HomeSpeakersSpeech ArchiveYesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: America's Air Force

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: America's Air Force

SAF/PA 2005 Air Force Public Affairs

Celebrating the Air Force's 58th Birthday, 2005

Today marks the creation of the world's most powerful Air Force. With the stroke of President Harry Truman's pen, our quest to become an independent service became a reality 58 years ago today [Sept. 18th]. 

In the nearly six decades since it became a separate service, the Air Force has seen the world change in almost unimaginable ways. We fought wars in Southeast Asia - Korea and Vietnam - as well as in Southwest Asia, the Persian Gulf. We witnessed the end of a decades-long Cold War. In every one of these conflicts, whether "hot" or "cold," Air Force men and women played a vital role. 

We are now living in a time of momentous change around the globe. We are seeing the seeds of democracy beginning to take root in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in other nations in the region. The Air Force is continuing to play a pivotal role in making these remarkable changes possible. 
Katrina Relief Operations: However, before we get to those issues, I want to focus on the situation that has commanded most of the nation's attention in the past three weeks. Like many of you, I've been transfixed by the images from our Gulf Coast region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The scope of devastation is unprecedented in American history. This disaster devastated some 90,000 square miles - that's an area roughly equivalent to the size of Great Britain. 

The military response to this disaster has been nothing short of amazing. Every service - Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard - has performed magnificently, and thousands of men and women in uniform are still on the job as we speak. I'd like to take a few minutes to tell you about what the Air Force, the Air National Guard, and the Air Force Reserve have been doing in the days since Katrina hit. 

Day after day, we watched helicopter rescuers pluck men, women and children from rooftops, where they scrambled to escape rising flood waters. This has been the largest search and rescue operation since Vietnam. In the first week alone, Air Force pararescuemen airlifted more than 5,000 people from the New Orleans area. Capt. Grant Paap, an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter pilot, said, "You could fly over New Orleans and it was like a scene right out of a movie. There were helicopters everywhere." 

Rescue helicopters operated around the clock, using night vision goggles to pull people trapped in their houses at night. One of those rescuers was Senior Airman Jack Earnshaw, a pararescueman from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. "Spending eight or nine hours in the air totally wipes you out at the end of the day," he said. "And when you think about all the obstacles we're taking on with each mission, it really gets hard." 

They make it look easy, but the fact is, these rescues are dangerous. They demand every bit of skill these rescue teams can muster, as they dodge power lines, trees, and confined spaces to reach flood victims. But Earnshaw said, "There's nothing more rewarding than giving back to our country. You really feel like you're giving back and serving Americans." 

But there is another team we don't see, behind the scenes, making sure these helicopters are ready to fly every mission. Our helicopter maintenance troops have done a superb job. Sergeant Robert Marchewka is a production superintendent from the 347th Maintenance Squadron at Moody AFB, Georgia. He said, "We're putting almost 20 hours a day on these helicopters." He explained that maintenance crews would normally have 12 to 14 hours to turn around choppers before their next mission; here they get only four or five hours before the chopper is needed for another 20-hour day. He said, "Even in Kosovo we weren't flying as much as we are here." 

We also saw an amazing effort at the Louis Armstrong Airport, where many of the injured and the elderly of New Orleans were brought for evacuation. More than 5,500 people were treated by military medical teams. Master Sergeant Kem Redic, from the 55th Services Squadron at Offutt AFB, said, "When you are called upon and you roll into a situation like this, you just roll up your sleeves and jump in wherever you can." 
Air Force aeromedical teams from all around the country deployed to Louisiana to help airlift more than 2,500 patients to medical facilities around the country. It's no easy task to move critically ill patients anywhere, let alone to airlift them. The Air Force team has been doing a magnificent job of saving the lives of our men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq by airlifting them to the U.S. military hospital in Germany. Now those same skills are being put to use here on the home front, saving countless lives in the wake of this devastating natural disaster. 

Our aircrews have been delivering an amazing amount of food and critical supplies to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In the first week alone, Air Force planes delivered nearly 5,500 tons of supplies to Katrina relief sites. They have flown more than 3,500 flights, and have moved more than 23,500 passengers [as of 8 Sept]. Air Force assets are being called on in many other ways, as well. For example, a reconnaissance aircraft from Offutt AFB is being used to capture aerial imagery of the Gulf Region. These images are used by FEMA - the Federal Emergency Management Agency - to quickly assess the status of roads and evacuation routes and evaluate the extent of damage to critical facilities such as oil rigs, hospitals, and military installations. 

Guardsmen and Reservists are working side-by-side with their active-duty counterparts, helping with security, law enforcement, medical, aircraft maintenance, communications, civil engineering, and dozens of other specialties. They are conducting search-and-rescue operations, evacuating residents, distributing food and water, and providing communications support to this hard-hit region. 

At Maxwell AFB, Alabama, Air Force Reservists from the 908th Airlift Wing came home from a deployment to Iraq on Sept. 6. What's amazing is that they turned right around and volunteered for hurricane relief duty! Lt Col Ronnie Roberts, commander of the 908th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, said, "We're professionals. We're out here, in natural disasters and combat." 

The chief of the National Guard Bureau, Army Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, put it this way: "The first citizen-soldiers responded to the shot heard 'round the world. Now we're responding to the storm heard 'round the world." 

President Ronald Reagan once asked, "Where do we find such people?" And then he answered his own question: "We find them ... where we always find them in our hours of need - on [the] main streets and farms of America. They are the products of the freest, fairest, most generous and humane society that has ever been created." 

The Katrina relief operation is a monumental task, but it is only the latest in a series of challenging missions that the Air Force has taken on since its inception. As we mark the creation of the U.S. Air Force, let's pause for a moment to consider the events that led to our becoming a separate service. 

Remembering World War II: This month, and for much of the past year, the world has marked the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in September 1945. It's no coincidence that the Air Force became a separate service just two years after the end of that global conflict. World War II was the ultimate proving ground for air power. This global war demonstrated as nothing else could that air power deserved its own service - trained, equipped and led by aviators. 

One of the Air Force's most important "founding fathers" was General Henry "Hap" Arnold. As the only five-star general in Air Force history, Gen. Arnold organized and led the world's greatest aerial armada to victory against the Nazis in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific. 

But it's also instructive to remember that when "Hap" Arnold became a pilot in 1911, the U.S. military owned just two airplanes! In the three decades that followed, a small band of airpower advocates developed aerial tactics and doctrine and "pushed the envelope" of flight technology. They also lobbied vigorously - and often unsuccessfully - within the military community for the value of aviation assets. World War II effectively ended that debate. 

You might say that airpower provided the "bookends" for the Second World War. 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 by sending two B-29 bombers to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese mainland. 

By the time Gen. Arnold retired in 1946, he had built the Army Air Force into a global aviation powerhouse, with more than 78,500 aircraft and nearly 2.4 million men. Their performance during World War II convinced America's senior leaders - both military and civilian -- that airpower deserved a separate armed service. 

But even visionaries like "Hap" Arnold who dreamed of an independent Air Force could hardly have imagined where their vision would take us. 

Air Force "blue suiters" have shaped history in many ways in the past six decades. There were the monumental supply efforts of the Berlin Airlift, and the dogfights in "MiG Alley" in the skies over Korea. There were the "Wild Weasels" of Vietnam, deliberately drawing enemy SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) so their fellow Airmen could bomb North Vietnamese positions. And we had the spectacular performance of Stealth fighters and precision-guided weapons during Desert Storm. Wherever America's interests were threatened, America's Air Force answered the call. 

Global War on Terror: We now find ourselves waging another global war - a global war on terrorism. And like the Second World War, this global war began with a terrible surprise attack on our country. 

Just one week ago [Sept. 11], we marked the fourth anniversary of the horrific attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. It is a chilling reminder that airpower is a deadly force that can be used for evil as well as for good. On that terrible day, civilian airliners were turned into weapons of mass destruction, killing some 3,000 innocent men, women and children in less than two hours. 

The attacks taught us a painful lesson - that a good defense is no longer good enough. We cannot afford to be hit again, perhaps by even more powerful weapons. We are engaged in a life-and-death struggle with an enemy whose brutality knows no bounds. In June [2005], President George Bush told the nation, "Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women, and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, in Washington, and Pennsylvania. There is only one course of action against them: to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home." 

And that is exactly what the Air Force is doing, along with our sister services. Since Operation Enduring Freedom began in October 2001, followed by Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, the Air Force's Air Mobility Command has flown more than 52,000 missions. Those missions have moved 1.4 million tons of supplies to Iraq and Afghanistan, and ferried nearly 3 million troops to the region from the U.S. and Europe, as well as within the region. Our tankers have flown nearly 15,000 missions, during which they refueled nearly 22,000 aircraft. 

Just to put these numbers in perspective, these airlift operations are second only to the Berlin Airlift in scope. This is a tremendous undertaking, and our people have done a fantastic job bringing all the people, supplies, and equipment halfway around the world. This is truly "Global Reach" in action. 

We have more than 23,000 people deployed to the Persian Gulf region. And not all of them are Active Duty - at any given time, we have roughly 5,000 members of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve serving in theater, as well. This is a Total Force effort, all the way. 

In Iraq alone, our fighters have flown more than 30,000 sorties and dropped more than 21,300 munitions, more than 70 percent of which were precision guided. Our aircraft are flying an average of 150 sorties per day over Iraq. Earlier this month, for example, we launched a series of airstrikes on the Iraqi town of Tal Afar, near the border with Syria. These airstrikes were designed to take out insurgents operating in that town. 

But these numbers really don't begin to tell the whole story. Our people are taking on new challenges and new roles, using their ingenuity to help our sister services. You've heard the expression "boots on the ground"? Well, today, those boots might just be worn by an Airman. In addition to traditional flying operations, our Airmen are taking on many non-traditional roles, as well. 

For example, Air Force people are heavily involved in convoy operations, which is some of the most dangerous duty in Iraq. In July, Airmen at Balad ["Ba-LODD"] Air Base reached the 3-million-mile mark in convoys driven on the roads of Iraq. These Airmen have supported more than 3,500 convoys since they began helping out the Army in 2004. That means not only loading supplies onto the vehicles, but driving the convoys and providing security for thousands of vehicles. Air Force maintenance crews are repairing and maintaining the trucks used in the convoys, and they are also adding armor plating to these vehicles, to provide added protection for the vehicle operators. 

We're making great use of what we call "UAVs," or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. UAVs like the Predator are being equipped with laser-guided missiles. In the Air Force, we like to talk about shortening the "sensor-to-shooter timeline," meaning the time it takes for us to spot the bad guys and call in an airstrike on them. But in the case of the Predator, the sensor is the shooter. Not only can operators on the ground see the bad guys with real-time video images, but now they can take them out with lethal precision, and that's a good thing. 

Our medical teams are operating closer to the front lines than ever before. Because of that, patients are getting advanced medical care within hours, not days or weeks, as they had in the past. The result is that we're seeing the lowest death rate of wounded Soldiers in any war in history. 

Nevertheless, the loss of any of our men and women is deeply felt. As President Bush said, "We mourn every loss of life," but he promised, "We'll honor their memories by completing the mission." 

The road to democracy in Iraq will be a long and difficult one. But however long it takes, you can be sure that the men and women of the U.S. Air Force will be there, both in the air and on the ground, doing whatever needs to be done to achieve our assigned mission. 
What Lies Ahead: The Air Force has truly earned its wings in its first 58 years of existence. We cannot know what challenges lie ahead for those who wear the Air Force uniform. After all, who could have predicted the attacks of September 11th, 2001, or the devastation along the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina? But the Air Force has a rich tradition of rising to meet those challenges. I am confident that America's Air Force will be up to the task. Thank you for your service, and for all you do in support of our Air Force team.