When Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound on Oct. 14, 1947, the United States Air Force itself was officially only 26 days old. How fitting that the birth of the Air Force coincided so closely with such a historic technical achievement, one that helped establish the fledgling service as a science- and-technology-driven military branch.
That appreciation for scientific advancement was built into the Air Force from the very beginning and it remains a proud, remarkable lineage distinguishing the Air Force even now as the service – and the nation – continue celebrating its 75th anniversary year.
The roots connecting the Air Force to pathfinding science and technology are long indeed.
Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, the commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces who is revered as the founding father of the USAF, worked closely with the scientific community as he envisioned the new stand-alone service. Three years before the Air Force’s official birth under the National Security Act of 1947, Gen. Arnold had already established a Scientific Advisory Group to chart the course for the future of science and technology in his envisioned Air Force. The Scientific Advisory Group included a who’s-who of the greatest scientific and engineering minds of the mid-20th century, led by Dr. Theodore von Kármán, one of the nation’s most prominent and prolific aerospace engineers. That group lives on today in the Air Force’s Scientific Advisory Board, an unbroken legacy.
Since its founding, the Air Force has created other notable S&T organizations, both within the service and associated with it, to include renowned research and development centers such as the RAND Corporation and the Aerospace Corporation, as well as the more recent AFWERX, established in 2017 as an “innovation arm,” and the new MIT-Air Force Artificial Intelligence Accelerator in Boston.
There is a long list of military firsts that have emerged from Air Force investments, from stealth aircraft nearly invisible to radar, to precision-guided munitions that can strike targets with surgical accuracy while minimizing risk to civilians. The next generation of hypersonic weapons, capable of flying in excess of five times the speed of sound, owe their existence to a legacy of Air Force research investments stretching back to the 1950s.
There are enduring lessons to be drawn from the Air Force’s origin story and deliberate focus on research. In an age when there is unfortunate public skepticism about the value of government-led projects, the return on investment has been profound. The first American astronauts to orbit the Earth did so on Air Force rockets — fitting, given that many of NASA’s astronauts have come from the USAF, including the only women to have commanded Shuttle missions, Colonels Eileen Collins and current NASA Deputy Administrator Pamela Melroy. Most of the commercial aircraft that fly today can trace at least part of their design to USAF research efforts; modern adaptive-optics telescopes that have opened a new-era in astronomy, including the recently-launched James Webb space telescope, trace their origins to Air Force research; even the Global Positioning System that enables your smartphone to locate any point on Earth, and that provides precision timing for the world’s banking systems, was developed by the Air Force and is currently operated by its sister service, the U.S. Space Force.
Many people are probably familiar with the nation’s world class national labs that stretch from Alaska to the southeastern U.S. and are an engine of innovation and critical advantage for American technological prowess. They may be less familiar with the labs founded by the military services. The Air Force Research Laboratory, headquartered in the Wright Brothers’ home of Dayton, Ohio, oversees a $5 billion research portfolio, exploring the frontiers of materials, propulsion, sensors, information science, quantum science, energy, microelectronics, and human-machine interfaces. With a workforce of approximately 6,000 military and civilian employees, supported in turn by its many contractors, AFRL is one of our nation’s premier centers of science whose researchers have produced revolutionary materials, pushed the state-of-the-art in microelectronics, and have pioneered in numerical simulation as well as innovative energy systems.
Hap Arnold famously reasoned that the First World War had been won through brute force, and the second through superior logistics. But the next world war, if there should be one, will almost certainly be won by technical prowess, he reasoned. That emphasis on scientific and technical superiority has helped define the Air Force as surely as the quality and commitment of the men and women who make up the workforce.
In Hap Arnold’s day, the U.S. Department of Defense funded roughly 25% of all the research conducted in the entire world; today the DoD accounts for only about 4% of the worldwide investment. In addition, the United States now faces growing threats to its military technological superiority due in large part to huge investments being made in China and Russia. America is at risk of falling behind in critical future defense areas such as biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies, and has arguably already fallen behind in some areas such as hypersonics and directed energy. This makes our dedication to maintain the Air Force as a science and engineering enterprise second to none as relevant today as it was three-quarters of a century ago.
Mark Lewis is an MIT graduate (SB ’84 XII, SB ’84, SM ’85, ScD ’88 XVI) and a former chief scientist of the Air Force, as well as a former Director of Defense Research and Engineering.
This article is part of a collection of essays by Air Force personnel commemorating the service’s 75th anniversary.