United States Air Force History
The United States Air Force (USAF) is the aerospace branch of the United
States armed forces. The USAF was formed as a separate branch of the military on
September 18, 1947 from the United States Army. The USAF is the largest
modern air force in the world, with over 9,000 aircraft in service and about
352,000 men and women on active duty. Since World War I, the USAF and its
predecessors have taken part in military conflicts throughout the world. The
USAF is widely considered to be the most technologically advanced military air
power. The Air Force is currently planning a massive Reduction-in-Force (RIF).
Due to budget constraints the USAF will reduce its strength by nearly 57,000
active duty, Reserve, Air National Guard, and civilian personnel over the next 5
According to the National Security Act of 1947 which created the Air Force, "In
general the United States Air Force shall include aviation forces both combat
and service not otherwise assigned. It shall be organized, trained, and equipped
primarily for prompt and sustained offensive and defensive air operations. The
Air Force shall be responsible for the preparation of the air forces necessary
for the effective prosecution of war except as otherwise assigned and, in
accordance with integrated joint mobilization plans, for the expansion of the
peacetime components of the Air Force to meet the needs of war."
The stated mission of the USAF today is to "deliver sovereign options for the
defense of the United States of America and its global interests to fly and
fight in Air, Space, and Cyberspace".
Aircraft of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing and coalition counterparts
stationed together at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, in southwest Asia, fly over the
desert. April 14, 2003. Aircraft include KC-135 Stratotanker, F-15E Strike
Eagle, F-117 Nighthawk, F-16CJ Falcon, British R-4 Tornado, and Australian
The United States Air Force was became a separate military service on September
18, 1947, with the implementation of the National Security Act of 1947. The
Act created the Department of Defense, which was composed of three branches, the
Army, Navy and a newly created Air Force. Prior to 1947, the responsibility
for military aviation was divided between the Army, for land-based operations,
and the Navy, for sea-based operations from aircraft carrier and amphibious
aircraft. The Army had created the first antecedent of the Air Force in 1907 and
through a succession of changes of organization, titles, and missions advanced
toward eventual separation. The Air Force was preceded by the:
Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps (August 1, 1907 to July 18, 1914
Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps (July 18, 1914 to May 20, 1918)
Division of Military Aeronautics (May 20, 1918 to May 24, 1918)
U.S. Army Air Service (May 24, 1918 to July 2, 1926)
U.S. Army Air Corps (July 2, 1926 to June 20, 1941,) and
U.S. Army Air Forces (June 20, 1941 to September 18, 1947)
An overview of war-time contributions by the Air Force and its predecessors
World War I and between wars
In 1917, upon the United States' entry into World War I, the U.S. Army Air
Service was formed as part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Major
General Mason Patrick commanded the AEF Air Forces; his deputy was Brig. Gen.
Billy Mitchell. The Air Service provided tactical support for the U.S. Army,
especially during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne offensives.
Among the aces of the Air Service were Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and Frank
In 1926 the Air Service was reorganized as a branch of the Army and became the
U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC). During this period, the USAAC began experimenting
with new techniques, including air-to-air refueling and the development of the
B-9 and the Martin B-10, the first all-metal monoplane bomber, and new fighters.
In 1937, the B-17 Flying Fortress made its first appearance. In a spectacular
feat of navigation, three B-17s intercepted the Italian passenger liner Rex at
In 1935, as a result of recommendations from two civilian review boards, the
next advancement toward independence for the Air Force occurred when all flying
units, which heretofore had been distributed to various ground commands, were
grouped together as an aerial task force under one air commander as the General
Headquarters, Air Force. The Air Corps, headed by the Chief of the Air Corps,
continued as before, but now held responsibility only for supply, airfields, and
training, in effect splitting the Air Force into two parts. Both components were
commanded by major generals (Frank Andrews, and Oscar Westover followed by Henry
World War II
1943 USAAF raid on ball bearing works at Schweinfurt, Germany.
World War II led to further changes. In 1941, the Army Air Corps became a part
of the new U.S. Army Air Forces and the GHQ Air Force was redesignated the
subordinate Air Forces Combat Command. In the major reorganization of the Army
by War Department Circular 59 effective March 9, 1942, the newly designated
United States Army Air Forces gained equal voice with the Army and Navy on the
Joint Chiefs of Staff and complete autonomy from the Army Ground Forces and the
Services of Supply.
In Europe, the USAAF began daylight bombing operations, over objections of the
Royal Air Force planners on the Combined Chiefs of Staff. The US strategy
involved pre-war Air Corps doctrine of flying bombers together, relying on the
defensive firepower of a close formation. The doctrine proved flawed when deep
penetration missions beyond the range of escort fighters were attempted. U.S.
fliers took tremendous casualties during raids on the oil refineries of Ploiesti,
Romania and the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt and Regensburg, Germany.
When the P-51 Mustang, with its increased range, was introduced to combat,
American combat losses dropped, and operations during Big Week in late winter of
1944 caused the Luftwaffe to lose experienced pilots.
In the Pacific Theater of Operations, the USAAF used the B-29 Superfortress to
launch attacks on the Japanese mainland from China. One of the major logistical
efforts of the war, "flying the Hump" over the Himalayas, took place. To carry
both a bomb load and fuel and to bomb at high altitude through the jet stream
affected the B-29's range. After airbases in the Mariana Islands were captured
in 1944, General Henry H. Arnold consolidated all B-29 operations there and made
General Curtis LeMay his bomber commander. LeMay changed U.S. strategy from
high-level precision bombings to low-level incendiary bombings, aimed at
destroying the distributed network of Japanese industrial manufacturing. Many
Japanese cities suffered extensive damage. Tokyo suffered a firestorm in which
over 100,000 persons died.
The B-29 was also used to drop one primitive nuclear weapon on each of the
Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945.
Cold War and war in Korea
Following the end of World War II, the United States Department of the Air Force
was created when President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of
1947. It became effective September 18, 1947, when Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson
administered the oath of office to the first secretary of the Air Force, Stuart
Conflict over post-war military administration, especially as concerned the
separate duties of the Air Force and the U.S. Navy, lead to an incident called
the "Revolt of the Admirals" in the late 40s.
Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union began to deteriorate,
and the period in history known as the Cold War began. This period saw the
United States enter an arms race with the Soviet Union, and competition to
increase influence throughout the world. In response the United States expanded
its military presence throughout the world. The USAF opened air bases throughout
Europe, and later in Japan and South Korea. The United States also built air
bases on the British overseas territories of British Indian Ocean Territory and
Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.
The first test for the USAF during the Cold War occurred in 1948 when Communist
authorities in Eastern Germany cut off road and air transportation to West
Berlin. The USAF, along with the Royal Air Force, supplied the city during the
Berlin airlift, using C-121 Constellation and the C-54 Skymaster. The efforts of
the USAF and RAF saved the city from starvation and forced the Soviets to back
down in their blockade when they realized it wasn't working.
The Korean War saw the Far Eastern Air Force losing its main airbase in Kimpo,
South Korea, and forced to provide close air support to the defenders of the
Pusan pocket from bases in Japan. However, General Douglas B. MacArthur's
landing at Incheon in September 1950 enabled the FEAF to return to Kimpo and
other bases, from which they supported MacArthur's drive to the Korean-Chinese
border. When the Chinese People's Liberation Army attacked in December, 1950,
the USAF provided tactical air support. The introduction of the Soviet-made
MiG-15 caused problems for the B-29s used to bomb North Korea, but the USAF
countered the MiGs with the F-86 Sabre. Although both air superiority and close
air support missions were successful, a lengthy attempt to interdict communist
supply lines by air attack failed.
The USAF were heavily deployed during the Vietnam War. The first bombing raids
against North Vietnam occurred in 1964 following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. In
1965 a sustained bombing campaign began, code-named Rolling Thunder. This
campaign's purpose was to destroy the will of the North Vietnamese to fight,
destroy industrial bases and air defences, and to stop the flow of men and
supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, while forcing North Vietnam into peace
negotiations. The USAF dropped more bombs during Rolling Thunder than it did
during World War II. The bombing campaign lasted until the U.S.
presidential election of 1968 and was not successful.
The USAF also played a critical role in defeating the Easter Offensive of 1972.
The rapid redeployment of fighters, bombers and attack aircraft help the South
Vietnamese Army repel the invasion. Operation Linebacker demonstrated to both
the North and South Vietnamese that even without significant U.S. Army ground
forces, the United States could still influence the war. The air war for the
United States ended with Operation Linebacker II also known as the "Christmas
Bombings." These helped to finalize the Paris peace negotiations.
Bosnia and Kosovo
The USAF led NATO action in Bosnia in 1994 with air strikes against the Bosnian
Serbs. This was the first time that USAF aircraft took part in military action
as part of a NATO mission. The USAF led the strike forces as the only NATO air
force with the capability to launch significant air strikes over a long period
Later the USAF led NATO air strikes against Serbia during the Kosovo War. The
forces were later criticised for attacking civilian targets in Belgrade,
including a strike on the civilian television station, and a later attack which
destroyed the Chinese embassy.
Iraq and Afghanistan
The USAF provided the bulk of the Allied air power during the first Gulf War in
1991. The Stealth fighter's capabilities were shown on the first night of the
air war when they were able to bomb central Baghdad and avoid the Iraqi's
sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses. The USAF along with the USN and RAF later
patrolled the skies of Northern and Southern Iraq after the war to protect
minorities persecuted by the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein.
In 2001, the USAF was deployed against the Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
Operating from Diego Garcia, B-52 Stratofortress and B-1 Lancer bombers attacked
Taliban positions. The USAF deployed daisy cutter bombs, dropped from C-130
cargo planes, for the first time since the Vietnam War. During this conflict the
USAF opened up bases in Central Asia for the first time.
The USAF was more recently deployed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Following the
defeat of Saddam Husseins regime, the USAF took over Baghdad International
Airport as a base. USAF aircraft are used to provide support to Coalition and
Iraqi forces in major operations to eliminate insurgent centers of activity and
supply in north and west Iraq.
The Department of the Air Force consists of the Office of the Secretary of the
Air Force (SECAF), the Air Staff, and field units.
The HQ (Head Quarters) of the SECAF includes the Secretary, Under Secretary,
Assistant Secretaries, General Counsel, The Inspector General, Air Reserve
Forces Policy Committee, and other offices and positions established by law or
the SECAF. The Office of the SECAF has responsibility for acquisition and
auditing, comptroller issues (including financial management), inspector general
matters, legislative affairs, and public affairs.
In 2004 the Secretary of the Air Force was Dr. James G. Roche who stepped down
as SECAF on January 20th, 2005.
In 2005 the Secretary of the Air Force is Michael Wynne.
The Air Staff primarily consists of military advisors to the CSAF and the SECAF.
This includes the Chief of Staff, Vice Chief of Staff, and Assistant Vice Chief
of Staff, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF), four deputy chiefs
of staff (DCS), the US Air Force Surgeon General, The Judge Advocate General,
the Chief of the Air Force Reserve, and additional military and civilian
personnel as the SECAF deems necessary.
In 2005 the Chief of Staff of the Air Force was General (Gen) T. Michael
The Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is the senior enlisted person in the
Air Force. In 2004 the position was held by Chief Master Sergeant (CMSgt) Gerald
The Department of the Air Force field units are MAJCOMs, field operating
agencies (FOA), and direct reporting units (DRU).
Major Commands (MAJCOMs)
The USAF is organized on a functional basis in the United States and a
geographical basis overseas. A major command (MAJCOM) represents a major Air
Force subdivision having a specific portion of the Air Force mission. Each
MAJCOM is directly subordinate to HQ USAF. MAJCOMs are interrelated and
complementary, providing offensive, defensive, and support elements. An
operational command consists (in whole or in part) of strategic, tactical,
space, or defense forces; or of flying forces that directly support such forces.
A support command may provide supplies, weapon systems, support systems,
operational support equipment, combat material, maintenance, surface
transportation, education and training, or special services and other supported
organizations. The USAF is organized into nine MAJCOMS (7 Functional and 2
Geographic) and the Air National Guard reporting to Headquarters, United States
Air Force (HQ USAF).
An operational wing is one that has an operations group and related operational
mission activity assigned to it. When an operational wing performs the primary
mission of the base, it usually maintains and operates the base. In addition, an
operational wing is capable of self-support in functional areas like
maintenance, supply, and munitions, as needed. When an operational wing is a
tenant organization, the host command provides it with varying degrees of base
and logistics support.
Air Base Wing
Some bases which do not have operational wings or are too large or diverse for
one wing will have an Air Base Wing (ABW). The ABW performs a support function
rather than an operational mission. It maintains and operates a base. An air
base wing often provides functional support to a MAJCOM headquarters.
Wings are composed of several groups with different functional responsibilities.
Groups are composed of several squadrons, each of which has one major
responsibility or flying one type of aircraft. Squadrons are composed of two or
Symbol of the USAF
The above organizational structure is responsible for the peacetime
Organization, Equipping, and Training of aerospace units for operational
missions. When required to support operational missions, the National Command
Authority directs a Change in Operational Control (CHOP) of these units from
their peacetime alignment to a Combatant Commander (COCOM).
Aerospace Expeditionary Task Force (ASETF)
CHOPPED units are referred to as "forces". The top-level structure of these
forces is the Aerospace Expeditionary Task Force (ASETF). The ASETF is the Air
Force presentation of forces to a COCOM for the employment of Air Power. Each
COCOM is supported by a standing Warfighting Headquarters (WFHQ) to provide
planning and execution of aerospace forces in support of COCOM requirements.
Each WFHQ consists of a Commander, Air Force Forces (CCMAFFOR), and AFFOR staff,
and an Air Operations Center (AOC). As needed to support multiple Joint Force
Commanders (JFC) in the COCOM's Area of Responsibility (AOR), the WFHQ may
deploy Air Component Coordinate Elements (ACCE) to liaise with the JFC.
Commander, Air Force Forces (COMAFFOR)
The COMAFFOR is the senior Air Force officer responsible for the employment of
Air Power is support of JFC objectives. The COMAFFOR has a special staff and an
A-Staff to ensure assigned or attached forces are properly organized, equipped,
and trained to support the operational mission.
Air Operations Center (AOC)
The AOC is the COMAFFOR's Command and Control (Cē) center. This center is
responsible for planning and executing air power missions in support of JFC
Air Expeditionary Wings/Groups/Squadrons
The ASETF generates air power to support COCOM objectives from Air Expeditionary
Wings (AEW) or Air Expeditionary Groups (AEG). These units are responsible for
receiving combat forces from Air Force MAJCOMs, preparing these forces for
operational missions, launching and recovering these forces, and eventually
returning forces to the MAJCOMs. Theater Air Control Systems control employment
of forces during these missions.
Air Force Core Values
Service Before Self.
Excellence In All We Do.
Main article: List of military aircraft of the United States
The United States Air Force has roughly over 7,500 Aircraft commissioned as of
2004. It currently employs a designation and naming system to identify all
aircraft type with distinct names. Until 1962, both the Army and Air Force
maintained one system, while the U.S. Navy maintained a separate system. In
1962, these were unified into a single system heavily reflecting the Army/Air
Force method. For more complete information on the workings of this system,
refer to United States Department of Defense Aerospace Vehicle Designations.
The current U.S. Air Force Service Dress Uniform, adopted in 1993 and
standardized in 1995, consists of a three-button, pocketless coat, similar to
that of a men's "sport jacket" (with silver "U.S." pins on the lapels), matching
trousers, and either a service cap or garrison cap, all in "Air Force Blue."
This is worn with a light blue shirt and necktie in the same color as the coat
and trousers. Enlisted members wear sleeve insignia on both the jacket and
shirt, while officers wear metal rank insignia pinned onto the coat, and Air
Force Blue slide-on loops on the shirt. Air Force personnel assigned to honor
guard duties wear, for dress occasions, a modified version of the standard
service dress uniform, but with silver trim on the sleeves and trousers, with
the addition of medals, sword belt, and a silver shoulder cord.
The current Service Dress is a modification of the original version envisioned
by Merrill McPeak, which featured no epaulets for any rank, and silver
Navy/Coast Guard-style braid loops on the lower arms denoting officer rank. The
insignia was immensely unpopular and many senior Air Force Generals commented
that the uniforms of the Air Force now looked identical to those of airline
pilots. The insignia was abolished in 1999 and remains the shortest issued
military insignia series in the history of the United States armed forces.
Epaulets were put back on the coat for metal officer rank. Several additional
changes were made to make the jacket seem more military in appearance.
Prior to 1993, all Air Force personnel wore Air Force Blue uniforms nearly
identical in appearance to that of the U.S. Army.
For combat and work duty, ground crews wear the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU),
which will be phased out in favor of the Airman Battle Uniform; a design
based off of the MARPAT uniform worn by U.S. Marines. Pilots and air crews wear
olive green or desert tan one-piece flight suits made of Nomex for fire
Women's service dress uniforms are similar in color and style to the men's
service dress uniforms, but can also include additional articles including a
skirt, stockings, and women's style garrison cap.
Currently, women wear the same utility uniforms as men; either the BDU or the
flight suit, both of which come in unisex sizes.
When serving in a desert climate (e.g. the Persian Gulf region), Air Force
personnel wear tan colored uniforms rather than the customary green. These
uniforms consist of the Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU), and the tan nomex
flight suit for aircrew members.
The Air Force has recently designed a new PT uniform that will become mandatory
for wear in October of 2006. The uniform consists of shorts, t-shirt, jacket and
pants. The shorts are AF blue with silver reflective stripes on the leg, a key
pocket attached to the inner liner and an ID pocket on the outside of the lower
right leg. The t-shirt is a moisture wicking fabric with reflective Air Force
logos on the upper left portion of the chest and across the back. The jacket is
blue with silver reflective piping and a reflective chevron on the back. The
pants are blue with silver piping and reflective stripes.