Pre-WWII Roles and Missions of the USAAF

Boeing Y1B-17 in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress quickly became the primary bombardment aircraft for the Air Corps. Boeing Y1B-17 in flight.

During his 1936 talk at the War College, General Andrews described the GHQ Air Force as the “medium” for “the application of air power” in the continental United States. He emphasized the role of bombardment aviation as “the principle force employed in independent air operations,” but he was careful not to minimize attack, pursuit, or reconnaissance missions, which he knew were more familiar to field Army officers. “They all have their roles, and importance,” he said, but he stressed that “the measure of air power of a nation is really that of its bombardment.” Pointing out that the bomber forces were “the striking arm-the arm with the punch,” Andrews predicted that long-range bombers were “destined to play a large part-and exert a tremendous influence-in any future war between great powers.”

General Andrews’ views were consistent with emerging strategic air warfare doctrine taught at the Air Corps Tactical School before World War II, doctrine that served as a point of reference for Air Corps training and operations under the new regulation. Decades later, Maj. Gen. Haywood S. Hansell, Jr., recalled the American theory of strategic bombing as it evolved in the 1930s by framing it within three basic precepts: that modern military powers depended upon their industrial capacity to wage war; that sustained precision bombing sorties could cripple or destroy a nation’s industrial systems; and that striking forces could penetrate enemy defenses and drop bombs without unacceptable losses. Hansell said that differences of opinion existed among airmen as well as among members of the other arms.

New technology during the 1930s—the introduction of the B–17 Flying Fortress and a program to develop larger airplanes—gave the Army air arm the means to perform the long-range strike mission. The largest plane built for the Army since the Barling Bomber in 1923, the B–17 had a range of 2,480 miles and could carry up to five tons of bombs. Critics of the larger bombers argued that their only purpose was for “aggressive action,” but General Andrews called such criticisms “unfortunate and misleading.” He explained that operational factors limited the tactical employment of fully loaded B–17s to only 750 miles from their home base. While the B–17 was a formidable addition to the nation’s air arsenal, Andrews believed that planes with the range and speed to reinforce Alaska, Hawaii, Panama, and the Caribbean had yet to be developed. Forward basing was essential to employ the new bombers.

Like other military arms, limited appropriations constrained the Air Corps’ ability to fund costly experimental programs. Emerging from the depression, the nation’s economic horizons were still bleak while the military threat-although building in Europe and the Pacific-did not justify maintaining armed forces beyond those required for hemispheric defense and protection of outlying possessions. Between 1933, when the War Department approved the experimental B–17 program, and 1937, when the B–17 became operational, Army aviation appropriations more than doubled, rising from $25.4 million to $59.4 million. Still, the air arm failed to reach modernization levels recommended by the Baker Board. Total Army appropriations showed a lower increase, rising from $289.5 million in 1933 to $383.1 million in 1937. Strapped for funds and unconvinced of the need for long-range bombers, the War Department trimmed the Air Corps’ request for B–17s from 65 to 13, barely enough to equip a single squadron.

Comparable Navy statistics showed a rise in total appropriations from $317.5 million in 1933 to $526.3 million in 1937, with the amounts spent on naval aviation rising from $25.2 million to $38.5 million during the same period. More rigidly fixed than the Army’s force levels, the Navy’s ship-building programs remained linked to international naval treaties amended in London in 1930. Since the 1920s, the Navy had maintained less strength than was allowed by the treaties, but this began to change by the mid-1930s. The Navy had only one vessel designed and built as a carrier, the Ranger, and it was not commissioned until 1934. In June 1933, Congress authorized construction of two 19,000-ton carriers, the Yorktown and the Enterprise, under the National Recovery Act. Shortly after, the Vinson- Trammel Treaty Navy Bill of 1934 authorized construction to bring the Navy up to treaty strength as well as the procurement of naval aircraft. Sizable increases in both Army and Navy strength did not come until after 1938, however, as planners realized that other nations were increasing the strength of their armies and navies “at an accelerating rate.”

The rise of bombardment aviation and the strategic air role nourished doctrinal thinking within the Air Corps and pulled it further from its Army roots. Despite these Army developments, naval air doctrine remained closely integrated with fleet doctrine in the 1930s. As Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics in the post-Moffett era, from 1933 to 1936, Rear Adm. Ernest J. King kept naval aviation on the conservative course of his predecessor. Entering aviation late in his career when he took command of the aircraft tender Wright at age 47, King believed naval air elements “must always be integral and primary components of the fleet.” King, who was said to have an “almost pathological suspicion of anything in the form of an autonomous air force,” and other senior Navy officers opposed the tack that Air Corps doctrine was taking because they perceived it as a threat to the sovereignty of naval aviation. King said it was futile “to classify air as a separate entity” because it was “impossible to hold a line of battle in the air” and it was “necessary to hold the surface in order to hold the air.” “There are two-and only two-surfaces of the earth,” King said, “and ‘air power’ cannot exist if it has no surface to take off from or to alight on whether it be land or water.” He believed, therefore, that it was essential to classify aviation in relation to the forces with which it “must operate.”

General MacArthur echoed Admiral King’s belief in the inherent division of air power during his tour as Army Chief of Staff. While conceding that “unified air power” might be effective “to meet the probable situations of the earlier stages of war,” MacArthur thought that air forces would “necessarily be differentiated more and more into the two categories of Army and Navy aviation” as war mounted. He wrote in 1934:

Air [power] must be based either on the surface of the earth or on the sea, and its offensive targets are found on these surfaces. This basic law clearly differentiates two categories of air force one based on the fleet, the other based on land. These two types of aviation are differentiated not only by dissimilarities in objectives and equipment, but also by fundamental and insurmountable differences between the types of forces with which they must cooperate.

General MacArthur acknowledged there would “undoubtedly be occasions in war when air operations beyond the immediate theaters of land or sea forces were desirable.” The creation of the GHQ Air Force provided for this potential. While MacArthur and other senior Army officers supported the GHQ Air Force during its brief life-span (from 1935 until the creation of the Army Air Forces in June 1941), they opposed the air arm’s growing emphasis on long-range bombardment. Ground officers feared that the GHQ Air Force’s concentration on planning, equipping, and training for the independent air role fostered neglect of other flying missions (e.g., observation, reconnaissance, and close air support) which they saw as more critical to the land campaign. The airmen’s belief in the primacy of the strategic air role prevailed, however, even though the GHQ Air Force’s plans and operations were limited to hemispheric defense.

Despite these limitations, in 1944 General Arnold called the GHQ Air Force’s activities the blueprints for global air power in World War II. “In the nineteen-thirties when air power was the unseen guest at those grim conferences which marked the Nazi march to power, the Army Air Corps, which preceded the Army Air Forces, had drawn its blueprints for war,” Arnold said-tracing those blueprints to the 1935 establishment of the GHQ Air Force. “Our operations were based on the needs and problems of our own hemisphere, with its vast seas, huge land areas, great distances, and varying terrains and climates,” Arnold said. “If we could fly here, we could fly everywhere, and such has proved to be the case.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *