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Department of Aerospace Studies

Air Force History

Air Force History

On September 18, 1947, the Department of the Air Force was created under the National Security Act of 1947. However, the signs of a future "Air Force" started some 40 years before. In 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps formed an Aeronautical Division. Originally focused on balloons and dirigibles, the Signal Corps purchased their first heavier-than-air flying machine from the Wright Brothers in 1909. This came six years after the Wright Brothers had gained fame and interest from the nation about flight and what it possibly held for the future. Under the leadership of brave men like Capt. Benjamin D. Foulois, a small group of early Army Airmen tested various aircraft and formed the first operational unit for aerial defense - the 1st Aero Squadron - in December 1913. Despite the efforts of the men in the Signal Corps, by the time the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, the European countries involved in the conflict had already developed superior aircraft industries. As a result, President Woodrow Wilson created the Army Air Service on May 24, 1918. At its peak before the war ended, the service had more than 19,000 officers and 178,000 enlisted men; but soon after the armistice ended World War I, the Air Service saw rapid demobilization.

Department of the Air Force Logo

Despite some powerful unbelievers in influential government positions, the course was set for airpower and its important role in the wars of the future. Great Britain recognized this importance by creating the Royal Air Force in April 1918. While men like Brigadier General Billy Mitchell fought for an American force equivalent to the RAF, the United States would take several more years before coming into agreement about the importance of having a separate Air Force. The Army Reorganization Act of 1920 kept the Air Service a combat arm of the Army for a long time after. Years later, in June 1941, the Army Air Forces were created and made an equal counterpart to the ground forces of the Army.

During World War II under the command of General Henry "Hap" Arnold, the Army Air Forces grew to become the largest air armada of all time. With over 80,000 aircraft and 2.4 million personnel organized into major commands and numbered air forces, the AAF drew heavily upon America's great industrial strength and human resources. By the end of the war, the Army Air Force was an international and world-renowned powerhouse that could be found over the skies of both Europe and the Pacific, especially in 1945 when two B-29s ended the war by dropping atomic bombs on Japan. Immediately following the creation of the separate Air Force in September 1947, Chuck Yeager flew the XS-1 faster than the speed of sound, pushing the new Air Force into the supersonic age.

The Cold War saw a rapid growth of airpower in a different way in comparison to the buildup of World War II. The central focus was long-range bombers that could deliver nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union. The Soviet-backed invasion of South Korea by communist North Korea pulled the Air Force into a tough three-year conflict. Along with the action in Korea, the Armed Forces began to place airpower in multiple theaters of the world to help deter the expansion of communism while helping to defend the United States. U.S. Air Bases in Europe began the cornerstone of the political and geographical power of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO was created as a counter to the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact of eastern European countries. This use of U.S. airpower would continue to facilitate peaceful relations during the Cold War for the next 40 years.

Throughout the 1950s under the bold command of General Curtis Lemay, the Air Force moved toward a vast array of defense networks. From the inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM) on the ground to the B-52 Stratofortress in the air, to the new orbital satellites and launch vehicles in space, the Air Force's role was expanding to better defend the nation. The many threats and challenges around diplomacy with parts of Southeast Asia culminated in U.S. military action in Vietnam on the side of the South Vietnamese against the North Vietnamese communist government. Many tactical platforms were brought to bear against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and daunting insurgency efforts by the Vietcong. Aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom II, F-105 Thunderchief and B-52 Stratofortress were utilized heavily in the air campaigns on the communist North Vietnamese.

In the 1970s, the Air Force focused on investing in the production of new, more advanced aircraft and satellite platforms. Some of the new aircraft to commission during this time were the A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, E-3 Sentry and M-X Peacekeeper. All of these systems helped to further the Air Force's future missions involving air supremacy and dominance. In the ensuing decade, the Air Force's capabilities began to expand even more with the building of the F-117A stealth fighter. Its substantial power in combat was proven in several contingency operations in the 1980s including the seizure of Grenada in 1983 (Urgent Fury), the raid on Libya in 1986 (El Dorado Canyon) and the invasion of Panama in 1989 (Just Cause).

Soon after the conclusion of the Cold War, the focus of the nation was drawn to the Persian Gulf where Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait with the world's fourth-largest army. This invasion resulted in Operation Desert Storm, which began with a six-week major air campaign in the early days of 1991. This impressive display of airpower crippled Iraq's command structure and demoralized its once-feared army. The air onslaught allowed the ground forces to move in, suffering as many causalities during the entire assault as a typical week in the Vietnam War. Following the war in the Persian Gulf, the Air Force saw the largest reorganization since its establishment. It consolidated 13 major commands to the nine seen today. Many lower-echelon headquarters and once valuable bases were closed; entire wings and squadrons were deactivated. The Air Force went from a force of more than 600,000 military personnel in the 1980s to less than 388,000 by 1996.

Although smaller in size, the post-Cold War Air Force has had increased participation in contingency operations in the 1990s. While maintaining units in the Persian Gulf area to deter Saddam Hussein from threatening neighboring countries, the Air Force has supported peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in Somalia (Restore Hope), Rwanda (Support Hope), Haiti (Uphold Democracy) and the Balkans (Provide Promise and Deny Flight). Also, to stop a bloody civil war in Bosnia, AF aircraft made precision strikes against Serbian assets in Operation Deliberate Force in late 1995. On the unstable Korean peninsula, the Air Force has continued in providing deterrents aimed at the communist northern government, while supporting the democratic South.

Since the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11 in 2001, the Air Force has played a commanding role in the operational theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan, the Air Force is providing close air support for ground troops, heavy bombing from B-52s and reconnaissance/surveillance from many new Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and highly classified Air Force satellite systems. Similar missions are being carried out in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. The War on Terror has created many new challenges for today's Air Force. The enemy is not uniform and has little visible infrastructure. However, since the earliest signs of an American air force with the 1st Aero Squadron in 1913, it has proven itself in the face of skepticism to be a well-trained, adaptable fighting force, and with these challenges from our enemies in mind, the Air Force looks eagerly to the future while remembering the sacrifices and lessons of the past. The Air Force has defied the odds to create what is now the earth's only truly global Air and Space Forces.

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