The American Legion Magazine | 4.1.15
By Alan W. Dowd and Adam Lowther
Cover Story

With the centennial of airpower’s role in warfare upon us, now is the ideal time to look at the past, present and future of U.S. airpower.

During World War I, aircraft began operating as aerial reconnaissance platforms. Pilots and aerial observers watched ground units and attempted to gain advantage from understanding troop strength, movement and tactical emplacement. The desire to prevent the enemy from gaining such information rapidly led to the need for air superiority, which led to air-to-air combat, which, in turn, led to the development of air-interdiction—the need to destroy an enemy’s aircraft before he takes to the air.[i]Remarkably, these capabilities evolved in less than five years.

This rapid development of airpower as a key component of U.S. military strength is a stunning feat of American ingenuity, as new technologies and the art of warfare continually pushed the bounds of the possible—and played a central role in propelling the United States into a position of preeminence by the end of the 20th century.

The contrails of history suggest that the rise of American airpower and the rise of U.S. geopolitical power go hand-in-hand.

For Americans, airpower played a key part in some of World War II’s most pivotal moments: Pearl Harbor, Doolittle’s Raid, Midway (showcasing carrier-borne Naval airpower), D-Day, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As General Dwight Eisenhower said of the D-Day invasion, “Without the Air Force, without its independent power, entirely aside from its ability to sweep the enemy air forces from the sky, without its power [to] intervene in the ground battle, the invasion would have been fantastic, it would have been more than fantastic, it would have been criminal.”[ii]

Less than two years after atomic-tipped B-29s hastened the war’s end, President Harry Truman signed the National Defense Act at the urging of men like Eisenhower, elevating the Air Force into an independent branch. Fittingly, Truman signed the act into law aboard Sacred Cow, forerunner to Air Force One.[iii]

The new branch was soon put to work, albeit in an unexpected way. After Stalin blockaded the corridors connecting western Germany to western Berlin, Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay crafted an air campaign unlike any in history. Blending the principles of strategic bombing with the efficiency of an assembly line, Allied pilots flew 277,000 missions and delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies to Berlin between June 1948 and September 1949. About 75 percent of those missions were flown by 300 U.S. planes.[iv]

Americans called the Berlin Airlift “Operation Vittles.” It served as a model for some 450 U.S. Air Force (USAF) humanitarian airlifts during the Cold War.[v]These acts of air diplomacy played a central role in displaying American power and goodwill as Moscow and Washington vied for global influence.

The end of the Berlin Crisis offered little rest for America or the Air Force. North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. By June 27, the Air Force was flying missions to repulse the onslaught. The Air Force flew 392,139 sorties during the war, often in inhospitable conditions over enemy territory.[vi]

In 1962, when President John Kennedy learned that Moscow might be deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba, he ordered USAF “blue-suiters” to fly modified CIA U-2s over the island.[vii]What they discovered was staggering: The Soviets were assembling 42 medium-range nuclear missiles and 24 intermediate-range nuclear missiles, deploying 42 long-range nuclear bombers, and trying to tilt the Cold War’s balance—and gain a first-strike capability.

At U.S. bases around the world, more than a thousand bombers were readied for immediate takeoff. Scores of nuclear-armed B-47 and B-52 bombers sat wingtip to wingtip at airbases across the southeastern United States. Ninety nuclear-armed B-52s began round-the-clock orbits over the Atlantic.[viii]Fully one-eighth of the Air Force was airborne.[ix]Along with Navy quarantine operations and clever diplomacy, this massive display of airpower averted World War III.

Speaking of averting war, USAF bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) represented more than 58 percent of America’s strategic nuclear deterrent force at the height of the Cold War.[x]This arsenal kept a fragile peace between the superpowers. Without the capability to destroy the world ten times over, direct confrontation may have appeared too tempting to an aggressive, expansionist Soviet Union.

Even so, proxy wars raged. After enjoying a six-to-one kill ratio in Korea, the USAF’s kill ratio in Vietnam dropped to two-to-one in the early years of the war, owing to Hanoi’s lethal mix of AAA, SAMs and fighter-interceptors. All told, the Air Force lost 2,254 fixed-wing aircraft in and around Vietnam.[xi]

Yet the USAF delivered more than ordnance in Vietnam. During the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh, as Air Force Magazine’s airpower chronology details, the Air Force airdropped 165 tons of supplies per day.[xii]At the end of the war, American cargo planes formed an air bridge that carried tens of thousands of war refugees to safety.[xiii]

As Vietnam wound down, Washington called upon the Air Force to bolster a besieged Israel. With a pan-Arab force lunging at Israel, President Richard Nixon’s response to the Yom Kippur War was unequivocal: “Send everything that can fly.”[xiv]Dubbed “Operation Nickel Grass,” the month-long airlift delivered 22,395 tons of war materiel. “For generations to come,” Prime Minister Golda Meir declared, “all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the material that meant life to our people.”[xv]

In the immediate post-Cold War period, the USAF was delivering humanitarian aid seemingly everywhere, as the Air Force Historical Research Agency’s Daniel Haulman details: 40,000 tons to Iraqi Kurdistan, 62,800 tons to Bosnia, 2,274 tons to the former Soviet Union, 832 tons to Bangladesh, 4,500 tons to Rwanda, 23,000 tons to Zaire and Uganda.[xvi]The list goes on.

USAF assets were among the first units deployed during Desert Shield, and the first six weeks of Desert Storm were almost exclusively an air affair. The Air Force accounted for 57 percent of sorties flown, paving the way for ground forces to smash the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s once-formidable army. 

After Desert Storm, Washington needed a way to protect Iraqi Kurds from Saddam’s post-war vengeance. Thus was born the no-fly zone. U.S. airpower guarded northern and southern Iraq for 12 years and played a central role in preventing Saddam from reconstituting his air and land forces.

Washington also employed no-fly zones in hopes of protecting Bosnian civilians from Slobodan Milosevic’s henchmen. But it wasn’t until the USAF was allowed to take the offensive against Serbian militiamen in 1995 that Milosevic finally came to the peace table. With the Air Force representing 68 percent of the American aircraft deployed,[xvii]airpower helped end a war.

When Milosevic tried to repeat in Kosovo what he had done in Bosnia, the Air Force led a 78-day campaign targeting the Milosevic regime’s centers of gravity. When the conflict was over, USAF assets had flown 79 percent of NATO’s 38,000-plus sorties;[xviii]Milosevic’s regime was mortally wounded; and 850,000 Kosovar refugees returned home.

That two-to-one kill ratio during Vietnam became 48-to-zero during the 1990s, Haulman notes, and has remained high into the 2000s.[xix]

The Air Force and Naval aviation launched the early counterstrikes against al Qaeda and its Taliban partners in Afghanistan. But some Americans forget that Air National Guard F-16s were scrambled into the skies above Washington, D.C., and New York City just minutes after the 9/11 attacks. They have continued to protect the homeland ever since—out of sight and out of mind for most Americans.[xx]

When America swung its sights back to Baghdad in 2003, USAF F-117s fired the opening salvos.[xxi] Moreover, a decade-plus of no-fly zones enabled coalition forces to face much less organized resistance when they returned to Iraq. “First on the scene in 1990, the Air Force was also last out of Iraq,” Air Force Magazine recalls, detailing how the Air Force kept watch “until every departing American was safely out.”

During the Obama administration, the USAF’s share of the national-security load has arguably increased, as manned and unmanned assets conduct operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The U.S. has conducted at least 347 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2009, neutralizing an estimated 2,600 militants.[xxii]In Afghanistan in 2010, the Air Force dropped 60.4 million pounds of cargo; joint U.S. airpower flew 33,869 close-air-support sorties; and USAF and Navy assets delivered ordnance 5,100 times.[xxiii]Late 2014 saw the most weapons releases in Afghanistan by U.S. warplanes since 2012.[xxiv]Although 18 nations contributed to the 2011 campaign against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, American warplanes accounted for 25 percent of sorties—and 70 percent of aerial refueling.[xxv] When ISIS swept into Iraq, Air Force A-10s, F-16s, F-15Es, B-1s, F-22s , refuelers and cargo planes[xxvi] teamed with Navy F/A-18Fs[xxvii]and EA-6Bsto blunt the advance of a ruthless foe and deliver humanitarian aid to a defenseless people.[xxviii]All told, the Air Force has carried out 60 percent of Operation Inherent Resolve’s 16,000-plus sorties against ISIS.[xxix]

Yet the Air Force’s most important role is not kinetic operations, but rather nuclear and conventional deterrence.

When China declared an air-defense-identification zone in the East China Sea, B-52s cruised through the area to enforce freedom of the skies. When North Korea began a spasm of war tantrums in 2013, B-2s executed high-profile maneuvers over the peninsula, and F-22s deployed to South Korea. Likewise, during a spike in tensions with Iran, the Pentagon based F-22s in the UAE.[xxx] All of these are examples of conventional deterrence.

Amid Moscow’s dubious 2011 claims to huge swaths of Arctic Ocean seafloor, C-5s, KC-135s, B-52s and B-2s repeatedly flew over the North Pole.[xxxi]After Moscow annexed Crimea, Washington rushed F-15s and F-16s to the Baltic nations and Poland; a package of B-52s and B-2s deployed to Britain; and a strike-force of 16 B-52s and B-2s conducted strategic exercises[xxxii]—a sobering reminder that USAF bombers and ICBMs still keep watch over an old foe.

Worryingly, the sequestration guillotine is chopping away at America’s multitasking Air Force.

The Air Force is set to shrink by 286 aircraft in the short term.[xxxiii] In 2013, the Air Force temporarily stood down 31 squadrons due to funding constraints.[xxxiv]During the next two years, the USAF will cut 18,670 active-duty personnel.[xxxv]

The nation’s bomber fleet has suffered perhaps most over the past decade, even before sequestration began. Between 2003 and 2013, the active bomber fleet shrank from 173 to 144.[xxxvi]With long-range strike arguably the single most important capability of the Air Force, its 16 operationally deployed B-2s may not be enough to penetrate advanced anti-aircraft defenses—a mission central to any offensive operation.

These cuts might make sense if the Air Force had a surplus of new airframes, or if peace were breaking out. But we know the very opposite to be true.

B-52s, the largest segment of the bomber fleet, entered service between 1954 and 1962. The average age of an AWACS is well over 30.[xxxvii]

As to the state of the world, the Middle East is on fire; al Qaeda is reconstituting; jihadists are on the march in Iraq; North Korea is rattling nuclear sabers; Iran is plowing ahead with its own nuclear-weapons program. And as the U.S. declaws itself, China’s military expenditure has skyrocketed by 170 percent in the past decade,[xxxviii]while Russia has unveiled plans to deploy 600 advanced warplanes in the next decade.[xxxix]

Navy advocates often note that 71 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by oceans—and understandably so. The Navy plays an essential role in keeping sea lanes open for commerce and keeping bad guys at bay. But it’s worth noting that 100 percent of the planet is covered by air—not an insignificant matter given the central role American airpower has played in the post-Cold War world.

“What will be needed in the coming decades,” argues strategic analyst George Friedman of Stratfor, “is a weapon that can be based in the United States, reach the other side of the world in under an hour, maneuver with incredible agility to avoid surface-to-air missiles, strike with absolute precision and return to carry out another mission almost immediately.”

Friedman is sketching the future of U.S. airpower, which will undoubtedly be led by the U.S. Air Force.

Yet given present and likely future fiscal constraints, it is uncertain whether the Air Force will have the means to develop and field the very systems that will ensure U.S. dominance in tomorrow’s battlespace. 


[i] Phillip S. Meilinger, “Air Interdiction,” Air Force Magazine (February 2014), 65-68.

[ii] Quoted in Adam Lowther, “From the Air: Rediscovering our Raison D’etre,” Air and Space Power Journal (July-August 2012), p. 66.

[iii] National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, “DOUGLAS VC-54C 'SACRED COW,'” October 22, 2013, http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=566 (accessed June 30, 2014).

[iv] Adam Lowther, “Air Diplomacy: The United States Air Force’s Contribution to American Diplomacy,” Penser Les Ailes Francaises (Winter/Spring 2011), pp. 71-87.

[v] Daniel Haulman, Wings of Hope, Air Force History and Museums Program, 2007, p. 26.

[vi] Lester Brune, ed., The Korean War: Handbook of the Literature and Research (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996), p. 269.

[vii] Alan W. Dowd, “On the Brink,” The American Legion Magazine, October 1, 2012.

[viii] Paul Johnson, Modern Times (New York, N.Y.: Harper Perennial, 1992), p. 627.

[ix] The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A Chronology of Events, January 1, 1962-October 25, 1962, George Washington University National Security Archives.

[x] NRDC, Table of Nuclear Warheads, http://www.nrdc.org/nuclear/nudb/datab9.asp (accessed May 27, 2014).

[xi] Rebecca Grant, “The Crucible of Vietnam,” Air Force Magazine, February 2013.

[xii] “Up from Kitty Hawk,” Air Force Magazine, p. 97.

[xiii] Daniel Haulman, Wings of Hope, p .12.

[xiv] Charles Ramey, “Dover Remembers Operation Nickel Grass,” Air Force News Service, October 23, 1998.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Haulman, pp. 15-18.

[xvii] John Tirpak, “Deliberate Force,” Air Force Magazine, October 1997.

[xviii] USAF, Operation Allied Force Fact Sheet, August 23, 2012.

[xix] Daniel Haulman, “No Contest: Aerial Combat in the 1990s,” Air Force Historical Research Agency, 2002.

[xx] Jim Michaels, “NORAD scrambles jets as civilians keep straying into restricted airspace,” USAToday, May 29, 2014; NORAD, “Continental U.S. NORAD Region,”
 http://www.norad.mil/AboutNORAD/ContinentalUSNORADRegion.aspx (accessed June 16, 2014); Beth Ford Roth, "Military Fighter Jets Train For Super Bowl Security," KPBS, January 28, 2014 http://www.kpbs.org/news/2014/jan/28/air-force-fighter-jets-train-super-bowl-security/ (accessed June 16, 2014).

[xxi] AFHSO, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” June 13, 2013, http://www.afhso.af.mil/topics/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=18635 (accessed May 29, 2014).

[xxii] New America Foundation, “Drone Wars Pakistan: Analysis,” http://natsec.newamerica.net/drones/pakistan/analysis (accessed May 27, 2014).

[xxiii] Scott Fontaine, “More than 33,000 CAS sorties flown in 2010,” Air Force Times, February 4, 2011.

[xxiv] Bryan Bender, "U.S. intensifies Afghan airstrikes as drawdown nears," Boston Globe, October 8, 2014, http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2014/10/07/with-focus-iraq-and-syria-air-war-heats-afghanistan-amid-drawdown/to9wunctlsgw8LV1dJ0XtL/story.html (accessed January 15, 2015).

[xxv] Ivo Daalder and James Stavridis, “NATO’s success in Libya,” New York Times, October 30, 2011; and John A. Tirpak, “NATO’s Lessons from Libya,” Air Force Magazine, June 2013.

[xxvi] Craig Whitlock, “U.S. relies on Persian Gulf bases for airstrikes in Iraq,” The Washington Post, August 26, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-relies-on-persian-gulf-bases-for-airstrikes-in-iraq/2014/08/25/517dcde0-2c7a-11e4-9b98-848790384093_story.html (accessed August 28, 2014) and Brian Everstine, “F-22's role, impact in Inherent Resolve increasing,” Air Force Times, February 12, 2015 (accessed February 13, 2015).

[xxvii] Robert Burns, “As US airstrikes in Iraq grow, details stay thin,” AP, August 21, 2014, http://news.yahoo.com/us-airstrikes-iraq-grow-details-stay-thin-070954765--politics.html, accessed August 28, 2014.

[xxviii] Karen DeYoung and Loveday Morris, “U.S. expands airstrikes against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq,” The Washington Post, August 8, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/us-airstrikes-target-islamic-state-militants-in-northern-iraq/2014/08/08/a7a659d8-1efd-11e4-ae54-0cfe1f974f8a_story.html?hpid=z1 (accessed on August 8, 2014).

[xxix] Aaron Mehta, “A-10 performing 11 percent of anti-ISIS sorties,” DefenseNews, January 19, 2015, http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/2015/01/19/a10-strikes-isis-11-percent/21875911/.

[xxx] Amy Butler and Robert Wall, “UAE-based F-22s a Signal to Iran,” Aviation Week, April 26, 2012, http://aviationweek.com/defense/uae-based-f-22s-signal-iran (accessed May 28, 2014).

[xxxi] Brian Everstine, “North Pole round trip puts B-2 to the test,” Air Force Times, November 6, 2011, http://www.airforcetimes.com/article/20111106/NEWS/111060313/North-Pole-round-trip-puts-B-2-test (accessed June 16, 2014).

[xxxii] Defense News, “US Deploying B-52s to Europe,” June 4, 2014, http://www.defensenews.com/article/20140604/DEFREG02/306040024/US-Deploying-B-52s-Europe (accessed June 16, 2014); U.S. Strategic Command Public Affairs, "Global Lightning 14," May 11, 2014, http://www.stratcom.mil/news/2014/494/Global_Lightning_14/ (accessed June 16, 2014); Oriana Pawlyk, “U.S. sends stealth bombers to Europe,” Air Force Times, June 8, 2014, http://www.airforcetimes.com/article/20140608/NEWS08/306080034/U-S-sends-stealth-bombers-Europe (accessed June 16, 2014).

[xxxiii] Chuck Spinney, “A Pentagon Budget Primer, Leading to Two Questions for the Defense Secretary,” Time, February 11, 2013, http://nation.time.com/2013/02/11/a-pentagon-budget-primer-leading-to-two-questions-for-secretary-panetta/ (accessed May 28, 2014).

[xxxiv]Air Force Times, “Year in Review: Air Force Times’ Top Stories from 2013,” December 31, 2013.

[xxxv] Steve Warkins, “Air Force: More than 20 percent HQ staff cuts in on year,” Military Times, May 16, 2014.

[xxxvi] USAF 2013 Almanac, p. 46.

[xxxvii] USAF 2013 Almanac, p. 49.

[xxxviii]Sam Perlo-Freeman and Carina Solmiran, Trends in World Military Expenditure, SIPRI, April 2014, p. 2.

[xxxix] James Brook, “Russia’s Prime Minister Vows Military Spending Hike,” VOA News, February 23, 2012, http://www.voanews.com/content/as-russias-presidential-vote-nears-putin-vows-big-military-spending-hike-140297933/152437.html (accessed June 14, 2014); and Charles Clover, “Russia: A Return to Arms,” Financial Times, October 1, 2013.