The Value of History in the Air Force

A talk with Dick Anderegg, Air Force Historian.


A former F-4 Fighter Weapons School instructor pilot and F-15 squadron commander, Clarence R. “Dick” Anderegg flew 170 combat missions during the Vietnam war. He is the author of The Ash Warriors, a history of the evacuation of Clark Air Base when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991, and Sierra Hotel, which discusses the cultural changes in the U.S. fighter force after the Vietnam war. Air & Space Senior editor Patricia Trenner talked in February with Anderegg, whose official title is Director, Air Force History and Museum Policies and Programs.

A&S: How do you think the Iraq and Afghanistan engagements will be seen by historians of the future in terms of how they will shape the technology and culture of the Air Force?

Anderegg: There has been a significant evolution of the roles of the joint forces air component commander and the combined air operations center beyond that which we saw in Desert Storm in 1991. Clearly, the application of technology to the command and control of joint air services has improved dramatically. The Air Force sees this blend of joint combat power and combat control as the way of the future to meet the needs of a joint forces commander. Of course, the ability of the Air Force to precisely strike targets has been superb, especially in consideration of its ability to avoid collateral damage. Precision strike will be on the pages of every history that studies our combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s arguable whether the technology drives the culture or the culture drives the technology, but they are in lockstep today.

A&S: What is your take on the greatest moments of AF history after its first 50 years?

Anderegg: Certainly there have been many victories, starting with our first battle of the Cold War: the Berlin Airlift. As important as victories, though, are the far-reaching changes the Air Force envisions. I think that there’s a high probability that 50 years from now historians will view the formation of an Air Force cyber command as an historical watershed. Formation of an organization that can organize, train and equip cyber warriors for presentation to the combatant commanders many very well alter the military in ways we have no way of envisioning today. Cyber is a domain like any other: air, space, land, sea. Potential enemies will want to operate in it, so we must be able to dominate it.

A&S: How does the AF use history in its planning and policy?

Anderegg: In countless ways. The Air Force history program is extensive, and we have historians at every Air Force base in the world. Presently I have eight historians serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. Together this program produces some 400,000 pages and supporting documents of Air Force history a year. Commanders at all levels have access to it and use it to understand why and how decisions were made in the past so that they may make better decisions today. I’ve never been a fan of the adage that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. The value of history is that it teaches one the right questions to ask.

A&S: How do you think the Air Force should address the F-15 problem?

Anderegg: When I was a young F-4 pilot in the late 1960s, the average age of the USAF fleet was about 8 years. Today it is over 24. The first F-15 squadron, the famous Triple Nickel, activated at Luke AFB in 1974. I usually avoid doing math in public, but I think that’s about 34 years ago. More importantly those first Eagles were designed and built with manufacturing, design and technology techniques much older than that. No student of aviation was surprised that an airplane structurally failed in flight, but everyone, I think, was surprised that it was an F-15 because other types in the fleet, such as the KC-135, are even older. The Air Force will continue to deal with this issue the same way it has for the past several years—strive to retire the old and buy the new. You know, I have a buddy that owns a ’66 Corvette that he’s owned from day one. It’s a beauty, but he doesn’t race it anymore—too hard to find the parts and he doesn’t trust it in the curves.

A&S: What was your role at Clark Air Base when Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991?

Anderegg: First, it scared the devil out of me, so I was in pretty good company. The volcano was only a little more than eight miles from the west side of the base, and it exploded ten times as much ash into the air as Mt St Helen. As the wing second-in-command, my job was to head the crisis action team (CAT). The CAT planned our disaster response and directed the evacuation. We got 15,000 Americans off the base in less than six hours, and the first eruptions started 48 hours later. Too close, but thanks to a US Geological Survey Team the State Department sent to us, we had enough warning to get most away. Unfortunately, during the height of the eruptions a super-typhoon hit as well. We didn’t know if it was mudding rain, or raining mud! We lost over 100 buildings on the base with another 500 badly damaged, and the AF decided, wisely I think, to just close it down. It had been the largest US military installation outside the continental US. Almost unbelievably, no US citizens were killed, but the Filipinos nearby suffered badly and are still suffering today from the total rearrangement of their landscape by what turned out to be the second largest eruption of the Twentieth Century.

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