Air Force, United States

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AIR FORCE, UNITED STATES. The National Security Act of 1947 created the United States Air Force (USAF) after nearly three decades of debate within the government and the military about how best to integrate airpower into an overarching national defense structure. With its ability to project power rapidly across the globe, the air service also reflected greater U.S. involvement in the geopolitical arena. Several themes framed airpower's development and employment. First, technology permeates airpower history. Regardless of the vehicle—airplane, spacecraft, guided missile, or satellite—U.S. airmen consistently sought to expand existing technological boundaries. Second, organization and doctrine fueled debates regarding how best to employ airpower to achieve national policy goals. Third, the expanding nuclear inventory thrust airpower to the forefront of strategy calculations. Finally, dramatically changing diplomatic contexts compelled airmen to adapt to shifts in strategy, operations, and tactics. Thus USAF history is more than an account of a series of wars and operations; it reflects a fundamental transformation in the U.S. conception of war fighting.

Early Cold War

In the aftermath of World War II, USAF leaders believed airpower had proven decisive. The large bomber formations that devastated German and Japanese cities appeared to confirm interwar theories proposed by such individuals as the Italian theorist Giulio Douhet, the Royal Air Force leader Sir Hugh Trenchard, the maverick American airman Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell, and the instructors at the U.S. Army's Air Corps Tactical School. The new service's leaders framed their institutional identity in terms that emphasized airpower's strategic role. This produced a force structure that favored long-range heavy bombers and nuclear weaponry at the expense of tactical platforms. Airpower enthusiasts argued that the nuclear bomber's "city-busting" capability rendered traditional armies and navies obsolete as long as the United States maintained a nuclear monopoly. In the early postwar years, this perspective engendered animosity among air, land, and sea service leaders. Tensions peaked in 1949 over the decision to procure the intercontinental B-36 bomber. In what became known as the "Re-volt of the Admirals," sea service leaders argued vehemently against the B-36 program because it threatened navy plans for a supercarrier with expanded naval aviation roles.

In the early Cold War years, geopolitical crises intensified debates regarding the air force's role in national defense. In 1948, the Berlin crisis signaled increasing tensions between the Soviet Union and the West. The USAF launched Operation Vittles to supply Soviet-blockaded Berlin, thus offering wider possibilities for employing military forces in conflicts short of war. When the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic device in 1949, U.S statesmen realized they could no longer rely on nuclear monopoly and strategic bombing to protect the nation and its allies. On 25 June 1950, North Korean forces attacked South Korea and ushered in a new era of limited war, one operating below the Cold War's nuclear threshold. USAF forces applied the full range of conventional airpower—strategic bombing, interdiction, close air support, reconnaissance and surveillance, and search and rescue—to support United Nations operations on the Korean peninsula. In Korea, airpower proved less decisive than the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II, although in many ways it kept U.S. forces from being overrun at the outset of the war. In this war along the periphery of great power conflict, U.S. leaders refused to introduce nuclear weapons for fear of provoking a general war with the Soviet Union and China. The Korean War also witnessed a technological shift as jet aircraft revolutionized the quest to dominate the skies.

Technological developments characterized the remainder of the 1950s as the USAF sponsored research into new airframe designs, engine technologies, and guided missile systems. The Eisenhower administration's "New Look" strategy shaped an aviation force structure that employed both long-range bomber aircraft and nuclear weapons. The Strategic Air Command (SAC), equipped with weapons systems like the B-47 Stratojet, the B-58 Hustler, and the B-52 Stratofortress, formed the nuclear deterrent force's backbone, giving the USAF a true "global strike" capability. Later in the decade, re-search into missile technology promised to add medium-range and intercontinental missiles to the arsenal. Following SAC's lead, tactical forces mirrored the strategic fleet's nuclear emphasis. Fighter and fighter-bomber designs, including the F-100, F-104, and F-105, represented attempts to reconcile tactical and theater needs with nuclear battlefield requirements. The emphasis on deterrence and nuclear operations, however, created a void in the USAF's conventional war-fighting capability.


The Vietnam War shaped a generation of American airmen's views about how to employ airpower. USAF leaders entered the conflict convinced that airpower could be most effective when employed against strategic industrial targets. In 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson committed U.S. forces to support the South Vietnamese government, USAF planners proposed attacks against ninety-four strategic targets in the North. Johnson opted for a more limited campaign—Operation Rolling Thunder—designed to coerce communist leaders to the negotiating table while simultaneously confining the war to Southeast Asia. Johnson and his defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, envisioned a gradually escalating airpower campaign that increased the pressure on North Vietnamese leaders. U.S. leaders expended the bulk of American air strikes in vain attempts to interdict men and materiel destined for the battlefields of the South along the Ho Chi Minh trail. In the South, General William Westmoreland used airpower, including B-52 strikes, in concert with land forces in large-scale "search and destroy" sweeps designed to eradicate Viet Cong guerrilla units. The twin culminating points—the siege at Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive—that signaled the failure of the Johnson administration's strategy occurred in 1968. Airpower, working in close cooperation with ground forces, ended a siege by 40,000 North Vietnamese soldiers of the Marine firebase at Khe Sanh. The strength of the Khe Sanh siege coupled with the general uprising during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, convinced the American public that Johnson's gradualist strategy had failed. Republican Richard M. Nixon rose to the presidency with a mandate to extract the United States from the Vietnam quagmire.

In 1971 and 1972 Nixon took advantage of improved relations with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China to unleash airpower first against North Vietnamese conventional forces moving south in Operation Linebacker I, and later against communist industrial centers of gravity in Operation Linebacker II. New technologies including precision-guided munitions and more capable airframes combined with traditional bombing raids in short, violent campaigns that apparently helped bring the North Vietnamese back to the peace talks in Paris, although they did not prevent the North from achieving its overall goals in the war. USAF leaders argued that the Linebacker campaigns confirmed strategic bombing doctrine despite the U.S. failure in Vietnam and the dramatic changes in the international political context.

Desert Storm and the End of the Cold War

For the remainder of the 1970s and into the 1980s the USAF honed its tactical proficiency. The Vietnam experience indicated that a pilot or aircrew's chances of surviving aerial combat increased dramatically after the first ten missions. Red Flag, centered at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, emerged as the USAF's aerial combat training center to simulate those first ten combat missions. Its value became apparent in 1990–1991.

In August 1990, Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein occupied the Persian Gulf nation of Kuwait. The UN provided a mandate for coalition action to restore Kuwait's sovereignty and to reduce the Iraqi military threat. In the largest airlift since Operation Vittles, Military Airlift Command's (MAC) C-5, C-141, and C-130 and SAC's KC-135 and KC-10 fleets created an air bridge that deployed materiel to bases in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries. The USAF's complete offensive airpower capability—B-52, F-117 Stealth, F-111, F-15, F-16, EF-111, F-4, and Special Operations forces—also deployed to support the coalition. A robust support fleet, including KC-135 and KC-10 refueling tankers, E-3A airborne warning and control aircraft, and intelligence-gathering and command and control assets, bolstered the offensive capabilities brought to bear against Iraq. United States Central Command's joint force air component commander, Lieutenant General Charles Horner, led efforts to create an air strategy to isolate Iraqi ground forces, defeat Iraqi air defense networks, destroy nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons facilities, and reduce Iraqi ground forces' combat effectiveness. Although Desert Storm left Saddam Hussein's regime intact and his weapons programs still dangerous enough to necessitate UN weapons inspections, its success showcased USAF planning, command and control, precision weaponry, and space support, and above all it vindicated post-Vietnam investments in training and exercises. Many observers concluded that Desert Storm represented the first wave of a revolution in military affairs.

The end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union's collapse ushered in a host of changes for the USAF. Nuclear weapons no longer provided the air service's raison d'être. While nuclear deterrence remained vital to U.S. national security, the Defense Department leaders aligned the strategic forces under a separate unified command in 1992. The organizational scheme that had served the service since its inception also changed as SAC, MAC, and Tactical Air Command (TAC) stood down. The twenty-first century's streamlined air force integrated all combat forces under a single command, Air Combat Command (ACC). All airlift and air refueling assets came under the command of Air Mobility Command (AMC). Paradoxically, the Cold War victory did not decrease the USAF's operations tempo or its deployment commitments. Since 1991, USAF personnel served around the globe to keep the peace, offer humanitarian assistance, deter aggression, and enforce UN resolutions. The hallmarks of USAF air-power reside in the service's core competencies—air and space superiority, global attack, rapid global mobility, precision engagement, information superiority, and agile combat support. These six competencies reflect more than fifty years of institutional continuity and development.


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Anthony ChristopherCain

See alsoAir Force Academy ; Air Power, Strategic ; Aircraft, Bomber ; Aircraft, Fighter ; Berlin Airlift ; Bombing ; Korean War, Air Combat in ; Persian Gulf War .

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