Autonomy of the Air Arm

This interesting history describes the background behind the autonomy U.S. Air Force and its split from its mother service, the U.S. Army. The informal 1947 government accords which laid out the roles and missions of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, known as the Key West Agreements, were a triumph for Air Force supporters.

Throughout the service’s history it has been in the Air Force’s best interest to remind senior civilians in the Pentagon and Congress occasionally why there was an autonomous Air Force in the first place. Hence this book. The arguments herein are primarily that the Air Force was a de facto autonomous service from its early beginnings in 1907, and that its formal separation from the army was a mere formality after years of divergent evolution. There is some evidence to support this position, and the book makes an excellent case that the air arm does not belong under the oversight of an infantryman.

What has become the case over the years, however, and with the authors of this work either miss or studiously avoid discussing, is the Air Force’s pathway of divergence from the Army continued throughout the Cold War and its aftermath. Today we have not just an autonomous air service, but one that appears to be developing increasingly independent of the strategies, doctrine, and tactical considerations that drive the other three services. At some point between 1947 and 2001, the Air Force crossed a line between autonomy and independence.

This is no simple matter of semantics. The matter has reached the point where the Junior service now no longer provides the aerial support required by sister services. This issue is part of what drove Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to appoint Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz as Air Force chief of staff in 2008. Gates and his successors are going to have to contend with an Air Force is growing in budget hunger, even as it falls its ability to deliver airframes on target and drifts further away from the integrated approach to conflict championed by its sister services.

American political theatrics being what they are, at some point, not only the autonomy but the existence of the air arm will be called into question in the parts of Washington where decisions of this nature can be made. Shutting down the Air Force in America’s political climate would be impossible. But until the service shakes its thinking clear of the conflict that created it (World War II) and the conflict that formed it (the Cold War), it will struggle to retain relevance in an increasingly budget conscious capital, China bogeyman or no.

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