The Establishment: Roles and Missions

Aug. 1, 1957

Adapted from the Air Force Historical Division’s A History of the United States Air Force, 1907-1957 for the special Golden Anniversary of the US Air Force issue of Air Force Magazine.

As Symington, Spaatz, and Vandenberg carried forward the separation from the Army in 1947-48, they found that the National Security Act did not furnish an adequate guide to action for the new Department of the Air Force. Unlike the Army and the Navy, which had permanent legislation fixing their powers and composition, the Air Force had only the President’s Executive Order 987 of July 26, 1947, specifying the functions of the three services in general terms. It became clear that the lack of a clear-cut definitive statement of the mission of the Air Force vitally affected the plans and programs of all three services. Forrestal put the problem simply: “What is to be the use, and who is to be the user of air power?”

The fundamental cause of disagreement among the services, and especially between the Navy and Air Force, could be found in the changing nature of warfare itself. The remarkable technological advances of the past and the enormous promise of the future pointed to a mode of warfare in which the air would be the dominant element. The Navy was acutely aware of the limitations on its air mission while mindful that the aircraft carrier was its prime weapon. The Army also saw a need to share in the airpower mission that promised to dominate the future.

The disagreements among the services over missions came into sharper focus after the creation of the Department of the Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense because of competition for funds allocated to the Department of Defense. The military services were aware that their future would be influenced in large measure by the division of funds among them—and these funds were severely limited prior to the Korean War. After 1947, therefore, the defense dollar was one of the major facts of military life in Washington.

At the heart of the differences between the Air Force and the Navy lay the role of strategic airpower. Navy strategists challenged the capabilities of the long-range bomber and, on occasion, the very concept of strategic bombing itself. Air Force leaders considered large carrier task forces incapable of accomplishing long-range strategic air operations. In the Navy’s plans to build supercarriers, they foresaw the allocation of defense funds already too limited to permit the buildup of the Air Force to the minimum level for national defense recommended by the President’s Air Policy Commission in 1947.

Concerned by the harmful implications of the controversy, and aware that he would have to use his powers as Secretary of Defense to bring about agreement on the delineation of missions, Forrestal held conferences with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at Key West, Fla., from March 12 to 14, and at Newport, R.I., from August 20 to 22, 1948. Out of these meetings came clear-cut assignments of primary responsibility for strategic air warfare to the Air Force and for control of the seas to the Navy. All of the services were assigned collateral functions, which meant that in carrying out its missions each service would seek maximum assistance from the other services. Adm. Louis E. Denfeld’s understanding was that the Air Force recognized that “the Navy will be able to make significant contributions to any Strategic Air Plan,” and General Vandenberg pledged that he would “seek out aggressively” contributions of the other services to Air Force functions.

But the Key West and Newport agreements did not lay at rest the underlying causes of the controversy, although the statements of understanding by the participants were genuinely sincere and well intentioned. The competition for funds inevitably persisted and Forrestal’s successor, Louis A. Johnson, acknowledged in 1949 that it is “primarily over the apportionment of funds that disagreements among the services arise.”

By 1949 the Air Force was forced to abandon its program for a seventy-group force, although Congress had voted funds in 1948 to begin a five-year aircraft-purchase program to equip such a force. When President Truman requested fiscal year 1950 funds sufficient for only a forty-eight-group force, this meant a cutback rather than an expansion, because the Air Force had climbed to a total of fifty-nine groups in December 1948 from the low of fifty-two groups in 1946-47. And it appeared that further limitations on the defense budget would make it difficult to maintain even a forty-eight-group force.

The B-36 Controversy

Impressed with the importance of reducing the cost of national defense, Johnson ordered reviews of major programs, including that for the construction of supercarriers. After a majority (Admiral Denfield dissented) of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended abandonment of the project, Johnson canceled plans on April 23, 1949, for building the $188 million supercarrier United States.

In April and May 1949 there circulated in press, congressional, and aircraft-industry circles an anonymous document charging that the new B-36 heavy bomber, in addition to being selected through corruption, did not have the performance characteristics claimed for it by the Air Force. Still another anonymous document in August charged that the Air Force had greatly exaggerated the effectiveness of strategic air warfare. The Committee on Armed Services of the House of Representatives investigated the B-36 charges and, after extensive hearings, concluded in August:

“There has not been … one iota, not one scintilla of evidence offered thus far in these hearings that would support charges that collusion, fraud, corruption, influence, or favoritism played any part whatsoever in the procurement of the B-36 bomber. There has been very substantial and compelling evidence that the Air Force procured this bomber solely on the ground that this is the best aircraft for its purpose available to the nation today.”

This disposed of the corruption charges, and in October the committee resumed hearings on the other aspects of the “B-36 Case.” Uniformed Navy leaders aired the frustration and fears that had beset them under the Department of Defense during the past two years. Essentially, their testimony constituted an indictment of strategic bombing as serving no useful purpose and as being morally wrong. Furthermore, they believed that the Air Force had made a mistake in the B-36 and that it had neglected both air defense and tactical air in its obsession with long-range bombers. By contrast, the carrier, and especially the supercarrier, was a necessary and vital weapon for the future.

The Navy’s real concern was a budgetary one. SAC was expensive to maintain, and as long as it enjoyed a high-priority mission it would take a large share of the defense budget. Admiral Denfeld stated the Navy’s position: “Our concern is with arbitrary Navy reductions that impair or eliminate essential Navy functions.” But as Gen. Omar N. Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified “the Air Force and the Army can make the same complaint with equal or greater validity.”

The Air Force answered the criticisms of the B-36 program to the satisfaction of most of the public and press. Under Symington’s leadership it responded with restraint to the charges against it and relied on the House Committee on Armed Services to bring out the true facts. From the Air Force point of view, the entire episode served the useful purpose of directing the attention of Congress to the vital strategic issues involved and educating the public on the subject of airpower.

The B-36 investigation did not settle the problem of the division of airpower between the Air Force and Navy any more effectively than had the Key West and Newport agreements. In spite of its criticism of the effectiveness of both the atomic bomb and strategic airpower, the Navy, as General Bradley pointed out during the hearings, had been arguing right along that it “should be permitted to use the atomic bomb, both strategically and tactically.” Limitation of the use of Navy air—the largest and most important combat element of the fleet—to antisubmarine, fleet defense, and amphibious operations would inevitably bring about a drastic reduction in size and operations of the Navy.

On the other hand there was a positive aspect to the Navy position, and this was a sincere belief in the ability of carrier aviation to continue the proud tradition established in World War II. With a zeal fully equal to that of the Air Force, the Navy pressed forward with technological developments and operational concepts which it hoped would make its carriers capable of all types of air operations.

Dividing the Dollar

It was inevitable that there should continue to be disagreement between two services as strongly dedicated as were the Air Force and the Navy. From the Air Force point of view, continued adherence to the so-called “balance-of-forces” or “division-by-services” budget only compounded the difficulty. This was simply a three-way split of the money among the services so that each received roughly the same amount. Such a system of compromise, which could not make full allowance for rising costs of new weapons or for priorities among the missions of the services, might be damaging to the military posture of the United States. The Joint Chiefs could not always agree on mission priorities. It was often difficult, in view of new weapons and their capabilities, to define a truly balanced military force and set the priorities for achieving it. In terms of money, this meant that the Air Force mission was not regarded as of any greater importance than those of the Army and Navy.

But the Air Force felt that its mission was more imperative than that of the other services and that it required a larger share of defense funds to accomplish the missions for which it was responsible. The weapons of air warfare were changing more rapidly and radically than those of either land or sea warfare. Technological progress was revolutionary and the frontiers of aeronautical science almost limitless. Land aircraft, related weapons, and control systems—always expensive items—were becoming more so. In a single decade after 1944 the cost of a heavy bomber increased from $500,000 for a B-29 to $8 million for a B-52.

In the years following World War II the Air Force increasingly felt its responsibility for the military security of the United States. The rapid obsolescence of its equipment, to a greater extent than the other services, confronted it with the continuing dilemma of how to divide its limited funds between the needs of the present and the future. Because the threat of atomic aerial attack against the United States itself grew steadily from the time the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in August 1949, there was enormous pressure on the Air Force to maintain a force-in-being powerful enough to deter attack. At the same time, because of the technological progress of the Soviet Union, there was equally powerful pressure to make certain that the Air Force would continuously reequip its units with the most advanced weapons. And these weapons were still needed in quantity despite their great destructive power.

Under these circumstances, the Air Force remained in a state of almost constant alarm because of appropriation ceilings that it considered too low to permit it to carry out its mission. The civilian and military leaders made repeated and anxious appraisals of the needs of the present versus those of the future.

Korea helped resolve the dilemma of priorities, but only temporarily. Appropriations for the military services, which differ somewhat from new obligational authority, increased from $14.2 billion for fiscal year 1950, the year before Korea, to $47.3 billion for fiscal year 1951, and to $59.9 billion for 1952. These funds went far beyond the needs of the Korean War because they also took into account NATO requirements and the growing military threat from the Soviet Union. Defense officials planned to build to a high plateau of preparedness and maintain it.

On the eve of the Korean War the Air Force found itself in the difficult position of trying to maintain forty-eight wings with funds which it found sufficient for only forty-two combat-effective wings. During the Korean War, for the first time since World War II, it became possible to state military requirements and to have some assurance of getting the funds needed to meet the goals. As the threat to American security grew during 1950-51, the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved first a goal of ninety-five wings and eventually, in November 1951, 143 wings, to be reached by mid-1955.

The end of the Korean War in 1953 brought a gradual reduction in military appropriations, which totaled $48.4 billion and $33.7 billion for fiscal years 1953 and 1954, respectively. The military requirements stated in 1951 were subjected to a “new look” by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council in 1953. As a result, the Air Force goal of 143 wings was temporarily replaced by an “interim” goal of 120 wings to be attained by the end of June 1956. In December 1953, President Eisenhower approved a goal of 137 wings to be reached by the end of June 1957. Total defense appropriations of $29.1 billion for fiscal year 1955 and $31.4 billion for fiscal year 1956 made it quite clear that if the Air Force goals were to be met, there would have to be a statement of priorities of missions among the services.

That the chief threat to the security of the United States came from Russian atomic airpower and that the Strategic Air Command was our chief deterrent to attack were generally accepted by Congress and the public. And at the higher levels of government it also came to be realized that airpower would have to be given a priority over other military missions in the allocation of funds. The progression in this direction, in terms of billions of dollars of new obligational authority (a slightly different figure from appropriations), was as follows:

For Fiscal Year



Air Force

































The increasing emphasis on airpower (both Air Force and Navy) is also revealed in the percentage of total military expenditures used for aircraft. From 4 percent in fiscal year 1947 and 5.9 percent in 1948, the percentage rose to 18.1 in 1953, 22.9 in 1954, and 24.7 in 1955. The large increase reflected not only the expansion of air strength but also the cost of more frequent reequipping of units and the generally high and ever rising cost of aircraft and related items.

An Air Force for the Army

The priority given the Air Force after 1954 did not provide as positive an answer to the question of who should use airpower as the Air Force had hoped. All three services sought for an answer that would assure each a viable role in the military establishment of the future.

Because Korea was essentially land war, the Army had expanded more than either the Navy or the Air Force and had exercise executive responsibility for fighting the war. Immediately after the war, the cutbacks in Army strength and functions seemed to presage a change in the Army’s position within the military establishment. Alone among the three services, the Army did not have a single major air mission.

Army leaders adhered staunchly and with a great deal of logic to a strategic concept that envisioned airborne and land forces equipped with atomic weapons continuing to play a major part in future wars—especially those of the “brushfire” variety. To do this they would have to have adequate and effective tactical air support, including tactical airlift. Many Army leaders did not believe that the Air Force was providing such air support. Their thinking included the corollary that the Army should have, if not its own tactical air force, at least the control of tactical aviation allotted to it by the Air Force.

Before World War II the Army ground commanders had assigned to them their own air support units. But they had yielded this control to the Army Air Forces during the war, recognizing the desirability of concentrating forces instead of dispersing them. After September 1947, by agreement with the Air Force, the Army had continued to maintain a number of small specialized types of aircraft, some of it which it had operated during the war as organic parts of ground combat units. At the Key West meeting in March 1948 the services had agreed that the Air Force should have the mission of furnishing close combat and logistical air support to the Army.

During the B-36 hearings in 1949, General Bradley and Gen. J. Lawton Collins supported the Air Force against Navy allegations that tactical air support had been neglected by the Air Force since the end of World War II. There was strong criticism of the handling of USAF tactical airpower in Korea all through the war, but Gen. James A. Van Fleet, commander of the Eighth Army, stated in 1953 that tactical air support in Korea had, on the whole, been satisfactory to the Army. Many ground commanders continued to feel that the Army should have exercised more control over the air units. They were supported in this belief by Marine and Navy critics, who argued that their own system of tactical air support was superior.

The prospect of a return to a tactical air support concept thoroughly disproved in World War II, not to mention the loss of part of its tactical air function, alarmed the Air Force. Even before Korea the Army had begun to add to its small air fleet, which was intended for use within the battle zone. During the Korean War, impressed by the contribution of its small aircraft to the mobility of its forces, the Army had greatly increased the number of its liaison aircraft and helicopters. These planes tended to grow larger in size as well as number. In order to avoid duplication of forces and to provide guidance for the future, the Secretaries of the two services concluded a series of agreements during 1951 and 1952. The last of these, a memorandum signed by Secretary of the Army Frank Pace and Secretary of the Air Force Thomas K. Finletter on November 4, 1952, placed a limit of 5,000 pounds on all Army aircraft except helicopters and more clearly defined the ground support functions of the aircraft of the two services. This agreement somewhat enlarged the Army’s role, especially its transport and medical evacuation functions in the combat zone.

The Pace-Finletter agreement did not lessen the pressure within the Army for more and larger Army planes and for an extension of Army air responsibilities beyond the immediate liaison, observation, transport, and aeromedical evacuation duties. Army spokesmen, both officially and unofficially, held that the Air Force was not doing enough for tactical air support of the Army. They believed that their new mobile atomic forces would need more air transport than the Air Force could provide. The Army attitude was reinforced late in 1953 when the Air Force reduced its planned troop carrier wings from seventeen to eleven as part of its readjustment from the 143- to the 137-wing program.

The inability of the two services to see eye to eye on the Army’s use of aircraft continued as the Army added to its air fleet, particularly helicopters. After long and careful study of the problem, Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson issued a memorandum on March 18, 1957, which superseded while reaffirming most of the provisions of the Pace-Finletter memorandum specifying the use of aircraft by the Army. Within the battle zone, normally extending about 100 miles each way from the front lines, the Army could operate aircraft for the following purposes: command, liaison, and communications; observation, reconnaissance, fire-adjustment, and topographical survey; airlift of Army personnel and materiel; aeromedical evacuation. Helicopters could have a maximum empty weight of 20,000 pounds; all other Army aircraft were not to exceed 5,000 pounds empty. Specific exceptions to the limitation might be granted by the Secretary of Defense. As a “basic objective,” the Army should develop planes with the “capability of operations from unimproved fields.” The memorandum confirmed the role of the Air Force in strategic and tactical airlift, tactical reconnaissance, interdiction of the battlefield, and close combat air support. In an earlier memorandum on November 26, 1956, Wilson had suggested that the development of guided missiles for close support of Army field operations would permit a reduction in the tactical air strength of the Air Force and asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to study the subject and make recommendations.

The Guided Missile Era

Long before 1956, the services had begun to realize that the development of guided missiles would have a profound effect on their missions. Efforts to arrive at understandings on this point dated back to World War II. As progress accelerated after 1950 and the era of the guided missile appeared to be much closer than had been thought possible in the 1940s, competition among the services became keen. They appeared to be proceeding on the general principle that the developer of a weapon could use it, although there were agreements for mutual use of certain weapons. This could easily result in all three services performing the same functions. Secretary Forrestal’s question of 1948 could be rephrased to ask, “Who is to develop and who is to be the user of guided missiles?”

Once again it became necessary to seek definitions of responsibilities in order to avoid duplication and make the most effective use of the limited funds and technical resources available. All of the services tended to push their developmental work to the logistical extremes. The Air Force and the Navy, because of their broader air missions, had an advantage over the Army in the variety of missiles they required. But the Army, too, gradually broadened its missile development and, by 1955, announced progress on a so-called intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) of 1,500 miles. At the opposite extremes from this missile were the short-range tactical and air defense missiles and the long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The Air Force projects included ground-to-air, air-to-ground, air-to-air, and ground-to-ground guided missiles. In this last category fell the intermediate-range and long-range strategic missiles. Over long-range missiles the Air Force had exclusive jurisdiction, and its projects included air-breathing pilotless aircraft like the Snark, as well as the ballistic types—Atlas and Titan. The Navy developed missiles in all of the same fields except the intercontinental ballistic missile. The Army developed ground-to-air and ground-to-ground missiles. The duplications, therefore, were mainly in the ground-to-air and the intermediate-range missiles. The competition among the services was heightened by the greater emphasis on ballistic missiles in 1954-1955 and the President’s action in the fall of 1955 which gave the ballistic missile program the highest national priority.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretaries of the services could not arrive at agreements that were satisfactory to all. For this reason, in his memorandum of November 26, 1956, Secretary of Defense Wilson clarified the responsibilities of the services for developing and using guided missiles. He distinguished between point air defense of specified geographical areas—cities and vital installations—and area defense—interception of enemy attacks far from and without reference to cities or installations. He assigned to the Army responsibility for point defense and, therefore, the development, procurement, and manning of land-based surface-to-air missiles with a horizontal range of 100 nautical miles. The Air Force would have similar responsibilities in providing and using land-based missiles for area defense. The Navy retained responsibility for ship-based air defense weapons.

Wilson directed the Army to limit development and use of surface-to-surface missiles for close support of ground operations to a range of about 200 miles. Beyond that limit, the Air Force would provide and employ tactical air support missiles. He further directed that the Army would not “plan at this time for the operational employment of the intermediate-range ballistic missile or for any other missiles with ranges beyond 200 miles.” In addition to giving the Air Force sole responsibility for the operational use of the land-based IRBM, he confirmed its responsibility for use of the ICBM. The Navy continued its own approach to the development of a ship-based IRBM.

Toward Merger

In 1956-57 the three services were still seeking to maximize their existing missions. But forces at work in the opposite direction promised to bring about, at least in some measure, a greater unification of military effort—the underlying hope of the National Security Act. Chief among these forces was the tendency for the strategic concepts of all three services to converge on the same or similar weapon systems—most of them related to airpower, and primarily in the form of guided missiles. This made it difficult, if not impossible, to draw absolute lines between the missions of the services.

It appeared to some that the overlapping missions and the service rivalries pointed to a need for merging of the armed forces. In June 1956, General Spaatz (Ret.) proposed a single chief of staff and a general staff for the three armed forces. At the same time, Thomas K. Finletter, former Secretary of the Air Force, called for a single armed service in one uniform, with a single chief of staff and a general staff. This represented the ultimate in unification, and some senators regarded it as a wholly unacceptable approach to unification because, among other reasons, it might concentrate too much power in the hands of the military. But a ranking officer of the Air Force, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Thomas D. White, saw merit in the idea of a single service and expressed his belief that the military services would “move toward more complete unification.” Because most of the support for more unification came from people connected with the Air Force, opponents looked on the idea with suspicion and tended to interpret it to mean that the Air Force expected to dominate the military establishment of the future. Certainly, at the end of the first decade of unification, it appeared that in the name of greater economy and efficiency, there would be further actions to merge duplicating functions of the services, if not the services themselves.

One of the major efforts toward unification of functions was in the field of transportation. MATS, which represented a merger of Navy and Air Force agencies, had been organized in 1948 as a unified command under the Secretary of Defense, with the Air Force as executive agent. But within a few short years the Navy and the Air Force were once more operating some transports, except in the immediate battle area, and had to rely on MATS and the Tactical Air Command.

In a major step in December 1956, Secretary of Defense Wilson ordered the Navy and Air Force to transfer to MATS more of their large transports, including the equivalent of four groups of USAF heavy troop carriers. Transfers of additional transport planes from both services were planned, and it seemed that MATS would acquire the strength to carry out effectively its prime mission of supporting all three services in the event of war. The steps toward further integration of the air transport function during the closing days of the first decade of unification probably foreshadowed even more positive moves toward the same goal in the years ahead.

The pressure of events—specifically the growing long-range striking power of the Soviet Air Force—had resulted in the establishment on September 1, 1954, of a joint command with effective control over all available military forces for defense of the United States against air attack. The Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), headed by a USAF general, included elements of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, with the USAF Air Defense Command and the Army Antiaircraft Command as its chief components. The Department of the Air Force exercised executive control over CONAD.

At the end of its first decade of independent existence, the Air Force stood on the threshold of a new order of airpower. During the ten years, it had succeeded in keeping its mission substantially intact. It had maintained that land-based airpower, with certain exceptions (especially the Marines), was indivisible, and the executive and legislative branches of the government as well as the public had generally agreed. To some civilian and military leaders in 1957 it seemed logical that the new order of air warfare, based on guided missiles and atomic energy, might well transcend the missions of all three services and lead to their eventual merger. The Air Force felt confident that in any event airpower would continue to play its role as the main military instrument of national policy.