Happy 76th Birthday to the United States Air Force – Council on Foreign Relations

The United States Air Force (USAF) turns seventy-six 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. General 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.

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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 U.S. Air Force has 325,605 active-duty personnel, 71,500 reserve personnel, 106,700 air national guard personnel, and 145,400 civilian personnel. The service flies 5,209 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. Kristen D. Thompson, an air force officer spending a year as a visiting military fellow in CFR’s David Rockefeller Studies Programto recommend reading for anyone looking to learn more about the air force. Here’s what she suggests:

Ted W. Lawson, 30 Seconds Over Tokyo (1981).  Lawson’s book details his B-25 bomber crew’s participation in the courageous Doolittle Raid over Tokyo in 1942. Lawson’s aircraft, “The Ruptured Duck,” launched off the U.S. Navy carrier Hornet and hit its industrial targets over Tokyo before being forced to ditch off the coast of China. Lawson later earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for his intrepid flying, his courageous leadership, and determined survival. This is a beautiful story that celebrates American innovation and human sacrifice in the earliest days of the army air corps.

Warren Kozak, LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay (2009). Kozak’s biography explores the brilliant and controversial life and career of the indomitable General Curtis E. LeMay. By weaving together the story of a complex leader whose leadership decision-making and post-air-force life often draw criticism, Kozak’s account of LeMay is a must read for understanding the complexities of strategic deterrence, nuclear war, and geopolitics.

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Brian D. Laslie, The Air Force Way of War. U.S. Tactics and Training After Vietnam (2015). Laslie’s book chronicles the air force’s lessons learned from Vietnam. The air force witnessed firsthand it had to change the way it trained its pilots. As a result, the perennial combat training exercise, Red Flag, was born. Every aircrew that flies combat aircraft today knows how beneficial Red Flag was to their development. The revolutionary exercise, designed to simulate the first ten missions in combat, has honed the tactical prowess of combat pilots and aircrew for multiple generations.

Diane T. Putney, Airpower Advantage: Planning the Gulf Air Campaign, 1989-1991 (2005). Air force historian Diane Putney details the coming of age of airpower during the first Gulf War. Her up-close-and-personal look at national and air force leadership and the planning efforts make you feel as if you are part of the team crafting the master air attack plan for the overall war effort. No detail is spared in this chronicle of the importance of air superiority in modern warfare. Although more than thirty years have passed since the Gulf War, the lessons learned then still resonate with today’s airpower enthusiasts and practitioners.

Dan Schilling and Lori Chapman Longfritz, Alone at Dawn (2019). This is the story of 2018 Medal of Honor recipient, Master Sergeant John Chapman. The book begins with Chapman’s childhood and transitions to his training as an air force combat controller and consequential deployment to Afghanistan. In 2002, he was assigned to a SEAL team sent to the top of Takur Ghar mountain to establish an observation point. Under extreme conditions and amidst heavy fire from an entrenched enemy, Chapman was fatally wounded. His courageous fight was captured by remotely piloted aircraft footage which was then used to award him with the military’s highest distinction. Sergeant Chapman’s heroic story continues to inspire Airmen across generations.

Kim Campbell, Flying in the Face of Fear (2023). Recently retired Air Force Colonel Kim “KC” Campbell was an A-10 pilot flying combat missions over Iraq when she was hit with anti-aircraft fire that severely damaged her aircraft. Her quick thinking, training, grit, and determination enabled her to fly her beloved “Warthog” back to base. This harrowing account of her experience is made all the more poignant by the fact that she’s the only A-10 pilot to have landed an A-10 with this much damage. KC weaves her personal passion for leadership throughout the book, making this a timeless read for anyone in a career centered on service.

Colonel Thompson also recommended this online media resource:

The Air Force Leadership Library is a one-stop shop for professional development not only in the air force but in the profession of arms. It includes a reading list from the secretary of the air force, chief of staff of the air force, and the chief master sergeant of the air force. The consolidated list has books, online articles, features from NatGeo and the History channel, podcasts, movies, and NETFLIX episodes that will spark dialogue and educate leaders on topics ranging from space travel, to mental health, to competition with China. Col. Thompson frequents the Leadership Library, which includes The Economist’s podcast on Xi Jinping called “The Prince: Searching for Xi Jinping.” It is eight episodes on one of the most interesting and powerful leaders of our time. 

Sinet Adous assisted in the preparation of this post.

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