Excerpts from Air Power History, Fall 2000 issue



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Air Force Roles and Missions: A History, by Warren A. Trest. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998.


Excerpts from Air Power History, Fall 2000 issue:

Do roles and missions matter, now that “jointness” has become the norm throughout the services? Warren A. Trest, a veteran of thirty years in the Air Force history program, thinks they do and in this modest, yet carefully researched and lucidly written monograph, he makes a convincing case that the services—the Air Force in particular—need to continue paying close attention. Simply put, roles and missions . . . can make or break a service. Budget shares rise and fall on functional assignments, so it hardly surprising that over the years some of the most bitter and intense interservice quarrels have revolved around roles and missions assignments . . . .


. . . it is a story worth retelling and [Trest’s] book brings it all together better than any I know. The treatment of the interwar period is especially illuminating, not only in exploring the origins of the post-World War II roles and missions battles between the Air Force and the Navy, but also in explaining the Air Force’s unique institutional development, which made those conflicts all the more unavoidable. As Trest demonstrates, the rise of bombardment aviation and the strategic air role effectively recast Air Force doctrine, pulled it further and further from its Army roots, and reinforced the need for treating air power as a separate service. World War II confirmed these trends, so that by 1945 an air component built around strategic bombardment was a well established coequal part of the defense establishment.
The differences that surfaced between the Air Force and the Navy after World War II might still have been manageable had it not been for one thing—the atomic bomb . . . . Trest shows [that the Air Force] had in inherent advantage over its immediate competitor, the Navy, for staking out a claim as the country’s new first line of defense . . . . That the Navy refused to give up without a fight is understandable, but it proved rather futile in the face of limited resources, strong public and congressional support for strategic air power, and the mesmerizing image of the atomic bomb, still an Air Force monopoly, as the ultimate weapon.
The roles and missions battles that followed those in the wake of World War II were less celebrated but still exceedingly divisive . . . . in the 1950s, it was the missile controversy that caused much of the trouble. President Dwight D. Eisenhower expected the 1958 defense reorganization to lessen the grounds for interservice rivalry by creating a more closely unified defense establishment, with a more effective joint command. But as strategic missiles replaced long-range bombers and as conventional forces came back into fashion in the 1960s, the Air Force found itself taking a renewed interest in tactical aviation, which in turn led to a resumption of Air Force-Army feuds over the status of air mobility and assault forces.
After Vietnam, as Trest points out, the services seemed to find less to bicker about, even though pressure from Congress grew steadily for a more definitive clarification of service functions . . . . Interservice agreements, including a comprehensive accord in 1982 between the Air Force and the Army, seemed to signal a maturity and readiness on the part of the services to resolve roles and missions problems on their own. Congress, however, wanted reassurance and in enacting the Goldwater-Nichols legislation in 1986 it required the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to submit an in-depth report on roles and missions every three years.
Whether such requirements will be of much use in sorting out future functional assignments remains to be seen. Clearly, as Operation Desert Storm demonstrated in 1991, there is still room for closer coordination of air assets. The end of the Cold War brought predictable organizational changes and a scramble among the services to position themselves against impending budget cuts. But despite some initial skirmishing, the expected roles and missions battles have failed to materialize, largely because there has yet to occur any fundamental reallocation of resources such as that that followed World War II. This situation may change if peacekeeping, drug-interdiction, and similar missions continue to displace warfighting functions. However, for the time being the guidelines laid down over the past fifty years seem to be holding.
Trest deserves a lot of credit for taking on a difficult subject and treating it with a high degree of objectivity . . . . The Air Force history program should be commended for publishing this book.
Reviewed by Dr. Stephen L. Rearden, Washington, D.C.


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