United States Air Force and Evolution of Air Power

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Almost a century ago, William Mitchell drafted Wing Defense. In this text, he laid out the foundation for what would become the United States Air Force. He envisioned the goals a separate Air Force could achieve and how this resource could be implemented. As technology has advanced, different wars have been waged, and new frontiers have been discovered, the application of airpower has also evolved. This paper explores the Mitchell’s key views on how airpower could be employed, and how those theories have changed over time.

Mitchell believed that airpower was critical to national defense. Mitchell stated, “In the future, no nation can call itself great unless its air power is properly organized and provided for, because air power, both from a military and an economic standpoint, will not only dominate the land but the sea as well.” He was quite confident that neither ground nor sea forces will be able to exist unless the air superiority above them is secure. Mitchell’s idea has proven more accurate than he could have imagined. 

At the time, he had no way of envisioning how high that column of “air” would become, now extending thousands of feet above the surface of the Earth. Not only is air superiority currently achieved with manned aircraft, but space assets and persistent unmanned aerial vehicles have revolutionized battlespace awareness. Operation Iraqi Freedom provided an illuminating example of how effective air power can be when synergized effectively. Utilizing air and space power together, the Air Force was able to effectively neutralize Iraq’s integrated air defenses, execute major joint force combat operations, and continue with stability operations, all while utilizing precision targeting and minimizing collateral damage.

Mitchell was incredibly confident that air forces would unquestionably “better the conditions in war because it will bring about quick and lasting results.” Mitchell went on to insist, “Victories are sharp and decisive because it can be seen what the results will be, long ahead of time, and the defeated side can get away with its men as they are far off from their opponents...” It is interesting to look at the accuracy of this theory after air forces have been employed in vastly different conflicts. 

Though at the time Mitchell was not referring to intercontinental ballistic missiles, the modern mission of strategic deterrence certainly comes to mind. Strategic deterrence extends Mitchell’s idea of “see[ing] what the results will be long ahead of time” to the extreme. The RAND Corporation detailed that the entire policy of deterrence is to provide a good promise to deter war, instead of just improving the chances of winning. Especially considering a total war scenario, Mitchell’s original idea rings true.

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However, this concept becomes more complicated in a limited war scenario with competing factors at play. Vietnam is an example of this complicated problem. Despite overwhelming U.S. air power, there were no “quick and lasting results” or “sharp and decisive” victory. This type of guerrilla warfare was new, and the needs and vulnerabilities of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were not known well. The United States believed by interrupting the supply chain via aerial bombardment, the insurgency would wane. Holding fast to Mitchell’s view, the U.S. was convinced that our advanced aerial weaponry and high-tech air force would provide a quick, cheap, and efficient victory. 

Unfortunately, this new type of warfare disrupted this theory. While the U.S. thought it was disrupting critically needed supplies, it turned out the external supplies needs were so little that, during his analysis of the war, Dr. Mark Clodfelter stated, “…no amount of bombing could stop that paltry supply total from arriving in the South.” Despite better technology, air superiority, and dropping 8 million tons of bombs in 9 years, Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam were communist countries two years after the wars end. As wars have evolved and other complicating factors are included, the concept that air power will bring about “quick and decisive victories” is not always the case.

Mitchell defined three “branches” of the new air force: pursuit, bombardment, and attack. Pursuit aviation, as described by Mitchell, is single seater aircraft that pursue hostile enemy aircraft and destroy them. Currently, this mission falls under the Air Force’s core mission of Air and Space Superiority. The nation has become so proficient at this mission that the U.S. has had decades-long asymmetrical advantage over our enemies. An impressive fact that illustrates this dominance in air superiority, specifically against hostile enemy aircraft, is that in almost 66 years not a single enemy combat aircraft has killed an American ground force service member. Mitchell stated, “It is upon pursuit aviation that control of the air depends.” The Air Force has excelled at executing this mission.

The next “branch” Mitchell envisioned was bombardment. According to Mitchell, the role of bombardment was “to destroy objects on the ground or water by hitting them with projectiles, or covering them with chemicals.” A true visionary, Mitchell even described aerial torpedoes, complete with an engine, control surfaces, and control system for delivery. He was describing the basics of guided munitions we rely on so heavily today. He also described the possibilities of “radio-controlled airplanes “with no human beings in them and which may be made to drop their bombs on a city.” This vision foreshadowed the development of unmanned aerial vehicles, which have played a key role in the battles the Air Force fights today. During Operation Enduring Freedom, UAV’s played a major role in the success story, as they were capable remaining on station long-term, finding a target, releasing a weapon, and performing a battle damage assessment.

The current mission of the Air Force birthed from Mitchell’s vision of bombardment is Global Strike. Mitchell’s theory was based upon large numbers of bombers deploying together, but the idea of bombardment has evolved over the years. “Bombardment” today is defined as the ability to disable or destroy any target on the planet, even from bases inside the United States. The Air Force has not stayed within the narrow vision of fleets of aircraft to accomplish this mission, but instead has a range of options including intercontinental ballistic missiles, smaller bomber formations, and other Air Force aircraft.

In the category of bombardment, Mitchell also described how aircraft could be equipped with cameras for aerial reconnaissance. Although seen at the time as a subset of the larger mission, Mitchell’s idea has blossomed into the independent mission area of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. Initially viewed as a mission performed from aircraft and balloons, the space environment has greatly expanded that first small vision of battle damage assessments. The National Security Council report to Eisenhower during the formation of U.S. space policy detailed many potential military uses of space, the first being reconnaissance.

Mitchell’s third “branch” was attack. He viewed pursuit as air to air combat, and attack summarized air to ground operations. Close air support has continued to be a vital part of the Air Force mission, and has played a critical role in recent wars. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the interdiction of enemy maneuver and air control performance was so strong that the official Army report stated, “Time and again during OIF, airmen intervened at critical points on the battlefield.” The execution of close air support has only improved over the years, to the point during OIF when staff officers reported they had received, “the best, most efficient, most effective, and most responsive air support the Air Force has every provided any US Army unit.”

A visionary leaders, William Mitchell laid out the foundation for the budding Air Force. While the application of his ideas and theories differ from what he originally imagined, most have no diverged as much as matured. The Air Force’s critical role in national defense, and missions such as pursuit, bombardment, and attack planted the seeds from which the Air Force blossomed.  

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