Air Force Combat Organizations: Strategic Air Forces

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Air Force Combat Organizations: Strategic Air Forces. First introduced as auxiliaries in support of ground and naval forces, aircraft offered a potential technological solution to the problems of warfare in the industrial age. Aerial forces could fly over defending armies and navies, which were tactical targets, and directly attack the strategic sources of an enemy's warmaking capability—factories, communications, transportation, workers, and urban concentrations—without the need for bloody ground campaigns. A product of the airmen's special perspective from on high and the American love of technology, this strategic view of air war received its first expression in the United States from pioneer aviator Lt. Benjamin Foulois's proposal in 1907 that military aviation focus on targets behind enemy armies. In 1917, airpower prophet Lt. Col. Billy Mitchell sought to divide American air units on the western front into tactical and strategic air forces, the former to support ground forces, the latter to attack “enemy material of all kinds behind the lines.” Inadequate resources and the opposition of his staff encouraged Gen. John J. Pershing, commanding the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France, to reject both Mitchell's proposal and a detailed plan to bomb “commercial centers and the lines of communications” by Mitchell's technical chief, Maj. Edgar Gorrell. Other nations engaged in strategic bombing in World War I, but the U.S. Army Air Service, America's wartime air force, remained a tactical force in support of army ground operations under the AEF.

In the interwar period, the Air Service and its successor, the Air Corps, struggled to win an independent role for army aviation by emphasizing strategic operations behind the army's battle lines. Opposed by the army and navy, General Mitchell, General Foulois, and World War II air commander “Hap” Arnold nevertheless worked out the tactics, training, and technology of strategic bombing. Officers at the Air Corps Tactical School developed a strategic bombing doctrine based on high‐altitude, daylight, precision attacks on an enemy's industrial infrastructure or “fabric,” in contrast to European plans to employ airpower in support of armies or to attack cities. The appearance of the B‐17 “Flying Fortress” bomber and the Norden bombsight, coupled with Adolf Hitler's successful use of bombers to intimidate foes in the 1930s, convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt and army chief George C. Marshall to support a strategic bombing campaign against Axis enemies in World War II.

For the war the Army Air Forces established America's first strategic bombing organizations, The Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces against Germany and the Twentieth Air Force against Japan, to bomb primarily oil and transportation links, but also aircraft production, ball bearings, and other industries. Thirty‐one months of strategic operations against Germany saw most bombs aimed at industry, while ten months against Japan brought mostly area attacks against urban concentrations. Though assigned the role of bombing the sources of enemy power under the unified command of airmen, American air forces in Europe remained subordinate to ground commanders in pursuit of war objectives. Only against Japan did the Twentieth Air Force carry out an independent strategic air campaign.

During the Cold War, the threat of strategic attack using nuclear weapons dominated air force war planning. The Strategic Air Command (SAC), established on 21 March 1946, had the mission of conducting “long‐range offensive operations in any part of the world,” but its primary responsibility was to maintain a credible threat of assured destruction—any nation attacking the United States or its Western European allies would suffer an overwhelming counterattack. Based initially on manned bombers (the B‐29 and B‐36 to start, though primarily the B‐52 from 1955 into the 1990s) and later intercontinental ballistic missiles (starting with the Atlas in 1958, followed by the Titan, Minuteman, and Peacekeeper) carrying thermonuclear hydrogen bombs and warheads, SAC war plans evolved from area attacks on Soviet urban industrial concentrations in the late 1940s to attacks on specific governmental, industrial, and military targets in the decades following.

Under the leadership of the hard‐driving Gen. Curtis E. LeMay from 1948 to 1957, SAC became an elite force that consumed a major portion of America's defense budget. LeMay and SAC's dominating influence also caused America's defense planning to focus on nuclear war preparations to the detriment of preparations for limited conventional war. Involvement in Korea and Vietnam propelled an unprepared USAF into strategic bombing operations using nonnuclear weapons. Targets remained consistent with 1930s doctrine—industrial infrastructure. In both wars, however, the vital industrial centers supporting enemy war efforts were in the Soviet Union and China, put beyond the range of strategic bombers by political considerations. The dearth of industrial targets in North Korea and North Vietnam, and the presence of strong defenses against air attack, created the ironic situation of strategic bombers attacking tactical targets in safer areas while more maneuverable tactical fighter‐bombers went after the few strategic targets available.

In the Persian Gulf War of 1991, tactical fighters such as the F‐117 stealth aircraft replaced large strategic bombers such as the B‐52 in carrying out a strategic bombing campaign against Iraq because of the need for greater accuracy and the dangers posed by Iraqi antiaircraft defenses. A new bombing doctrine, building on the experience in the Vietnam War, moved beyond the industrial focus of earlier strategies to envision Iraq's warmaking capability as a synergy between leadership, communication, industrial production, transportation, and military forces, merging tactical and strategic air warfare into a unified air campaign. Five weeks of intensive bombing aimed at Iraq's military, industrial, and governmental complex paved the way for a successful four‐day ground offensive.

Doctrinal and technological developments so blurred the boundary between tactical and strategic bombing in the 1980s and 1990s that the USAF redefined the former as joint operations involving conventional weapons and the latter as independent operations involving nuclear weapons. Reflecting this change, the United States integrated its strategic nuclear forces, including land‐ and sea‐based ballistic missiles and manned bombers, under the U.S. Strategic Command on 1 June 1992, simultaneously disbanding SAC. At the same time, air force conventional bombing forces, including traditionally defined tactical and nonnuclear strategic bombers, reorganized as Air Combat Command.
[See also Strategy: Air Warfare Strategy.]


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Michael S. Sherry , The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon, 1987.
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Norman Polmar and Timothy M. Laur, eds., Strategic Air Command: People, Aircraft, and Missiles, 1990.
Earl H. Tilford, Jr. , Crosswinds: The Air Force's Setup in Vietnam, 1993.
Stephen L. McFarland , America's Pursuit of Precision Bombing, 1910–1945, 1995.

Stephen L. McFarland

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Air Force Combat Organizations: Strategic Air Forces

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