In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section US Air Force

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Race and Diversity
  • Gender
  • Technology
  • Environment
  • Popular Literature

Military History US Air Force
Chris Rein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0132


The US Air Force, currently the world’s largest and, arguably, most capable, has experienced remarkable growth since the invention of manned flight a little over a century ago. From a small organization well behind its peers in the First World War, the organization’s growth paralleled and, in many ways, fueled the American rise from regional hegemon to global power over the course of the 20th century. The Air Force both benefitted from and begat revolutionary technologies and has been incredibly successful in its primary mission of defense of the United States and its interests. At the same time, it also offers a contested legacy. The US Air Force remains the only one to ever drop nuclear weapons, and its air campaigns have resulted in untold numbers of civilian deaths, have commanded a disproportionate share of global resources, and have cost the American taxpayer a significant, and often unfunded, cost to train, equip, and maintain it. Nevertheless, despite some calls for retrenchment, it appears that the United States will continue to operate a robust, independent Air Force and that that service will be actively employed around the globe, whether in omnipresent reconnaissance assets in orbit or in humanitarian airlifts responding to the most recent natural or manmade disaster.


While the US Air Force itself dates only from 1947, its predecessors, specifically the Army Air Service (1918–1926), Army Air Corps (1926–1941) and Army Air Forces (AAF, 1941–1947), all played an integral role and remain part of the service’s official history and heritage. As an instrument of national power, it has provided both a tangible marker of the nation’s commitment, a powerful deterrent to nuclear war, and an available, economical, and often controversial tool for managing crises and conflicts across the globe. A number of works provide comprehensive overviews of the service’s history across the first century of manned flight, while others focus more narrowly on the period since the service’s independence in 1947. Among the “official” histories, Nalty 1997 is the most detailed and comprehensive, reflecting the service’s view of itself on its 50th anniversary of independence. It attempts to rebut the more critical approach of Sherry 1987, which argued for the USAF’s critical role in hastening a potential nuclear Armageddon. Boyne 2007 generally updates Nalty 1997 at the sixty-year point, while Cresswell and Berger 1971 does the same at the twenty-five-year point. Farley 2014 argues against the traditionalists, suggesting that independence was a mistake, reflecting the service’s role and employment in the decade of small wars that preceded its publication. Smith 2014 provides an insider’s view of the changing nature of Air Force leadership that highlights competition between “dominant tribes” subsumed in the other works.

  • Boyne, Walter. Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force, 1947–2007. New York: Macmillan, 2007.

    An overview of the first sixty years of the independent service from a retired colonel and advocate. Comprehensive but generally uncritical.

  • Cresswell, Mary Ann, and Carl Berger. United States Air Force History: An Annotated Bibliography. Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, 1971.

    Annotated bibliography on the first half century of Air Force history. Useful for its rich detail on topics that have been crowded out of more modern historiographies.

  • Farley, Robert. Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014.

    Author strongly argues that an independent Air Force was founded on fraudulent claims of decisiveness and should now be folded back into the Army and the Navy. A novel approach but one weakly supported by evidence. Does provide an excellent summary of the service’s early efforts to gain independence.

  • McCarthy, James, and Drue DeBerry, eds. The Air Force. La Jolla, CA: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 2002.

    Literally a “coffee table” book, but packed with full color photographs and generally well-researched and written narration.

  • Nalty, Bernard, ed. Winged Shield, Winged Sword: A History of the United States Air Force. 2 vols. Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997.

    An official history of the service’s first half-century. Detailed coverage, but more narrative than analytical. Generally favorable toward the service.

  • Sherry, Michael S. The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

    A highly critical account of American air power in general, and the US Air Force in particular, that reflects frustration with a bipolar world poised on the brink of nuclear annihilation prevalent in some circles late in the Cold War. Argues that the USAF had a disproportionate role in creating this reality.

  • Smith, Jeffrey. Tomorrow’s Air Force: Tracing the Past, Shaping the Future. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.

    A quick survey through the first one hundred years of American air power. Reflects a post–Iraq and Afghanistan view and suggests that the service may currently be in a transition from a “fighter operations” perspective that has dominated since the early 1980s and moving toward a more comprehensive definition of air power that embraces more nonkinetic applications.

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