An Air Force, If You Can Keep It

Sept. 1, 2007

This is a year with two key airpower anniversaries. The first marked 100 years since the birth of America’s air arm on Aug. 1, 1907. The second—this month—marks 60 years since Sept. 18, 1947, the day on which this air arm separated itself from the Army and became the United States Air Force.

The 1907 event may have been optional (see “The First of the Force,” August 2007 issue), but the 1947 step was not—not after what the Army Air Forces achieved in World War II. Airpower pounded German industry and forces. Conventional and nuclear bombers devastated Japan. AAF’s postwar elevation was all but inevitable.

A serious question, though, is how AAF pulled off such a wartime feat in the first place. There are many answers, but one is that, years before it made itself separate from the Army, the air arm made itself independent of the Army, and thus free to develop its immense latent power.

Airpower historians have elaborated on that fact for years. It is a point made with great force and clarity by John T. Correll, a former editor of this magazine, in a new article about airpower on the eve of World War II. His piece, which will appear in our October issue, recounts how airmen, in the 1930s, faced and survived near-suffocation from their Army brethren.

Entering the 1930s, the Army had mostly dispensed with the view, rife in the 1920s, that airpower was of no military value. However, the Army as a whole had been cut to the bone and was starved for cash. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Army Chief of Staff, argued in 1932 that spending on aviation was “money thrown away.” Still, the pivotal issue was not whether to have airpower. The question was: what kind

The Army’s dominant ground-force faction insisted that the Air Corps was, like artillery, a mere adjunct of the ground force, with no mission but to support ground units. In 1934, Maj. Gen. Hugh A. Drum, the Army’s deputy chief, asserted there should be “no [air] operations not contributing to the success of the ground campaign.” Aircraft, he said, need not be able to fly more than three days’ march ahead of infantry units.

Inevitably, Army views led to wooden-headed decisions that stunted military aviation. In 1935, mostly to divert calls for an independent air arm, the Army consolidated all air combat units under a GHQ Air Force, but did not let the Chief of the Air Corps command it. The Army, in a key 1935 bomber selection, chose the short-range B-18 over the superior four-engine B-17. In 1938, Gen. Malin Craig, Chief of Staff, barred AAC from flying more than 100 miles beyond the United States shoreline. And so forth.

In 1939, AAC was small and wobbly, with a personnel strength of 26,000 and air fleet of 1,200 fighters and bombers, many of them obsolete. AAC counted only 13 modern bombers. Eddie Rickenbacker, the top US ace, said the AAC trailed German aviation by 10 years.

However, airpower’s fortunes would soon begin to improve. The impetus came from key personnel changes:

Maj. Gen. Henry H. Arnold became Air Corps Chief, bringing with him a restless impatience and commitment to strategic airpower.

Maj. Gen. George C. Marshall replaced Craig as Chief of Staff of the Army. Unlike his predecessors, Marshall supported the B-17 bomber and was a staunch supporter of airpower.

Henry L. Stimson became Secretary of War. He displaced Harry H. Woodring, an isolationist who expended much effort keeping long-range bombers out of the hands of airmen.

The three were united in what was, for that time, an unusual belief—that airpower should not be tied to surface forces, as it then was, but should be managed and operated independently. The effort got timely aid from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Alarmed by German airpower, FDR, at a historic Nov. 14, 1938 White House meeting, approved a 10,000-airplane Air Corps. Arnold saw FDR’s decree as AAC’s “Magna Carta.” Historian Richard J. Overy wrote, “Support from the President … rescued American air strategy from the War Department’s view of airpower.”

The interaction of Arnold, Marshall, Stimson, Roosevelt, and numerous senior airmen produced major progress in 1939, 1940, and 1941—the three years before Pearl Harbor. Marshall formed the Army Air Forces and made it co-equal with the ground forces. He made an AAC officer, Brig. Gen. Frank Andrews, his operations chief. Arnold himself became a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The air arm, if not yet fully independent, was autonomous, and airpower began to develop.

By summer of 1941, AAF strength was 152,125 troops and 6,777 aircraft, of which 120 were heavy bombers. Critical aircraft types were in or nearing production. The framework for growth was in place, and, because it was, the nation was able in a few short years to create a 2.4-million-strong force.

Postwar Army leadership generally favored Air Force separation from the Army. After some four years of war, few any longer believed that the air arm was just a supporting force.

The story, however, does not end there. Formation of an independent USAF was supposed to answer basic questions: Who controls air forces? What is their purpose? Yet these questions recur, and today are nearly as pertinent as they were in the 1930s.

Many Army boosters argue that, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force should devote virtually all missions to direct support of the ground forces. The Army seeks its own fleets of high-flying unmanned air vehicles and tactical transports, tethered to local commanders.

Many soldiers demand that USAF support the Army. Airmen say the Air Force and Army should support the Joint Force commander. USAF might be 60, but the struggle for airpower will go on a while longer.

As Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention on Sept. 18, 1787, someone shouted, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” He meant that survival of the new order would never be a sure thing but would require constant defense and attention.

That is something airmen might ponder on the Air Force’s 60th birthday, and every day.