On Sept. 18, 1947, Congress made its military air forces an official branch of the Department of Defense with the passage of the National Security Act. A major overhaul of America’s military and intelligence agencies, the N.S.A. was meant to give the American government room to maneuver in a world where Washington suddenly found itself the leader of the democratic world and at odds with the authoritarian world led by the Soviet Union, an ally in World War II just two years prior to the Act being passed (the Act also established the Central Intelligence Agency).
After the Army’s air force performed exceptionally well during World War II, many strategists argued that air superiority was going to be the key to maintaining primacy in war. In the past, either land or sea power was considered to be the key component in maintaining a military that was capable of lording over swathes of the globe, but with the advent of the air forces of Japan, the U.K., the U.S., and Germany’s Luftwaffe, and how they changed fundamentally how militaries collided, “air power” became the buzzword of choice for many policymakers in world capitals.
Aside from decentralizing a military geared toward a total war, there was also a need to scale back the sheer size of the U.S. Army and Navy after World War II and the National Security Act was the path Congress took to get there. Even though the Soviet Union and its authoritarian government was already pushing for violent revolution abroad as part of its new foreign policy platform, Washington believed that a leaner, meaner military was more desirable thanks in large part to the fact that America had always demilitarized after major wars. The Chinese and Soviet support for North Korea’s invasion of South Korea was still three years away, and Washington was, at that time, sympathetic to the decolonization efforts of rebels in British, French, and Dutch colonies, so demilitarization still seemed sensible.
The Navy continued to object to the formation of an independent Air Force up until Sept. 18 due to the fact that it would lose a significant portion of its power, but the National Security Act was supported by the likes of Eisenhower and Carl Spaatz and the Air Force became an equal partner of the Army and Navy.
Today, the U.S. Air Force is the largest, most technologically advanced in the world, and is largely responsible for America’s continued role as undisputed leader of the world. It has participated in military actions in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada (the Caribbean), Iran (Persia), Libya (the Mediterranean), Panama, Iraq (Mesopotamia), Bosnia (the Balkans), Afghanistan, and maintains an arc of bases stretching throughout the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Air Force has several bases on the continent of Europe and throughout South Korea and Japan. The rich Arab Gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates all enjoy the presence of American Air Force bases, and the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan hosted air force bases from 2001-14, when Kyrgyzstan was given formal operation of the base by the United States (and fell back into the orbit of Moscow).
Space exploration continues to play a role in the Air Force’s operations, too, and while most of its duties are defense-related, the Air Force has a relatively large civilian corps dedicated to scientific research.
Happy Birthday, Air Force!