The Symington Subcommittee’s Airpower Findings

Feb. 1, 1957

On the following pages are reproduced the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of the Symington Subcommittee. The Subcommittee was appointed by Sen. Richard Russell (D.-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, “to examine into the condition and progress of the Department of the Air Force and ascertain if present policies, legislative authority, and appropriations are adequate to maintain a force capable of carrying out its assigned missions.” Shortly after the hearing opened on April 16, 1956, the scope of the inquiry was extended to cover Army and Navy airpower as well.

Serving on the Subcommittee, in addition to its chairman—Sen. Stuart Symington (D.-Mo.)—were Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D.-Wash.), Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. (D.-N.C.), Sen. Leverett Saltonstall (R.-Mass.), and Sen. James H. Duff (R.-Penna.). Fowler Hamilton served as General Counsel for the Subcommittee, with Ramsay D. Potts Jr., as Associate General Counsel.

The Subcommittee report is based on sworn testimony of 100 witnesses taken in sixty-three different sessions, with a published record of a million words in 1,863 pages. The complete report contains, in addition to the conclusions, findings, and recommendations, voluminous extracts from testimony, supporting documents, and an introduction which space does not permit over publishing. The meat of the report, however, is all here. Study it carefully.—The Editors.

The Conclusions

Arrived at in the report of the Symington Subcommittee

Airpower Forces in Being

In any future war there will be far less time than ever before in which to mobilize. As a result the importance of “forces in being” has steadily increased to the point where they are now indispensable.

The United States has a strong strategic striking force at this time. This is due in large measure, however, to weapons designed, money appropriated, and contracts let many years ago; and even this strength is declining relatively as against the steadily growing striking capacity of the Soviets.

The defenses of the United States have been weakened because of the failure to act on national intelligence in formation; and also because of a tendency to either ignore or underestimate Soviet military progress.

The Soviets exceed the United States in the number of modern combat aircraft in operational units (“forces in being”). They are currently producing more combat aircraft than the United States. They have decreased the time used between the original design and quantity production of combat aircraft as compared with the time required by the Untied States.

We now have an insufficient number of long-range modern jet bombers, and there is no program to produce a sufficient number.

The growing shortage of skilled manpower is resulting in inadequate maintenance of aircraft, and therefore unnecessary deaths. This manpower shortage results in our inability to maintain a proper state of alert against possible attack.

The United States has the capacity to produce an adequate number of jet tankers, but has failed completely to do so; nor has it any adequate program to overcome that deficiency. This neglect has seriously decreased the effectiveness of our airpower.

The decline in the strategic striking power of our Air Force as against that of the Soviet cannot be overcome significantly by the use of naval airpower.

The effectiveness of our strategic striking power, and also of our air defense, is dependent in large measure on an adequate base structure at home and abroad. The United States has an insufficient air-base structure. The present structure affords neither the alert status, nor that dispersal necessary for security. This deficiency in the continental United States is becoming increasingly dangerous because of the current deterioration in our overseas base structure, along with the growing long-range capability of Soviet aircraft.

Inadequate housing and inadequate pay scales are decreasing the operational effectiveness and morale of our armed forces.

The vulnerability of the United States to sudden attack has increased greatly during the past decade, and this vulnerability will continue to increase in the foreseeable future.

The Department of Defense has failed to develop an adequate defense warning system.

The direction and planning of naval strength again leaves the United States vulnerable to submarine attack against our shipping, and particularly vulnerable to submarine missile attack on military and civilian targets within our heartland.

Airpower Forces for the Future

The Soviets are rapidly closing the qualitative gap. Yet, our qualitative lead is now being given as justification for our having passed over to the Soviets quantitative superiority in military airpower.

The duplicating approach characteristic of many research and development programs in the Department of Defense, along with the dollar limitations established for such programs, has retarded needed modernization of weapons systems. These policies have retarded important scientific breakthroughs. They contrast with Soviet policies which have produced extraordinary Soviet progress in the research and development field.

The Soviets exceed the United States in rate of technological development, in training facilities, in speed and quantity of prototype development, in the training of scientists and engineers, and in many other phases of airpower development.

The Department of Defense has permitted duplication, even triplication, among the three services in the development and production of missiles; and has permitted comparable waste in the allocation to the three services of responsibility in the missile field.

The Department of Defense also delayed in giving overriding priority to the ballistic-missile program. As a result, there has been a serious loss of time as compared with the rapid progress of the Soviets in this field.

Airpower Forces for Limited War

Confusion and therefore inefficiency in defense planning have developed from the vacillating policies of first emphasis, then de-emphasis with respect to limited war as against unlimited war. It is essential that we be prepared for both.

The United States has insufficient airlift capacity to maintain the mobility of the Army and enable the latter to meet overseas commitments; nor do plans include provision for adequate airlift.

Airpower Preparedness and Fiscal Policy

Financial considerations have often been placed ahead of defense requirements, to the serious damage of our airpower strength relative to that of Russia; and hence to our national security.

The United States has the capacity to produce and maintain airpower which is relatively stronger than that of the Soviets; but the Department of Defense has not utilized this capacity.

With proper programming and administration in the Department of Defense, it would be possible to maintain air supremacy over the Soviets without jeopardizing a sound economy and without imposing additional tax burdens upon the people.

Airpower Preparedness and an Informed Public Opinion

Under our form of government, the American people have not only the right, but also the need, to receive all information about our national defense which would not help a possible enemy. Nevertheless, the public is neither adequately nor accurately informed about our military strength as against the great and growing military strength of the Communists. The public has failed to receive from official sources complete, accurate, and timely information which it has the right to know.


The Subcommittee recommends that the deficiencies in military strength, as pointed out in the “conclusions,” be corrected as promptly as possible.

If any conclusion could be singled out for special attention, it might well be the importance of taking prompt steps to see that the American people are given more of the truth about the relative strength of the United States as against that of the Communists.

The Findings of the Subcommittee

As an aid for reference to the excerpts from the testimony and the record of the hearings, we summarize herewith the testimony on certain fundamental points.

The roles and missions of the Army, Navy, and Air Force were defined some nine years ago in the well-known Key West Agreement. Those definitions remain basically unchanged at the present time.

According to the Key West Agreement, the main missions of the United States Air Force are:

  • To be responsible for strategic air warfare;
  • To be responsible for defense of the United States against air attack;
  • To gain and maintain general air supremacy.

The Subcommittee has made findings as to the adequacy of our present policies and programs to enable the Air Force to discharge these missions; and also findings as to Army and Navy airpower.

In addition, there are findings on two points of a more general character. One deals with the relationship between fiscal policy and airpower; the other deals with our present and prospective airpower strength vis-à-vis that of the Soviet communists.

The points covered by these findings are:

  1. The adequacy of present plans and programs to maintain an Air Force capable of defeating enemy air forces in strategic air warfare and controlling vital air areas.
  2. The adequacy of present plans and programs to maintain an Air Force capable of defending the United States against air attack.
  3. The adequacy of present plans and programs to maintain an Air Force capable of gaining and maintaining general air superiority.
  4. The adequacy of naval airpower to carry out its assigned missions.
  5. Airpower and the modern army.
  6. The present policies that determine the relation between fiscal considerations and national-defense considerations.
  7. The present and prospective position of the United States and of the Soviet Unions as to the principal elements of airpower.

The adequacy of present plans and programs to maintain a force capable of defeating enemy air forces in strategic air warfare and controlling vital air areas.

The testimony is that the Russian long-range air force has in operational units more long-range jet bombers (B-52 class) with a nuclear bombing capability than has the United States; and also that Russia is producing more bombers of this character than the United States.

The Chief of Staff of the Air Force testified that he has requested six additional wings of modern long-range jet bombers. This would provide the addition of about 300 B-52s to the Strategic Air Command.

Nevertheless, this request for additional long-range bombers has been held up in the Joint Chiefs of Staff for months.

The testimony also showed that if present plans and programs are not changed, by the period 1958-60, the Russian long-range air force will be stronger than that of the United States; and therefore by that time we will have lost our air superiority in strategic airpower.

Additional testimony established the fact that it is not sufficient for us merely to match the Russians in strategic airpower. To be safe, we must have strategic airpower of sufficient strength to absorb any surprise attack and, even after suffering the heavy damage incident to such an attack, be able to retaliate with an effectiveness that would assure victory.

The principal factors which limit our strategic airpower are:

  • Lack of technical personnel.
  • Lack of modern jet tankers and long-range jet bombers.
  • Lack of bases needed for safe dispersal of SAC aircraft.

Testimony is to the effect that, provided adequate funds were expended, these limitations could be removed and our present estimated strategic air superiority maintained over the Russians.

The adequacy of present plans and programs to maintain a force capable of defending the United States against air attack.

Expert witnesses agreed that at the present time and during the foreseeable future the best defense against air attack is a strong offense. There was also agreement that an effective air-defense system is necessary to discourage enemy attack and to make it costly to the enemy if he does attack.

The testimony is that at the present time our air-defense system is inadequate, primarily because most of our fighter planes in operation are not capable of attaining sufficient altitude to attack successfully modern Russian bombers, and because our radar warning network is inadequate.

The adequacy of present plans and programs to maintain a force capable of gaining and maintaining general air supremacy.

As a matter of policy, the United States has abandoned its former position of quantitative superiority in the field of airpower. Instead, the testimony shows that the Department of Defense relies on the qualitative superiority of our airpower; in other words, the results of our efforts in the research and development field.

In 1953 a ceiling was established for research and development funds. The testimony shows that this ceiling has been maintained from 1953 to date.

These continuing limits upon research and development expenditures have been imposed despite the fact that in the years since 1953 we have learned much about the startling scientific developments made by the Russians in airpower, developments which were not anticipated when the ceiling was imposed.

In 1953 the Russians demonstrated that they could produce the H-bomb. Later they demonstrated that they can produce the modern long-range jet bombers by flying, in their May Day 1955 air show, in a single formation, more bombers of this kind than the US had produced at that time.

It was made clear throughout the testimony that a nation’s air-atomic strength is not measured simply by the number of bombs in its stockpile. Rather such strength should be measured primarily by the ability to deliver effectively an adequate number of weapons from the retaliatory stockpile on the target in the shortest possible time.

We have learned also that the Russians are producing substantially more submarines than the United States, and that they have a fleet in excess of 400 modern submarines as against our much smaller fleet of 110 submarines. In this connection, it is significant that the testimony credits them with the capability to produce missile-launching submarines.

Also according to the testimony, we have learned that since 1953 their developments in the fields of electronics and radar exceeded our 1953 appraisals. There was testimony that they have fired long-range ballistic missiles farther than we have; and that they are as far, if not farther, advanced in the long-range ballistic missile field than the United States.

In respect to these developments, we had to undertake additional research and development continue, the Russians, after three to five years, will have qualitative superiority in airpower.

In recent years, the senior military research officer in the scientific research and development field of each of the three services opposed these fiscal ceilings.

The adequacy of naval airpower to carry out its assigned missions.

The greater part of the Navy’s military power is now airpower. Under the Key West Agreement, the main missions of the Navy are:

  • To seek out and destroy enemy naval forces and to suppress enemy sea commerce.
  • To gain and maintain general sea supremacy.
  • To control vital sea areas and to protect vital sea lines of communication.
  • To establish and maintain local superiority (including air) in an area of naval operations.
  • To seize and defend advanced naval bases and to conduct such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.
  • To conduct air operations as necessary for the accomplishment of objectives in a naval campaign.
  • The Navy witnesses made clear that the Navy does not have the capability to engage in extensive strategic attacks on the mainland of Russia.

Airpower and the modern Army.

The Army is interested in three aspects of airpower:

  • Missiles for anti-aircraft defense and close support of ground forces.
  • Organic airpower which is used for reconnaissance, limited transport, etc., within a theater.
  • Airlift: the transportation by air of substantial numbers of men and equipment either from one theater to another or within a theater.

The subject of airlift leads to many questions that have to do with basic doctrines concerning the type of military establishments needed to deter or, if deterrence fails, to win a general war, and the type of military establishment needed to deter or, if deterrence fails, to win a limited war. It was clear from the record, however, that both the quantity and the availability of airlift bear directly on the defense capability of the Untied States. Army witnesses testified that as of today this country would have great difficulty in lifting and supporting even one division overseas. They also testified that there were no plans to remedy the situation.

Present policies that determine the relation between fiscal considerations and national defense considerations.

In view of the importance to airpower of fiscal policy as shown by the findings with respect to research and development, the testimony on this general subject is also examined.

The fiscal policies that have been in effect since 1953 have applied generally to all three services; therefore, the evidence concerning the effect of those policies upon our airpower position deals broadly with the entire defense establishment.

Fiscal factors must, of course, be considered in determining the size and character of our defense establishment. To say that fiscal factors must be considered, however, is not to say they must be decisive, or even predominant.

No witness disputed that the United States must make whatever expenditures are necessary to give us the military strength needed for survival.

In general, there are two ways in which the problem of balancing defense needs against fiscal requirements can be approached.

One way is to ascertain essential defense needs and then see if the funds can be made available to meet them. The other is to predetermine, as a matter of fiscal policy, a dollar limit for defense expenditures; and thereupon refuse to satisfy any defense needs that cannot be compressed within that limit.

The testimony shows clearly that during recent years the latter approach has been followed. Early in 1953, the Executive Office of the President, through the Bureau of the Budget, issued general directives to all Departments calling for a curtailment of expenditures. In the case of the Department of Defense, these were implemented by additional directives from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Thereafter, despite Soviet developments, or rising costs, or any other considerations, it was recognized throughout the Department of Defense that overall defense expenditures were to be held to a limit of about $35 billion annually. In the implementation of this policy of a dollar ceiling approximating $35 billion, cuts in expenditures were imposed in 1953 and 1954 in the process of decreasing to that level.

Published documents from the Bureau of the Budget showed expenditures for 1953, 1954, and 1955 and estimated expenditures for 1956 and 1957, as follows:

In 1953 defense expenditures were $43.7 billion.

In 1954 defense expenditures were $40.3 billion.

In 1955 defense expenditures were $35.5 billion.

For 1956 defense expenditures were estimated to be $35.1 billion.

For 1957 defense expenditures were estimated to be $35.7 billion.

The testimony of the Chiefs of Staff of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force was that, in the aggregate, those three services would require approximately $48 billion for the fiscal year 1958.

The Chief of Staff of the Air Force testified the Air Force would require about $23 billion.

The Chief of Naval Operations testified the Navy would require approximately $13 billion.

The Chief of Staff of the Army testified the Army would require approximately $12 billion.

The present and prospective position of the United States vis-à-vis the Soviets as to the principal elements of airpower.

In this connection, the evidence shows:

Aircraft production. At the present time the Soviet is producing more combat aircraft than the United States, and in the past three years the Soviet has outproduced the United States in modern combat aircraft.

Aircraft in operational units. At the present time Russia has thousands more fighter planes in combat units than the United States.

Fighter planes. The Soviet is currently producing about ten times more fighter planes than the United States and has more jet fighters in operational units than all types of jet aircraft combined in United States operational units.

Light bombers. The Soviet has many more light jet bombers in operation than the United States.

Medium bombers. The United States has several times as many medium jet bombers as the Soviet.

Heavy bombers. The Soviet now has more jet heavy bombers than the United States and is producing these bombers at a faster rate.

Research and development:

  • General: The Soviets are progressing in this field at a faster rate than the United States in the development and production of new type scientific weapons and, if present and programs of the United States are not changed, the USSR will attain superiority this field.
  • Scientific and engineering personnel: Russia is currently graduating twice as many trained scientists and engineers per year as the United States.
  • The Soviet has high energy physics research facilities superior to any others in the world, and Soviet researchers are very capable.
  • Missiles: Russia started earlier in the development of ballistic missiles than did the United States and is believed to have made substantial progress in this field, to the extent of having exceeded the United States at least in some aspects of the ICBM and IRBM.
  • The Soviet has, in operational aircraft, jet engines with substantially more thrust than any the United States has in operation.