The accomplishments of the US Air Force during its 50 years as a separate service and the promise and challenges of coming decades were the main themes struck by key speakers at the 1997 AFA National Convention in Washington.
US airmen over the years have pushed their minds, their muscles, and their machines to the limit in order to demonstrate what airpower can do, noted Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, Air Force vice chief of staff and, at the time of his speech, acting Chief of Staff. Such total effort will continue in the future as technology expands Air Force capabilities, he said.
“As we move from today’s most respected air and space force to tomorrow’s most respected space and air force—how exciting to be a part of that,” said Eberhart.
The 1997 AFA National Convention and Aerospace Technology Exposition ran from Sept. 15–17 and helped mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Air Force as a separate military service in 1947.
In his speech to assembled AFA delegates, Eberhart noted that the official signing of the act that created the Department of Defense and the Air Force took place earlier than planned. Rising tensions from the nascent Cold War caused President Harry S. Truman to push things forward a few weeks and affix his signature to the document on Sept. 18, 1947, as he sat waiting for takeoff aboard his plane, Sacred Cow.
“A number of Army Air Corps representatives stood watch over the moment,” said Eberhart. “When Truman was done, he looked up and quietly said, ‘Gentlemen, we now have an independent air force.’ “
At the time, the United States military had just dropped from 12.5 million people in uniform to an active duty military of only 500,000. Yet world events soon put the new service to the test.
One Year to Respect
“In less than a year, we earned the respect of the world and the eternal gratitude of the German people with the Berlin Airlift,” said Eberhart.
Within 10 years the new USAF had fully entered the supersonic age. The U-2 had made its first flight, and the KC-135 was being readied to service B-47s and B-52s.
Later anniversaries highlighted further development of the force, said Eberhart. Twenty years on, the US was embroiled in Vietnam, with all the operational experience and problems that conflict entailed. The 30-year anniversary saw the Air Force in the midst of its post–Vietnam drawdown—and at the beginning of its adaptation of precision weapon and information technologies. “At 40 years, in 1987, the service was getting ready for the two minute drill in the fourth quarter of the Cold War,” said Eberhart.
Today the service is on the edge of entering frontiers of technology and capability outlined in such efforts as Joint Vision 2010 and the Quadrennial Defense Review.
“Just as the Army Air Corps officers who watched President Truman sign the national defense act had no idea in the late 1940s what the Air Force would become today, we have no idea what the next 50 years will hold,” said Eberhart.
The vice chief noted that he was delivering an AFA convention speech normally reserved for the Chief of Staff. The decision by Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman to cut short his term and retire one year early, however, left the Air Force without a titular leader during AFA festivities.
“I certainly miss having a Chief,” said Eberhart. “I feel sort of like the best man at a wedding, and the groom doesn’t show up. Everybody knows what’s supposed to happen, but it’s not quite the same.”
Then–Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall, in her last address to AFA in her official capacity, also reminisced about the changes the Air Force has seen in the last 50 years. She stepped down to return to a post at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
When the service was formed, milk was 78 cents a gallon and bread was 13 cents a loaf. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was a whopping 177, but “since our origin in 1947, one commodity has remained unchanged, priceless and, quite frankly, the envy of the world: American airpower,” said the Secretary.
Furthermore, USAF will remain enviable, she said, remarking that the service is likely to continue to define the much-heralded Revolution in Military Affairs as it applies to air and space.
For instance, the US and its Air Force may be on the edge of an ability to wage warfare in parallel fashion, said the Secretary. That means using stealthy UAVs, as well as satellites and other reconnaissance assets, in combination with sophisticated information and targeting systems, to hold all of an adversaries target classes at risk—nearly simultaneously.
Long-range planning for such developments has now been institutionalized in the Air Force, Widnall said. Evidence of this can be seen in the recent production of the vision document “Global Engagement: A Vision for the 21st Century Air Force,” the result of an 18-month comprehensive effort.
The Secretary then gave what she called a trip report of Air Force accomplishments during her four-year tenure. Among them: the advent of the C-17, the future backbone of strategic airlift; the establishment of the Global Engagement Wargame series, intended to test the service’s long-range plans; and the Lightning Bolt acquisition reforms that have already chalked up $17 billion in savings and cost-avoidance.
Other big steps the Air Force has taken during Widnall’s time in office include bomber conventional weapon upgrades, continued development of the F-22 fighter and the Joint Strike Fighter, and the battlelabs initiative, which is aimed at rushing new operating concepts and technologies to the field as fast as possible.
The idea is to move so fast that adversaries don’t have time to consider how to counter US capabilities.
“Clearly,” said Widnall, “the symbiosis of innovation and technology will be key to realizing our destiny: the primacy of space operations.”
Already, USAF space operations are undergoing explosive growth. Today the United States has 250 percent more satellites in orbit than it did during the Cold War. “Talk about a bull market!” said Widnall.
Neither technology nor acquisition will be the greatest challenge as USAF moves to more emphasis on space, in Widnall’s view. The biggest problem, instead, may be cultural. “Every member of our Air Force team needs to learn to think differently about the concept of future operations if our Air Force is to remain as viable 50 years from now as it is today,” she said.
Personnel issues have been important to Widnall during her time at the Pentagon. She said she has tried to pursue a balanced Quality of Life strategy that includes attempts to reduce high optempo and perstempo rates, dormitory and housing improvements, preservation of retirement benefits, and continued support of educational systems, among other things.
Some Ways to Go
The three percent pay raise authorized in Fiscal 1997 should help bring US military compensation closer to comparability with that in the private sector. “But clearly we have some distance yet to travel in this area,” said Widnall.
To close, Widnall paraphrased remarks she had made four years ago in her first address to AFA. Back then, she recalled the words of Lt. Gen. Ira Eaker when he arrived in Britain, signaling America’s participation in World War II: “We won’t do any more talking until we’ve done some fighting, and after we leave, we hope you will be glad we came.” Then Widnall said, “It is my hope that Ira Eaker’s words ring true in your hearts today. I hope that I have met your expectations.”
Secretary of Defense William Cohen told the AFA audience that the 50th anniversary of an independent air arm was a time for looking ahead, not just celebration.
His speech focused on the Revolution in Military Affairs. As a result of this technological upheaval the US will continue to have the most dominating military on the planet, he said, and air and space forces are likely to be the global symbols of this decisive power.
“Our forces will be able to descend on the scene very early in the conflict, take the initiative away from a numerically superior opponent, getting inside his decision cycle and ending the battle quickly on our terms,” he said.
The guide for building toward this future force is the Joint Vision 2010 report prepared by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It lays out a vision of a system of systems that gives US forces total battlespace awareness, said Cohen.
“The Revolution in Military Affairs is going to integrate the laptop, the microchip, the microwave, the video cam, the satellite, and the sensor,” said Cohen. “It’s going to collect and distribute a steady flow of information to our forces throughout the battlespace, while denying the enemy the ability to do the same.”
These new capabilities may mean that US forces will be able to deploy lighter, he added, noting that they might need fewer weapons platforms and fewer munitions.
“Realizing this vision will require such leap-ahead technologies as the F-22 Raptor,” according to the Pentagon head. “We’re going to need the Air Force’s JSTARS and satellites and UAVs and even more,” he said.
Nor can the Pentagon ignore the fact that much of the information necessary to RMA travels through, or is collected from, space.
Space and Air
“That’s why it is so vitally important that the Air Force continue its evolution from an air and space force into a space and air force,” said the Defense Secretary.
Cohen’s speech contained high praise for Fogleman, whose retirement ceremony was held last month. The general left little doubt that he was leaving, in part, because of disagreements with the defense secretary over the disciplining of an Air Force general in regard to the Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 airmen in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
Of Fogleman, Cohen said, “As the Air Force enters the new century, you can do so with confidence because of the vision that General Fogleman had as he charted a course that was both clear and bold. And he carried out his responsibilities with pride and principle, and we all owe him a great deal of thanks.”
Cohen’s comments about Fogleman sparked thunderous applause from convention attendees.
“This week is a time when Americans reflect upon the enormous debt that our nation owes to the Air Force for five decades of courage and service,” Cohen told the AFA group. From the C-54 crews in the Berlin Airlift to troops deployed today in support of operations around the world, “and to all airmen … our debt is incalculable and our gratitude is immense.”
Peter Grier, the Washington bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Materiel World,” appeared in the October 1997 issue.