Ending of the Cold War did not mean completion of the Air Force's mission. Even though no longer having to keep nuclear forces on constant alert against a Soviet first strike or to base large forces overseas ready to fight World War III, the Air Force's inherent speed, range, precision, lethality and flexibility give America what Secretary of the Air Force Donald B. Rice called "global reach, global power."
The Air Force's well-trained personnel and sophisticated weapons lived up to this vision during Operation Desert Storm in early 1991. Deploying halfway around the world in Operation Desert Shield after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, they helped win one of the most lopsided battlefield victories in military history. Advanced aircraft, such as the unstoppable F 117 Nighthawk, delivered an arsenal of precision-guided munitions with the help of sophisticated information and navigation systems, including those on space satellites. Under the control of Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, the intensive six-week air campaign neutralized Iraq's air defenses, decapitated Iraq's command structure and demoralized its once-feared army. Air power allowed coalition ground forces to liberate Kuwait and quickly drive into Iraq with fewer casualties than those suffered by the United States in a typical week of the Vietnam War.
Without the Soviet threat, the United States no longer needed the large force structure that stood guard during the Cold War. Recognizing the need for streamlining, the Air Force in the early 1990s underwent the most complete reorganization since its establishment. It consolidated from 13 to eight major commands (for example, replacing the Strategic Air, Tactical Air and Military Airlift Commands with Air Combat and Air Mobility Commands) and did away with various lower-echelon headquarters. The Air Force also inactivated many proud wings and squadrons, closed once-valuable bases and downsized from more than 600,000 military personnel in the late 1980s to under 388,000 in 1996.
Although smaller in size, the post-Cold War Air Force has been called upon for increased participation in contingency operations. In addition to maintaining units in the Persian Gulf area (Southern Watch) and Turkey (Provide Comfort) to deter Saddam Hussein from threatening his neighbors, the Air Force has supported humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in places like Somalia (Restore Hope), Rwanda (Support Hope), Haiti (Uphold Democracy) and the Balkans (Provide Promise and Deny Flight). To help stop a barbaric civil war in Bosnia, Air Force aircraft made precision strikes against Serb targets in Operation Deliberate Force during late 1995. After this first air campaign ever conducted by NATO, the Air Force then supported implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords through Operations Decisive and Joint Endeavor. On the volatile Korean Peninsula, the Air Force continued to keep units combat-ready for action at any time.
Today the pace of technological change moves ever faster while America's role in protecting against aggression and fostering world democracy is more complex. In recognition of anticipated challenges the Air Force will face in the 21st Century, Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall and Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman inaugurated the year of the Air Force's 50th anniversary with a long-range planning effort reminiscent of Toward New Horizons, the compendium of scientific forecasts instigated by Hap Arnold at the end of World War II. Under the umbrella concept of Global Engagement, today's Air Force has set forth a vision of how its people, technology and infrastructure must adapt to ensure it will become more effective and influential than ever.
With these challenges in mind, the Air Force looks eagerly to the future while remembering the lessons and achievements of the past as well as honoring the memory, sacrifices and contributions of those who succeeded, often in the face of skepticism, in building what is now the world's only truly global air and space force.