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Bruce Gjovig: A century of air superiority

By Bruce Gjovig

The Wright Brothers gave us the airplane in 1903, and the birth of military airpower took place in World War I. American pilots did not wait for the U.S. to join the war, as in 1916, 255 men flew for France in the Lafayette Escadrille where 66 pilots perished.

The U.S. joined the war effort on April 6, 1917. Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, saw the Americans were way behind the Europeans in military airpower. He decided to work with the French to navigate the skies. Air superiority provided the way to observe the enemy to direct artillery fire on their trench lines. This reconnaissance in the sky enabled better decisions on the ground.

Pershing sought to make aviation a service branch. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the establishment of the U.S. Army Air Service on May 20, 1918. Within months, the service had grown to more than 190,000 men and 11,000 aircraft, led by Col. Billy Mitchell, who became chief of the Army Air Service.

Closer to home, Carl Ben Eielson — a UND student from Hatton — enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1917. He received orders to head to France, but the war ended while Eielson was in flight training. He returned to UND to finish his degree and help in his father's general store. During the winter of 1919-20, he persuaded some Hatton businessmen to buy a biplane to form the Hatton Aero Club, the first in the state.

In 1926 Eielson became the first aviator to cross the Arctic Ocean and land a plane on the Arctic ice slope. In 1927, Eielson and Australian explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins made test flights over the Arctic. On April 15-16, 1928, Eielson and Wilkins flew 20 hours and 20 minutes on the 2,200-mile route over the polar ice cap from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Svalbard, Spitzbergen Island, Norway. This was the first flight over the North Pole to Europe. Later in 1928, Eielson and Wilkins flew on a 1,200-mile Antarctic expedition, becoming the first to fly in Antarctica and the first to fly over both polar regions.

On Nov. 29, 1929, Eielson died in a crash off the coast of Siberia while flying a rescue mission to evacuate 15 crew from the Nanuk, a cargo ship trapped in the ice.

The Arctic aviator is remembered at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, and the elementary school on the Grand Forks AFB. The Hatton-Eielson Museum in Hatton is a gem to visit and their Eielson Hangar includes his Fokker aircraft he flew on the polar flight from Alaska to Spitsbergen.

The birth of U.S. airpower in the Great War would transform the way we conducted future wars. WWI helped launch an aviation industry that grew to be second to none, and a strategic advantage. A separate service — the U.S. Air Force — was created in 1947.

World War II demonstrated the decisive and integral role that air superiority plays in military operations, bypassing the adversary's army, navy and hostile terrain to hit key targets. Military operations on land, sea or in the air are extremely difficult for the side that does not control the sky. Air superiority during the 1991 Gulf War gave us a six-week victory in Iraq. Air power alone will not bring victory, but victory is nearly impossible to achieve without it.

Air superiority is key to our defense and allows us to own the skies, providing confidence to our allies, and striking fear in the hearts of our adversaries. Not since 1953 in Korea have our American ground forces lost a life to an enemy air strike.

We have to continue to earn that air superiority with growing challenges from China and Russia. Unfortunately, under President Obama, defense budgets were cut 45 percent to pay for entitlement programs which considerably reduced our manpower, modernization and readiness. We used to be able to fight two wars on two continents successfully. There is only so much our military can do without budgetary support as a priority.

This fall, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson made a request to Congress calling for 74 new operational squadrons and 40,000 more airmen to grow to 386 squadrons by 2030. This 24 percent increase — or $13 billion per year — is for the Air Force we need, to fight a peer adversary and win, as well as defend our homeland and continue the fight against terrorism. This follows the National Defense Strategy the Pentagon unveiled early in 2018.

We must see the world as it is. We need to prepare for a possible conflict against the near peer nations of China and Russia that have invested heavily in their air forces designed to take away America's air, space and cyber advantage.

As we observe the 100th anniversary of Armistice at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, let us remember the importance of military air superiority as we also remember the sacrifices made and the price paid for freedom, liberty and the defense of our American way of life.

Bruce Gjovig is CEO emeritus of the Center for Innovation Foundation and was appointed to the USAF Civic Leaders Program by the USAF chief of staff in January 2016.

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