"Many happy returns" on Air Force birthday

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Since the earliest days of flight, innovative Airmen have explored the potential that travel in this new medium offered to military operations. Initially, we employed aircraft for observation of the enemy. This rapidly evolved into attacking enemy formations from the air, and then engaging in counter-air operations against enemy aircraft. The role of airpower was primarily to provide support to ground forces.

However, growing numbers of airmen began to envision new roles for airpower that extended beyond the immediate battlefield. They recognized that airpower offered unprecedented flexibility due to its speed coupled with its ability to range the entire battlespace without regard to obstacles like coastlines, rivers, or mountain ranges. Thinkers like the Italian Douhet began to formulate the idea of a strategic role for airpower, unique and separate from the other services.

The idea was born that airpower could hold at risk high value targets in the heartland of enemy nations that would undermine their will to continue to fight, and could do so without having to smash through the enemy's forces and fortresses. Early on, American Airmen such as Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell urged the creation of an independent air service to make maximum use of strategic airpower.

Airmen continued to refine the concepts associated with the strategic use of airpower in the days leading up to World War II. At the Air Corps Tactical School in Montgomery, Alabama, thinkers like Robert Olds, Donald Wilson, and Kenneth Walker developed the idea of the industrial web. This is the concept that industrial societies are complex and interrelated. Industrial production to sustain a war effort relies on production from other parts of the industrial complex, thus forming a web. If certain points in that web can be destroyed, production will be reduced or eliminated elsewhere in the web. They concluded that airpower was uniquely qualified to disrupt the nodes of this web.

In World War II, American Airmen began to employ this strategic concept, leading to the raids to destroy the ball bearing factories in Germany, since aircraft production cannot continue without ball bearings. Likewise, we attacked oil and synthetic oil production facilities because the entire industrial web relied on their products. While not entirely successful, especially in the absence of a long range fighter escort aircraft, the concept underlying the strategic use of airpower independent of the land and naval forces proved valid. With the advent of nuclear weapons, allowing a single strategic aircraft to achieve unimaginable destruction, strategic airpower took center stage.

From the earliest days of flying, there were calls for an independent air service. Some nations such as the United Kingdom quickly adopted that approach. The United States, however, did not do so, and airpower remained an arm of the Army and Navy throughout World War II.

However, American and British aircraft in the skies over Germany and Japan demonstrated so clearly the equal and independent role airpower can play by surpassing all barriers to carry the war to our enemies that the calls for an independent service could no longer be ignored.

The result was the birth of the United States Air Force sixty years ago this month. On Sept. 18, 1947, Stuart Symington was sworn in as the first Secretary of the Department of the Air Force. Very quickly, as we were plunged into the Cold War, the strategic deterrence offered by the new Air Force became a crucial part of this nation's survival.

And so it has continued now for sixty eventful years. Airmen continue to refine the ability to think in three dimensions, to range the entire battlespace, to observe everything, and to hold any target we choose at risk. The result is the most powerful Air Force the world has ever known. It is a privilege to be a part of this warrior culture on this tremendous milestone.

Happy birthday, United States Air Force!