Artwork by Robert Taylor: The biggest, fastest, most powerful fighter of its day, the McDonnell Phantom was an awesome war machine that came to dominate aerial combat for over two decades. It may have been the size of many World War II bombers but it could out-perform anything that crossed its path; it was quicker, could turn faster, was better equipped with electronics, carried more ordnance than anything comparable, and it had an unbelievable rate of climb. The F-4 Phantom was the benchmark against which every fighter in the world came to be judged; it was simply the best. Robert Taylor’s powerful new painting shows Steve Ritchie, first into action, flying his lead F-4D Phantom through a hail of deadly enemy flak as he exits the target area after a typical FAST FAC mission on enemy installations in North Vietnam, 1972. Behind him a vast trail of devastation marks the mission’s progress, as his fellow Phantom crews continue to wreak havoc with their heavy ordnance, the target area exploding in a series of mighty detonations.
The U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) ended World War II as the largest and most powerful air force in the world. By the end of the conflict, the AAF comprised some 2.4 million personnel in 16 separate air forces (12 of them overseas) and 243 groups (later designated as wings). The important role played by the AAF in the war helped bring about realization of the goal long sought by its leaders of an independent air force.
The National Security Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in July 1947, established the U.S. Air Force (USAF) as an independent armed service. The USAF established three major combat commands in the United States: the Strategic Air Command (SAC), the Tactical Air Command (TAC), and the Air Defense Command (ADC). The concept of strategic bombardment, which the AAF had embraced in World War II, continued to receive emphasis, and under General Curtis E. LeMay, SAC became the dominant USAF command. It controlled the longrange bomber force and the nation’s nuclear delivery capability. SAC also assumed responsibility for aerial tankers to extend the strike range of the bombers. SAC gained responsibility for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) when they entered the U.S. force structure in the late 1950s.
Created in 1946, the ADC and TAC were initially merged into the Continental Air Command in December 1948 but were separated two years later. The USAF used TAC and theater commands overseas to conduct aviation missions in support of theater operations, including air superiority, ground attack (close air support and interdiction), reconnaissance, and airlift in the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). MATS demonstrated its importance during the 1948–1949 Berlin Airlift.
First Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington (1947–1950) and air force leaders argued for a 70-wing air force, but budget retrenchment following World War II led to aggressive force reductions, resulting in an actual force structure of 48 wings. Nonetheless, because of the perception of airpower and atomic weapons as a war-winning combination, the USAF became the dominant service in terms of funding and political support, and SAC was clearly the most influential command in the U.S. defense establishment during the 1950s. The onset of the Korean War (1950–1953) brought significant improvement and increased spending for more personnel and new aircraft, leading to a 235-wing force in 1956.
Airpower did play a key role in the Korean War. It was certainly one of the most important factors in enabling United Nations Command (UNC) personnel to stand at the Pusan Perimeter until the United States could effect its military buildup and take the offensive. Propeller-driven Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers destroyed the industrial base of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) and soon ran out of meaningful targets. U.S. airpower continued to savage North Korean and, later, Chinese supply lines and exacted a heavy toll on their ground personnel. Communist Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 interceptor aircraft, initially flown by Soviet pilots, however, forced the UNC to abandon strategic daytime bombing. The Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star, the first U.S. mass-produced jet aircraft, and the more capable Republic F-84 Thunderjet proved no match for the MiG-15, although on 8 November 1950 an F-80 did shoot down a MiG-15 in the first clash between jet aircraft in history. A worthy opponent for the MiG appeared in the North American F-86 Sabre, hastily rushed to Korea. These two jet aircraft were well matched, but the F-86s racked up an impressive kill ratio thanks to superior pilot training.
Top USAF leaders nonetheless concluded that the Korean War had been an anomaly, and they continued to invest significant resources in SAC programs. SAC’s first strategic bomber was the propeller-driven Boeing B-50 Superfortress, introduced in 1947. Basically a vastly improved B-29, it was certainly outclassed by jet aircraft. In 1948 the Convair B-36 Peacemaker six-engine bomber entered service. With a gross weight of 410,000 pounds, it was the world’s largest aircraft. The B-36 was also the world’s first intercontinental bomber and was capable of carrying up to 72,000 pounds of munitions. It remained in service until 1959. The first four-engine American jet bomber was the North American B-45 Tornado. Produced beginning in 1948, it served in Korea in a reconnaissance role and was in service for a decade. The Boeing B-47 Stratojet medium bomber was one of the most important of USAF aircraft. Sleek and futuristic and the first swept-wing bomber ever in production, the B-47 entered service in 1951. Boeing’s follow-on aircraft to the B-47, the B-52 Stratofortress, entered service in 1955. The Stratofortress has been in service for more than fifty years. Certainly one of the most important aircraft ever produced, it was capable of carrying a 40,000-pound payload 8,800 miles. B-52s are closely identified with the Cold War and played a leading role in the Vietnam War, even acting in support of ground operations. They are best remembered, however, for their role in the December 1972 Christmas Bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. In 1960, SAC received the sleek Convair B-58 Hustler. In service for a decade, the large delta-configuration B-58 was capable of a speed of 1,385 mph—the world’s first supersonic bomber.
The Vietnam War saw the USAF carry out operations in direct support of ground troops but also conduct the highly publicized bombing of North Vietnam (Operations ROLLING THUNDER, LINEBACKER I, and LINEBACKER II) and the secret bombing of Laos (Operations BARREL ROLL and STEEL TIGER) and Cambodia (Operation MENU). The interdiction campaigns were frustrating in that they never could completely halt the infiltration of men and supplies by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) into the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam), but they certainly did make it much more difficult for the communist side in the war and kept many North Vietnamese troops and weapons out of South Vietnam. The campaigns did reveal the limitations of airpower in nonconventional warfare, however. U.S. airpower, to include the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps, did play an important role in such battles as the action in the Ia Drang Valley, the 1968 Tet Offensive, and the siege of Khe Sanh, and certainly airpower was a key factor in North Vietnam’s invasion of South Vietnam in the Spring or Easter Offensive of 1972.
In 1957, the United States launched its first ICBM, and shortly thereafter SAC also controlled nuclear-armed ICBMs. By the end of the 1960s, SAC controlled more than 1,000 ICBMs as the number of nuclear-capable bombers dwindled. The bombers and ICBMs combined with the navy’s submarinelaunched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to create the triad nuclear deterrence force. Coordination in targeting and the development of the nuclear Single Integrated Operations Plan was the responsibility of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, collocated at Offutt Air Force Base with SAC headquarters. SAC was disestablished on 1 June 1992, following the end of the Cold War. Its nuclear planning and command and control role continued in the Unified Command, U.S. Strategic Command, and its operational forces were dispersed to other USAF major commands: bombers and missiles to Air Combat Command (missiles later moved to Space Command) and tankers to Air Mobility Command.
In the early Cold War years, the offensive capability of SAC was complemented by extensive USAF air defense forces. The ADC was responsible for the interceptor fighters dedicated to the defense of the continental United States. The command also directed the early warning radar system and the command and control structure that coordinated all air defense resources, including resources provided by other services in an emergency. The ADC became the U.S. component of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), and the ADC commander normally served simultaneously as the NORAD commander as well. As space systems became increasingly important to warning and defensive operations, the USAF renamed the command the Aerospace Defense Command in 1968. The ADC was headquartered at Ent Air Force Base, Colorado, and then at Peterson Field, Colorado. The ADC was inactivated in March 1980, and its functions were dispersed to other major commands, primarily SAC, TAC, and, eventually, Space Command.
Prominent interceptor aircraft flown by the USAF in this period included the Northrop F-89 Scorpion and the Lockheed F-94 Starfire. These aircraft entered service in 1950 and served for a decade, bringing radar intercept capabilities for night and bad weather operations. The North American F-86D Sabre of 1951 was the first USAF single-seat all-weather jet interceptor. The North American F-100 Super Sabre appeared in 1954 and served until 1979. It was the first USAF fighter to cruise at supersonic speeds and was designed as an interceptor. The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter appeared in 1958 as an interceptor but ended its career as a ground attack aircraft. The second generation of air defense systems included the McDonnell Douglas F-101B Voodoo, Convair F-102 Delta Dart, and Convair F-106 Delta Dagger interceptors.
The TAC was established in 1946 to control and train forces that would work with U.S. Army units in theater operations. TAC’s primary missions were securing air superiority and providing support to the ground forces through close air support, interdiction, and reconnaissance missions. TAC was merged into the Continental Air Command in 1948. In December 1950, the USAF returned TAC to major command status, reflecting the demands of the Korean War on theater air resources. TAC was headquartered at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. The USAF converted TAC to Air Combat Command in 1992 as part of the post–Cold War reorganization.
The F-80, F-84, and F-86 were among the first jet fighters. They were followed in the 1950s by day-fighter designs that had a secondary ground-attack role, especially the Super Sabre and the Starfighter. Over time, both the F-100 and the F-104 became primarily ground-attack platforms. In the mid-1960s, the USAF adapted the navy-designed McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom as a multirole aircraft to perform the air superiority and ground-attack roles. The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle was the first USAF design specifically for air superiority. It entered service in 1974 and saw extensive service in the 1991 Gulf War. It also performed brilliantly for the Israeli Air Force. The General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon of 1980, conceived as a lightweight multirole complement to the F-15, combined air-to-air and ground-attack capabilities.
Fighter-bomber, attack, and reconnaissance aircraft included the Thunderjet of 1947. It saw extensive service in a variety of missions during the Korean War. Reflecting the nuclear-oriented force structure of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, the USAF embraced the Republic F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber as a supersonic nuclear weapons delivery system. In a conventional bombing role, it bore the brunt of the air war over North Vietnam. The superb Phantom entered service in 1960 and served extensively in Vietnam, where it established an enviable combat record. The Phantom remained in service throughout the Cold War period. The General Dynamics F/FB-111 Aardvark of 1968 was the first operational combat aircraft with a swing-wing. Finally, mention must be made of the F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter. In appearance unlike any other aircraft and making use of radar absorbent materials, the triangular-shaped F-117A appeared in 1983 and first saw action in the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. It also participated extensively in the Gulf War, hitting targets with great precision. Of reconnaissance aircraft, Lockheed produced perhaps the world’s two best in the Cold War: the U-2 (1956) and the SR-71 (1964).
Of major USAF overseas commands, the two most important were the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF). USAFE was established in August 1945 and served as the air force component of the U.S. European Command. USAF theater forces in the Pacific were initially organized as the Far East Air Forces. In 1957, the designation shifted to Pacific Air Forces. PACAF was the USAF component of the U.S. Pacific Command.
Airlift emerged as a vitally important function during World War II. This continued in the Cold War. In 1948, the Air Force Air Transport Command and the Navy Air Transport Service were merged to create MATS, which was charged with providing all necessary airlift support to the U.S. military. The USAF changed MATS to the Military Airlift Command (MAC) in 1966. MAC became the air force component to U.S. Transportation Command, the unified command responsible for moving and sustaining U.S. combat forces. In addition to military aircraft, MAC managed contracted airlift and the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF), which provided an additional surge airlift capacity in national emergencies. MAC was headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. During the post–Cold War USAF reorganization in 1992, MAC was renamed Air Mobility Command and gained control of the tanker aircraft that had previously been assigned to SAC.
McDonnell Douglas provided a large number of transport aircraft in this period. Among these were the workhorse C-47 Skytrain (the military version of the DC-3); the C-54 Skymaster (the civilian DC-4), the first four-engine U.S. military transport; the C-74 Globemaster, at its introduction in 1945 the world’s largest transport plane; the C-118 Liftmaster (the DC-6 in civilian service); the C-124 Globemaster, the USAF’s first strategic cargo plane; and the C-133 Cargomaster. Lockheed also provided noteworthy Cold War transport aircraft, including the C-121 Super Constellation, the C-130 Hercules, and the C-141 Starlifter, in 1965 the world’s first all-jet air transport aircraft. Lockheed’s giant C-5 Galaxy entered service in 1969 and held the title as the world’s largest operational aircraft for more than fifteen years. The twin-engine Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar entered service in 1949 and served with distinction in Korea and in Vietnam. Tanker aircraft include the Mc- Donnell Douglas KC-10 Extender and Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker.
The USAF was heavily involved in the development of space systems from its origin as a separate service and became the lead agency for space launches, working closely with other government agencies, especially the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Reconnaissance Office, to develop a wide range of space-based capabilities. Initially, the development and launch of satellite systems were the responsibilities of the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC), which also dealt with aircraft and other weapons system designs. The USAF redesignated ARDC the Air Force Systems Command (AFSC) in 1961. The rapidly increasing importance of space led the USAF to establish the Air Force Space Command in September 1982. Air Force Space Command provided launch support and operational control of space platforms and became the lead agency for U.S. military space activities. It also assumed some of the ADC component functions in NORAD and in 1985 became the air force component of the U.S. Space Command.
The USAF relied on a number of supporting major commands to develop and sustain its capabilities. The Air Force Logistics Command (AFLC, Air Matériel Command until 1961) provided supply and maintenance support. In the post–Cold War reorganization of 1992, the USAF merged the AFLC and the AFSC into Air Force Matériel Command. An additional important command for the USAF was Air Training Command (ATC), the organization that provided all of the formal training for USAF personnel, including flying training for pilots and navigators and technical training for all career fields. The USAF later renamed the ATC the Air Education and Training Command.
USAF doctrinal emphasis on deep attacks in pursuit of decisive effects often placed it in conflict with the other services, which believed that airpower should be used in a support role to assist the surface forces in traditional campaigns against enemy surface forces. In addition to seeking decisive offensive victories, USAF doctrine emphasized the importance of technological dominance and the need for pursuing advanced capabilities. As the Cold War ended, USAF theater airpower and space power, developed to deter and if necessary engage Soviet power, was nonetheless highly effective in providing the foundation for victory in Operation DESERT STORM, the 1991 campaign to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
The end of the Cold War brought a considerable decline in USAF strength. In 1987 the USAF had 171 wings, 7,245 active duty aircraft, and 607,000 personnel. By 1991 these numbers had fallen to 153 wings (115 wings by 1995), 4,710 aircraft, and 388,100 personnel. Air National Guard (ANG) and Air Force Reserve (AFR) totals experienced similar declines, from 263,000 to 181,000 personnel.
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