On April 12, 1983, Secretary of the Army John Marsh established Aviation as a “basic branch” of the United States Army. Today, we tend to take for granted the incredible capabilities of Army Aviation in all its various roles, from fire support and reconnaissance to transportation and maneuver. What most don’t realize, however, is that just twenty years before the branch was established, there was concerted and profound opposition to the entire concept of Army Aviation.
With the transformation of the United States Army Air Forces into the United States Air Force in 1947, an internecine conflict arose between the military’s newest branch and its oldest. The Air Force felt that the Army’s development of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft to support ground operations was an incursion into its area of responsibility. Indeed, there were many in the Air Force who felt that it and it alone should be responsible for all air operations, bar none, and one of the most vocal of these advocates was also one whose authority carried great weight: General Curtis LeMay.
LeMay had overseen the strategic bombing campaigns during World War II that devastated the Japanese war economy, and his unshakeable belief in its efficacy also led him to downplay the role of ground forces in 20th-century warfare. If the Army needed air support, LeMay said, it could get it from the Air Force. During his tenure as Air Force Chief of Staff (1961-1965), LeMay famously remarked that the Air Force should be operating “everything that flies, down to the last puddle jumper”—a term that frequently used for the light aircraft the Army used for aerial observation.
But LeMay was vigorously opposed by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, an innovator who encouraged examination of Army aviation programs without the bias of “traditional viewpoints and past policies, and free from veto or dilution by conservative staff review.” He subsequently authorized the creation of the Howze Board, named after its head General Hamilton Howze. The board’s findings firmly embraced the notion of the superior operational capabilities of organic Army aviation units to support ground forces and laid the groundwork for air mobility and tactical doctrines that form the basis of today’s Aviation Branch mission.