In November 1918, U.S. Army Brigadier General Billy Mitchell made the following observation: “The day has passed when armies of the ground or navies of the sea can be the arbiter of a nation’s destiny in war.” General Mitchell’s comments came in the context of a vigorous debate involving a then-new domain of warfare: the skies. Nearly a century later, we are confronted with yet another contested domain. Cyberspace, like airspace, constitutes a vital operational venue for the U.S. military. Accordingly, it warrants what the sea, air, and land each have—an independent branch of the armed services.
Eight months before Mitchell’s clairvoyant statement, President Woodrow Wilson had signed two executive orders to establish the U.S. Army Air Service, replacing the Aviation Section of the U.S. Signal Corps as the military’s aerial warfare unit. This small force served as a temporary branch of the War Department during World War I and looked much like the Pentagon’s joint task forces of today. It was relatively small and consisted of personnel on assignment from the different services. In 1920, the Air Service’s personnel were recommissioned into the Army. The decision was backed by the popular belief that aviation existed exclusively to support ground troops.
A significant debate was under way within the armed services. The minority camp, led by Mitchell, advocated on behalf of establishing an independent service for aerial warfare. He contended that air power would serve a purpose beyond supporting the Army’s ground movements, and that gaining and maintaining preeminence of the skies required an entirely autonomous branch with indigenous manning, personnel, logistics, and acquisition duties. His opponents, on the other hand, favored integrating aviation into the existing services. Budgets were tight, and Army brass were eager to garner additional funding streams.
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