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Blue evolution - tracing U.S. Air Force history

  • Published
  • By Dylan Laurie
  • 16th SOW Public Affairs
The Air Force's humble beginnings can be traced back to the time of the Civil War, with the use of hot air balloons for artillery spotting.

On Aug. 1, 1907, the US Army Signal Corps established a small Aeronautical Division to take charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines and all related subjects.

The Signal Corps began testing its first airplane at Fort Myer, Va., Aug. 20, 1908, and Sept. 9, 1908, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, flying with Orville Wright, was killed when the plane crashed. After more testing with a second, imp-roved Wright Flyer, the Army formally accepted this airplane, identified as Airplane No. 1, Aug. 2, 1909.

The progress of American aviation was slow in the early years. Congress voted the first appropriation for military aviation in 1911.

At the time of America's declaration of war against Germany on April 6, 1917, the Aviation Section was marginal at best. Of the 740 U.S. aircraft at the front in France at the time of the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, almost all were European-made.
However, the Air Service of General Pershing American Expeditionary Forces, organized by Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick and Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell, distinguished itself in action against the Germans.

As a result of the important role air power had play-ed in the war, a movement developed during the 1920s and 1930s to create an independent air force.

World War II was to be the catapult for launching American air power into significance.
From the Air Corps of 1939, with 20,000 men and 2,400 planes, it expanded to the nearly self-sufficient Army Air Forces of 1944, with almost 2.4 million personnel and 80,000 aircraft.

On June 20, 1941, Maj. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, then chief of the Air Corps, assumed the title of chief of AAF and was given command of the Air Force Combat Command.
As Arnold's staff saw it, the first priority in the war was to launch a strategic bombing offensive in support of the Royal Air Force against Germany.

When AAF B-29 Superfortresses dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it demonstrated what air power could do in the future.

After World War II, independence for the Air Force was virtually inevitable.

In 1946, the Army Air Forces had created three major combat commands in the United States: Strategic Air Command, Tactical Air Command and Air Defense Command. SAC became the centerpiece of Air Force planning.

The War Department favored unification of the Army and Navy, with co-equal land, sea and air services under a single head.

The Navy opposed this plan and forced adoption of a compromise in the National Security Act, which created the Department of the Air Force and gave a secretary of defense limited authority over the services. It was adopted July 26, 1947 and went in-to effect Sept. 18, 1947.

By this time, the Air Force was beginning to rebuild from its efforts in World War II. Its leaders, such as W. Stuart Symington, first Secretary of the Air Force and Gen. Carl Spaatz, first Chief of Staff, had defined a goal of establishing 70 combat groups with 400,000 men and 8,000 planes.

Postwar budgets delayed the program, despite the growing threat from the Soviet Union. As the U.S. relied on deterrence, the Air Force gave precedence to its long-range atomic bombing force, using air refueling to expand its reach.

The first important intervention of the Air Force in the Cold War was by the Military Air Transport Service June 26, 1948, during the Berlin Airlift, Operation Vittles, and began with Douglas C-47 crews bringing 80 tons of supplies into the city on the first day. By the time it ended Sept. 30, 1949, the program delivered a total of 2,324,257 tons of food, fuel and supplies.

The first Air Force victories in the Korean War were reported June 27, 1950. Then, 1st Lt. Russell Brown Jr., flying an F-80 Shooting Star, downed a North Korean MiG 15 in history's first all-jet aerial combat Nov. 8, 1950.

Two days after the July 1953 armistice ending the Korean War, the Air Force announced that the Far East Air Force shot down 839 MiG-15 jet fighters, probably destroyed 154 more and damaged 919 others during the 37 months of war. United Nations air forces lost 110 aircraft in air-to-air combat, 677 to enemy ground fire and 213 airplanes to "other causes."

After the Soviets detonated an atomic bomb in 1949, a new emphasis on air defense brought ADC into the picture. The Air Force developed ballistic missiles and Earth satellites during the 1950s. SAC began to complement its squadron of bombers with missiles in 1959. By the end of the 1960s, more than 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles were in place. The Air Force had two elements of the "Triad" of strategic weapons, bombers and land-based missiles, while the Navy had the third, submarine-launched missiles.

As Operation Rolling Thunder began March 2, 1965, Capt. Hayden Lockhart, flying an F-100 in a raid against an ammunition dump north of the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone, was shot down and became the first Air Force pilot to be taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese. He was not released until Feb. 12. 1973.

But even during the crisis in Southeast Asia, Air Force pioneers such as Maj. Virgil Grissom, Maj. Edward White, Maj. James McDivitt and Lt. Col. L. Gordon Cooper, continued to explore new possibilities during the Gemini 3, 4 and 5 spaceflight missions throughout 1965.

As the war reached the climactic bombings of 1972, the Air Force tried to stay prepared in additional areas regardless of cutbacks. With the end of fighting, they turned to advancing the strategic deterrent force and maintaining heightened combatreadiness in Europe.

Global military and humanitarian actions, such as supporting Israel in the Middle East war of 1973, led to increases in appropriations. Started under the administration of President Jimmy Carter, they peaked in 1985-1986 with President Ronald Reagan, when the Air Force was awarded $97 billion for annual spending and amassed more than 600,000 Airmen.

During this time, deployments supporting operations in Grenada in 1983, Libya in 1986 and Panama in 1989, proved the need for fast reactions to neighboring problems, while arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union began to shed a light of hope on the horizon.

As the post-Cold War role of the Air Force began to take shape, events were already in motion that would attest their prowess in the relevance of air power. In the Persian Gulf in January 1991, the Air Force, supporting a coalition designed to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, led the way in a six-week campaign.

In 1992, the main flying forces in the continental U.S. were put into two major commands: Air Combat Command and Air Mobility Command. At the same time, AMC's airlift force continued to be a crucial implement of national policy all over the world.

In the 1990's, low-observable "Stealth" technology, such as the B-2 bomber and F-117 fighter-bomber, became primary examples of the commitment to research and development that General Arnold instilled in the early days of the Air Force, while aircraft like the C-17 transport represented state-of-the art design. The F-22 fighter sustained a dedication to air supremacy, while unmanned air vehicles recommended innovative alternatives.

However, by the late 1990's, the Air Force was facing tremendous demands to meet worldwide duties with dilapidated assets. The cut back of nuclear forces on strategic alert to 380,000 as a result of arms control reduced the budget in 1997 to $73 billion.

The relevance of space technology became apparent as the millennium came to a close, giving Space Command, which was first created in 1982, a pioneering role as the Air Force looked to the 21st century.

As future challenges are brought about by new global conflicts, including terrorist attacks at home and abroad, unstable economics and the ever-increasing threat of pollution and over-population to the worldwide welfare, everyone will have to be responsible for universal prosperity.

The Air Force will have to look ahead as it considers how to best renovate and advance itself, weighing the pros and cons of all aspects of its being. It cannot afford to leap forward technologically at the expense of its people. Nor will it benefit from allowing stagnant leadership, comfortably numb to the plight of the common airman.

Some new priorities for restructuring U.S. fighter forces that have been identified by a yearlong RAND Air Force study include: helping defeat adversary ballistic and cruise missiles, helping build and operate the joint and interagency "inform and act" intelligence infrastructure that will be needed to deal with the difficult security challenges confronting the nation and rebalancing the force to better enable prompt operations from bases far away from the battlefield.

Also, novel or accelerated initiatives are needed to identify, track and engage small, mo-bile or concealed targets; defeat advanced air defenses; neutralize adversary nuclear weapons and provide assistance to friendly governments threatened by insurgencies or terrorist groups.