Evolution of the Department of the Air Force


The Department of the Air Force, an agency of the Department of Defense, was established on September 18, 1947, pursuant to provisions of the National Security Act of the previous July 26. On September 26, 1947, by order of the Secretary of Defense, personnel of the Army Air Forces (AAF) were transferred from the Department of the Army (formerly the War Department) to the Department of the Air Force and established as the United States Air Force (USAF). As this action shows, the Air Force can claim lineal antecedents long predating the 1947 act.

The USAF had its roots in a turn-of-the century effort at technology assessment. In January 1905 the War Department took up consideration of an offer it had received from two inventors in Dayton, Ohio, to provide the government with a heavier-than-air flying machine. The fact that many still doubted the claim of Wilbur and Orville Wright to have invented a workable airplane is part of the history of aviation. But the Board of Ordnance and Fortifications, which examined the Wrights' proposal, had other facts to consider as well. Outside the realm of science fiction, the role in warfare of airships, gliders, and airplanes was by no means clear. Only balloons had proven value of any sort. The French revolutionaries had used a balloon at the battle of Fleurus in 1794. In the American Civil War, balloons had seen service, and the job of procuring and operating them had duly passed to the Signal Corps. Only in 1892, however, did the Signal Corps organize a permanent balloon section, and this unit's service in the war with Spain in 1898 was undistinguished. In 1898, the Signal Corps contracted with Samuel P. Langley for an airplane, but tests ended with a spectacular dive into the Potomac River on December 8, 1903, nine days before the Wright brothers flew. The War Department, still smarting from that episode in 1905, turned down the new offer.

But the progress of aviation, the issuance of a patent to the Wrights in 1906, and the interest of President Theodore Roosevelt brought the matter up again. On August 1, 1907, Captain Charles DeF. Chandler became the head of the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps, newly established to develop all forms of flying. In 1908, the corps ordered a dirigible balloon of the Zeppelin type then in use in Germany and contracted with the Wrights for an airplane. Despite a crash that destroyed the first model, the Wright plane was delivered in 1909. The inventors then began to teach a few enthusiastic young officers to fly.

The progress of American aviation was slow in the early years. Congress voted the first appropriation for military aviation in 1911. The Navy was starting its own program at about the same time. Soon after, the aviators rejected a proposal to separate their service from the Signal Corps. A makeshift squadron had an unlucky time with General John J. Pershing on the Mexican border in 1916. What really proved the importance of military aviation was its role in Europe during World War I. There balloons used for artillery spotting and airplanes for reconnaissance over enemy lines made a decisive contribution. Dirigible airships and airplanes proved effective at bombing. Every army sought control of the air, and great battles between the "knights of the air" became the stuff of romance. Yet at the same time a serious doctrine of air warfare was beginning to emerge. The commanders began to distinguish, for example, between "strategic" air operations, deep in an enemy's territory, directed at his vital war-making industries and civilian morale, and "tactical" operations against his ground forces.

At the time of America's declaration of war against Germany on April 6, 1917, the Aviation Section was marginal at best. Its 1,200 officers and men had no knowledge of the air war in Europe. Its 250 airplanes and 5 balloons could not have survived long in combat. The nation's aircraft manufacturers had up to that time produced 1,000 planes. Yet, when France asked the United States to provide an air force of 4,500 airplanes and 50,000 men, there was no hesitation. With more enthusiasm than wisdom, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker asked for and received $ 640 million from Congress for aviation. The result was a fiasco. By the spring of 1918, it was clear that the Signal Corps had failed. The War Department then set up an Air Service consisting of two agencies: one under a civilian to deal with the manufacturers and one under a military officer to train and organize units. This setup, begun in April and May, was consolidated in August, when President Woodrow Wilson appointed John D. Ryan, Second Assistant Secretary of War, as aviation "czar" to straighten out the mess.

In the end the only American achievement in the field of aircraft production was the Liberty engine. Of the 740 U. S. aircraft at the front in France at the time of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, almost all were European-made. Still, the Air Service of General Pershing American Expeditionary Forces, organized by Major General Mason M. Patrick and Brigadier General William (Billy) Mitchell, had distinguished itself in action against the Germans.

As a result of the important role air power had played in the war, a movement developed during the 1920s and 1930s to create an independent air force. The model for this was Great Britain, which, early in 1918, had combined its Army and Navy air arms into the Royal Air Force (RAF) under an Air Ministry. But the U. S. Army's leaders saw the airplane primarily as a weapon for supporting the infantry and gave the Air Service a status comparable to that of the field artillery or the engineers, responsible for procuring aircraft and training flying units. Local commanders, none of them aviators, ran the air forces assigned to them. A series of boards and commissions studied and restudied the question of air organization, with no result other than the name change to Air Corps in 1926.

Nevertheless, just as in the RAF, the formulation of theories of strategic bombing gave new impetus to the argument for an independent air force. Strategic or long-range bombardment was intended to destroy an enemy nation's industry and war-making potential, and only an independent service would have a free hand to do so. Amid intense controversy, Billy Mitchell came to espouse these views and, in 1925, went to the point of "martyrdom" before a court-martial to publicize his position. But despite what it perceived as "obstruction" from the War Department, much of which was attributable to a shortage of funds, the Air Corps made great strides during the 1930s. A doctrine emerged that stressed precision bombing of industrial targets by heavily armed long-range aircraft. A big step was taken in 1935 with the creation of a combat air force, commanded by an aviator and answering to the Chief of Staff of the Army. Called the "GHQ Air Force" because it would be under the General Headquarters in time of war, this command took combat air units out of the hands of the local commanders in the continental United States. Nonetheless, the GHQ Air Force remained small as compared to air forces in Europe. The Air Corps could only buy a few of the new four-engined B-17 Flying Fortresses, designed for strategic bombing, and in 1938, there were only thirteen on hand.

World War II was the true age of liberation for American air power. Reports from Europe in 1939 and 1940 proved the dominant role of the airplane in modern war. On June 20, 1941, Major General Henry H. Arnold, then chief of the Air Corps, assumed the title of chief of Army Air Forces and was given command of the Air Force Combat Command, as the GHQ Air Force had been renamed (Arnold's title was changed to "Commanding General, Army Air Forces" in March 1942, when he became co-equal with the commanders of Army ground Forces and Services of Supply). The AAF was directly under the orders of the Chief of Staff of the Army, General George C. Marshall. Arnold and Marshall agreed that the AAF would enjoy autonomy within the War Department until the end of the war, when the air arm would become a fully independent service. Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Arnold gained another victory. In staff talks with the Americans, the British always included representatives of the RAF as well as the Army and Navy, so the United States had to include an air representative of its own. Arnold, although technically Marshall's subordinate, became an equal with him on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the body that served as the focal point of American strategic planning during the war.

In its expansion during World War II, the AAF became the world's most powerful air force. From the Air Corps of 1939, with 20,000 men and 2,400 planes, to the nearly autonomous AAF of 1944, with almost 2.4 million personnel and 80,000 aircraft, was a remarkable expansion. Robert A. Lovett, the Assistant Secretary of War for Air, together with Arnold, presided over an increase greater than for either the ground Army or the Navy, while at the same time dispatching combat air forces to the battlefronts. Air Combat Command was discontinued, and four air forces were created in the continental United States. In the end, twelve more air forces went overseas and served against the Germans and Japanese.

As Arnold's staff saw it, the first priority in the war was to launch a strategic bombing offensive in support of the RAF against Germany. The Eighth Air Force, sent to England in 1942, took on that job. After a slow and often costly effort to bring the necessary strength to bear, joined in 1944 by the Fifteenth Air Force stationed in Italy, the Eighth finally began to get results. By the end of the war, the German economy had been pounded to rubble. Meanwhile, tactical air forces supported the ground forces in the Mediterranean and European theaters, where the enemy found allied air supremacy a constant frustration. In the war against Japan, General Douglas MacArthur made his advance along New Guinea by leap-frogging his air forces forward, using amphibious forces to open up new bases. The AAF also assisted Admiral Chester Nimitz's carriers in their island-hopping across the Central Pacific and supported Allied forces in Burma and China. Arnold directly controlled the Twentieth Air Force, equipped with the new long-range B-29 Superfortresses used for bombing Japan's home islands, first from China and then from the Marianas. Devastated by fire-raids, Japan was so weakened by August of 1945 that Arnold believed neither the atomic bomb nor the planned invasion would be necessary to win the war. The fact that AAF B-29s dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nevertheless, demonstrated what air power could do in the future. The U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey provided ammunition for the leaders of the AAF in the postwar debates over armed forces unification and national strategy.

After World War II, independence for the Air Force was virtually inevitable. 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 of 1947. This law created the Department of the Air Force and gave a Secretary of Defense limited authority over the services. By the time the law went into effect in September, the Air Force was beginning to rebuild after the postwar demobilization. Its leaders had defined a goal of establishing 70 combat groups with 400,000 men and 8,000 planes. Stringent postwar budgets delayed the program in spite of concerns of the growing threat from the Soviet Union. As the United States came to rely upon a strategy of deterrence, the Air Force gave highest priority to its long-range atomic bombing force, using air refueling to lengthen its reach. Acrimonious disputes with the Navy resulted, focusing on the roles of the services in modern warfare, until the large budget increases after 1950, caused by the Korean War buildup.

In 1946, the AAF had created three major combat commands in the United States: the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the Tactical Air Command (TAC), and the Air Defense Command (ADC). The Strategic Air Command now became the centerpiece of Air Force planning. Yet, surprisingly, the first important intervention of the Air Force in the Cold War was by the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) during the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949. Still, SAC's role remained predominant, especially during the service of Curtis E. LeMay as its commander (1948-1957). Rising to a level of peacetime readiness unprecedented in American history, SAC was not dethroned even during the fighting in Korea (1950-1953). Tactical forces were built up to take part in the fighting in support of the United Nations forces, and SAC even sent B-29 bombers. The American air forces achieved control of the air and poured bombs onto the Communist supply lines. But the increased budget for the Air Force also went to build up tactical forces in Europe and for a worldwide strategic striking force. After the Soviets detonated an atomic bomb in 1949, a new emphasis on air defense brought the ADC into the picture, but the TAC remained slighted throughout the 1950's, even with the development of tactical nuclear weapons.

The 1950s also witnessed the centralization of the Department of Defense. In 1949 the Secretary of Defense gained greater authority over the services, and the service secretaries ceased to be members of the National Security Council. By 1958, this process had reached the point that, not only the commands overseas, but even SAC and ADC were under the overall control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nevertheless, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force had great influence as a member of the Joint Chiefs, and the Air Force kept direct responsibility to "organize, train and equip" combat air forces.

Under the influence of such farsighted officials as Trevor Gardner (at one time Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development) and Major General Bernard A. Schriever, who founded what was to evolve into the Space and Missile Systems Center, the Air Force developed ballistic missiles during the 1950s. SAC began to supplement its great armada of bombers with missiles in 1959. By the end of the 1960s, over a thousand intercontinental ballistic missiles were in place, while the long-range bomber force had been cut back. The Air Force thus had two elements of the "Triad" of strategic weapons (bombers and land-based missiles), while the Navy had the third (submarine-launched missiles). Also in the 1960s, as a result of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's emphasis on "flexible response" in the strategy of deterrence, the TAC enjoyed something of a revival. Thus, even before large-scale intervention in Southeast Asia, the Air Force's conventional capabilities were increasing.

Besides ballistic missiles, the Air Force became involved with earth satellites during the 1950's. In 1961 the service began supporting an independent, highly secret agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), that handled intelligence satellites. The head of this office was placed in the office of the Secretary of the Air Force, and the NRO was staffed largely with Air Force people. The existence of this office was only disclosed in the 1990's.

As part of the American effort to assist the government of South Vietnam in counterinsurgency operations during the early 1960's, the Air Force sent advisers to the Vietnamese Air Force. During 1964 and 1965 the commitment was increased, and combat units went into action. In South Vietnam, tactical forces, with the assistance of B-52 bombers from SAC, supported U. S. and Vietnamese ground forces. Tactical forces in Vietnam and Thailand took part in strikes at crucial targets in North Vietnam and along supply trails in southern Laos. There were also strikes in support of the counterinsurgency operations of the Laotian government. Operations over Cambodia were in support of the war in South Vietnam. SAC provided tanker aircraft for refueling. Yet this, the first war fought under the 1958 reorganization act, was conducted without a single Air Force agency controlling all air operations in Southeast Asia. Most operations were controlled by the theater commanders.

As the war went on into the climactic bombings of 1972, the Air Force struggled to remain ready in other areas. SAC had to divert much of its bomber and tanker forces to Southeast Asia, and tactical forces in Europe were affected as well. With the end of the fighting, contending with stringent budgets, the Air Force turned to the job of upgrading the strategic deterrent force and maintaining readiness in Europe. In the meantime, the strategy of deterrence had evolved to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, enshrined in the strategic arms limitation agreement with the Soviet Union in 1972. The declining emphasis on defensive forces affected the Air Defense Command, now renamed the Aerospace Defense Command, and abolished finally in 1980.

Despite the cutbacks after the war in Southeast Asia, the Air Force focused on heightened combat readiness. The Military Airlift Command (formerly MATS) gave military and humanitarian support for the nation's global commitments, as in the support to Israel in the Middle East war of 1973. Increases in appropriations, begun under the administration of President Jimmy Carter, produced a major buildup under his successor, Ronald W. Reagan. The peak was reached in the period of 1985-1986, when the Air Force attained annual spending levels of $ 97 billion and a strength of over 600,000. Force deployments in support of operations in Grenada (1983), against Libya (1986), and in Panama (1989) reflected a growing capacity for quick response to local crises. At the same time, arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union began, slowly, to bear fruit.

Since the days of the Army Air Service, the air arm has relied primarily on private industry for the manufacture of airplanes. The continuing search for balance between the required quantities and the most modern equipment has also usually involved a commitment to preserving a strong industrial base. One of Arnold's personal legacies was a commitment to research and development. The results appeared in the 1990's in such applications of low-observables ("Stealth") technology as the B-2 bomber and the F-117 fighter-bomber. The C-17 transport represented state-of-the art design as well. The development of the F-22 fighter continued a commitment to air superiority, while unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) suggested new directions.

Because of the highly complex modern weapon systems the Air Force has sought to use, the demand for skilled personnel has always been high. The need applied both to flying crew, especially pilots, and ground maintenance technicians. During the periods of the draft, in both world wars and from 1948 to 1973, the air arm was able to attract volunteers, emphasizing programs for recruiting and keeping people for training in innumerable skills. The Air Force Academy (founded in 1955 and soon located outside Colorado Springs) and higher service schools at the Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, developed the leadership cadres of the service. Recruiting and retaining able pilots was a perennial cycle of ups and downs, what with budget pressures affecting student intake as well as pay and benefits, the burden of global deployments, and competition with the airlines.

When President Harry S Truman in 1948 directed an end to racial discrimination in the armed forces, the Air Force was positioned to be a pioneer in integration. African-American combat air units served with distinction in the Second World War, but segregation had proved unworkable. Although the upheavals of the 1960's did lead to trouble in the Air Force, most notably in race riots at Travis Air Force Base, California, in 1971, on the whole integration proved a success and in 1997 some fifteen per cent of the active duty force was black, while other ethnic minorities were also strongly represented. A number of blacks had also risen to high rank, although the percentage of blacks in the officer corps was still below ten in 1997.

The end of Selective Service in 1973 ushered in a new era in personnel policy for the armed forces. The All-Volunteer Force was going to have to recruit women more energetically and would probably need to place more reliance on reserve forces. The Women's Army Corps (WAC) had assigned units to the AAF in the 1940's, and in 1948 the Women in the Air Force (WAF) were formed. The new approach did away with the WAF organization in order to integrate women more fully into the service. Female personnel by the 1990's were serving in virtually every specialty, including bomber pilots and missile crews. Over one sixth of the active force were women in 1997. At the same time, the Total Force concept matured as the means to integrate the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve more closely with the active force.

Up until 1989, the Air Force's existence as an independent service had coincided with the Cold War. Now, facing a new strategic challenge, the U. S. could cut back the nuclear forces on strategic alert as a result of arms control. But the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 simply eliminated the artificial order that had been imposed on a disorderly world, and local enmities became increasingly violent. The most spectacularly successful intervention by the U. S. Air Force in these outbursts was in the Persian Gulf in 1991. Supporting a coalition designed to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in January, the Air Force led the way in a six-week campaign that was a triumph in the application of air power.

The post-Cold War drawdown of forces reduced the Air Force budget to $ 73 billion in 1997, with a strength of 380,000. In 1992 the service acknowledged the new global reality with a reorganization in which the main flying forces in the continental U. S. were put into two major commands: Air Combat Command and Air Mobility Command. Later interventions in such places as Bosnia still demonstrated the effective combination of high technology with skill and determination to apply force in difficult situations. In particular, the application of space technology in these conflicts gave the Space Command (first created in 1982) a pioneering role as the Air Force looked to the twenty-first century. And at the same time, Air Mobility Command's airlift force continued to be an essential instrument of national policy all over the world. Still, by the late 1990's, the Air Force, like all the armed services, was facing extreme pressure to meet global commitments with declining resources.

See the AFHSO publications:

Office of the Secreatary of the Air Force, 1947-1965 by George M. Watson, Jr. 

Office of the Secretary of the Air Force Organizational Charts, 1947-1984 (updated to 1990), by Jacob Neufeld. 

Organizational Charts, USAF 1991-2015.