Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U. S. Air Force, 1947-2007by Walter J. Boyne
The second edition of Beyond the Wild Blue, an update of the popular history originally released in 1997, is a fascinating look at sixty turbulent years of Air Force history. From the prop-driven armada of World War II to the most advanced Stealth weaponry, from pioneers like General Henry "Hap" Arnold to glorious conquests in the Gulf War, Beyond the/i>
The second edition of Beyond the Wild Blue, an update of the popular history originally released in 1997, is a fascinating look at sixty turbulent years of Air Force history. From the prop-driven armada of World War II to the most advanced Stealth weaponry, from pioneers like General Henry "Hap" Arnold to glorious conquests in the Gulf War, Beyond the Wild Blue is a high-flying study of the triumphs (and failures) of leadership and technology.
In three new chapters, Walter Boyne covers an eventful ten years, including 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the second Gulf War, describing in detail the technological advancements that led to highly efficient airstrikes in Iraq. He also takes stock of the Air Force's doctrine and mission statements as this unique sector of the military grapples with an ever-changing world.
"A survey of Air Force history from the time it succeeded the old Army Air Corps after WWII. A comprehensive study of the development of the Air Force and a spirited argument for the necessity of long-term planning."
"[Boyne] writes as fluently and gracefully as ever."
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Beyond the Wild Blue
A History of the United States Air Force, 1947â"2007
By Walter J. Boyne
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Walter J. Boyne
All rights reserved.
The Man of Influence
In just sixty years the United States Air Force has grown from a disorganized giant, mired in the jumble of too rapid demobilization after World War II, to the most influential military service in the world today. In the process it has achieved triumphant successes that exceeded even the promise of its evocative song "The Wild Blue Yonder" while overcoming haunting failures of concept, equipment, and personnel.
Fortunately for the United States and the world, the successes have vastly outnumbered the failures in both number and degree. Until September 11, 2001, the Air Force has been a significant, if not the principal, factor in the remarkable victories of both the Gulf War and the Cold War. Every leader of the United States Air Force, from Secretary to Chief of Staff to squadron commander, would be quick to note that these triumphs were won in concert with the Army and the Navy. No matter how hotly the three services contend for roles and missions, appropriations, media attention, and public support, the serious bickering stops when it comes to battle. The concept of joint operations, so successful in World War II, was not always observed in the intervening years, but was demonstrated admirably in the Gulf War, operations in the Balkins, in Afghanistan, and in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nonetheless, while much of what will be said applies equally to its sister services, this book will focus on the United States Air Force.
The Air Force achieved its great successes despite a number of formidable obstacles, foreign and domestic. The first and most immediate of these was the talented, focused, and effective air forces of the Soviet Union, which developed excellent equipment in massive numbers along with the strategy and tactics to use it. The USSR shared its capabilities bountifully with its satellite states, some of which were destined to become fierce opponents of the United States. The threat of the Soviet Union was real, massive, and seemingly never-ending. Soviet nuclear missile capability, exaggerated at first, soon grew to immense proportions. And while the Soviet Union is no more, its missile force, now divided among three of the survivor states, Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, not only remains but is perhaps more threatening because its control is far less certain.
There were less obvious but equally important hazards at home. The first of these was the continual requirement to cope not only with the vagaries of the Congressional budgeting process but also with the growing restrictions inherent in oversight — a kindly term for micromanagement by both Congress and the Executive Branch. The second was the telling loss of public support, almost two decades in duration, resulting from distaste for the war in Vietnam. For the first time in its history, members of the United States Air Force found themselves publicly vilified for doing what they had been ordered to do. And while the prestige of the USAF has been largely restored today, there lurks a reservoir of antimilitary sentiment still to be found in the media, in academia, and, surprisingly, in the government.
Most remarkably, even while the Air Force struggled to overcome these varied challenges, it created and maintained a unique ability to plan far into the future. The Air Force's reliance on technology was perhaps inherent in the very science of flight itself. More than the Army or the Navy, and more than the services of other nations, including the Soviet Union, the Air Force put its faith in advanced technologies. Fostered from the very start by General of the Air Force Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, and encouraged by succeeding Chiefs of Staff, the Air Force not only made the funds available for research, it granted credibility and opportunity to the military and civilian personnel who pursued technology as a career. The funding was not always constant, for wartime operational considerations invariably drained funds away from research, but the basic idea that research and development was the essential element for the continued success of the Air Force always remained.
Despite every effort to avoid the characteristics and the operating methods of a giant bureaucracy, the very size and age of the Air Force has made it one. Prescience is not normally associated with a huge organization, yet the Air Force has over the years managed to endow its leadership and its operating forces with the ability to anticipate future requirements for equipment and training. The phenomenal result has been that the Air Force, operating under the budget constraints imposed upon all the services, has managed all current crises while doing the necessary research and development to accelerate the technologies necessary for future conflicts.
For forty years the principal task of the United States Air Force was to deter offensive action by the Soviet Union. The USAF accomplished this in part by combining the experience and techniques gained in the employment of air power in World War II with an ever increasing arsenal of atomic weapons, including the intercontinental ballistic missile. The rest of the task was achieved when the Air Force, drawn reluctantly and against its instincts into the space age, responded by capitalizing on the opportunity to create an amazing array of new technologies.
At the same time, the USAF had to respond to other challenges. Some of these were of the monumental size and scope of the Korean and Vietnamese wars, while some were less threatening, like the invasions of Grenada and Panama. In addition, the USAF had to undertake disaster relief at home and abroad, as well as show the flag and project power. And all the while, it had to deal with major social issues ranging from the integration of black personnel into the service, to overcoming civilian distaste for the military during and after the Vietnam War period, to providing equal opportunity for women and minorities.
Despite the multifaceted nature of the Air Force's tasks, it was successful in almost all of them, all the while containing the Soviet Union and making the most vital contributions to winning the Cold War. It was next thrust into a peacekeeping role in the Balkans. Then, as the global war on terror became manifest, it became actively engaged in new operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In retrospect, the years of the Cold War have a monolithic quality, as if there had been an unchanging confrontation with the Soviet Union which the Air Force steadfastly met with unchanging means. Yet it was not so, for the nature of the threat changed almost annually, forcing a corresponding change in the Air Force's response. In the very early years, at the time of the Berlin Blockade, the Air Force's response was a hollow one, brandishing a nearly empty nuclear arsenal at a gigantic array of Soviet forces. As the years passed, the Soviet Union, through its surrogates, challenged the United States all around the world, in each instance with a minimal involvement of its own troops. Thus it fought the Korean War with North Korean and Chinese forces, supplemented by Soviet equipment, training, and limited personnel. It supported the North Vietnamese in a similar economic manner, letting another country bleed for its own purposes. The same pattern prevailed in the Middle East, in Africa, and ultimately as close as Cuba. With the Soviet Union tugging at the seams of countries all around the world, the U.S. policy of containment, begun by President Truman, was an expensive one.
Yet it was ultimately successful, despite the lack of a decision in Korea and the loss of the war in Vietnam. Over the years, the United States Air Force, both the benefactor and the beneficiary of the American system of free enterprise, was able to build air and missile forces that kept the Soviet Union within the general sphere of influence allotted to it at Yalta.
The Soviet Union was not only contained, it was strained, its military budget consuming it economically and technically. The Soviet advances in military equipment and in space exploration were obtained by investments that matched and often exceeded those of the United States, particularly as a percentage of gross national product. The tremendous expenditures were at the expense of a rational expansion of the USSR's civilian economy. The productive capacity of the Soviet Union, channeled so single-mindedly into its military efforts (for its space program was primarily for military purposes), was unable to develop an industrial base with a technology and a market structure comparable to those of its old Western enemies or of the emerging nations of Asia. The USSR's atrophied civilian industrial base made its military burden increasingly difficult to bear by 1980, and impossible to bear a decade later.
In that critical ten-year period, three separate undertakings by the United States spelled the downfall of the Soviet Union. The first was the buildup of American arms that began in 1980 and reversed the decline in strength that had occurred under the Carter administration. The Soviet economy, already almost exhausted, was strained beyond endurance by the requirement to match the American buildup.
The second undertaking was the dazzling if ultimately unfulfilled prospects of President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" program. The grandiose project was obviously beyond the capacity of the Soviet Union to match; the risk that the United States might succeed was too much for Soviet leaders to contemplate.
The third, and conclusive, element was the overwhelming success of our weapons in the Persian Gulf War. The invulnerability of the stealth fighter and the incredible military — and public relations — effect of precision-guided munitions completely disheartened the political and military leaders of the Soviet Union. With their economy imploding under the strain of seventy-four years of corruption and inefficiency, the Soviet leaders were finally compelled to admit that their system had failed, and to abandon — at least temporarily — their historic quest for world domination. Just as Mussolini's corrupt Fascism withered and died almost overnight, so did the Soviet Union and its single political component, the Communist Party, swiftly dissolve into a nightmare of confusion and recrimination.
The Soviet Union, suddenly exposed as a gigantic empty rust belt of industrial and political folly, simply shut down, leaving its people to its own devices, for better or for worse. Its huge military forces, overwhelming in both their conventional and nuclear might, almost instantaneously went from being a threat to the very existence of the world to embarrassing centers of poverty, unable to feed, equip, or clothe their recruits, sometimes unable even to pay their electric bills.
Yet winning the Cold War was only part of the United States Air Force's task during the first fifty years of its existence. Each decade presented a new challenge that it had to handle as a "part-time" job, subsidiary to the principal task of nuclear deterrence. Some of the challenges were internal: adapting to social change, meeting equipment deficiencies, trying each year to do more with less. Other challenges were external, from the sobering experience in Korea through the demoralizing agony of Vietnam to the exhilaration of winning the Persian Gulf War. The exertions of the global war on terror after 9/11 were compounded by additional requirements for compassionate relief efforts and the increasing interest in securing our borders from illegal immigration.
Each challenge was overcome by the men and women of the Air Force, who were simultaneously accomplishing another remarkable feat. Even as they endured the rigors and uncertainties of service life, with its frequent moves, relatively low pay, and often disagreeable jobs, the men and women of the Air Force moved into the mainstream of the American community, and indeed became the United States in microcosm. The old concept of a military base being apart from the community, a self-sufficient entity with its own standards and mores, faded away. USAF personnel increasingly broke away from the frontier outpost outlook that had characterized the military for so many years and instead became active members of their communities, owning homes, working second jobs, sending their children to school, paying taxes, and generally becoming indistinguishable from their civilian neighbors.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this transformation from a parochial group with an essentially garrison mentality into a fundamental part of American society is that it has been rarely perceived and little remarked upon, even by members of the Air Force. People both within and without the Air Force still tend to think of it as a separate social entity, as distinct from being a separate business entity. The fact is that the composition of the Air Force population is essentially identical to the composition of the American populace as a whole, and as such reflects the trends, the biases, the problems, and the potential of that populace.
One of the most interesting questions about the Air Force is how it managed to foresee its equipment and weapons needs as much one or two decades in advance. The successes obtained in World War II might be attributed to a specialized leadership, trained for twenty years with but a single goal, that of establishing air superiority with conventional weapons of the times. The postwar successes, each one perhaps as important as success in battle had been in World War II, resulted from the quick and precise execution of plans that would have been deemed grandiose if they had not succeeded. Among the most remarkable of these for the grandeur of their conception, planning, and execution are the deployment of not one but four intercontinental ballistic missile systems, the establishment of a comprehensive continental radar defense, and the systematic exploitation of the possibilities of space for war and other military purposes.
In the meantime, besides leading the way to victory in the Cold War, the Air Force has, almost off the back of its hand, fought four major and three minor wars, while leading the nation in the process of integrating minorities and women into the service. During the same interval, it has transitioned from a primarily nuclear strike force pitted against a superpower into one capable of responding to regional conflicts with conventional arms, while still maintaining a decisive nuclear capacity.
The answers to the question of the source of the Air Force's general success in operation and in anticipation will be revealed in the following chapters. In essence, the Air Force's success derived from having the right leaders at the right time at the officer level and, perhaps surprisingly but even more importantly, at the noncommissioned officer level. Obtaining those leaders derived from the Air Force's intrinsic ability to attract high-caliber personalities to serve, and from a carefully cultivated culture that allows persons of talent to reach the top. The relationship between officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted personnel in the USAF is unique, and stems from a tradition created in the old days when commissioned pilots realized that their lives depended upon noncommissioned crew chiefs — and treated them accordingly. The sense of mutual respect and mutual importance is pervasive in the Air Force today, and is in many ways responsible for the success of the organization.
This is not to say the Air Force has solved all the problems of democracy and is truly egalitarian, for it is not. Nevertheless, the nature of the Air Force organization has always permitted the truly talented to rise to the top, regardless of connections, schooling, or appearance. For the past thirty-five years it has been increasingly easier for truly talented persons to rise to the top regardless of race, and for the last twenty years regardless of sex. The Air Force has always led the nation, including the other services, in the trend toward true equal opportunity, and it has benefited extraordinarily from the practice.
It is said that the Israeli Air Force was born in battle, coming into being as it did in the 1947 struggle for independence. It is not stretching a point to say that the United States Air Force was born in battles, and has remained in battle of one sort or another for its entire existence. The concept of an independent air force was first articulated — prematurely — by Billy Mitchell and others during the 1920s. It was nurtured during World War II, when leaders like General Henry H. Arnold and General Carl "Tooey" Spaatz sometimes conformed operational considerations to the preparation for postwar independence. It was sustained in the demobilization collapse of our military forces after V-J day, and survived the intransigent opposition of the United States Navy. But independence merely meant a new set of wars. The simplest to deal with were actual conflicts, from Korea to Operation Iraqi Freedom and beyond, where the enemy was known and the action required was military. Much more complex were budgetary battles, public relations battles with the Navy, and internal strains as the Air Force bureaucracy grew over time.
Fortunately for the United States, the hand of Providence and good leadership prevailed, and the USAF managed to prevail in each of its battles, learning in the process, and directing its efforts ever to the future.
Excerpted from Beyond the Wild Blue by Walter J. Boyne. Copyright © 2007 Walter J. Boyne. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
WALTER J. BOYNE is a retired colonel of the United States Air Force, and the former Director of the National Air and Space Museum. He has written forty books of fiction and nonfiction, including the bestselling Weapons of the Gulf War and The Wild Blue (written with Steven L. Thomson). He makes his home in Ashburn, Virginia.
WALTER J. BOYNE is the former director of the National Air&Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Boyne's books have made both the fiction and the nonfiction bestseller lists of The New York Times. His novels Roaring Thunder and Supersonic Thunder cover the first forty-four years of jet aviation. His critically acclaimed nonfiction book, Dawn Over Kitty Hawk, recounts the story of the Wright Brothers. A retired Air Force Colonel, Boyne was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame class of 2007.
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