By Major Douglas A. Galipeau, USAF
By the middle of 1917 it was apparent that America would become enmeshed in the war in Europe. Many on both sides of the Atlantic thought that it would be unnecessary, if not impossible, to organize, equip, and transport a large enough ground force to have a significant impact on the numerical balance between the Allied forces and their enemy. Both the French and British felt that America should limit its ground participation to a moderate level. The Allies thought the United States could most effectively aid their cause by providing a powerful air force to the Western Front in time to participate in the 1918 campaign.
|Premier Alexandre F. Ribot|
In May of 1917, French premier Alexandre F. Ribot sent the following cablegram to President Woodrow Wilson:
It is desired that in order to cooperate with the French aeronautics, the American Government should adopt the following program: the formation of a flying corps of 4,500 airplanes - personnel and material included - to be sent to the French front during the campaign in 1918. The total number of pilots, including reserve, should be 5,000 and 53,000 mechanicians. 2,000 planes should be constructed each month as well as 4,000 engines by the American factories. That is to say, that during the first six months of 1918, 16,5000 planes (of the last type) and 30,000 engines will have to be built. The French Government is anxious to know if the AmericanGovernment accepts this proposition, which would allow the Allies to win supremacy of the air. (signed) "Ribot"
Known simply as the "Ribot Cable," this proposal was approved by the War Department on 27 May and was to become the basis for the army aviation expansion effort. The enormity of this undertaking seems to have been lost on U.S. policymakers. The Ribot Cable, in effect, was asking America to produce more in one year than France had done in three years of war. Moreover, this expectation was prefaced on an industrial infrastructure that lagged far behind those of the European powers. Young Henry H. Arnold, then a major, certainly realized just how enormous the task facing the U.S. was
when he wrote:
|Major Hap Arnold|
We were told to prepare a bill for Congress. Our understaffed Airplane Division in the War Department received the news with great interest. It was our first program...At this time we ranked fourteenth among the nations of the world in aviation. Actually it was worst than that. Statistics aside, we had no airpower at all. In the raw, the country's manpower, industrial strength, and the national know-how in general assured the building of any kind of military force we wanted—if there was a realistic organization of energy and material, and if there was time. Was there time?
Although the concerns of Major Arnold and many others were focused primarily on industrial mobilization and the production of aircraft, it was also apparent that training and production of aviators would present a tremendous challenge. Any doubts about America's ability to meet these challenges were rapidly overshadowed by both public and political enthusiasm. In order to gain support for the unprecedented appropriations that such a program required, many in Congress and the military made some seemingly rash predictions about the ability to meet the goals set forth in the Ribot Cable. Even though Congress appropriated over $600 million for the effort, it was soon obvious that America would not be able to live up to the original agreement. Within months a revised air program was presented to the Allies.
The failure to meet the original air program was due primarily to the lack of experience on the part of American industry. This lack of experience was further exacerbated by the reluctance of the Allies to share their knowledge of aviation technology. "Probably no military secrets were more closely guarded in Europe than developments in aircraft."
[Training aviators would prove one of the greatest challenges.] While the same lack of experience also caused the original estimates for the training program to be readjusted, the French, British and to some extent Italians were much more willing to share their expertise in training with the Army Air
Service. The Air Service was able to take advantage of these well established programs to create a program that encompassed the best training methods of the day.
Source: Issoudun: The Making of America's First Eagles, Major Douglas A. Galipeau, USAF, March 1997, Air University