Three inspired leaders molded America’s Air Force in their own image—and changed it forever.
In the first 60 years of its existence, the U.S. Air Force went from the hollow shell of its World War II demobilization status to become the most powerful, most capable, most efficient and arguably the most compassionate military force in history. An absolutely unprecedented series of technological advances has kept the Air Force in the forefront of American military capability. Those technological advances have been matched by the extraordinary valor and skill of the men and women who have volunteered to protect their country, and by extension the free world, since 1947.
The protection afforded by the Air Force has been sustained despite many changes in administration, and consequently in the country’s political orientation. The United States has been the world’s wealthiest nation for many generations now, and its continued affluence has wrought subtle changes in the psychology of its people. These changes have directly affected the public’s viewpoint on how much should be spent on defense, and who should do the defending.
Some simple statistics illustrate this. During World War II, neither Germany nor Japan possessed or had the potential to possess the capacity to attack the continental United States other than by the most primitive means. These included Japan’s pathetic balloon bomb concept and its efforts to drop a handful of incendiary bombs from a tiny floatplane or shell shore targets from submarines. Today the United States faces a hostile world. Muslim radicals have already killed thousands of our citizens and proudly promise to use weapons of mass destruction in our major cities. Our leaders admit that despite all our efforts, such an attack on our heartland is almost inevitable. But while the United States put 16 million of its 130 million population into the armed services during WWII (12.3 percent of the population), today we have only about 2.4 million in the armed services, roughly eight-tenths of one percent of the entire population of more than 300 million. And while approximately 85 percent of the gross domestic product was dedicated to the war effort during WWII, today only 4.2 percent of the gross domestic product is invested in defense—despite much greater threats to our national interests and a potentially disastrous threat to our economy—and as a nation we complain mightily about devoting even that amount. If we look further, we see that perhaps 250,000 are actually engaged in combat in the Middle East—less than one-tenth of one percent of our population.
Despite these indicators that the American public has not yet fully understood the magnitude of the threat, the U.S. Air Force maintains itself, as always, in the forefront of defense. It will continue to do so as long as it can generate the same quality of great leadership that it has in the past. Those leaders are required to defend the country at all times on their watch, but also must look to the future so that their successors will have the right weapons at the right time.
It is extraordinarily difficult to build for the future given the short tenures of military leaders. A general officer might achieve prominence in the top leadership roles for six or eight years at most. Yet the time necessary to bring a weapon system into being has lengthened from two to three years to two to three decades. It takes true brilliance to look into the future, predict what weapons systems will be necessary 20 years later and then take the required steps to invent, develop, produce and deliver those weapons systems, not to mention the trained personnel to operate them. And it takes an extra measure of self-control to continue to develop weapons systems your predecessors started, rather than starting out on a new track. All this has to be done despite continual congressional review and the knee-jerk attacks of the media on every new defense expenditure.
The perfect illustration of this remarkable continuity is the consistent leadership provided over a three-decade period to create an Air Force that in 2003 would be equipped with stealth aircraft, precision-guided munitions, sufficient in-flight refueling capacity, an array of command-and-control aircraft and, equally important, a dazzling combination of meteorological, communications, navigation and intelligence satellites. This fantastic combination enabled war to be fought in a new way, and it was accomplished despite a seemingly endless series of budget cuts during most of the years when it was being prepared.
An achievement of this magnitude could come about only through dedicated and inspired leadership by thousands of individuals—members of the Air Force, both active duty and civilian, as well as industry pioneers. But in looking back at those responsible for this unparalleled success, three men in particular stand out as the greatest Air Force leaders of their time. These individuals shaped the Air Force in their own image, and in the process changed it forever.
Fortunately, each of these pathfinders had devoted followers who succeeded in carrying out their leaders’ concepts, and each man still serves as a role model today. All three of them built on the unlikely legacy of General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, the U.S. Army Air Forces chief who— although not a scientist—created an Air Force that would invest wisely in research and development efforts. All three—Generals Curtis E. LeMay, Bernard A. Schriever and Wilbur “Bill” Creech—understood the application of the technology of their time, and more important fashioned a path for the technology of the future.
Few American leaders have been as unfairly treated by an uninformed media as Curtis E. LeMay, who is undisputedly the greatest air combat leader of all time. He is typically pictured by cheap-shot media artists as a maniac intent upon plunging the world into war. The truth is just the opposite. LeMay was a combat veteran who had flown some of the toughest missions of WWII, and he knew that victory was possible only through superb, rigorous, unending training, the highest ethical standards and the willingness to sacrifice self for the service.
LeMay must be credited with creating the single instrument that held the Soviet Union at bay for most of the Cold War years, the Strategic Air Command. Without SAC, the United States would not have been able to counter the Kremlin’s openly expansionist policies. The Army, Navy and Marines played important roles, especially later, when the submarine-launched ballistic missile was introduced. But it was SAC that served as the sword and shield of American military capability. The Strategic Air Command came into existence, along with the Tactical Air Command and the Air Defense Command, in 1946, before the establishment of the U.S. Air Force. When the independent Air Force was established on September 18, 1947, it was but a hollow shell of the mighty WWII Army Air Forces. It had the image of great power, thanks to the introduction of nuclear weapons, but it was in fact impotent.
LeMay took command of SAC on October 19, 1948, and immediately imposed his will upon it, changing it from a flying club into a standardized, efficient weapon of intercontinental strength. He did this by capitalizing on new technology—in-flight refueling, high-speed jet bombers, improved communications—and by relying on the selfless sacrifice of SAC crews who worked 80 to 100 hours a week in what they knew to be dead-end jobs with limited promotion opportunities.
SAC established an unprecedented military dominance. The nuclear power of the Strategic Air Command dwarfed the power of every other nation, alone or in combination. It reflects well upon the United States that this massive power was used only to deter war.
LeMay’s SAC continually prevented war by its obvious strength. The thought of SAC’s nuclear weapon–laden B-52s, on orbit outside the Soviet Union, was a major factor in Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s backing down during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And while LeMay vigorously opposed the United States’ becoming involved in Vietnam, his plan for the prosecution of the war, if followed, might well have saved seven bloody years and 58,000 American deaths.
A combat veteran, General Bernard A. Schriever was the right man in the right place at the right time. Tall and affable but extraordinarily focused, Schriever managed to combine the efforts of academia, industry and the military into the most urgent job of the Cold War: creating a fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could counter those of the Soviet Union.
Schriever adopted a risky system of concurrent development, production and operations for this mammoth task that would have failed in the hands of a lesser man. His relatively small staff soon managed a huge industry and from it coaxed in just seven years not one but four fleets of ICBMs, beginning with the contract award of the Atlas in 1955, and ending with the initial operational capability of the Minuteman in 1962. In the intervening years he fielded the Thor and the Titan.
Perhaps even more important, Schriever saw from the start that the ICBM would be the key vehicle in establishing the system of space satellites that are now a vital part of U.S. war-making capability.
While the Soviet Union never dared to go to war with the United States, it never ceased fomenting trouble, especially in encouraging client states to begin wars of “liberation” in areas that the United States had to defend. The first such major effort was in Korea, and the second was in Vietnam, but there were other smaller actions all over the world.
Bill Creech flew 103 combat missions over North Korea and 177 in Vietnam. In peacetime he distinguished himself as a member of the Skyblazer and Thunderbird aerial demonstration teams.
Creech saw that the benefits of rigid organization and standardization the Strategic Air Command had brought the Air Force were becoming obsolete. His combat experience gave him insight into how wars should be fought in the future, and his innate leadership ability led him to command the organization that needed him most, the Tactical Air Command. He performed a military miracle of organization and inspiration, turning a tired and battle-weary outfit into the most efficient arm within the Air Force. Creech was a hard-driving leader whose insistence on training was matched by his emphasis on proper military demeanor. Yet his results were obvious. His methods were copied throughout the Air Force, and spread to industry.
General Charles “Chuck” Horner, the air commander in the 1991 Gulf War, attributed the magnitude of the victory in that conflict directly to the teachings of Bill Creech. There were three elements in Creech’s teachings. The first was decentralization, to ensure maximum flexibility, responsiveness and a feeling of ownership by the troops. The second was getting leadership and commitment from everyone, not just commanders. The third was providing for top quality in every action, from washing a truck at the motor pool to conducting an aerial assault.
LeMay, Schriever and Creech all inspired followers who embraced and spread their ideas and principles throughout the Air Force. There were changes over time that reflected advances in technology and the transition of the Air Force leadership from the purview of bomber pilots to that of fighter pilots. Those changes were managed because the Air Force was able, through diligent efforts, to create the finest noncommissioned officer corps in military history. These leaders—particularly Creech— also fostered the idea of the “Total Force,” in which the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve were transformed from being essentially manpower pools to fighting elements exactly equivalent in capability and equipment to active Air Force units.
As a result, the U.S. Air Force has for six decades been able to defend the nation against nuclear attack, undertake so-called limited wars and empower itself with technology and training to such an extent that there is no other air force in the world comparable to it. It has set new standards of warfare in the decisive combat actions in the Gulf War, Afghanistan and during the operational phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
At the same time, it has vastly improved the quality of life of its members. It has also impressed upon the world that in times of crisis, no agency reacts more swiftly or more effectively with acts of compassion than the U.S. Air Force. There is no little irony in the fact that in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami that devastated low-lying areas in Asia, the Air Force swiftly delivered aid to a largely Muslim population, demonstrating its humanity with the same effectiveness that it demonstrates its military prowess.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.