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Air Independence -- Forged in Fire

SAF/PA 2004 Air Force Public Affairs

Celebrating the Air Force's 57th Birthday, 2004

Today we mark the creation of the world's most powerful air force. Just over a century ago man first flew in powered flight. The U.S. Air Force has been in existence for nearly 60 of those 100 years. Even the visionaries who dreamed of an independent Air Force could hardly have imagined where their vision would take us in just six decades. 

Our quest to become an independent service became a reality 57 years ago. World War II had ended just two years earlier. President Harry Truman was flying aboard his official aircraft, known as the "Sacred Cow" -- the predecessor of "Air Force One." During the flight, he signed the National Security Act of 1947, and the United States Air Force officially became a separate military service, equal to the departments of the Army and Navy. 

In signing this act into law, President Truman not only created an independent Air Force, but he also laid the foundation for today's modern military structure in the Department of Defense. September 18, 1947, represents a truly momentous day in our nation's history. It's no coincidence that the Air Force gained its independence from the Army so soon after the end of World War II. That global conflict was airpower's ultimate proving ground. Global combat operations convinced most military and political leaders that airpower deserved its own service, whose men and women would be trained, equipped, and led by aviators. Airpower truly came into its own in the 1940s, validating the visions of men like General Billy Mitchell and General Henry "Hap" Arnold. 

It was just a few months after the dark days of December 1941 that airpower provided the first good news for a nation still reeling from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Lt Col Jimmy Doolittle led a flight of 16 B-25C "Mitchell" bombers on a daring strike on the Japanese mainland. Militarily, the air strikes may not have amounted to much, but they certainly did wonders for American morale. I might add that the Doolittle raid was decades ahead of its time in its use of what we now call "joint operations." These Army Air Force bombers were launched from the deck of the Navy aircraft carrier Hornet! It was quite an audacious plan. 

Three months ago [6 June] we marked the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, which marked the beginning of Europe's liberation from Nazi oppression. During that D-Day weekend in June, we heard stories of the courage and heroism of those brave men who stormed the beaches on the coast of France. 

Less well known was the fact that the invasion was only possible because the Allies virtually "owned" the skies. The Nazis had fortified the cliffs overlooking the beach, but they had long since ceded control of the skies to Allied air forces. Standing on the Normandy beachhead just days after the invasion, General Eisenhower paid tribute to the men who patrolled the skies when he said, "If I didn't have air supremacy, I wouldn't be here." 

If you think about it, airpower played a pivotal role in America's entire involvement in World War II. Our nation was drawn into the war by an unprovoked aerial attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese naval air forces. Four years later, our nation dramatically ended the war when B-29 bombers dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese mainland. 

While airpower played a decisive role in ending World War II, the challenges that faced our young service at war's end in 1945 were only beginning. 

By 1948, our former Allies in the Soviet Union were signaling their intentions to claim much of Eastern Europe for their own. The showdown came in Berlin, where Soviet forces tried to starve the city into submission. They failed, but only because the Air Force "delivered the goods" - literally. 

For nearly 16 months, around the clock, Air Force planes and their crews created an unprecedented "air bridge" from Western Europe to Berlin, deep in the heart of Soviet-held East Germany. By the time the Soviets lifted their blockade, "Operation Vittles," as it was called, had delivered more than 2.3 million tons of supplies to the people of Berlin -- everything from potatoes and flour to coal. 

Air Force "blue suiters" have shaped history in many ways in the nearly six decades since we became an independent service. From dogfights in "MiG Alley" in the skies over Korea, to the "Wild Weasels" of Vietnam, deliberately drawing enemy SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) so their fellow airmen could bomb North Vietnamese positions, America's Air Force has always answered the call. 

During Desert Storm, Air Force pilots demonstrated the increased precision of airpower by destroying Iraqi tanks before they could engage Allied forces. This level of precision increased even more during Operation Allied Force and the NATO campaign in Serbia, when Airmen were instrumental in defeating the Serbs. 

Now we find ourselves waging another war - a global war on terrorism that began almost three years ago. The anniversary of that horrible attack on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11th comes exactly seven days before the Air Force birthday. It reminds us that air power is a deadly force that can be used for evil as well as for good. Civilian airliners were turned into weapons of mass destruction, killing some 3,000 innocent men, women and children in less than two hours. 

In the three years since that infamous day, our military men and women have served in Afghanistan and Iraq and have also worked to keep Americans safe at home. September 11th taught us a painful lesson - that a good defense is no longer good enough. We cannot afford to wait to be hit again, perhaps by even more powerful weapons. We must take the fight to the terrorists, before they can hit us. 

It's worth remembering how spectacularly well the Air Force performed last year during Operation Iraqi Freedom. During the shock and awe part of combat operations, our Airmen used precision-guided munitions to destroy enemy targets while avoiding innocent civilians. Our surveillance assets, the "eyes in the sky," enabled us to conduct offensive operations at night and even during blinding sandstorms - to the astonishment of Saddam's troops, who thought they were safely "hidden." 

Air Force crews also ferried thousands of service members and countless tons of supplies and equipment before and after the start of combat operations. And our Airmen continue to launch and fly sorties every day, supporting our ground troops as they pursue insurgents and foreign fighters in both Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Air Force Secretary Dr. James G. Roche sees parallels with World War II in these precision strikes, as Airmen "developed new B-1 bomber tactics and brought precision firepower to bear against Iraqi leadership targets in minutes." 

"We've celebrated the flexibility of our global mobility forces to adapt to the exigencies of coalition operations and conduct the largest airborne insertion of forces since D-Day at Normandy," Dr. Roche said. "Our air and ground components worked together marvelously, and in the tradition of [Generals] Arnold and Patton, used the combination of our capabilities to great effect on the battlefield." 

Our Airmen are also helping to win that war of ideas in Afghanistan and Iraq, just as they decisively won the war against tyranny and oppression in those countries. One newly liberated Iraqi said, "It was like a dream. We heard the bombs falling and I thought, 'We will die here.' But God gave me a new life." Another said, "It is as if I am waking from a nightmare." Still another said, "It is like the soul coming back to the body." Our young men and women are an inspiration to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, giving them hope for a better life. 

The Air Force has truly earned its wings in its first 57 years. And as we continue to evolve and change to meet the challenges of the future, we'll continue to fulfill our obligation to protect America, deter aggression, assure our allies, and defeat our enemies. 

As much as the Air Force has been in the forefront of change during its history, some things have remained constant. We have always been, and continue to be, a force of innovators - pioneers pushing the limits of technology in the service of our nation. Our Airmen today are dedicated and selfless professionals who carry on that proud tradition with the vision and foresight required to ensure our nation's security in an uncertain future. 

New national security realities have forced us to redefine our enemies as well as our concepts of defense. These new challenges, as well as historic opportunities to exploit revolutionary technologies, underscore the necessity of transforming our military capabilities. 

Transformation - that predisposition to explore adaptations of both existing and new systems, doctrine and organizations - has been a part of the Air Force for decades. It is not about new programs or things to buy. Rather it is an approach to developing capabilities and exploring new concepts of operations that allow us to meet whatever challenges come our way now and in the years to come. 

We are excited by the prospects of providing new technologies to our warfighters. Already on the horizon of the possible - we can see hypersonic vehicles capable of reaching targets 9,000 nautical miles away in less than two hours; the use of nanotechnology in micro-UAVs, micro-satellites and micro-sensors; directed energy technology and the use of laser weapons -- these and more foretell unprecedented levels of precision and persistence in strike warfare.

More important even than developing these new technologies though, is developing our Airmen so they have the leadership skills and the right mindset to capitalize on these technologies and to apply them in new and unforeseen ways to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving world. 

Providing a secure future for our nation in a dynamic and constantly changing environment will challenge us to build on our heritage and tradition of transforming our service. I am confident the men and women of America's Air Force are more than up to this task. This forward-looking can-do attitude has enabled Airmen to serve our country faithfully for 57 years and provides the legacy that enables all of us to look forward to a safe, secure and bright tomorrow.