The United States Air Force (USAF) turns 74 years-old tomorrow. 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.
As technology developed so too did the Air Force’s reach. On September 1, 1982, it established Air Force Space Command (AFSC) to oversee military operations in space. That responsibility included not only monitoring ballistic missile launches around the world and placing military assets in space for all the services, but also developing and operating an array of satellite-based communications systems. As space grew in importance as a military domain, so too did calls to make the Air Force’s space assets its own service, much as the Air Force itself grew out of the Army. That vision was realized on December 20, 2019, when the United States Space Force (USSF) was established. Twenty-three Air Force units around the country were merged to create it, and Air Force General John W. “Jay” Raymond was made the first Chief of Space Operations. The Air Force’s influence over the much smaller USSF continues—it handles 75 percent of the new branch’s logistics work.
The Air Force has 326,855 active duty personnel, 70,000 reserve personnel, 107,100 air national guard personnel, and 152,231 civilian personnel. The service flies more than 5,100 manned aircraft. These planes come in the form of some forty different airframes, ranging from the B-2 stealth bomber to the F-35 jet fighter to the VC-25, which is better known as Air Force One. Nineteen airmen have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
I asked Col. Douglas D. Jackson, 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 looking to learn more about the Air Force. Here’s what he suggests:
Gerald Astor, The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe as Told by the Men Who Fought It (1997). This riveting book tells the stories of the Airmen of the Eighth Air Force through firsthand accounts. The Eighth Air Force—then part of the U.S. Army Air Forces—was hastily activated in January 1942, in the wake of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. The Airmen of the Eighth endured enormous losses while conducting daylight bombing missions and battling the German Luftwaffe over Europe during World War II. The influence of this amazing group of heroes led to the eventual establishment of the U.S Air Force as an independent service in 1947.
Christian Brose, The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare (2020). Christian Brose’s tour-de-force is essentially required reading for national security professionals, particularly in the Department of Defense. Brose explores how the information revolution changed the nature of warfare, even before senior leaders understood the shifting ground beneath their feet. In today’s era of strategic competition, the warfighting organizations and the intelligence communities that support them can no longer afford to remain static as technologies emerge and develop. The chief of staff of the Air Force is pushing all airmen to “Accelerate Change or Lose,” and Brose’s book is a superb stage setter for that organizational imperative.
Buddy Hobart and Herb Sendek, Gen Y Now: Millennials and the Evolution of Leadership (2014). To lead in a dynamic and diverse organization like the USAF, one needs to be able to connect with multiple generations, including Gen Y. Hobart and Sendek demystify Gen Y, refute many of the derogatory stereotypes about millennials, and offer strategies for non-millennials to communicate and lead more effectively. Simply stated, if a leader can’t motivate, care for, and support millennials, they can’t lead in today’s Air Force.
Col. Jackson also recommended a film and a TV series to watch:
Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The Air Force doesn’t have a foothold on iconic Hollywood productions like the Army, Navy, and Marines, so the pickings are admittedly light. Some might consider this an odd choice—and I certainly don’t endorse all the themes and some of the anachronistic dark humor—but Kubrick’s timeless satire still holds up nicely as a snapshot of life in the era of mutually assured destruction. Moreover, it offers an “over the top” glimpse into the perceived mindset of fictionalized early Air Force pioneers. Life simply isn’t fun if we can’t laugh at ourselves, and this film offers much for which members of the Air Force can chuckle. Finally, it also provides an appreciation for the need for the Air Force to modernize much of its fleet—the B-52s prominently featured in the film are still operated today, albeit with significant modifications. Considering that, one can appreciate the remarkable professionalism of the USAF aircrews and maintainers who ensure the readiness of its aging fleet.
The Right Stuff (2020). Although not specifically about the USAF, National Geographic’s eight-part series based on Tom Wolfe’s classic work is a highly entertaining exploration of the origins of the U.S. space program. The series highlights the incredible courage and vision of the test pilots and would-be astronauts, as well as the scientists and administrators who supported the Mercury Seven. Although the two main characters are not airmen (Marine Corps’ John Glenn and Navy’s Alan Shepard), many members of the Air Force are prominently featured, as well as the culture of the flying community. The series does not deify these early space pioneers, but rather offers an honest look at their entire character—to include their strengths and their foibles.
A tip of the TWE cap to all the men and women who have worn the uniform of the USAF.
Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.