The United States Air Force (USAF) turns 67 years-old today. On September 18, 1947, Chief Justice Fred Vinson swore in Stuart Symington as the first secretary of the air force, officially founding a new branch of the U.S. military. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz became the USAF’s first chief of staff eight days later on September 26, 1947.
The origins of the USAF lie in a decision made just four years after the Wright Brothers conducted the world’s first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1907, the U.S. Army Signal Corps created an Aeronautical Division and put it in “charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines and all kindred subjects.” As aviation technology improved, the army’s air force grew bigger. An independent military arm became virtually inevitable after the Army Air Forces became an autonomous U.S. Army Command in 1942 and then grew substantially throughout the remainder of World War II. On July 26, 1947, President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 on board the presidential aircraft, the Sacred Cow, and set the creation of the USAF in motion.
I asked Col. Samuel C. Hinote, an air force officer spending a year as a visiting military fellow in CFR’s David Rockefeller Studies Program, to recommend some reading for people hoping to learn more about the air force. He has a great list of suggestions:
- McFarland, Stephen L. A Concise History of the U.S. Air Force (1997). McFarland’s pithy history of the air force can be downloaded for free here. It provides the basic history of the service, tying together important themes that influenced the development of the air force for its first fifty years.
- Copp, Dewitt S. A Few Great Captains: The Men and Events that Shaped the Development of U.S. Air Power (1989). Copp tells the story of the military officers who recognized the potential of the airplane to change how wars are fought and their struggle against the conservative military establishment. It is the story of massive culture change within a large organization and the leaders who sacrificed their lives and careers to make that change happen.
- Worden, R. Michael. Rise of the Fighter Generals: The Problem of Air Force Leadership, 1945–1982(1997). Ask anyone in the air force, and they will tell you that its leadership is dominated by fighter pilots. This was not always so, however; there was a time when the fighter pilots were second-class citizens compared to the bomber pilots. This is another story of culture change and how one “tribe” can achieve preeminence within an organization.
- Warden III, John A. The Air Campaign (1988). This book became very influential just after the first Gulf War, as the author—a colonel in the Pentagon at the time—helped create a new approach to using airpower that General Schwarzkopf applied during that war. This approach leveraged U.S. advantages in technology, especially stealth and precision firepower, to target the heart of the enemy organization. This book was actually written prior to Desert Storm, and it was very controversial at the time. Warden’s theories are still debated in the military’s top strategy schools.
- Meillinger, Phillip S. “10 Propositions Regarding Airpower” (1995). Meillinger’s short pamphlet can be downloaded here. It contains ten basic propositions about how airpower can be used effectively. All of these propositions were controversial when they were released in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, and they remain so today. If you want to start a heated debate at war college, begin with one of these.
- Lambeth, Benjamin S. The Unseen War: Allied Air Power and the Takedown of Saddam Hussein (2013). Lambeth is a longtime fellow at RAND who is a thoughtful historian and analyst of airpower. In this book, he tells the inside story of the second Gulf War, a war where airpower was used with tremendous effect, yet its many accomplishments were overshadowed by other developments, in large part due to the power of embedded media as well as the nascent phases of the Iraq insurgency. After the 1990s and early 2000s, where airpower was the first option for U.S. policy makers, this book documents the beginning of a long period of operations where the air force would be stretched to its limit around the globe, yet few would understand its many contributions.
- America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future (2014). This is the Air Force’s strategy document for the next thirty years. At times it reads like most corporate strategy documents, where consensus requires vagueness. There is one concept that is worth investigating, however: the Air Force’s quest for “strategic agility,” which is a conscious effort to create an organization that can adapt quickly to a future that is both unknown and unknowable. This concept has tremendous implications for any large organization that must remain competitive in a period of rapid change coupled with “black swan” events.
If that’s not enough air force reading for you, you can learn more about the history of the USAF online through the Air Force Historical Studies Office.
A tip of the TWE cap to all the airmen and airwomen who have worn the uniform of the USAF.