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FORCES AND STRATEGY
THE AIR FORCE AND THE STRATEGIC MISSION, 1945-1950
by
Dr. Walton S. Moody
General Histories Branch
Office of Air Force History

This paper addresses the relationship of the program of the Army Air Forces (AAF) and the United States Air Force (USAF) to national strategy in the immediate postwar years from 1945 through 1950. Mr. Wolk discussed the organizational place of the AAF and the USAF in the defense establishment during those years. I would note that Air Force doctrine stresses attacking the source. Truly orthodox Air Force doctrine says that you want to attack the enemy air force in the factory. It is true that this doctrine creates as much controversy as any other aspect of the discussion. A couple of events, which I will be referring to, occurred in the months immediately following the enactment of the National Security Act in 1947. They involved the decisions that, as far as the Air Force is concerned, laid out its institutional future. They included a decision by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a report by a committee of the Air Staff to the Aircraft and Weapons Board, which consisted of the major staff agencies and the major commanders. The board approved the Air Staff report in January 1948.

The important decision of the Joint Chiefs was embodied in JCS paper 1745/5 of 8 December 1947. The authors of 1066 and All That boasted that they only had two dates in their book treating the history of England. I will mention only one numbered JCS paper in this presentation. JCS 1745/5 not only set a requirement for a stockpile of 400 atomic bombs by 1953 but also authorized the Air Force to modify aircraft to carry them. With the President's approval, the nuclear weapons production program went forward. At the same time a Heavy Bombardment Committee of the Air Staff had been working on the technical problems of delivery and summarizing what the aircraft should look like. They wanted aircraft capable of intercontinental range for the strategic delivery forces. This had a lot to do with the strategic position of the Air Force in its interservice relationships.

One thing you really have to say is that probably the Air Force felt in 1945 that it didn't really have to revise its strategic concept. Amid all the controversy over strategic air warfare, questions of definition continually bedevil the discussion. I can speak for the next 20 minutes simply on the question of definition alone. For the idea that there is a distinction between strategic and tactical employment of the airplane, I can go back at least to 1912. That year the Army Signal Corps identified two missions for the airplane as strategic and tactical reconnaissance. Strategic reconnaissance was defined as the reconnaissance of enemy forces at a greater distance. Tactical reconnaissance was defined as reconnaissance of enemy forces approaching or in contact. On the other hand, General Kenney stated: "I do not think that an airplane should be considered as a tactical airplane and a strategic airplane; I think it is an airplane." I will simply say that I define strategic air forces as those operating directly under the national command authority, equipped with weapon systems of the maximum attainable range, and having the mission of attacking the war-sustaining economy of a potential enemy state. I'm not saying that I am right to do this. I will simply offer this as the definition I use.

Now in 1947, some of the leaders of the Air Force expressed concern that the Secretary of the Navy was assuming the leadership of the whole national defense establishment. Certainly, the comments on the first draft of a secretary of defense speech reaching the Air Staff reflect some uneasiness. In reality, however, Secretary Forrestal had a clear understanding of the importance of strategic air power. There was no question, in his view, that there was an imbalance between the land forces of the Soviet Union, which remained quite powerful, and those of the Western powers, soon to be the Western alliance. Sea power and air power seemed to be the areas in which the United States had the lead. And, strategic air power, using atomic weapons, seemed to be the one means by which the Western alliance could initiate offensive action in the early stages of the general war.

Nevertheless, there were two things that strike me about Forrestal's strategic vision. One of them is the concept of "balanced forces," which is partly a political effort to defend a budget and to clarify the roles of the services. It was also designed to make existing strategic forces effective in a major war with the Soviet Union. Forrestal had pointed out that it took operations by the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Army to assure the strategic bases that the B-29s used in the Marianas for the destruction of the Japanese war economy. This need was likely to continue, and in a future general war, ground forces and naval forces would be absolutely critical for defending or seizing forward bases. In addition, it's very clear when you look at the budget, at the end of 1947 and the beginning of 1948, that as the international situation grew more grim, Forrestal recognized the need for what we have come to call "general purpose forces" (including ground forces, land and sea-based tactical air to support the ground forces, and air and sea transportation). These forces were required to intervene in local conflicts short of general war and were a key element of "containment," as Forrestal understood it. Early in 1948 Forrestal lamented the lack of such forces. He seems to have been one of the few who was not overwhelmingly focused on the requirements of a general war with the Soviet Union.

Balanced forces started from the proposition that overseas bases would be needed to bring strategic air power to bear against the potential enemy in a general war. Consequently, ground forces to seize and hold the bases, and naval forces to keep the lines of communication open, were as necessary as air forces themselves. In the world of 1947, the Air Force could not argue with that.

Forrestal's concept of strategy fell afoul of political reality. That hard-money man, Harry Truman, was clear that the first job was not to formulate the strategic concept but to get the budget in order. Forrestal also had to contend with the internal organization problems of the military establishment. For example, in the budget debates of 1948-1949, "balanced forces" very often tended to turn out to be what the Air Force has always feared; that is, a three-way division of the budget pie. Tight budgets and the frightening nature of the Soviet threat led to increasing focus on strategic atomic forces, the one advantage the United States had to deal with Soviet aggression.

The Air Force's role was strongly affected by its concept of its mission. General Carl A. Spaatz, commanding the AAF and the first Chief of Staff of the Air Force, like many air leaders, felt that the war had proved the fundamental points of air doctrine. Now, there were those outside the Air Force who were not surprised that the strategic offensive failed to live up to the original billing. In fact, the idea of a cheap, war-winning knockout blow from the air had proved to be a loser. But, the ability of a powerful strategic air force to wreck the war economy of an enemy and thus contribute to victory seemed impossible to deny. When the JCS began to direct the study of the nature of a war with Soviet Union, a strategic air offensive against the industrial base was considered absolutely indispensable to any kind of successful outcome.

By late 1947 the Air Force was implementing its program for 70 combat groups, of which 25 would be mostly strategic bombers. This would be about 750 airplanes and would include a small number of tactical bombers. The Air Force was always reluctant to admit that strategic bombers could be employed in a tactical role. With limited resources available, the Air Force was committed to occupational duty overseas. It had only a total of 55 active groups, of which only one, the 509th Bombardment Group, was fully operational at the time. The unit was equipped with the atomic-modified B-29s under Project Silver Plate. The 70 groups remained only a goal, and this goal was never attained.

The JCS, in 1745/5, essentially asked that the Atomic Energy Commission devote the bulk of its production for the next few years to bombs for the strategic air offensive. Although at the time there was no agreed immediate war plan, all planning documents gave a high priority to the strategic air offensive as the only means to strike effectively at the Soviet Union in an early phase of a war. In fact, subsequent war plans reinforced this tendency. I will note that this marks the arrival of a sort of consensus on atomic weapons, which had been lacking in the immediate postwar years. Still, the AAF had early identified the atomic air force as an important part of its program.

The only operational strategic bomber in mid-1947 was the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. An improved version, called the B-50, was approved for production in May 1947. The combination of the commitment to build delivery forces and an atomic stockpile went hand-in-hand with the decision of the Aircraft and Weapons Board that the Air Force would seek as its highest priority, in the area of research and development, the capability for air refueling. Tests in 1947 had shown this to be a promising technology. Priority was then given to modifying the B-29s pulled out of storage to serve as tankers and modifying the existing force to accommodate air refueling. This capability, together with the B-36, seemed to offer promise. The coming medium bomber, the Boeing XP-47 jet, remained dependent on overseas bases. As a consequence, the priority of the Aircraft and Weapons Board was the new intercontinental jet bomber that Boeing was working on. This was to become the B-52. Alternative technology, such as the Northrop Flying Wing, also was being considered.

The need for ground forces and naval forces, as the Air Force saw it, would thus have less and less to do with the concept of balanced forces to support the strategic air offensive. Rather, general purpose forces would be seen as required only in the interim. The Air Force increasingly saw its strategic mission as the nation's first priority. The growing international crisis in 1948 led in fact to budgetary support for the 70 groups. But, by the end of 1948, with President Truman reelected and the Berlin crisis seeming less serious, other considerations emerged. Forrestal's standing with Truman declined. His successor as Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, was explicitly committed to reduced spending. The 70-group Air Force was no longer attainable. The Air Force was cut back to 48 groups. The tactical forces were severely cut back. Even the strategic forces were cut to 14 groups. In that context, tactical air forces and ground forces seemed to require drastic cuts.

It was in that atmosphere that the B-36 crisis and controversy emerged. It was also brought on by Johnson's elimination of the Navy's Super Carrier program. The accusations of double-dealing that developed on all sides made it difficult to sort out the real defense issues. The Air Force defended the B-36 as essential to the agreed strategy. Much of its attitude came with the operator's view that whatever the problem of the airplane, as with any weapon system, highly professional operators could make it work. For the Navy, an attack on the strategic air offensive was to attack agreed strategy. To attack the lack of forces for other purposes was in fact to attack the President's budget. For the Air Force, the situation was bleak. The reports by the committee under Lieutenant General Hubert Harmon and by the Weapons System Evaluation Group confirmed that the existing strategic force had a marginal chance of actually achieving a decisive result. The only consolation was that Lieutenant General Curtis LeMay had taken command of the Strategic Air Command and was beginning to instill that unique standard of professionalism that would become known as "the SAC way."

If the Air Force, having now received the priority mission, was going to demonstrate its ability to accomplish that mission, it required more than the B-36, which was under attack. It would require a demonstration that the force could actually accomplish the mission assigned.

As 1950 began, with the need to react to the report of a Soviet atomic bomb, the call went out for expanded atomic weapons production and the development of a hydrogen bomb. At the same time, the famous review of strategy, known as NSC-68, also called for general purpose forces. In eloquent language, it pointed out that the United States could not risk an all-or-nothing reaction to local crises. Nonetheless, it was the war in Korea that gave this language a special persuasiveness. Only then was it possible to press for a new approach of strengthening both the strategic forces and the general purpose forces.


24 February 2003