Air Force, U.S. Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the primary components of the United States armed forces, with the key responsibility for air warfare.

Foundation of the Air Corps

The U.S. Army Signal Corps organized an aeronautical division on August 1, 1907, only three years after the Wright brothers made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Until 1914, however, this division was interested more in balloons and dirigibles than in flying machines. The Army had used manned balloons for the observation of enemy lines during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the Spanish-American War of 1898. The Wright brothers sold their first airplane to the Army in 1909 but it was used only for experimental purposes. The Wright brothers taught the first officers how to fly. The first operation unit, the First Aero Squadron, was formed in December, 1913, under the command of Captain Benjamin D. Foulois.

Congress provided additional funds in 1914, just a few weeks before World War I began in Europe, and the Army established the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps to test planes and train pilots. In April, 1917, the United States entered the war on the side of the Allied Powers of England, France, Italy, and Russia. Both the Allies and the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey had developed air forces that were bigger and better equipped than that of the United States.

Despite additional money from Congress, the United States never caught up with the European nations in aviation technology. The vast expansion required mass production of pilots, observers, and mechanics. A network of schools was established for advanced training in aircraft engineering and the aviation section sent officers to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and similar universities to learn the required skills. On May 24, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson created the Army Air Service within the War Department to develop plans to catch up with the nations of Europe.

When World War I ended on November 11, 1918, the Air Service had 19,000 officers and 178,000 enlisted men. The American aircraft industry had built more than 11,500 planes (mostly training craft) during the fifteen months the United States fought in Europe, but as soon as the war stopped, the number of personnel was quickly reduced as the nation demobilized its military and ended the draft. The production of aircraft came to almost a complete halt.

While in France, American pilots flew mostly French-made planes under the command of Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell. Although the air war played only a minor role in the war’s outcome, air power had shown its potential for providing cover and protection for ground troops. The British, recognizing the importance of its air power, created an independent Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1918.

Between World War I and World War II (1941-1945), General Mitchell led an unsuccessful and bitter struggle within the War Department and in congressional hearings to create a separate air force. The Army Reorganization Act of 1920 made the Air Service part of the Army, and in 1926, the name of the Army Air Service was changed to the Army Air Corps. In the 1930’s, as the Fascist powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy spent heavily to build up their military forces, the United States kept only a small Army, Navy, and Air Corps. Congress appropriated only small amounts of money on the growth or modernization of the armed services, principally because the Great Depression of the 1930’s had had a devastating impact on the American economy.

Creation of the Air Force

The horrible battles of World War I, which killed more than twenty million soldiers, led some planners to see the advantages of airplanes as weapons of war. With proper use of airplanes, the bloody massacres of trench warfare, in which armies attacked each other by running across open fields trying to dislodge the enemy from its trenches, could be avoided.

Advocates of air power believed that airplanes would change the nature of warfare by carrying the war to the enemies’ factories and supply stations. Bombs would destroy cities and buildings and cause panic among the civilian population. Intense bombing would quickly weaken the morale of the people and destroy their will to fight. Air power would shorten war, would make warfare less expensive, and would save the lives of a nation’s ground and naval forces. The bombing of civilians, as savage as that might be, was more merciful than gassing and machine-gunning vast numbers of soldiers.

General Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold became chief of the Air Corps in 1938. A graduate of West Point who had been trained in flying by Orville Wright, Arnold pushed for increased appropriations, but not until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, did Congress respond. Arnold and Mitchell had tried to teach these lessons to War Department observers in the 1930’s, but only a real war would convince doubters that air power was a crucial factor in victory.

In 1941, the Air Corps began an expansion in response to events in Europe and the Pacific. After American entry into the war, all Army air units were merged into the Army Air Force (AAF) under General Arnold. The AAF quickly grew into a powerful organization composed of 16 air commands (12 of them overseas), 243 combat groups, 2,400,000 officers and men, and almost 80,000 aircraft.

During the war, two U.S. air commands, the Eighth and the Fifteenth, joined with the British RAF Bomber Command in the strategic bombing of Germany. Strategic bombing was defined by Mitchell as the use of air power against the enemy’s heartland and industrial base. Although the night-and-day bombing of Germany destroyed its war industries, the bombing proved far less accurate than expected. Because bombardiers could not see through the cloud cover over northern Europe, precision was lost. Radar helped, but pinpoint targets often disappeared in the cluttered radar images of large cities. Another problem for the Allies was their lack of air defense; during long-range strikes, unescorted Allied bombers were knocked out of the sky with appalling accuracy by German ground fire. Almost 75 percent of Allied crews never returned from bombing missions. Not until the introduction of a new escort fighter, the North American P-51 Mustang, were the skies reclaimed from German control to become safer for American and British pilots.

In the Pacific, the Tenth Air Force in the China-Burma-India theater and the Fourteenth in China supported the British and Chinese against the Japanese. The Fifth, Seventh, and Thirteenth Air Forces joined with the Army and Navy in the series of island invasions and conquests that were the stepping-stones to the attack of Japan. The Tenth Air Force carried supplies over the Himalayan Mountains, playing a key role in preventing a Japanese victory in China.

Because of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, strategic bombing of Japan remained impossible until after the B-29 bomber was produced and bases were established close enough to Japan to allow U.S. forces to strike at Japanese industrial cities. When sustained bombing of Japan did begin in May, 1944, the Japanese military leaders recognized that they were close to defeat. From the Mariana Islands, the B-29 bombers of the Twentieth Air Force carried out a bombing campaign against Japan that ended with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. The Pacific war was ended on August 12, and the armed forces began a swift demobilization. Despite the reduction in force, however, the United States still had the most powerful military in the world, with about 300,000 officers and men in the AAF at the end of 1947.


In March, 1946, the basic pattern of unit organization for the AAF was established in descending order as follows: command, air force, air division, wing, group, squadron, and flight. On July 26, 1947, the National Security Act created the independent U.S. Air Force. Stuart Symington became the first secretary of the Air Force, and he appointed General Carl Spaatz the first chief of staff. One month later, Air Force pilot Captain Charles E. “Chuck” Yeager flew the Bell X-1 rocket plane beyond the speed of sound. From this time on, the Air Force was crucial in the development of supersonic flight and atomic bombs and other weaponry.

The U.S. Air Force was charged by President Harry S. Truman to organize, train, and equip air forces for air operations, including joint operations with the Army and Navy; to gain and maintain air superiority over other nations; to develop a strategic air force and conduct air reconnaissance operations; to provide airlift and air support for airborne operations; to furnish air support to land and naval forces, including occupation forces; and to provide air transport for the armed forces, except as provided by the Navy for its own use. The first opportunity the Air Force had to display its power came in 1950.

The Air Force in the Korean War

During the early hours of June 25, 1950, Communist North Korean soldiers launched a surprise attack across the thirty-eighth parallel, the dividing line between North Korea and the Republic of South Korea. Within three days, the Communists had advanced to Seoul, the South Korean capital, and the U.S. ambassador requested the immediate evacuation of all American civilians in the city. Three days after the invasion, the United Nations declared war on the North because it had violated the U.N. Charter, which outlawed wars of aggression. U.N. forces, composed primarily of American and South Korean forces, went to war the next day.

The U.S. Air Force soon employed new jet fighters, such as the F-86 Sabre, to gain control of the skies. It also helped protect U.N. ground forces with close support and successful raids to destroy North Korean reinforcements and supplies. U.S. Air Force B-29’s were first used in August, 1950, for the purpose of knocking out North Korea’s ability to build guns and tanks, a goal that was accomplished by the end of September. By late October, the U.N. troops had advanced far into North Korea, almost reaching the Yalu River, which forms North Korea’s northern boundary with China. The first appearance of a Russian-built MiG-15 fighter on November 1 showed that China was about to enter the war to prevent the collapse of North Korea. When the Chinese attacked late in November, the U.N. forces retreated to South Korea under the protection of the U.S. Air Force.

The battle for air superiority continued to escalate until July, 1953, when an armistice was signed. In air-to-air combat, U.S. Air Force fighters had shot down 792 MiGs, losing only 78 American craft. After the war ended, the Air Force kept a large number of units in the Pacific to defend against any future Communist invasions in Asia.

The Cold War and the Arms Race

In the 1950’s, the invention of the hydrogen bomb, 100,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs used against Japan, inaugurated an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. By the middle of the decade, both nations had developed long-range rockets and were working on missiles that could reach halfway around the world in about thirty minutes. Under the command of General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) became the key instrument of American defense strategy. SAC planes were in the air twenty-four hours a day, always flying along the Russian border within thirty minutes of Moscow. Another major part of the Air Force’s fleet was the long-range B-52 Stratofortress, which would remain the principal bomber in the U.S. Air Force for more than forty years.

In the 1960’s, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), such as the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman, were added to the U.S. arsenal. With the development of satellites, the Air Force also expanded its mission into space. Together with the Navy’s missile-launching submarines, bombers and land-based ICBMs made up the triad of the U.S. nuclear deterrent force. With nuclear weapons in the air, on the land, and under the sea, the United States felt assured that the Russians would never be able to destroy America’s entire nuclear force. At least one arm of the triad would remain, in the event of a devastating nuclear attack, to launch a nuclear attack against the initial aggressor.

In October, 1962, a U.S. Air Force U-2 reconnaissance plane took photographs of Russian missile bases being built in Cuba. The missiles launched from these sites would be within striking distance of Washington, D.C., New York City, and other targets along the Atlantic Coast. President John F. Kennedy ordered the armed forces on alert for the possibility of nuclear war. On October 22, the president declared a strict quarantine of all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba. The U.S. Air Force kept the island of Cuba under constant surveillance, providing the Navy with constant information on Russian ships at sea apparently on their way to Cuba. On October 28, only minutes before American and Soviet ships prepared to fire on each other, Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles as well as a unit of Russian bombers from the island. In the event that shooting had begun, President Kennedy had been ready to launch nuclear missiles toward the Soviet Union and to order SAC planes to attack Russian military bases. The Cuban Missile Crisis represented the closest the world had yet come to a nuclear war.

The U.S. Air Force in Vietnam

Communist expansion in Southeast Asia created new challenges in the mid-1960’s. In 1964, the United States became directly involved in a war in the former French colony of Vietnam. The war began when the Communist North invaded South Vietnam. In 1965, after two deadly Communist attacks on American military advisers in South Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized Operation Rolling Thunder, which called for continuous bombing of the North’s main cities and military bases.

U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy airplanes supported more than 500,000 American ground troops in a difficult and unpopular war. The F-4 Phantom II provided close air support for Army and Marine units in the fields and jungles, while the F-105 Thunderchief led hundreds of bombing raids against North Vietnam. SAC B-52 bombers dropped millions of tons of bombs on remote strongholds of the North Vietnamese Army and were refueled by KC-135 Stratotankers.

In 1972, the U.S. Air Force launched Operation Linebacker, which produced the heaviest bombing of the entire war. This intense campaign forced the North to sign a peace treaty in January, 1973. U.S. land forces were withdrawn a few months later and were no longer available to help South Vietnam when the North launched another invasion in 1975. This time, the Communist forces were successful, and South Vietnam was absorbed into the North.

In the 1970’s, despite budget reductions, the U.S. Air Force spent as much as it could to modernize its aircraft and missiles while also becoming more heavily involved in space exploration. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union continued to produce new weapons at a faster rate than the United States and built up its ground forces in Europe and the Far East to great levels. After the Soviet Union’s disastrous war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), however, the military balance shifted back to the United States.

The U.S. defense buildup of the 1980’s allowed the U.S. Air Force to expand its arsenal of aircraft and to deploy a wide range of new weapons systems, including the Lockheed F-117A stealth fighter, which was developed in response to the need for an aircraft capable of attacking targets without being detected by radar. The F-117A was first used in the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, known as Operation Just Cause, in which Manuel Noriega, the self-appointed president of Panama, who had been engaged in drug smuggling, was arrested and brought to the United States for trial.

New American technologies, such as radar-proof bombers and space-based weapons systems, helped bring an end to the Cold War. The leaders of the Soviet Union realized that they could no longer compete with American military advances. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the final days of the long Cold War and a few years later the Soviet Union itself began to break apart.

U.S. Air Force Actions in the 1990’s

The 1990-1991 conflict in the Persian Gulf was in many ways the test case for modern air power in the precision-weapons era. After Iraqi armies invaded the neighboring state of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, President George Bush imposed an immediate economic embargo against Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein. On August 7, Bush ordered the launch of Operation Desert Shield to free Kuwait and drive out the Iraqi invaders. A coalition of Allied forces under the command of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf was mobilized to carry out the effort against Iraq. When Hussein refused to leave Kuwait peacefully, Operation Desert Storm was begun on January 16, 1991.

After ten days of continuous bombing by coalition air forces against Iraqi military targets, the ground war began. Within two days, the Iraqi army had been crushed, and a cease-fire went into effect. The Gulf War demonstrated the dominance of air power, a key factor in the Allied victory. The Iraqis had been defeated by air strikes that totally destroyed their ability to fight.

In the early 1990’s, during conflicts in the former republic of Yugoslavia, U.N. peacekeeping forces undertook an air campaign in an attempt to stabilize the region. The campaign in Bosnia included U.S. Air Force planes and offered more evidence that precise attacks were possible and could shatter air defenses and land forces. In 1995, after eleven days of air attacks brought the Serbian government to the peace table in Dayton, Ohio, the Dayton Accords were signed, helping to bring the promise of peace to the region. Once again, it was proven that air power could make the major difference in victory or defeat.

Humanitarian Aid

Since 1947, the U.S. Air Force has participated in almost six hundred humanitarian relief efforts in response to floods, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Nearly one hundred of these relief efforts have taken place since 1987. Immediately after the Gulf War, the U.S. Air Force used its capabilities to provide critically needed food supplies to the people of the Soviet Union. This effort was called Operation Provide Hope. A few years later, Operation Provide Promise brought humanitarian aid to Bosnia and Serbia. With the ending of the Cold War, the need for the Air Force to respond to humanitarian crises has become a major part of its mission.

  • Benson, Lawrence R. Golden Legacy, Boundless Future: A Brief History of the United States Air Force. Washington, D.C.: Secretary of the Air Force, Office of Air Force History, 1997. A well-written, fiftieth-anniversary history of the U.S. Air Force.
  • Dick, Ron, and Dan Patterson. American Eagles: A History of the United States Air Force. Charlottesville, Va.: Howell Press, 1997. A comprehensive history of the U.S. Air Force, featuring photos of the airplanes and materials at the Air Force Museum at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
  • Hallion, Richard P., and Bernard C. Nalty. History of the United States Air Force. Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1999. An official but critical analysis of air power, strategy, and key personalities in U.S. Air Force history.

Air Force bases

Antiaircraft fire


Gulf War

Korean War

Military flight

Royal Air Force

Strategic Air Command

Tactical Air Command

Vietnam War

World War I

World War II

Sources: The data used in this graphic element are based on information found in Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (2 vols.,Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1975) and The Time Almanac 2000, edited by Borgna Brunner (Boston: Information Please, 1999).

The F-16FightingFalcon is one of many fighter jets deployed by theU.S. AirForce in peacekeeping missions around the world.

(AP/Wide World Photos)
Categories: History