Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution enumerates the powers of Congress and includes the creation of military forces:

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

Given that the Constitution only talks about granting Congress the ability to regulate land and naval forces, why were they able to create the Air Force without a constitutional amendment granting that power?

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    Perhaps I'm outing myself as not much of a military person, but is there a some technical difference or is this just about the word "Airforce" not being "Army"?
    – user9389
    Jun 20 '18 at 18:17
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    @notstoreboughtdirt I assumed that "Army" meant "land forces", as referred to in the last sentence of the quote. Jun 20 '18 at 18:36
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    Also note that (AFAIK) the Constitution does not explicitly mention the Marine Corps.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 20 '18 at 18:46
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    @notstoreboughtdirt Because it's not on the ground, it's in the air? The same way that the naval forces are separate from the "land forces" despite occasional overlap through bombarding land targets, transporting land troops, etc. Regardless, the existing answer seems to address the issue of what it counts as. Jun 20 '18 at 19:10
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    @jamesqf Technically speaking, the Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy. At any rate, it's fair to describe the Marine Corps as "land and naval forces."
    – reirab
    Jun 21 '18 at 8:56

In a dissent in the case of Laird v. Tatum, Justice William Douglas argued tangentially that the creation of an air force is legal as per Article of 1, Section 8 of the Constitution:

The Army, Navy, and Air Force are comprehended in the constitutional term "armies." Article I, § 8, provides that Congress may "raise and support Armies," and "provide and maintain a Navy," and make "Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces."

In other words, Douglas argued against a literal interpretation of the Section - an interpretation that I don't think has been disputed.

Going into more detail, this blog post talks about John Marshall's opinion in McCullough v. Maryland, where he gave conflicting statements about the Enumerated Powers listed in Section 8. The Enumerated Powers are, in a nutshell, those granted to Congress via Section 8. While several common passages of Marshall's decisions are often cited for different interpretations of his points, one in particular caught my eye:

Among the enumerated powers, we do not find that of establishing a bank or creating a corporation. But there is no phrase in the instrument which, like the Articles of Confederation, excludes incidental or implied powers and which requires that everything granted shall be expressly and minutely described.

Marshall also referenced the Necessary and Proper Clause in Section 8, which states that Congress can make laws necessary for the execution of the powers explicitly listed - which makes sense, backing up the argument of Justice Douglas. In particular, the clause states that Congress has the power

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

The application of this clause is strengthened, as lly pointed out, if we consider that the United States Air Force was previously part of the US Army, and therefore, the use of aircraft in war was already considered an extension of the army - and thus a necessity to raise an army. Therefore, it wasn't unnatural for it to be extended into a separate branch.

As an addendum, it seems to be accepted that Congress could authorize the creation of a "space force", according to domestic law. Arguments against the legality of such a measure don't typically invoke Section 8 - but that's a rabbit hole I'd rather not go down. The point is, a literalist interpretation of the Constitution is not being applied at present in the case of a space force, and likely would not be applied to challenge the existence of the United States Air Force.

In summary, in Laird v. Tatum, Justice Douglas argued that a broader interpretation of "armies" should be used, and while it was given in a dissent and therefore isn't precedent, it seems to be backed up by Marshall's broader interpretation of Section 8 in general, along with the Necessary and Proper Clause. As far as I know, though, the constitutionality of the Air Force has never been seriously challenged in a US Court.

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    Presumably if "Armies" aren't allowed to fly planes, then there are many other technologies invented since the 18th century that they aren't allowed to use either. Jun 20 '18 at 20:51
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    @MichaelKay that might explain why armoured/tank forces were called Cavalry ?
    – Criggie
    Jun 21 '18 at 13:08
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    @MichaelKay: The biggest question with regard to the legitimacy of the Air Force would probably have to do with the fact that many planes take longer than two years to design and build, but no letter of appropriation may exceed that time. On the other hand, planes are hardly the only kind of non-naval assets that would have that problem.
    – supercat
    Jun 21 '18 at 16:26

You could well ask the same question about the US Marines.

The US Marines were also not specifically mentioned there. However, they were nonetheless created by the Fifth Congress within a decade of the ratification of the Constitution. Prior to that, authorizations for US Navy frigates included money for marines. The clear implication of this is that Marines were at the time considered an integral part of any Navy, just as much as the guns on the ships were. If Congress sees fit to create a separate "service" to house them (under the Department of the Navy), it would be nothing more than legalistic silliness to claim they can't do that because the Constitution didn't add the word "Marines" to A1S8.

The same goes for the Air Force. Until 1947 air combat was simply part of the Army. In 1947 the US Congress, as part of a War Department reorganization, decided it would be best to split them out into their own branch. There's nothing about the transition to that management structure that should cause any constitutional crisis, or force its reporting structure to remain tied to the Army, simply because the authors of the Constitution in the late 18th century didn't put the words "Air Force" specifically in the document.

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    The US Marines were and still are a branch of the US Navy, they are not a separate service. This is different from the US Air Force which started out similarly as part of the US Army, but in 1947 were made into a separate service, which appears to be what the OP was asking about. Jun 20 '18 at 19:06
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    @RBarryYoung - "The United States Marine Corps (USMC), also referred to as the United States Marines, is a branch of the United States Armed Forces ... The U.S. Marine Corps is one of the four armed service branches ..". I know what you are getting at, but if you are going to "well actually" someone with a comment that is only technically true, but doesn't actually enlighten anyone on the subject at hand, you should at least get your own technicalities right.
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 20 '18 at 19:10
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    Technicalities: The Marines were never separated from the Department of the Navy. The Air Force was separated from the Department of the Army. It is now a separate military department, the Marines are not. Jun 20 '18 at 19:15
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    No, the distinction between them is critical. The question is about the constitutionality of congress's actions in creating the Air Force. Congress did this by creating a new military department (and transferring the Army Air Force into it), which is were the question of constitutional powers comes in. Congress never separated nor transferred the Marines out of the Department of the Navy so there was never any question of their constitutional powers. It is a different situation, specifically in the context of this question. Jun 20 '18 at 19:30
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    But that's exactly what the question was about. Jun 20 '18 at 19:38

Congress may "raise and support Armies". Note the plural. They could therefore create another army, separate from the first, with its own organization and budgets. This army specializes in the use of aircraft. It is still "an army": i.e. people trained and equipped to fight wars for their country.

They may call it an "air force" by name. But it is very much a land force. They are stationed on land bases, from where they occasionally fly missions.

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