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Encyclopedia > U.S. Air Force
Seal of the Air Force.

The United States Air Force (USAF) is the aviation branch of the United States armed forces. The mission of the USAF is "to defend the United States and protect its interests through air and space power". It was created as a separate branch on September 18, 1947.



The Department of the Air Force consists of the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF), the Air Staff, and field units.

United States armed forces


The Office 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.

Air Staff

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 2004 the Chief of Staff of the Air Force was General (Gen) John P. Jumper.

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 R. Murray.

Field Units

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 materiel, maintenance, surface transportation, education and training, or special services and other supported organizations. The USAF is organized into nine MAJCOMS, reporting to Headquarters, United States Air Force (HQ USAF):

Major Command and Commanders Location of Headquarters
Air Combat Command (ACC) Langley Air Force Base, Virginia
Air Education & Training Command (AETC) Randolph Air Force Base, Texas
Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio
Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) Robins Air Force Base, Georgia
Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado
Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) Hurlburt Field, Florida
Air Mobility Command (AMC) Scott Air Force Base, Illinois
U.S. Air Forces Europe (USAFE) Ramstein Air Base, Germany
U.S. Air Forces Pacific (PACAF) Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii

Numbered Air Forces (NAF)

The NAF is a level of command directly under a MAJCOM. NAFs are tactical echelons that provide operational leadership and supervision. They are not management headquarters and do not have complete functional staffs. Many NAFs are responsible for MAJCOM operations in a specific geographic region or theater of operations. A NAF is assigned subordinate units, such as wings, groups, and squadrons.

Air Force Location of Headquarters Major Command and Commander
First Air Force Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida ACC
Second Air Force Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi AETC
Third Air Force RAF Mildenhall, England USAFE
Fourth Air Force Robins Air Force Base, Georgia AMC AFRC
Fifth Air Force Yokota Air Base, Japan PACAF
Seventh Air Force Osan Air Base, Korea PACAF
Eighth Air Force Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana ACC
Ninth Air Force Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina ACC
Tenth Air Force Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, Fort Worth, Texas ACC AFRC
Eleventh Air Force Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska PACAF
Twelfth Air Force Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona ACC
Thirteenth Air Force Andersen Air Force Base, Guam PACAF
Fourteenth Air Force Vandenberg Air Force Base, California AFSPC
Sixteenth Air Force Aviano Air Base, Italy USAFE
Eighteenth Air Force Scott Air Force Base, Illinois AMC
Nineteenth Air Force Randolph Air Force Base, Texas AETC
Twentieth Air Force F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming AFSPC
Twenty-Second Air Force Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia AMC AFRC

The 15th and 21st Air Forces were formerly Numbered Air Forces, but have since been realigned as Expeditionary Mobility Task Forces (EMTF) under the 18th Air Force. The 15th EMTF is at Travis AFB, California while the 21st EMTF is located at McGuire AFB, New Jersey.

Air Forces were at one time composed of two or more air divisions, but this organization has become obsolete and unused. Air divisions were composed of two or more wings.


The wing is a level of command below the NAF. A wing has approximately 1,000 to 5,000 personnel and a distinct mission with significant scope. It is responsible for maintaining the installation and may have several squadrons in more than one dependent group. A wing may be an operational wing, an air base wing, or a specialized mission wing.

Operational Wing

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 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.

Wing Location MAJCOM Aircraft
2nd Bomb Wing (BW) Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana ACC B-52H
5th Bomb Wing Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota ACC B-52H
91st Space Wing Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota Minuteman III
15th Air Base Wing Hickham Air Force Base, Hawaii PACAF
18th Wing Kadena Air Base, Japan PACAF F-15C
1st Fighter Wing Langley Air Force Base, Virginia ACC F-15C
21st Space Wing Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado AFSPC satellites
28th Bomb Wing Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota ACC B-1B Lancer
30th Space Wing Vandenberg Air Force Base, California AFSPC  
305th Air Mobility Wing McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey AMC KC-10 Extender C-17 Globemaster III
319th Air Refueling Wing Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota AMC KC-135
34th Training Wing US Air Force Academy, Colorado Officer Training
347th Rescue Wing Moody Air Force Base, Georgia ACC HH-60 Pave Hawk
355th Wing Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona ACC HH-60 Pave Hawk
C-130 Hercules KC-130 A-10
36th Wing Anderson Air Force Base, Guam PACAF
375th Airlift Wing Scott Air Force Base, Illinois AMC
376th Air Expeditionary Wing Bagram AB, Afghanistan ACC
39th Wing Incirlik AB, Turkey ACC
42nd Air Base Wing Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama AETC C-130 Hercules
412th Test Wing Edwards Air Force Base, California
436th Airlift Wing Dover Air Force Base, Delaware AMC C-5 Galaxy
49th Fighter Wing Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico ACC F-117
50th Space Wing Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado AFSPC satellites
509th Bomb Wing Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri STRATCOM B-2
552d Air Control Wing Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma AWACS
57th Wing Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada ACC
6th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) MacDill Air Force Base, Florida AMC KC-135
60th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) Travis Air Force Base, California AMC C-5B KC-10 Extender
62nd Airlift Wing (AW) McChord Air Force Base, Washington AMC C-17 Globemaster III
66th Air Base Wing Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts
72nd Air Base Wing Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma
90th Space Wing F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming AFSPC Minuteman III ICBM
939th Rescue Wing Portland, Oregon HH-60 Pave Hawk
99th Air Base Wing Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada ACC
314th Airlift Wing Little Rock Air Force Base. Arkansas AETC C-130 Hercules

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 more flights.

Other Air Force organizations

Wing Location Major Command
and Commander
Air Force Institute of Technology Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio
Air Force Civil Engineer Support Agency Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida
Air Warfare Center Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada ACC
Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma AFMC
Air Mobility Warfare Center Fort Dix, New Jersey

Brief history

For a detailed history, see United States Air Force--History.

United States Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker, two F-15 Eagles (twin fins) and two F-16 Fighting Falcons, on a refueling training mission.

In December 1906, the U.S. military began its relationship with aviation by authorizing Army Specification #486, which called for the creation of an aircraft for military usage. Just three years earlier, the Wright Brothers first experienced heavier-than-air flight, and they signed a contract with the Army on February 10, 1908.

In 1912, an Aviation Section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps was created.

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 Patrick Mason commanded the AEF air forces; his deputy was Major General 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 Luke.

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 sea.

In 1941, the Army Air Corps became the U.S. Army Air Force and the GHQ Air Force was redesignated the Air Force Combat Command. In the major military reorganization effective March 9, 1942, the newly designated Army Air Forces gained equal voice with the Army and Navy.

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 flying bombers together, relying on the defensive firepower of a close formation. The tactic was only successful in part. American flyers 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, the USAAF used the B-29 Superfortress to launch attacks on the Japanese mainland from China. One of the major logisitical 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. As soon as airbases on Saipan were captured in 1944, General Curtis LeMay changed 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.

USAF Roundel

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 Symington.

In 1948, Communist authorities in Eastern Germany cut off road and air transportation to West Berlin. Military Airlift Command supplied the city during the Berlin airlift, using C-121 Constellation and the C-54 Skymaster. The Royal Air Force also played a significant role in flying tonnage into the city with Avro Yorks, Avro Tudors and Douglas Dakotas.

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 Inchon 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 intervened 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.

In 1954, the United States Air Force Academy opened in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Women first graduated from the USAFA in 1976.

Symbol of the United States Air Force

The USAF played a significant role in the preparations for the 1991 Gulf War, and the use of USAF, U.S. Naval, and other Coalition air power damaged the Iraqi infrastructure and combat abilities for six weeks, before the ground phase of the war began.

After the war, the USAF took the lead role in maintaining "no-fly zones" over northern and southern Iraq until the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

USAF air power was also used in the 1996 NATO air operations over Bosnia, and the subsequent 1999 war with Yugoslavia over Kosovo.


The United States Air Force 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 US 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.

Link to List of military aircraft of the United States

Common badges

A full list of Air Force badges is displayed through the article Military badges of the United States

See also

External links

List of Aircraft | Aircraft Manufacturers | Aircraft Engines | Aircraft Engine Manufacturers

Airlines | Air Forces | Aircraft Weapons | Missiles | Timeline of aviation

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