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This Week in Military History - The U.S. Air Corps Becomes the U.S. Army Air Forces

            The U.S. Army Air Service was created during WWI by President Woodrow Wilson's executive order after America entered the war.  After the USAAS gained more autonomy in 1920, discussions began about whether the U.S. military needed a separate aviation branch. The Lassiter Board, a group of General staff officers, recommended in 1923 that the Air Service be augmented by an offensive force of bombardment and pursuit units during the war. The War Department wanted to implement the Lassiter Board’s recommendations. Still, the administration of President Coolidge chose to economize by drastically cutting the military budget, leaving no money for a new division of the military. Proponents of a separate branch of the U.S. military in the House of Representatives in December 1925 proposed a unified air force independent of the Army or the Navy and a department of defense to oversee all three armed forces.

            President Coolidge appointed Dwight Morrow in September of 1925 to study the “best means of developing and applying aircraft in national defense.” The study declared that no threat of air attack would likely exist on the United States. It also rejected the need for a Department of Defense or a separate Department of Air and recommended reforms, including renaming the air service to give it more prestige. In early 1926, the Military Affairs Committee of Congress rejected all bills on both sides. Instead, they created a compromise in which some of the study's findings were enacted as law while providing the air arm a “five-year plan” for expansion and development. Even though it was proposed that the Air Service be made a semi-independent service within the War Department, the only change was that the U.S. Air Service would be called the Air Corps.

Over the next 13 years, things remained the same. The U.S. Air Corps would go through stages of internal and external renovations and gain more independence, but for the most part, it remained the same. However, that changed on January 12, 1939, when President Roosevelt advised that the threat of a new war made the recommendations that had been made into law inadequate for American defense and requested the approval of funds to boost the Air Service capabilities. On April 3, 1939, Congress allocated $300 million to expand the Air Corps, with half of that money going to purchasing planes and the other half for new personnel, training facilities, and bases. Over the next two years, the Air Corps went through a major overhaul following plans set down by General Henry H. Arnold. The main goals were to increase aircraft production and combat unit totals, train new personnel, and construct new bases.

The expansion of the Air Corps faced many problems, such as staffing experienced personnel to train recruits and constantly rotating qualified and experienced instructors for newer instructors. These problems compounded and affected the readiness of the Air Corps, and by the end of 1939, America had lagged so far behind its goals in manpower and tactical aircraft that the Corps was described as a fifth-rate air force. The purchase and procurement of aircraft remained the biggest problem that the Air Corps faced because America was producing war material for the Allied forces, leaving little budget for the Air Corps to make airplanes for its use.

General Arnold

In January of 1939, General Arnold oversaw the expansion of the Air Corps, which doubled in size from 15 to 30 groups by the end of 1940. Arnold drew up a proposal in October of 1940 to reorganize the air arm, creating an air staff. His proposal unified the many different air organizations under one commander. His plan would give the Air Corps more autonomy with ground and supply forces. He submitted it to the chief of staff and was immediately opposed by the rest of the General Staff. General George Brett, acting Chief of the Air Corps, denounced Arnold’s plan as “disastrous in war,” so the various organizations were left separate. The problems of not being a cohesive unit continued.

It wasn’t until the spring of 1941 when the British Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe had combat success due to their centralized control that it became clear that fragmented authority was inhibiting American readiness. On June 20, 1941, the War Department revised Army Regulation 95-5 and combined the U.S. Air Corps with the U.S. Air Force Combat Command and authorized Air Staff to manage the planning and execution of the expansion of the air arm. General Arnold was named Chief, and the new Army Air Forces was born. The Army Air Forces would undergo many more revisions and expansions before becoming the U.S. Air Force as we know it today.


Works Cited

"Evolution of the Department of the Air Force." Air Force Historical Studies Office. September 7, 2007.

Swopes, Bryan. "This Day in Aviation." This Day in Aviation. June 20, 2024.



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