A Concise History of the U.S. Air Force/Air Power in the Nuclear Age
Air Power in the Nuclear Age
After the war the U.S. Army Air Forces established a number of major commands―Strategic Air Command (SAC), Air Defense Command (ADC), Tactical Air Command (TAC), Air Materiel Command (AMC), and Air Transport Command (ATC, which later became Military Air Transport Service [MATS] and then Military Airlift Command [MAC]), among others. Before his retirement, Hap Arnold, working to insure that America's air force remained at the forefront of science and technology, established a civilian Scientific Advisory Group (now the Scientific Advisory Board), the RAND Corporation "think tank," and several flight testing and engineering centers. Arnold proclaimed "the first essential" of air power to be "preeminence in research." He and General Spaatz proclaimed the second to be education, establishing Air University as a major command.
If the USAAF remained subordinate to the Army, its wartime record and the atomic bomb guaranteed that its status would change. The atomic bomb had altered the nature of warfare. The organization that delivered it, the Twentieth Air Force, was the predecessor of SAC, soon to become the world's dominant military force and responsible for conducting long-range combat and reconnaissance operations anywhere in the world. The USSBS had concluded from World War II that "the best way to win a war is to prevent it from occurring." A Strategic Air Command, properly equipped and trained, also would help deter any adversary state from starting a global nuclear war and would thereby ensure international peace.
At war's end the USAAF continued its quest for an American military establishment composed of three coequal and separate military departments. The Navy Department opposed unification and the formation of a separate air force, but the War Department, led by General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower, supported the drive for a separate air component. The National Security Act of July 26, 1947, was a compromise, creating a National Military Establishment under a civilian Secretary of National Defense, with three coequal services that preserved the air arms for the Navy and Marines. President Truman's first choice for Secretary of National Defense, Robert Patterson, turned down the job and James Forrestal, then serving as Secretary of the Navy, was appointed. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) gained its independence on September 18, 1947, under the Department of the Air Force, headed by Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington. General Carl Spaatz was named the first Air Force Chief of Staff.
At a time of demobilization, the National Security Act only postponed a confrontation between the Navy and Air Force over roles and missions in an era of declining defense dollars. For over a century, the Navy had been America's first line of defense and its offensive arm overseas until the era of the long-range bomber and the atomic bomb. Air power appealed to an American love of technology, a desire to avoid heavy casualties, and to austerity-minded presidents like Harry Truman and especially Dwight Eisenhower. The atomic bomb made air power the preeminent force in the postwar world. Giant six- and later ten-engine B-36 Peacemakers seemed to eclipse the Navy's expensive and vulnerable aircraft carriers in the nuclear world. A group of naval officers, led by Admirals Louis Denfeld, Chief of Naval Operations, and Arthur Radford, protested when budget restraints forced a Navy cutback from eight to four carriers and the cancellation of a planned supercarrier, the USS United States, large enough to launch atom bomb-carrying aircraft. The outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950 ensured higher defense budgets and limited further interservice contention.
Among the changes wrought by World War II for the U.S. Air Force was that affecting its basic composition. What had been a predominantly white male force became over time more representative of American diversity. African Americans had served in many roles during World War II, most visibly as fighter pilots in the 332d Fighter Group in Italy. Their combat record helped pave the way for the full racial integration of the armed forces under President Truman's July 1948 Executive Order 9981 which stated: "There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the Armed Services without regard to race." The Air Force achieved racial integration quickly and smoothly, eliminating its last segregated unit (the 332d Wing) in June 1949. American airmen first fought together without racial separation during the Korean War―Captain Daniel "Chappie" James, Jr., an African-American recognized and decorated for his performance as a reconnaissance pilot, came out of that experience. Equal opportunities and promotions for African Americans came more slowly, however, causing several riots at Air Force installations in the 1970s; but the service's commitment to a strong equal opportunity program erased remaining racial barriers. The armed services in general were ahead of the rest of American society on this issue.
Similarly, the Air Force helped lead the nation in the struggle to extend equal opportunities to women; 29,323 women served in the Army Air Forces in World War II as part of the Women's Army Corps (established on July 1, 1943); another 1,074 served as civilian Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS). Under the leadership of Nancy Love and Jacqueline Cochran, WASPs ferried aircraft and trained male airmen. President Truman signed the Women's Armed Services Act on June 12, 1948, establishing the WAFs (Women in the Air Force). Another barrier to professional advancement was removed in 1976 when women entered Air Force non-combat pilot training programs for the first time.
Atomic bombs carried by strategic bombers eventually ruled postwar Air Force and Department of Defense (DOD) war planning. Only aircraft such as the B-29 Superfortress, the B-36 Peacemaker, and the
all-jet B-47 Stratojet, could carry atomic bombs that weighed upwards of 10,000 pounds (the Mark II-IV series). The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), formed in 1946 to replace the wartime Manhattan Engineering District, succeeded in reducing the size of the bomb (the Mark 7 weighed 1,680 pounds) but did not change the basic atomic equation. A handful of Air Force bombers carried more power than all of history's armies and navies combined.
Under postwar demobilization, which affected the AEC just as much as the armed services, the nation's stockpile of atomic weapons rose to only nine in 1946. In 1947 the commission took over weapons-building programs and the stockpile reached thirteen as the Truman administration and the JCS discussed the level of production necessary to maintain an effective deterrent. In December 1947 the JCS approved a
goal of 400 weapons for the AEC. At the same time, while SAC began to recover from the chaos of demobilization, its state of readiness remained low. Under General George C. Kenney and his deputy, Major General Clements McMullen, it assigned high priority to establishing a rigorous aircrew training program. This program, the secrecy that shrouded atomic weapons jealously guarded by the AEC, and the lack of information available to operational forces limited SAC's potential as an atomic strike force.
In addition, vast distances to targets challenged the skill and endurance of its aircrews. Although SAC operated the B-36 intercontinental bomber to strike anywhere in the world, it initiated the development of an aerial refueling capability in fall 1947. In 1948 it adopted the British hose method, converting some piston-engine B-29s to tankers, and formed two aerial refueling squadrons in June 1948. SAC later adopted the Boeing flying boom method of refueling, made standard in 1958. Using four aerial refuelings, the B-50 Lucky Lady II flew nonstop around the world between February 26 and March 2, 1949, to demonstrate the technique's global strike potential. Destined to serve Air Force jet bombers and fighters for the next four decades and beyond, the jet turbine-powered KC-135 Stratotanker, became operational in 1957.
The crisis that precipitated the Berlin Airlift began on June 24, 1948. It revolved around American plans for rebuilding a separate West German state and led the Soviet Union to initiate a ground blockade of the Western-controlled zones of Berlin, 90 miles inside Soviet-controlled East Germany. Forcing the blockade would have required the West to launch a general mobilization, fire first shots, and possibly set off another global war. Although the United States had deployed the conventional B-29 to Europe, perhaps in a calculated bluff that relied on the aircraft's reputation as an atomic delivery vehicle, the crisis continued. The Allies saw an opportunity to resupply Berlin and feed its 2.5 million beleaguered inhabitants by air through three air corridors guaranteed by agreement with the Soviet Union. Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay, then commanding U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), pieced together an airlift force of C-47 Skytrains left over from World War II, but the 80 tons per day they supplied were not enough. On July 30, 1948, Major General William Tunner, who had run the Himalayan "Hump" airlift during the war, replaced LeMay, the combat leader. Reinforced with four-engine C-54 Skymasters and C-74 Globe-masters, Tunner initiated around-the-clock flights guided by ground control approach radar. His aircraft land- ed every three minutes, carrying a record capacity of 5,620 tons per day. When the airlift appeared to succeed, the Soviet Union threatened to interfere with it.
President Truman responded by sending a wing of B-29s, widely described in the world press at the time as "atomic" bombers, to England. They were not, but the Soviet Union apparently believed they were and made no move to interrupt the airlift. In May 1949 it provided the United States with the first victory of the Cold War (without a shot being fired) when, after eleven months, 277,000 flights, and 2.3 million tons of life-sustaining supplies, it opened Berlin to surface traffic. A few months
later in late August, it exploded an atomic bomb of its own, causing Americans grave national security concerns. Almost before the Truman administration could respond, it faced a new crisis in Korea.