The Flying Tigers Today

In recent years, the People’s Republic of China has embraced the story of the Flying Tigers as part of its mission to rewrite the history of the Sino-Japanese war.

This effort includes the ‘rehabilitation’ of Chiang Kai-shek as wartime leader of China and patron of the Flying Tigers. In the past ten years or so the PRC has opened theme parks dedicated to the Flying Tigers and reached out to descendants of the AVG in the United States to come to China and take part in ceremonies to do with the legendary volunteer group. That has proved to be an effective way of converting a group of Americans who had been devoted to the cause of Nationalist China into friends of the PRC.

It is difficult to document precisely how or why PRC officials decided to co-opt the tale of the Flying Tigers for the sake of official history, tourism or film scenarios. Nonetheless every year there are rumours about movies that will feature Chinese pilots as original Flying Tigers or a remake of the 1942 film, Flying Tigers that starred John Wayne as Jim Gordon, aka Claire Chennault.

The Flying Tigers continue to pop up in other contexts. Every so often there are proposals to reproduce something like the AVG in combat zones where the US government would rather not insert the US military. As this book reveals, however, the Flying Tigers do not offer an ideal template for private military air operations. Its pre-war organization was undermined by the lack of consultation between so-called allies and the opposition of the US military to the venture.

The US Army in particular threw obstacles in the way of the Tigers. It must be pointed out that the US Army, not the US Navy had P-40s in its fighter fleet. The Army resented the existence of a privately organized air unit that deprived it of pilots and aircraft needed elsewhere. In 1941 the Army wanted P-40s in the Philippines and Hawaii and faced serious challenges in maintaining these fighter squadrons so far from the United States. From February 1941 onwards the US Army did its best to block the release of ammunition, spare parts and other materiel for the AVG which ultimately handicapped its ability to maintain the P-40s and cut short the longevity of AVG operations against the enemy.

The flawed planning of the AVG in 1941 may well have dissuaded the US military from ever again contemplating the idea of outsourcing air combat operations to a private contractor.

That was the situation in 1941 and it may still be the case today. In August 2017 the US media reported that a private military contractor was proposing the deployment of “mercenary” forces to Afghanistan: 5000 soldiers on the ground and a unit of ninety combat planes comparable to a new Flying Tigers.

Could that work? Probably not. The story of the Flying Tigers reveals that American polticians and armchair strategists fail to grasp that military aviation is 10 percent in the air and 90 percent on the ground. Planning the Flying Tigers in 1941 revealed the complexity of setting up the maintenance and logistical operations required to sustain modern air warfare in an underdeveloped country. It seems highly unlikely that any private military contractor can muster the financial or material resources to reproduce ground support for an air combat unit to the standards demanded by the US military to safeguard air assets. For all these reasons, it seems unlikely that a strange experiment in airpower known as the Flying Tigers will ever be repeated.