Commentary: Lessons from our past – Claire Chennault on Agile Combat Employment

  • Published
  • By Col. Russell “Bones” Cook
  • 23rd Wing, Flying Tigers

As the United States Air Force continues celebrating its 75th anniversary, we reflect on our shared heritage and how Airmen are using the lessons from the past to shape our future. The Air Force is transitioning from focusing for two decades on countering violent extremists to strategic competition with peer adversaries.

Even as the Air Force shrinks to its smallest size since World War II, our nation, allies, and partners face some of our toughest security challenges. We face adversaries that have similar capabilities, larger numbers, and threaten our bases and allies with overwhelming theater ballistic missile forces. In response, the Air Force has developed agile combat employment – light, agile, and tailorable force and support packages that can maneuver to increase survivability and generate airpower against an enemy.

Fortunately, this has all been done before. In 1942, Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers faced off against a vastly overwhelming enemy in the Pacific. Chennault’s lessons after the war remain relevant today and shine a light on the path for the conduct of agile combat employment in the future.

In the early months of 1942, the Allies had few successes around the world. In the Pacific, the situation seemed particularly dire. A small British force and divided Chinese army in Burma fell back in retreat as Claire Chennault and the Flying Tigers faced off against a numerically superior force outfitted with fighter aircraft that could fly faster and out-turn their American P-40s. Lacking spare parts or sufficient repair facilities, the small American contingent of less than 300 personnel typically had 30 serviceable fighters facing enemy air regiments totaling nearly 500 aircraft.

Operating from a string of hastily built, unfinished airfields, Chennault’s pilots and support personnel out maneuvered the enemy – avoiding destruction on the ground while imposing heavy losses from the air. As enemy infantry and armor quickly dashed into Burma and overran Allied bases, the Flying Tigers continued to surprise the enemy and exact a toll on their combat power. Friendly supply lines were defended from the air as enemy land and water supply lines were struck. The battle came to a head at Salween Valley, where the Flying Tigers bombed and strafed 100 trucks a day, turned the enemy south, and drove a stalemate that would last until the Allies advanced in 1944. 

In retrospect, it seems almost impossible that Claire Chennault’s small air force could have had such a decisive impact. After the war, Chennault noted that newspapers attributed the success to “some mystical quality” instead of solid facts. But the facts – and the lessons – from how Chennault’s Flying Tigers used and refined agile combat operations are undeniable and still valid.

Innovative and multicapable Airmen

Without easy access to spare parts and wildly unpredictable supply lines, the Flying Tigers had to innovate to survive. Chennault’s Airmen searched every possible source for parts, repaired whatever they could, and retrofitted parts meant for other aircraft to keep as many P-40s in the air as possible. Most famously, American armorers installed British guns and built homemade bomb racks and drop tanks on the P-40s, improvising the capability to deliver high explosive Russian bombs over increased ranges.

Today we herald “multicapable Airmen” as those who can operate independently outside of their specialty. Chennault praised the Flying Tigers ability for “lightning mobility” built from skeleton staffs and “Airman doubling in ground duties.” As a result, the Flying Tigers were able to shift operations over 600 miles in an afternoon. This kept the enemy off balance and, in Chennault’s words, “prevented them from landing a counterpunch with their numerically superior strength that might easily have put my always meager forces out of business”

Partners are key to agility

With such a small force, Chennault’s Flying Tigers could not have been effective without working through partners and allies. Multiple landing strips were built by local laborers who also prepositioned fuel, built shelters, provided food, water, security, and rescued pilots and crews. Chennault’s supply requirements were a quarter of what they should have been, saving space in supply trains for much needed weapons and parts. Without this support, Chennault would have required a much larger force that would not have been capable of rapid, agile shifts of operations.

Advanced training

Chennault adapted training as well. With few experienced fighter pilots, Chennault insisted on heavy ground and air instruction to teach tactics that were focused on countering the enemy’s weakness. This included training ground crews and a locally devised air warning network, enabling American aircraft to react faster and launch aircraft quicker than the enemy they faced. It worked. The Flying Tigers averaged a 15-1 kill ratio.

Jump forward to today. These hard-fought lessons from Claire Chennault are being replicated in wings across the Air Force today. They inform our Air Force’s path forward.

We continue to focus our Airmen’s innovation and develop multicapable Airmen with increased expeditionary training and independent operations. The Air Force is advancing its interoperability with partners in Europe, the Pacific, and around the world through combined agile combat employment exercises. The Air Force’s emerging Agile Flag exercise is challenging our combat forces through advanced training – employing multiple wings and hundreds of Airmen generating combat capability across dispersed locations under simulated attack.

Although change has certainly accelerated in the Air Force, Claire Chennault’s words and history remind us that there is more work to accomplish. After the Flying Tigers destroyed or damaged nearly all the attacking force on their first significant combat mission, Chennault offered caution to the excited crews. It was a “good job but not good enough. Next time get them all,” he said.

Col. Russell “Bones” Cook is the Commander of the 23rd Wing Flying Tigers at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia and a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, he is a Combat Rescue helicopter pilot with nearly 3,000 flight hours and five combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

This article is part of a collection of essays by Air Force personnel to commemorate the service's 75th anniversary year.