized management of the burgeoning Army Air Forces.

The reorganization merged all aviation elements of the former air arm into the Army Air Forces. Although the Air Corps still legally existed as an Army branch, the position of Chief of the Air Corps was left vacant, and the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps was dissolved. AAF leaders tried to completely eliminate the term “Air Corps.” However, people in and out of AAF who remembered the prewar designation often used the term “Air Corps” informally, as did the media.

Carl A. Spaatz took command of the Eighth Air Force in London in 1942; with General Ira Eaker he supervised the strategic bombing campaign. In late 1943, Spaatz was made commander of the new U.S. Strategic Air Forces, reporting directly to the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Spaatz began daylight bombing operations using the prewar doctrine of flying bombers in close formations, relying on their combined defensive firepower for protection from attacking enemy aircraft rather than supporting fighter escorts. The doctrine proved flawed when deep-penetration missions beyond the range of escort fighters were attempted, because German fighter planes overwhelmed U.S. formations, shooting down bombers in excess of “acceptable” loss rates, especially in combination with the vast number of flak anti-aircraft batteries defending Germany’s major targets. American fliers took heavy casualties during raids on the oil refineries of Ploieşti, Romania, and the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt and Regensburg, Germany, and it was the loss rate in crews and not materiel that brought about a pullback from the strategic offensive in the autumn of 1943.

The Eighth Air Force had attempted to use both the P-47 and P-38 as escorts, but while the Thunderbolt was a capable dog-fighter it lacked the range, even with the addition of drop tanks to extend its range, and the Lightning proved mechanically unreliable in the frigid altitudes at which the missions were fought. Bomber protection was greatly improved after the introduction of North American P-51 Mustang fighters in Europe. With its built-in extended range and competitive or superior performance characteristics in comparison to all existing German piston-engined fighters, the Mustang was an immediately available solution to the crisis. In January 1944 the Eighth Air Force obtained priority in equipping its groups, so that ultimately 14 of its 15 groups fielded Mustangs. P-51 escorts began operations in February 1944 and increased their numbers rapidly, so that the Luftwaffe suffered increasing fighter losses in aerial engagements beginning with Big Week in early 1944. Allied fighters were also granted free rein in attacking German fighter airfields, both in pre-planned missions and while returning to base from escort duties, and the major Luftwaffe threat against Allied bombers was severely diminished by D-Day.

In the Pacific Theater of Operations, the USAAF provided major tactical support under General George Kenney to Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific theater. Kenney’s pilots invented the skip-bombing technique against Japanese ships. Kenney’s forces claimed destruction of 11,900 Japanese planes and 1.7 million tons of shipping.

The USAAF created the Twentieth Air Force to employ long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers in strategic attacks on Japanese cities. The use of forward bases in China (needed to be able to reach Japan by the heavily-laden B-29’s) was ineffective because of the difficulty in logistically supporting the bases entirely by air from its main bases in India, and because of a persistent threat against the Chinese airfields by the Japanese army. After the Mariana Islands were captured in mid-1944, providing locations for air bases that could be supplied by sea, Arnold moved all B-29 operations there by April 1945 and made General Curtis LeMay his bomber commander (reporting directly to Arnold, who personally commanded Twentieth Air Force until July). LeMay reasoned that the Japanese economy, much of which was cottage industry in dense urban areas where manufacturing and assembly plants were also located, was particularly vulnerable to area attack, and abandoned inefficient high-altitude precision bombing in favor of low-level incendiary bombings, aimed at destroying large urban areas. Tokyo suffered a firestorm in which over 100,000 persons died. At the same time the B-29 was also employed in wide-spread mining of Japanese harbors and sea lanes. Neither Arnold and General Carl Spaatz wanted to use the atomic bomb, but were ordered by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and President Harry Truman to use the new weapon against Japan during the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Cold War and war in Korea

In practice, the U.S. Army Air Forces was virtually independent of the Army during World War II, but it wanted full independence. It got it, over the continuing objections of the Navy, when the United States Department of the Air Force was created by the National Security Act of 1947. That act became effective September 18, 1947 when the first secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington, took office.

After World War II, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union began to deteriorate, and the period in history known as the Cold War began. The United States entered an arms race with the Soviet Union and competition aimed at increasing each nation’s influence throughout the world. In response, the United States expanded its military presence throughout the world. The USAF opened air bases throughout Europe, and later in Japan and South Korea. The United States also built air bases on the British overseas territories of British Indian Ocean Territory and Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.

The first test for the USAF during the Cold War came in 1948, when Communist authorities in Eastern Germany cut off road and air transportation to West Berlin. The USAF, along with the Royal Air Force (RAF), supplied the city during the Berlin airlift, using C-121 Constellations and the C-54 Skymasters. The efforts of the USAF and British RAF saved the city from starvation and forced the Soviets to back down in their blockade.

Conflict over post-war military administration, especially with regard to the roles and missions to be assigned to the Air Force and the U.S. Navy, led to an episode called the “Revolt of the Admirals” in the late 1940s, in which high-ranking Navy officers argued the case for carrier-based aircraft rather than strategic bombers.

During the Korean War, which began in June 1950, the Far East Air Forces (FEAF) were among the first units to respond to the invasion by North Korea, but quickly lost its main airbase at Kimpo, South Korea. Forced to provide close air support to the defenders of the Pusan pocket from bases in Japan, the FEAF also conducted a strategic bombing campaign against North Korea’s war-making potential simultaneously. General Douglas B. MacArthur’s landing at Inchon in September 1950 enabled the FEAF to return to Korea and develop bases from which they supported MacArthur’s drive to the Korean-Chinese border.

When the Chinese People’s Liberation Army attacked in December 1950, the USAF provided tactical air support. The introduction of Soviet-made MiG-15 jet fighters caused problems for the B-29s used to bomb North Korea, but the USAF countered the MiGs with its new F-86 Sabre jet fighters. Although both air superiority and close air support missions were successful, a lengthy attempt to interdict communist supply lines by air attack failed and was replaced by a systematic campaign to inflict as much economic cost to North Korea and the Chinese forces as long as war persisted, including attacks on the capital city of Pyongyang and against the North Korean hydroelectric system.

Vietnam War

The USAF was heavily deployed during the Vietnam War. The first bombing raids against North Vietnam occurred in 1964, following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. In 1965, a sustained bombing campaign began, code-named Operation Rolling Thunder. This campaign’s purpose was to destroy the will of the North Vietnamese to fight, destroy industrial bases and air defences, and to stop the flow of men and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, while forcing North Vietnam into peace negotiations. The USAF dropped more bombs in all combat operations in Vietnam during the period 1965-68 than it did during World War II, and the Rolling Thunder campaign lasted until the U.S. presidential election of 1968. Although heavily damaging the North Vietnamese economy, the overall operation was a failure.

The USAF also played a critical role in defeating the Easter Offensive of 1972. The rapid redeployment of fighters, bombers, and attack aircraft help the South Vietnamese Army repel the invasion. Operation Linebacker demonstrated to both the North and South Vietnamese that even without significant U.S. Army ground forces, the United States could still influence the war. The air war for the United States ended with Operation Linebacker II, also known as the “Christmas Bombings.” These helped to finalize the Paris peace negotiations.

Combat operations since 1975

The USAF modernized its tactical air forces in the late 1970’s with the introduction of the F-15, A-10, and F-16 fighters, and the implementation of realistic training scenarios under the aegis of Red Flag. In turn it also upgraded the equipment and capabilities of its Air Reserve Components (ARC) by the equipping of both the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve with first-line aircraft. Expanding to 40 fighter wings and drawing further on the lessons of the Vietnam War, the USAF also dedicated units and aircraft to Electronic Warfare (EW), Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), and Joint Special Operations.

The USAF provided attack, airlift, and combat support capability for operations in Iran in 1980, Grenada in 1983, Libya in 1986, and Panama in 1989. Lessons learned in these operations were applied to its force structure and doctrine, and became the basis for successful air operations in the 1990s and after September 11, 2001.

Gulf War

The USAF provided the bulk of the Allied air power during the Gulf War in 1991, flying alongside aircraft of the U.S. Navy and the RAF. The F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter’s capabilities were shown on the first night of the air war when it was able to bomb central Baghdad and avoid the sophisticated Iraqi anti-aircraft defenses. The USAF, along with the U.S. Navy and the RAF, later patrolled the skies of northern and southern Iraq after the war to ensure that Iraq’s air defence capability could not be rebuilt.

Bosnia and Kosovo

The USAF led NATO action in Bosnia in 1994 with air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. This was the first time that USAF aircraft took part in military action as part of a NATO mission. The USAF led the strike forces as the NATO air force (otherwise mainly composed of RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft) with the greatest capability to launch air strikes over a long period of time.

Later, the USAF led NATO air strikes against Serbia during the Kosovo War. NATO forces were later criticised for bombing civilian targets in Belgrade, including a strike on a civilian television station, and a later attack which destroyed the Chinese embassy.

Afghanistan and Iraq

Aircraft of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing and coalition counterparts stationed together at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, in southwest Asia, fly over the desert. April 14, 2003. Aircraft include KC-135 Stratotanker, F-15E Strike Eagle, F-117 Nighthawk, F-16CJ Falcon, British Tornado GR4, and Australian F/A-18 Hornet.

In 2001, the USAF was deployed against the Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Operating from Diego Garcia, B-52 Stratofortress and B-1 Lancer bombers attacked Taliban positions. The USAF deployed daisy cutter bombs, dropped from C-130 Hercules cargo planes, for the first time since the Vietnam War. During this conflict, the USAF opened up bases in Central Asia for the first time.

The USAF was deployed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Following the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the USAF took over Baghdad International Airport as a base. USAF aircraft are used to provide support to Coalition and Iraqi forces in major operations to eliminate insurgent centers of activity and supply in north and west Iraq.

Notes and References

  1. The primary source for the history of the USAF prior to 1947 is Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force Vol. I (1997) ISBN 0-16-049009-X , an Air University publication
  2. U.S. Intelligence Community (October 2004). National Security Act of 1947. Retrieved April 14, 2006.
  3. U.S. Department of State(2006). National Security Act of 1947. Retrieved April 14, 2006.
  4. AAFHA (2002). Was It the Air Corps or Army Air Forces in WW II?. Retrieved December 18, 2006.
  5. DoD release January 1968, cited in CIA estimate of damage to North Vietnam infrastructure