This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Mental Models and Institutional Change in the U.S. Air Force from the Cold War through the Gulf War




Swartzer, Andrew

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation



Restriction Status


Restriction Type


Date Available



Following more than twenty years of debate, and after a bitter fight for independence from the Army, the United States Air Force was established as separate military service on September 18, 1947. The following spring, President Harry S. Truman, based upon the recommendations of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, formally assigned the newly independent Air Force the mission of, and primary responsibility for, defending the United States from air attack. Seven decades later, the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 redesignated the Air Force Space Command as the United States Space Force. While organized within the Department of the Air Force, the Space Force became the sixth independent military service branch of the United States Armed Forces on December 20, 2019. The origins of these three decisions can all be traced back a single concept, airpower. What is airpower? Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell once defined airpower as “the ability to do something in or through the air.” When the Air Force was first established in 1947, it did not have a codified definition of airpower. In fact, for much of the Air Force’s history, although airpower has been widely discussed, hotly debated, and extensively studied, it has rarely been well-defined. Hundreds of scholarly works have been written on airpower, and virtually all of them have focused on the effects that pilots, and their associated aircraft, bring to bear in warfare. At its most basic level, airpower is generally considered the projection of military power in, from, or through the air, most often associated with the effects of placing bombs on target – strategic bombardment. Airpower, however, is more than just airmen, airplanes, and the employment of ordnance. Airpower is a shared set of ideas, a shared mental model; airpower is an ideology articulated by aviators, designed to serve the purpose of defending the United States against air attack. Airpower ideology is shaped by both exogenous and endogenous threats – real and perceived. It is Airmen’s airpower ideology that establishes the foundation of the United States’ air defense institution. This is work about institutional change. During the Cold War, in response to new and emerging threats, Airmen modified their mental models or created new mental models of airpower. These altered mental models led to either evolutionary or revolutionary change in the Air Force’s Cold War air defense institution. Following the Cold War, a troubling reordering of the Air Force’s air defense institution took place. With the overwhelming success of the air campaign during Operation Desert Storm, the Air Force became content to believe that “traditional” airpower – strategic bombardment – wins wars. This has been interpreted, mistakenly, as the ability to win wars, alone. As a result of the diminished threat posed by its Cold War enemy, the Air Force deemphasized and deprioritized its Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and space programs. The Air Force’s inability to overcome institutional inertia, to fully understand the significant role that space systems play in air, or air and space, defense is one of the many reasons Congress authorized the United States Space Force in December 2019. This work serves to demonstrate that to truly understand airpower, and emergent spacepower, one must examine and understand the underlying mental models, and associated ideologies, that will form and/or influence the future of air and space defense.