We are about to celebrate the Air Force’s fortieth birthday, marking the anniversary of its independence from the Army and its establishment as a separate military service. It would be more accurate, though, to describe September 18, 1947, as the day the Air Force finally got its birth certificate.
By 1947, the nation’s air arm was already mature and battle-proven. The Army Air Forces had been operating with great autonomy since 1942, and Field Manual 100-20 had confessed in 1943 that “land power and air power are co-equal and interdependent; neither is an auxiliary of the other.”
The arguments surrounding the reorganization of 1947 were mostly about roles, missions, and shares of the budget — not about the inherent value of airpower. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the events of World War II had confirmed most of what Billy Mitchell tried to tell the traditionalists in the 1920s and 1930s. Even Mitchell’s old foe, the Navy, had shifted its emphasis to aircraft carriers. The War Department had long since filed away the embarrassing judgment of the 1934 Baker Board that “independent air missions have little effect upon the issue of battle and none upon the outcome of war.”
Thus it was that the Air Force received legitimate title to its own good name. Over the next forty years, this youngest of the services would become the foremost military instrument of US global policy. In the special section of our magazine this month, we look back over this period and recall the Air Force’s stewardship of its legacy.
Ironically, the independent Air Force has never achieved the wartime size of its AAF predecessor, which peaked at 2,400,000 people and 68,000 aircraft. Today’s force consists of 606,000 people on active duty, 112,500 in the Air National Guard, 78,000 in the Air Force Reserve, and 9,500 aircraft in all components. The real fortieth anniversary story is that this smaller force can do more, and do it faster, than could any previous generation of airmen — including the AAF.
We have seen spectacular gains in sped, range, accuracy, payloads, and readiness. Consider, for example, that the second raid against the Schweinfurt ball-bearing plants during World War II put 291 B-17 bombers in the air. A theater commander of 1987 might allocate such a target to a relatively small number of F-16s. Even using conventional ordnance, they would have a high probability of success. Precision-guided munitions yield even more amazing results. In Vietnam, four aircraft carrying “smart” weapons destroyed the Thanh Hoa bridge, which had earlier withstood 871 conventional sorties.
Fighter aircraft in World War II averaged one combat mission every four days. Current fighters fly better than three sorties a day for surge periods and can sustain the rate of one sortie a day over time. A lone C-5 Galaxy can carry as much cargo as a fleet of AAFC-47s. Airlifters go halfway around the world to reach their destinations within seconds of their preassigned arrival times. We have seen F-111s operating out of Great Britain strike targets in Libya and return to their home bases before landing. Tactical squadrons in Europe report unprecedented mission-capable rates, 87.5 percent for F-16s and 79.3 percent for F-15s. We are on the threshold of capabilities that will enable fighters to conduct ground attacks at night or in bad weather and to engage more than one airborne enemy on a single pass.
Much of this progress is attributable to huge gains in aeronautical and electronic technology since World War II. A great deal of the credit, however, must go to Air Force leaders over the years. They have chosen well from what technology had to offer and then blended it wisely with operational and training concepts. Advancements in propulsion and flight controls have redrawn the fighter aircraft envelope in astounding ways. Training has become so realistic that it approximates combat experience. Yet, by contrast, aircraft accident rates have fallen to their lowest levels in history.
The factor that makes any force jell is the caliber of people in it. When sortie-generation rates hit a new high, you can bet there are some determined maintenance and support troops out there shedding extra sweat. When a feat of airmanship looks easy, it’s usually an indication of training and talent behind the hand on the stick. The Air Force of 1987 can count among its blessings the quality of airmen and officers it has been able to recruit and retain.
The independent Air Force has moved in a generally upward direction, but the course has not been smooth or straight. It began in rather shabby condition in 1947, with operational efficiency nearly destroyed in the nation’s rush to postwar demobilization. Three years later, the force was rebuilding to fight the Korean War. That, unfortunately, has not been the only time the Air Force has had to replace lost experience at heavy cost. This syndrome of tearing down and building up not only hurts military preparedness but has also proved repeatedly to be false economy in the long run.
All in all, the Air Force has been quite a bargain for the United States since 1947. It provides global defense and effective power projection, even though it has fewer total airplanes than the AAF lost in 1943 in non-combat crashes alone. A couple of years ago, somebody figured out that Americans were spending more money on alcoholic beverages than they were to fund Air Force operations. The Air Force budget, expressed as a share of GNP, is nowhere near what it was in the AAF days and in fact is down by thirty-six percent since 1964.
On its fortieth birthday, the Air Force can field thirty-seven combat-coded fighter and attack wings, its goal of forty shelved at present for economic reasons. Strategic, tactical, and force-projection budgets as well as funding for manpower, readiness, and sustainability are being questioned again on Capitol Hill as Congress searches for ways to reduce spending.
Apparently, we did not learn as much as we should have from the experience of the 1970s, when sparse defense budgets depleted the ranks of experienced veterans and dropped readiness to a dangerous level. As the Air Force begins its second forty years as an independent service, its greatest challenge may be to hold its course in the face of yet another wave of reduced resources.