The threat posed by the Soviet Union and communism soon convinced American leaders to strengthen U.S. military forces, especially air power. The role of the new U.S. Air Force in breaking the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 demonstrated the value of air capabilities during this new Cold War. The Soviet Union's detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949 accentuated the importance of long-range bombers, such as the Air Force's giant B-36 Peacemaker, and modern air defenses. The Air Force expanded its efforts to foster science and technology with an ambitious Research and Development (R&D) program.
The Soviet-backed invasion of South Korea by communist North Korea in June 1950 drew the U.S. Air Force into a brutal three-year conflict. The Air Force soon used new jet fighters, such as the deadly F-86 Sabre, to establish air superiority over the Korean peninsula. In concert with Navy and Marine aviation, the Air Force helped protect United Nations ground forces with close air support and the interdiction of enemy reinforcements and supplies. The war ended in 1953 after an armistice with China and North Korea, but the Air Force kept a large number of units stationed in the Pacific to help contain communism. It also began a massive buildup of the forward-based United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), from England to Turkey. Air Force units provided the cornerstone of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) capabilities against the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact for the next four decades.
Invention of the powerful hydrogen bomb and the promise of long-range rockets accelerated the arms race between the superpowers in the 1950s. Under the bold leadership of Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force's Strategic Air Command (SAC) became the preeminent instrument of American defense strategy. Standing continuously alert for the rest of the Cold War, SAC's arsenal of bombers, such as the long-range B-52 Stratofortress, was joined in the 1960s by intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as the Titan and Minuteman. Together with the Navy's missile-launching submarines, these powerful weapons comprised America's nuclear-deterrent triad. With the development of launch vehicles and orbital satellites, the Air Force mission also expanded into space.
Possession of strong strategic forces helped the United States prevail in crises provoked by Soviet probes in Berlin and Cuba during the early 1960s. Communist expansion in Southeast Asia posed new and difficult challenges. In 1964 the United States began full-scale military operations on the side of South Vietnam and, in 1965, launched Operation Rolling Thunder against targets in North Vietnam. With the use of air power constrained for political reasons, both Air Force and naval aviation had to support a protracted and unpopular counterinsurgency effort against a determined and elusive foe. Tactical aircraft, such as the versatile F 4 Phantom II, performed in a wide variety of roles from aerial combat to close air support. The F-105 Thunderchief specialized in bombing raids against North Vietnam, while SAC B-52s "carpet-bombed" remote jungle strongholds. All were enhanced by force multipliers such as aerial refueling by KC-135 Stratotankers. Not until the Linebacker Operations of 1972, however, was air power brought fully to bear against North Vietnamese forces and facilities. Although this compelled the enemy to sign a peace treaty in January 1973, U.S. forces were no longer available in 1975 when North Vietnam launched a successful invasion of South Vietnam.
In the 1970s, the Air Force invested as much of its reduced budgets as possible in modernizing its aircraft and missiles while continuing to expand its role in space. The Air Force developed new weapon systems, for example, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, E-3 Sentry and M-X Peacekeeper. It also made great progress on satellite-based communications, reconnaissance, warning, weather and navigation systems. With its large fleet of aerial refueling tankers and long-range transports, the Air Force also expanded its worldwide airlift capabilities, as demonstrated during the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973 when C 141 Starlifters and giant C-5 Galaxies formed an airborne bridge to Israel (Operation Nickel Grass). But the Air Force did not receive adequate resources to maintain full readiness of its existing conventional forces. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union continued to develop and produce new and improved weapons at an even faster pace while building up its combat forces in Europe and the Far East to alarming levels.
The military balance began to shift back in America's favor after 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the humiliation of the American hostages in Iran confirmed the need to improve U.S. military capabilities. The ensuing American defense buildup of the 1980s allowed the Air Force to expand its force structure, enhance its training and readiness and deploy a wide range of advanced new weapons and other systems. These included the revolutionary F 117A stealth fighter. Air Force units engaged in several contingency operations, including the seizure of Grenada in 1983 (Urgent Fury), the raid on Libya in 1986 (El Dorado Canyon) and the invasion of Panama in 1989 (Just Cause). These operations demonstrated steadily improving capabilities of the Air Force and its sister services to conduct joint operations.
At the time, the progress the United States was making in new technologies such as stealthy airframes, sophisticated information networks and space-based systems helped convince a more flexible Soviet leadership that their inefficient economy could no longer afford to compete in the Cold War. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the final days of the Warsaw Pact and presaged the breakup of the Soviet Union itself a few years later.