This study describes the historical rationales that have determined the location of USAF installations within the continental United States, excluding Alaska, from 1907 to the present. The location and numbers of these bases have fluctuated according to the size of the air forces, the capabilities of available weapon systems, and the strategies contemplated for their employment. In the modern U.S. Air Force, the number of bases rose from 115 in 1947 to peak at 162 in 1956 before declining to 69 in 2003. This ebb and flow reflected a Cold War expansion, retirement of much of the strategic bomber force, and the post-Cold War drawdown. Over time, the USAF has constantly realigned its forces within the network of bases to reflect current needs and strategies. Tanker aircraft, for example, once paired with strategic bomber units to ensure nuclear deterrence, are now collocated with intratheater airlift wings to support the post-Cold War global power projection.
The locations of modern Air Force installations owe much to the vision and foresight of early planners. The active installations that exist today are the remnants of a larger network that existed during World War II. The second Truman administration (1949-1953), seeking to maximize the returns of prior investments, directed an expanding Air Force to select, whenever possible, former World War II bases for activation. With very few exceptions, the Air Force has followed this guidance. In 2003, 65 (94 percent) of the 69 active major Air Force installations within the continental United States had been active War Department installations, usually Army Air Fields, during World War II. Fourteen (20 percent) of the 69 bases had existed before World War II. The longevity of most active installations suggests that money follows the path of prior investment and that the criteria used for selecting a location for an air base have been remarkably stable.
In late 1952, the Air Force Development Board refined the guidance of the Truman administration, designating as "permanent" eighty-five bases essential for peace and war and eligible for 25-year construction projects. Criteria for permanent status included World War II usage; location consistent with mission; proximity to construction, maintenance, and logistical support facilities; potential for expansion; and minimal airspace interference. Given the changes in weapon systems capabilities and the relocation of forces that have occurred since 1952, the board exercised keen foresight in selecting bases suitable for a variety of missions. Today, 40 (62 percent) of the 65 active, former World War II installations were among those designated as permanent in 1952.
The decisions made in the second Truman administration leveraged those made decades earlier by those who pioneered U.S. air power. Precedents for the modern criteria determining the suitability of flying training bases, technical training centers, air logistics centers, and laboratories were established in the 1920s, and by the late 1940s, the USAF had determined the basic requirements for the location of airlift and tactical forces. Since then it has located its forces within the vestiges of a network that was functioning at the close of World War II. Only the locations of long-range bomber, intercontinental missile, air defense, and space forces have necessitated the construction since 1947 of a relatively few new bases.
In 1963, the Air Force authors of the "Ideal Base Study" validated criteria to be used in determining the location of USAF bases. Some had been in use for decades. Since 1963, identical or nearly identical criteria have reappeared in testimony presented before Congress and, subsequently, Base Realignment and Closure Commissions. The persistence of basing location criteria over time suggests that the attributes of a good air base in 2003 are basically the same as those that existed before 1947.
A major, but not decisive, factor influencing the location of military bases has been politics. The Air Force has followed the example of its predecessors in accommodating community requests to have an installation located nearby, particularly when the requests were accompanied by generous donations of land and infrastructure, providing the proffered location satisfied basic military requirements. Political influence has also kept bases open, but evidence suggests that political pressure cannot keep a base open indefinitely beyond the expiration of its military value. Ultimately, the decisive factor in determining the location and continuation of an Air Force installation has been its suitability for its military mission.