Beyond the Wild Blue

A History of the U.S. Air Force, 1947-2007

Walter J. Boyne

Thomas Dunne Books

The Man of Influence
In just sixty years the United States Air Force has grown from a disorganized giant, mired in the jumble of too rapid demobilization after World War II, to the most influential military service in the world today. In the process it has achieved triumphant successes that exceeded even the promise of its evocative song “The Wild Blue Yonder” while overcoming haunting failures of concept, equipment, and personnel.
Fortunately for the United States and the world, the successes have vastly outnumbered the failures in both number and degree. Until September 11, 2001, the Air Force has been a significant, if not the principal, factor in the remarkable victories of both the Gulf War and the Cold War. Every leader of the United States Air Force, from Secretary to Chief of Staff to squadron commander, would be quick to note that these triumphs were won in concert with the Army and the Navy. No matter how hotly the three services contend for roles and missions, appropriations, media attention, and public support, the serious bickering stops when it comes to battle. The concept of joint operations, so successful in World War II, was not always observed in the intervening years, but was demonstrated admirably in the Gulf War, operations in the Balkins, in Afghanistan, and in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nonetheless, while much of what will be said applies equally to its sister services, this book will focus on the United States Air Force.
The Air Force achieved its great successes despite a number of formidable obstacles, foreign and domestic. The first and most immediate of these was the talented, focused, and effective air forces of the Soviet Union, which developed excellent equipment in massive numbers along with the strategy and tactics to use it. The USSR shared its capabilities bountifully with its satellite states, some of which were destined to become fierce opponents of the United States. The threat of the Soviet Union was real, massive, and seemingly never-ending. Soviet nuclear missile capability, exaggerated at first, soon grew to immense proportions. And while the Soviet Union is no more, its missile force, now divided among three of the survivor states, Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, not only remains but is perhaps more threatening because its control is far less certain.
There were less obvious but equally important hazards at home. The first of these was the continual requirement to cope not only with the vagaries of the Congressional budgeting process but also with the growing restrictions inherent in oversight—a kindly term for micromanagement by both Congress and the Executive Branch. The second was the telling loss of public support, almost two decades in duration, resulting from distaste for the war in Vietnam. For the first time in its history, members of the United States Air Force found themselves publicly vilified for doing what they had been ordered to do. And while the prestige of the USAF has been largely restored today, there lurks a reservoir of antimilitary sentiment still to be found in the media, in academia, and, surprisingly, in the government.
Most remarkably, even while the Air Force struggled to overcome these varied challenges, it created and maintained a unique ability to plan far into the future. The Air Force’s reliance on technology was perhaps inherent in the very science of flight itself. More than the Army or the Navy, and more than the services of other nations, including the Soviet Union, the Air Force put its faith in advanced technologies. Fostered from the very start by General of the Air Force Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, and encouraged by succeeding Chiefs of Staff, the Air Force not only made the funds available for research, it granted credibility and opportunity to the military and civilian personnel who pursued technology as a career. The funding was not always constant, for wartime operational considerations invariably drained funds away from research, but the basic idea that research and development was the essential element for the continued success of the Air Force always remained.
Despite every effort to avoid the characteristics and the operating methods of a giant bureaucracy, the very size and age of the Air Force has made it one. Prescience is not normally associated with a huge organization, yet the Air Force has over the years managed to endow its leadership and its operating forces with the ability to anticipate future requirements for equipment and training. The phenomenal result has been that the Air Force, operating under the budget constraints imposed upon all the services, has managed all current crises while doing the necessary research and development to accelerate the technologies necessary for future conflicts.
For forty years the principal task of the United States Air Force was to deter offensive action by the Soviet Union. The USAF accomplished this in part by combining the experience and techniques gained in the employment of air power in World War II with an ever increasing arsenal of atomic weapons, including the intercontinental ballistic missile. The rest of the task was achieved when the Air Force, drawn reluctantly and against its instincts into the space age, responded by capitalizing on the opportunity to create an amazing array of new technologies.
At the same time, the USAF had to respond to other challenges. Some of these were of the monumental size and scope of the Korean and Vietnamese wars, while some were less threatening, like the invasions of Grenada and Panama. In addition, the USAF had to undertake disaster relief at home and abroad, as well as show the flag and project power. And all the while, it had to deal with major social issues ranging from the integration of black personnel into the service, to overcoming civilian distaste for the military during and after the Vietnam War period, to providing equal opportunity for women and minorities.
Despite the multifaceted nature of the Air Force’s tasks, it was successful in almost all of them, all the while containing the Soviet Union and making the most vital contributions to winning the Cold War. It was next thrust into a peacekeeping role in the Balkans. Then, as the global war on terror became manifest, it became actively engaged in new operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In retrospect, the years of the Cold War have a monolithic quality, as if there had been an unchanging confrontation with the Soviet Union which the Air Force steadfastly met with unchanging means. Yet it was not so, for the nature of the threat changed almost annually, forcing a corresponding change in the Air Force’s response. In the very early years, at the time of the Berlin Blockade, the Air Force’s response was a hollow one, brandishing a nearly empty nuclear arsenal at a gigantic array of Soviet forces. As the years passed, the Soviet Union, through its surrogates, challenged the United States all around the world, in each instance with a minimal involvement of its own troops. Thus it fought the Korean War with North Korean and Chinese forces, supplemented by Soviet equipment, training, and limited personnel. It supported the North Vietnamese in a similar economic manner, letting another country bleed for its own purposes. The same pattern prevailed in the Middle East, in Africa, and ultimately as close as Cuba. With the Soviet Union tugging at the seams of countries all around the world, the U.S. policy of containment, begun by President Truman, was an expensive one.
Yet it was ultimately successful, despite the lack of a decision in Korea and the loss of the war in Vietnam. Over the years, the United States Air Force, both the benefactor and the beneficiary of the American system of free enterprise, was able to build air and missile forces that kept the Soviet Union within the general sphere of influence allotted to it at Yalta.
The Soviet Union was not only contained, it was strained, its military budget consuming it economically and technically. The Soviet advances in military equipment and in space exploration were obtained by investments that matched and often exceeded those of the United States, particularly as a percentage of gross national product. The tremendous expenditures were at the expense of a rational expansion of the USSR’s civilian economy. The productive capacity of the Soviet Union, channeled so single-mindedly into its military efforts (for its space program was primarily for military purposes), was unable to develop an industrial base with a technology and a market structure comparable to those of its old Western enemies or of the emerging nations of Asia. The USSR’s atrophied civilian industrial base made its military burden increasingly difficult to bear by 1980, and impossible to bear a decade later.
In that critical ten-year period, three separate undertakings by the United States spelled the downfall of the Soviet Union. The first was the buildup of American arms that began in 1980 and reversed the decline in strength that had occurred under the Carter administration. The Soviet economy, already almost exhausted, was strained beyond endurance by the requirement to match the American buildup.
The second undertaking was the dazzling if ultimately unfulfilled prospects of President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program. The grandiose project was obviously beyond the capacity of the Soviet Union to match; the risk that the United States might succeed was too much for Soviet leaders to contemplate.
The third, and conclusive, element was the overwhelming success of our weapons in the Persian Gulf War. The invulnerability of the stealth fighter and the incredible military—and public relations—effect of precision-guided munitions completely disheartened the political and military leaders of the Soviet Union. With their economy imploding under the strain of seventy-four years of corruption and inefficiency, the Soviet leaders were finally compelled to admit that their system had failed, and to abandon—at least temporarily—their historic quest for world domination. Just as Mussolini’s corrupt Fascism withered and died almost overnight, so did the Soviet Union and its single political component, the Communist Party, swiftly dissolve into a nightmare of confusion and recrimination.
The Soviet Union, suddenly exposed as a gigantic empty rust belt of industrial and political folly, simply shut down, leaving its people to its own devices, for better or for worse. Its huge military forces, overwhelming in both their conventional and nuclear might, almost instantaneously went from being a threat to the very existence of the world to embarrassing centers of poverty, unable to feed, equip, or clothe their recruits, sometimes unable even to pay their electric bills.
Yet winning the Cold War was only part of the United States Air Force’s task during the first fifty years of its existence. Each decade presented a new challenge that it had to handle as a “part-time” job, subsidiary to the principal task of nuclear deterrence. Some of the challenges were internal: adapting to social change, meeting equipment deficiencies, trying each year to do more with less. Other challenges were external, from the sobering experience in Korea through the demoralizing agony of Vietnam to the exhilaration of winning the Persian Gulf War. The exertions of the global war on terror after 9/11 were compounded by additional requirements for compassionate relief efforts and the increasing interest in securing our borders from illegal immigration.
Each challenge was overcome by the men and women of the Air Force, who were simultaneously accomplishing another remarkable feat. Even as they endured the rigors and uncertainties of service life, with its frequent moves, relatively low pay, and often disagreeable jobs, the men and women of the Air Force moved into the mainstream of the American community, and indeed became the United States in microcosm. The old concept of a military base being apart from the community, a self-sufficient entity with its own standards and mores, faded away. USAF personnel increasingly broke away from the frontier outpost outlook that had characterized the military for so many years and instead became active members of their communities, owning homes, working second jobs, sending their children to school, paying taxes, and generally becoming indistinguishable from their civilian neighbors.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this transformation from a parochial group with an essentially garrison mentality into a fundamental part of American society is that it has been rarely perceived and little remarked upon, even by members of the Air Force. People both within and without the Air Force still tend to think of it as a separate social entity, as distinct from being a separate business entity. The fact is that the composition of the Air Force population is essentially identical to the composition of the American populace as a whole, and as such reflects the trends, the biases, the problems, and the potential of that populace.
One of the most interesting questions about the Air Force is how it managed to foresee its equipment and weapons needs as much one or two decades in advance. The successes obtained in World War II might be attributed to a specialized leadership, trained for twenty years with but a single goal, that of establishing air superiority with conventional weapons of the times. The postwar successes, each one perhaps as important as success in battle had been in World War II, resulted from the quick and precise execution of plans that would have been deemed grandiose if they had not succeeded. Among the most remarkable of these for the grandeur of their conception, planning, and execution are the deployment of not one but four intercontinental ballistic missile systems, the establishment of a comprehensive continental radar defense, and the systematic exploitation of the possibilities of space for war and other military purposes.
In the meantime, besides leading the way to victory in the Cold War, the Air Force has, almost off the back of its hand, fought four major and three minor wars, while leading the nation in the process of integrating minorities and women into the service. During the same interval, it has transitioned from a primarily nuclear strike force pitted against a superpower into one capable of responding to regional conflicts with conventional arms, while still maintaining a decisive nuclear capacity.
The answers to the question of the source of the Air Force’s general success in operation and in anticipation will be revealed in the following chapters. In essence, the Air Force’s success derived from having the right leaders at the right time at the officer level and, perhaps surprisingly but even more importantly, at the noncommissioned officer level. Obtaining those leaders derived from the Air Force’s intrinsic ability to attract high-caliber personalities to serve, and from a carefully cultivated culture that allows persons of talent to reach the top. The relationship between officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted personnel in the USAF is unique, and stems from a tradition created in the old days when commissioned pilots realized that their lives depended upon noncommissioned crew chiefs—and treated them accordingly. The sense of mutual respect and mutual importance is pervasive in the Air Force today, and is in many ways responsible for the success of the organization.
This is not to say the Air Force has solved all the problems of democracy and is truly egalitarian, for it is not. Nevertheless, the nature of the Air Force organization has always permitted the truly talented to rise to the top, regardless of connections, schooling, or appearance. For the past thirty-five years it has been increasingly easier for truly talented persons to rise to the top regardless of race, and for the last twenty years regardless of sex. The Air Force has always led the nation, including the other services, in the trend toward true equal opportunity, and it has benefited extraordinarily from the practice.
It is said that the Israeli Air Force was born in battle, coming into being as it did in the 1947 struggle for independence. It is not stretching a point to say that the United States Air Force was born in battles, and has remained in battle of one sort or another for its entire existence. The concept of an independent air force was first articulated—prematurely—by Billy Mitchell and others during the 1920s. It was nurtured during World War II, when leaders like General Henry H. Arnold and General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz sometimes conformed operational considerations to the preparation for postwar independence. It was sustained in the demobilization collapse of our military forces after V-J day, and survived the intransigent opposition of the United States Navy. But independence merely meant a new set of wars. The simplest to deal with were actual conflicts, from Korea to Operation Iraqi Freedom and beyond, where the enemy was known and the action required was military. Much more complex were budgetary battles, public relations battles with the Navy, and internal strains as the Air Force bureaucracy grew over time.
Fortunately for the United States, the hand of Providence and good leadership prevailed, and the USAF managed to prevail in each of its battles, learning in the process, and directing its efforts ever to the future.
Many mistakes were made, some trivial, some of immense consequence. Yet the end result of the Air Force’s effort was the establishment of a Pax Americana that deterred World War III and proved to be the carborundum wheel upon which the Soviet Union ground itself to extinction.
The Air Force’s achievement was a compound of many elements—people, leadership, equipment, and more. Yet the very basis for its success lay in the commitment it made—and continues to make—to the necessary research and development effort to create the advanced technologies that defined it as a superpower.
Coincidentally, and fortunately, the advances in Air Force capability have characteristics that match two unique demands that have since Vietnam come to be made by the American public. The first of these demands is that we must fight our wars with a minimum number of casualties to our forces. America wants no more Vietnams where our troops are forced to fight and die in unconscionable numbers. The second of these demands is unusual in history, for it is that we must also win our wars with a minimum number of casualties inflicted on the enemy.
These requirements, noble for any nation, may be a reflexive reaction to the years of the Cold War, when the strategies of the Soviet Union and the United States had the appropriate acronym MAD, for mutual assured destruction. Under this doctrine of reciprocal deterrence, it was a given that either side had the ability to inflict unacceptable damage on the other. If the strategy failed, casualties on each side would have been in the tens or hundreds of millions, depending upon how long the madness lasted. Long before the end of the Cold War, it was recognized that the success of the mutual assured destruction concept might prevent global nuclear conflict but would have no effect upon limited wars that were not so threatening as to require the use of nuclear weapons. The war in Vietnam demonstrated this painfully to the United States, which could not find until December 1972 the will to use air power in its fullest measure against North Vietnam. In the preceding eight years of conflict, it had endured—and inflicted—heavy casualties. The public’s new requirements were revealed in the victory in the Gulf, where the United Nations casualties, as minimal as they were given the scale of operations, were rightfully resented. Remarkably, there was a similar resentment of the Iraqi casualties, particularly among civilians. Other incidents—friendly-fire losses in the Persian Gulf, the tragic killings in Somalia, the long list of casualties in Iraq—all confirm the American public’s attitude that wars must be fought with a minimum of bloodshed on both sides.
The demand is without precedent; no military service in history has ever had placed upon it the requirement for victory at minimum cost to both sides. Fortunately, the United States Air Force is, for the first time, in a position to meet the requirement, thanks to a program of technological refinement that extends back more than six decades, and that can be traced to a single driving personality, that of General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold.
One man, Henry Harley Arnold, did the most to shape the image of the modern United States Air Force. His patient political spadework established trust with the United States Army brass and secured the essential patronage of General George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff. Among his colleagues, Arnold’s career inspired deep friendship—and open hatred, for there were those who disagreed with his views and thought him too political and much too quick to compromise.
Yet it was Arnold’s flexibility that laid the groundwork for the modern United States Air Force, and few of his hard-driven subordinates would have agreed that he was too quick to compromise. His focused energy, unrelenting, omnipresent, helped them ensure that the performance of the United States Army Air Forces, locked in the greatest war in history, exceeded all expectations. And, perhaps most important of all, Arnold was willing to depart from his own strengths and past experience to embark the new independent air force upon a course of constant technological change. More of a verbalist than a technician, he did not fully comprehend all of the change he sought, but he knew intuitively that such change was essential. He was Hap Arnold to his friends, the public, and the press, and the free world owes him much.
Arnold rose from an indifferent West Point cadet career to become the first and only five-star General of the Air Force. His roller-coaster rise to the top would see him pioneer, then abandon flying; he would become the youngest colonel in the United States Army by 1917, only to be dropped back to the rank of captain in 1920, in the helter-skelter post–World War I curtailment of the armed forces. By hard work, charm, and no little guile, he rose to the rank of major general, becoming Chief of the Air Corps on September 29, 1938. At that moment, Arnold commanded an Air Corps which numbered about 23,000 officers and men, only 2,500 of whom were rated pilots, and about 1,200 mostly obsolete combat aircraft. With thirty-five years of service behind him and retirement looming, Arnold must have felt both satisfaction in his own career and tremendous frustration at the desperately poor condition of the air force he commanded, which lagged behind all the major world powers in the numbers and quality of its aircraft.
Yet the war was imminent, and with it came changes beyond his imagination. Only seven years later, long past the time he would nominally have retired, he wore five stars as his idol General John J. Pershing had done, and commanded more than 2,400,000 troops and an armada of 70,000 planes. More important, he had completely vindicated airpower prophet Billy Mitchell’s claims as he closely supervised the air victories in the European and Pacific theaters.
He invested his whole person—including his health—in this effort, and long before V-J day had taken the necessary steps to fulfill his dream of an independent air force.
Arnold was assisted by trusted colleagues, handpicked men who had sacrificed themselves, as he had, to serve in the Air Corps at a time when pay was minimal, prestige nonexistent, and danger ever present, for the fatality rate for fliers was high. The assistance of general officers like Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, Ira C. Eaker, Joseph J. McNarney, Lawrence S. Kuter, George C. Kenney, Lauris Norstad, and Hoyt Vandenberg and of civilians like Assistant Secretary for War for Air Robert A. Lovett and his successor, Stuart Symington, was invaluable, but it was Arnold who masterminded the effort with political skill and exquisite timing.
Hap was so acutely aware of the importance of timing that early in the war he assigned Major General McNarney to head a committee whose sole purpose was to suppress the tide rising for an independent air force until after the war. Incidents like these cost Arnold in the eyes of fellow officers who wanted an independent air force immediately, but Arnold gladly bartered full alliance with the Army during the war for the Army’s postwar support for independence.
His subtle preparations were to have enormous and lasting effect upon the character of the USAF, for it was Arnold—a visionary pragmatist rather than a scientist—who set the Air Force firmly upon the path of research and development. And in a more mysterious, less definable way, it was Arnold who established the culture that permitted the early identification of essential future leaders. From Arnold’s era to the present, with very few exceptions, the Air Force has managed to elicit from its ranks the right leaders at the right time, anticipating the ever-changing demands they would be required to meet. Spurred on to do so by Marshall, Arnold began this selection process himself, choosing young officers early in the war for responsible positions and then, as the war drew to its victorious close, taking steps to see that these younger men were given preference over more senior officers in the postwar air force. As salubrious as this was for the nascent United States Air Force, it was the last straw for some senior officers, many of whom had never been in Arnold’s camp. They, like Arnold, had endured the dreadful doldrums of the prewar era, with its low pay and lack of promotions. When war came, they were certain they had executed their new wartime responsibilities with admirable efficiency, for Arnold surely would have fired them had they not. But just as the dream of an independent air force was about to be realized, many of them were passed over, given dead-end assignments, or even politely asked to retire. This saddened Arnold, but it was a price he was prepared to pay and it was a tradition in the making.
Arnold’s discreet, comprehensive preparations to ensure the emergence of an independent air force were unlike the damn-the-torpedoes working style he used in running the war effort. As such, they indicate a depth and breadth to Arnold’s intellect that belie the traditional picture of the reckless airman, intent on the mission and heedless of politics. His plan was a masterful piece of work on its own; that Arnold executed it while building the world’s most powerful air force and leading it to victory in World War II is little short of incredible. The smiling, silver-haired general used tact, diplomacy, and well-thought-out public relations in his effort, all talents sneered at by his detractors. Yet he won the trust, affection, and personal commitment of giants like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and General Marshall not by these traits, but by delivering the goods. Arnold’s United States Army Air Forces performed in an outstanding manner, and he personally saw to it that its loyalty to the Army and its dedication to winning the war were unwavering. He never allowed his indirect lobbying efforts for an independent air force to interfere with the resolute prosecution of the war. It was a winning strategy, for by 1943 he had created the climate within the Army, the Congress, and the executive branch that would after the war permit him to realize his dream.
The nickname “Hap” suited his public persona rather better than his supervisory style. He was extremely photogenic, and his genial, confident manner enabled him to get along well socially. A big smile and warm handshake went a long way in the promotion of airpower, and he used them continuously on the prodigious wartime travel circuit that impacted so heavily on his health.
Working for him was something else again. Arnold believed he knew what could be accomplished with air power, and he threw himself into the work of overcoming the manifold deficiencies of the Army Air Forces in the early years of World War II. Enormously energetic, he worked long hours every day, never sparing himself or anyone who worked for him. In 1940 his task seemed impossible: the Air Corps lacked everything, including planes, pilots, ground crew, and bases. There was no training base—less than 1,000 pilots per year were being trained, when the requirement was for 100,000 annually. A modern air force required thousands of skills, ranging from cooks and bakers to navigators and radar observers, but the cadre of regulars to train them simply didn’t exist. The industrial base was equally inadequate, despite the infusion of help from prewar purchases of aircraft by the Allies. American aircraft designers were still building to the almost naive specifications of the prewar HIAD—Handbook of Instructions for Aircraft Designers—and blithely ignoring the lessons being taught daily in European skies about the value of armor, self-sealing tanks, and other combat necessities. He overcame each of these difficulties, sometimes by personal intervention, as when he personally saw to it that the vast civilian pilot training scheme was established, sometimes by motivation, as when he induced manufacturers to risk money without a contract in hand, and sometimes by fear, as when he would announce a forthcoming visit to a delinquent subordinate.
Hap was too impatient to be a good administrator, and far too prone to parcel out assignments to the first person—or sometimes, the first few persons—he saw, regardless of their authority, expertise, or ability. He wanted instant results and accepted no excuses for delay or failure. It was remarked of him, in rueful jest, that he was “the most even-tempered man in the Army—always angry.”
Most important for the American war effort, Arnold possessed a signal quality that cost him dearly each time he exercised it. Unlike many commanders in foreign air forces, including, oddly enough, the German Luftwaffe, he did not let personal friendship interfere with his evaluation of his subordinates. The air corps in which he grew up was so very small that when World War II broke out, not only his friends and colleagues but his rivals and opponents won top positions. Yet no matter who the person was, close friend or rival, Arnold was consistent. He was sparing in praise, but if the person failed to perform to Arnold’s expectations, he was relieved without mercy. When he decided that World War I ace Brigadier General Frank O’Driscoll “Monk” Hunter had failed to use his VIII Fighter Command effectively, Arnold insisted that he be replaced. Even his longtime close friend and his coauthor in prewar books on aviation Major General Ira C. Eaker was removed from his Eighth Air Force command position when Arnold felt that he was not extracting the maximum potential from his bomber force. This came as close to breaking Eaker’s spirit as anything could, for he had created the Eighth and guided it to the point where it was almost ready to accomplish its task. The incident put a further strain on Arnold’s own already troubled heart, adding to the burden of his twelve-hour days, and seven-day weeks. Nonetheless, he met each challenge with the fierce, professional resolution that became the model for Air Force general officer attitudes.
Copyright © 2007 by Walter J. Boyne. All rights reserved.