The Air Corps Tactical School, also known as ACTS and "the Tactical School", was a military professional development school for officers of the United States Army Air Service and United States Army Air Corps, the first such school in the world. Created in 1920 at Langley Field, Virginia, it relocated to Maxwell Field, Alabama, in July 1931. Instruction at the school was suspended in 1940, anticipating the entry of the United States into World War II, and the school was dissolved shortly after. ACTS was replaced in November 1942 by the Army Air Force School of Applied Tactics.
In addition to the training of officers in more than 20 areas of military education, the school became the doctrine development center of the Air Corps, and a preparatory school for Air Corps officers aspiring to attendance at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College. The motto of the Air Corps Tactical School was Proficimus More Irretenti - "We Make Progress Unhindered by Custom."
The Air Corps Tactical School was notable as the birthplace of the Army Air Forces doctrine of daylight precision bombing. This doctrine held that a campaign of daylight air attacks against critical targets of a potential enemy's industrial infrastructure, using long range bombers heavily armed for self-defense, could defeat an enemy nation even though its army and navy remained intact. The Tactical School, in formulating the doctrine, rejected the idea of attacking civilians.
Four former instructors of the school, the core of a group known as "the bomber mafia", produced the two airpower war plans (AWPD-1 and AWPD-42) based on the doctrine of precision daylight bombing that guided the wartime expansion and deployment of the Army Air Forces.
In a broader sense, the strategic bombing doctrine, adapted by factors encountered during combat, was also the foundation for the final separation of the Air Force from the Army as a military service independent of and equal to the other services. In 1946 the AAF created the Air University to carry on the work and traditions of the ACTS.
At the end of World War I, observation remained the main role of the Air Service. However, air combat and limited bombardment operations indicated to veterans of the Air Service, including Brig.Gen. Billy Mitchell, that while ideally the service should be separate from the Army, it at the least should be centralized under an Air Service commander with some missions independent of direct support of troops. In reorganizing the post-war Army, the Armed Forces Reorganization Act of 1920 (41 Stat. 759) rebuked these ideas but did establish the Air Service as a statutory entity (previously it had existed by executive order only) and assigned it status as a "combatant arm of the line.
The Air Service followed the precedent of the other combat arms and began planning for its own service schools. An "Air Service School of Application" for technical training in aeronautical engineering, similar to the Ordnance School of Application at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, was set up at McCook Field, and began its first class 10 November 1919. Maj. Gen. Charles Menoher, Director of Air Service, wrote the War Department in October 1919 for permission to establish a tactical school at Langley Field, Virginia, to train field grade officers in the operation and tactics of the Air Service as a requirement for higher command or staff work.
On 25 February 1920, the War Department authorized the Air Service to establish its service schools. In addition to six pilot and advanced pilot training schools, and two technical training schools, an Air Service School was planned. It proposed to host courses for enlisted personnel as balloon observers, balloon mechanics, and aerial photography, but its main course was to be the Field Officers Course.
In the first two classes, despite the school’s title and function, only six of the first 23 graduates were field grade officers. A board reviewing all service schools of the United States Army observed that the Field Officers School had a course load that in other branches of the Army was distributed among several schools. Because all other Air Service schools were technical training in nature, the board recommended that the school be opened to all air service officers regardless of rank. Accordingly, Army regulations changed the name of the school to that of Air Service Tactical School on 8 November 1922. With the passage of the Air Corps Act of 1926, the school also changed its name, becoming the Air Corps Tactical School on 2 July 1926.
While at Langley, the ACTS was hampered by a chronic shortage of instructors, caused by a lack of policy within the Army for filling vacancies despite a rapid turnover in staff in the first three years. School administrators were forced to double as instructors. The situation was somewhat ameliorated in August 1924 when the Chief of the Air Service authorized extended duty for instructors, most of whom afterwards served four-year tours on the faculty, with an overlap between incoming and outgoing staff. Between 1925 and 1929 the number of instructors gradually doubled to 16 but even that number proved insufficient to research the vast collection of aviation literature the school’s library was collecting to establish doctrine.
Despite school recommendations to the contrary, class size gradually increased, reaching 40 students by 1931. The first student from a branch other than the Air Service (an infantry officer) attended ASTS in 1923-1924. This became standard when the 1926-1927 class had five officers representing the other combat branches of the United States Army and three from the United States Marine Corps assigned as students.
The functioning of the school was also handicapped by a lack of permanent facilities, especially in quarters, and the school did not have a permanent academic building. When the five-year expansion program outlined in the Air Corps Act of 1926 failed to address these problems, and the creation of new units at Langley interrupted the functioning of the practical flying course, the Air Service began seeking a new location for the Tactical School.
The 1930-1931 class was the last at Langley. In its eleven years at Langley, the Tactical School graduated 221 students.
The curriculum was altered in July 1923 by the newly created Director of Instruction, Capt. Earl Naiden, cutting the academic course by 500 hours to 845 total hours. 450 hours of the cuts came from the various tactics subjects, although the equitation courses were also eliminated, and all academic courses were scheduled in mornings. Naiden added courses in the history of the Air Service and map reading to the academics, and a 126-hour afternoon course in practical flying, instituted to provide refresher training to pilots but required of all students, including those of non-aviation branches. The course structure remained the same until 1939, with changes only in individual course subjects, averaging 25 hours per week of classroom study and 3.7 hours weekly of flying.
The first printed texts covering air tactics replaced mimeographed texts in 1924. This development of the tactics portion of the school led to increased emphasis, and in 1925 aeronautical engineering was eliminated from the curriculum. Theoretical use of airpower was first advanced in 1928, and beginning in 1929 a new course was taught at the end of each class, "The Air Force", coordinating all air topics covered during the year.
Army regulations also made the commander of the 2nd Wing, as the base commander at Langley, the commandant of the Tactical School. However during its first four years this caused little disruption as Milling, first as officer in charge and then as assistant commandant, remained in actual charge of the school. In 1924 Maj. Oscar Westover became the first commandant to exercise control over school activities. The assistant commandant then became responsible for academics, assisted by the director of instruction, directors of the individual academic departments, and the school secretary (formerly the school adjutant).
Course instruction assumed a pattern combining both theory and practical instruction. Subjects were generally scheduled in blocks, particularly tactics, beginning with those of other branches and services, along with logistics and staff functions, from the beginning of each class until December. The courses in air tactics followed, described by one student as coming with “bewildering rapidity.”
Practical instruction came in the form of "field problems", initiated in the classroom, then demonstrated and practiced in the practical flying course. Annual inspection trips were also undertaken to the Engineering Division at McCook and Wright Fields in Dayton, Ohio, until 1930, after which trips to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, began. Annual participation in the Army War College maneuvers at Ft. DuPont, Delaware, started in 1924, but by 1928 doctrinal disagreements between schools created a perceived misuse of airpower by the Tactical School on the part of AWC planners. Although Air Corps input resulted in some improvements, a lack of funds eliminated ACTS participation after 1933.
Difficulties with dilapidated facilities at Langley were not resolved, and a proposed relocation to Staten Island was rejected by the staff for lack of year-round flying weather, urban restrictions on flying, and a lack of support facilities. Locations at Bolling Field, Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Virginia; San Antonio, Texas; Fort Riley, Kansas; and another area of Langley Field were studied before the choice was made of Maxwell Field, a depot in Montgomery, Alabama, as the site for the school.
Plans were developed for a campus to accommodate a tactical school of 75 students, a squadron officers school of 50 junior officer students, and a school demonstration flying group of four squadrons. Congress appropriated almost $700,000 by July 1929 for new buildings, including Building 800 (Austin Hall) to house the Tactical School, and $200,000 to purchase acreage on which to build new officer quarters. Delays in construction caused two postponements of the relocation until June 1931, when Austin Hall was completed. On 15 July 1931, the school completed its move, although officer quarters were not begun until 1932. Architects of the Quartermaster Corps designed 99 elegant residences for officers in a style they termed “French Provencial”, and placed them in a neighborhood setting that became an Air Corps showplace. The construction program at Maxwell continued until 1938, funded primarily by the WPA and PWA. A bombing and gunnery range was also set up near Valparaiso, Florida, for Tactical School use.
Association with the Infantry School increased, but inspection trips formerly used at Langley first became voluntary and then were discontinued. Only a handful of graduates had gone on to attend the Command and General Staff School, and as a result the Tactical School ended its role as a preparatory school. Instead the ACTS became the equivalent for Air Corps officers of C&GSS, and increased the emphasis on air subjects to more than half of the total course hours by 1934-1935, with an accompanying decrease in hours for ground and administrative subjects. Classroom studies were similarly altered. Lectures occupied only half of a classroom hour, with the remainder given over to discussion and debate of concepts presented and of alternative ideas.
Organization of the school also underwent revision, with four academic departments created along functional lines in 1934, and four faculty committees set up to administrate scheduling, the school library, and publication of doctrine. The Air Corps Board, which had been inactive since the move from Langley, was permanently relocated to Maxwell in 1933. Restructured by the Tactical School, who doubled as its members, the Board was directed by the War Department to formulate Air Corps doctrine. The Board became indistinguishable from the Tactical School and undertook 77 projects between 1935 and 1942, a third of which dealt with tactical doctrine, and the remainder with equipment, armaments, field manuals, and training texts.
In 1938 the Department of Flying Instruction was dissolved and its functions parceled out to the remaining departments. The Department of Air Tactics and Strategy became the dominant division at the school, and its Air Force Section the most important course, in which airpower theories were presented and explored, doctrine emerging as much from the students as from the faculty.
The plan had the drawbacks of limiting the amount of detail to which students could be exposed, and would require a rebuilding of the staff and curriculum when the long course was reinstated. Nevertheless, the curriculum was changed from 712 academic hours to 298. The short courses began on 1 June 1939, and continued for the next year.
Devotees of Billy Mitchell, many of whom had served with the 1st Provisional Air Brigade, dominated the faculty of the Tactical School at Maxwell. With their students, they developed a theory of warfare that invoked the superiority of the long-range bomber over all other types of aircraft. Going beyond Mitchell’s ideas, they de-emphasized balanced forces and support of ground troops in favor of a doctrine that heavily-armed bombers could fight their way to industrial targets in daylight, unescorted by fighters, and with precision bombing (made possible by the introduction of the Norden bombsight in 1931), defeat an enemy by destroying key war production targets, rather than engaging in costly and prolonged ground campaigns aimed at destroying enemy armies. While the theory was based on tenets of strategic airpower developed by Mitchell, Hugh Trenchard, and Giulio Douhet, it rejected the concept of terror-bombing of civil populations as a means of destroying the morale and coercing the will of an enemy state.
The formulators of this doctrine were relatively young junior officers, nearly all of them former reservists commissioned during or immediately after World War I. They viewed war in the abstract, admitted (and even apologized for) being unable to offer conclusive proof of their theories, but firmly believed that the dominance of airpower lay ahead in the future, when existing limitations of technology had been overcome. Nine key advocates, all of whom instructed at the Tactical School, became known as the "Bomber Mafia." The unofficial leader of the group was the bombardment section chief and later director of the Department of Air Tactics and Strategy, Major Harold L. George.
The doctrine brought them in conflict with the Army General Staff, which did not view airpower as a major striking arm but as an auxiliary to the ground forces. Despite the poor performance of what few bombers the Air Corps possessed, the air theorists persisted in their beliefs, testifying in favor of a separate air force before commissions set up in the wake of the Air Mail Scandal.
Although flawed and tested only under optimal conditions, the doctrine (originally known as the "industrial web theory") became the primary airpower strategy of the United States in the planning for World War II. Four former instructors of the school, the core of the Bomber Mafia, produced the two airpower war plans (AWPD-1 and AWPD-42) that guided the wartime expansion and deployment of the Army Air Forces.
Although the proponents of daylight precision bombing at the Tactical School had a "failure of imagination" in not foreseeing the need to establish air superiority as a prerequisite for success of the bombing doctrine, and thus contributed to the delay in developing a long-range escort fighter until two years into the war, the doctrine nonetheless became the foundation for the separation of the Air Force from the Army, and the basis for modern airpower theory.
ACTS graduate, instructor, and Bomber Mafia member Haywood S. Hansell, concurred that both the theorists and the authors of the AWPD-1 war plan (he was both) made a serious mistake in neglecting long-range fighter escort in their ideas. However he also stated that ignorance of radar was fortuitous in the long run. He surmised that had radar been a factor in doctrine, many theorists would have reasoned that massed defenses would make all strategic air attacks too costly, inhibiting if not entirely suppressing the concepts that proved decisive in World War II and essential to the creation of the United States Air Force.
In June 1941 the Tactical School came under the control of the Southeast Air Corps Training Center (precursor of the Third Air Force), headquartered at Maxwell. A study was completed by SACTC that recommended the Tactical School be modified as a ten-week basic course in tactics for squadron and group level officers, instructing 2,000 officers its first year and 5,000 officers thereafter. However the Air Corps Board was soon moved to Eglin Field, Florida, and absorbed by the Air Corps Proving Ground, while all remaining staff and functions of the Tactical School (mainly the production of training literature) were transferred to Washington, D.C., where it continued work until 30 June 1942.
The ACTS at Maxwell graduated 870 officers, 400 of them in the short courses. During its entire history, the Tactical School trained 1,091 officers, 916 of them in the Air Service or Air Corps. 158 graduates from other arms included 118 Army officers, 35 Marines, and five Naval officers. The Tactical School also trained 17 officers from foreign countries. Of the 320 general officers in the Army Air Forces at the end of World War II, 261 were Tactical School graduates, including 14 of the 18 highest-ranking AAF generals. 134 officers (including 21 from the Army and Navy) served on the faculty of the Tactical School during its 20 years of existence, 58 of whom became general officers.
The tactical school concept was abandoned for the duration of World War II in favor of development of an actual tactical center, responsible for the mass teaching of all aspects of air warfare to inexperienced officers who would become commanders of newly created units. Although commandants at ACTS had lobbied throughout its existence for the Tactical School to serve as the nucleus of such a center, the tactical center instead became the function of a new school, the Army Air Force School of Applied Tactics, activated 27 October 1942 in Orlando, Florida, both for the training of unit cadres and the continuing development of tactical doctrine.
The experiences of World War II created a new impetus for professional education of air commanders, as it had after World War I, but on a much vaster scale. The expectation of becoming a separate service from the Army resulted in planning for a service-wide educational system, the nucleus of which would be the Air University. Established in 1946, AU coordinated all professional education for Air Force officers, and "fell heir to the purpose and tradition of the old Tactical School".