Space Force: Last service split was like messy divorce
Author: Tony Peck, The Gazette - June 25, 2018 - Updated: June 25, 2018
Not since the creation of the Air Force in 1947 has the Pentagon been tasked with forming an “equal but separate” branch of the military. While creating an independent Air Force seemed a natural evolution after World War II, it was not without its challenges.
The messy divorce started 20 years before President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 – creating the Department of the Air Force. Army Gen. Billy Mitchell forfeited his career in support of an independent air service.
“The day has passed when armies on the ground or navies on the sea can be the arbiter of a nation’s destiny in war,” said Mitchell in 1918. “The main power of defense and the power of initiative against an enemy has passed to the air.”
Mitchell served as the commander of U.S. air units in Europe during World War I. After the war he championed the use of air power but was blocked by Army and Navy leadership, including then-Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But Mitchell proved his point during 1921 tests in which aircraft were used to bomb derelict navy dreadnoughts. The planes dropped their bombs and the steel behemoths sank, foreshadowing the use of air power during the next war.
Even then, Mitchell’s attempts to create an independent Air Force were frustrated.
So, after a series of aeronautical mishaps in 1925, Mitchell’s temper boiled over. He issued a statement criticizing military leadership, describing the “incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration by the War and Navy departments” in an interview with The New York Times.
His outburst resulted in a court-martial and cost him his career. But a nominal compromise materialized as the Army Air Service was renamed the Army Air Corps in 1926.
It would take another world war before Mitchell’s philosophy on air power was adopted at the highest levels.
On June 20, 1941, the Army Air Corps was restructured and named the Army Air Forces, one of three subordinate organizations to the Department of War, including Army Ground Forces and what became the Army Service Forces.
As the U.S. ramped up its war preparations on the eve of its entrance into World War II, military officials and politicians watched as the German Luftwaffe and British Royal Air Force battled for air supremacy in Europe.
Eventually, the Army Air Forces would surpass the reach and effectiveness of even the experienced Luftwaffe – growing to more than 2 million airmen at the height of operations.
By the end of World War II, the Army Air Forces was a subordinate command in theory only. It had become an essential piece to U.S. warfighting strategy and was instrumental in the eventual surrender of both Germany and Japan.
And yet an independent air service was still not guaranteed.
Drastic demobilization after the war saw the Army Air Forces drop to about 300,000 personnel by 1946. And the Navy still chafed at the notion of a unified Department of Defense or an equal but separate Air Force.
Finally, Congress put an end to some of the interservice squabbling, drafting the National Security Act which created a separate Air Force. But the Air Force still didn’t get an exclusive franchise on military flying.
The Navy and Marines dug in their heels, keeping their own air branches. Even the Army got to keep some air power after the divorce, with helicopters and light planes staying in Army green.