United States Air Force

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The United States Air Force (USAF) is one of the seven Uniformed services of the United States whose primary mission focus is on air superiority. Previously part of the United States Army, the USAF was formed as a separate branch of the military on September 18, 1947.[1]

The USAF is the largest and most technologically advanced air force in the world, with about 6013 manned aircraft in service (4,282 USAF; 1,321 Air National Guard; and 410 Air Force Reserve); approximately 160 unmanned aerial vehicles, 2161 Air-Launched Cruise Missiles, and 580 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM);[2] and as of 2006, had 334,200 personnel on active duty, 120,369 in the Selected and Individual Ready Reserves, and 107,000 in the Air National Guard. An additional 10,675 personnel were in the Standby Reserve, and the Air Force employed 168,558 civilian personnel.[2]


The USAF is currently undergoing a massive Reduction-in-Force (RIF). Because of budget constraints, the USAF will reduce the service's current size by 40,000 full time equivalent positions by 2011, with approximately half eliminated in FY 2007.

All the services operate aircraft and helicopters.

Senior leadership

The Department of the Air Force is headed by the civilian Secretary of the Air Force who heads administrative affairs. The Department of the Air Force is a division of the United States Department of Defense which is headed by the United States Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who continued from the George W. Bush Administration. The highest ranking military officer in the department is the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF), General Norton A. Schwartz; he is the first CSAF to come from the transport, rather than fighter or bomber, cultures of the Air Force.

In June 2008, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ousted the Air Force's civilian and military chiefs, Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and the chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley. It was an unprecedented move that came after a Pentagon investigation found "a chain of failures" in the Air Force's safeguarding of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Gates' decision followed a series of scandals that included a bomber wing inadvertently flying nuclear warheads over the continental United States, the mistaken and long-unnoticed transfer of secret nuclear-related materials to Taiwan, and a corrupt $50 million contract for a Thunderbirds air show that went to a company owned by a retired four-star general and a civilian friend of senior Air Force leaders.[3]


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".[4]

Search and rescue

The National Search and Rescue Plan designates the United States Coast Guard as the federal agency responsible for maritime search-and-rescue (SAR) operations, and the United States Air Force as the federal agency responsible for inland SAR. Both agencies maintain Rescue Coordination Centers to coordinate this effort.[2]


For more information, see: U.S. Air Force, history.

The United States Air Force became a separate military service on September 18, 1947, with the implementation of the National Security Act of 1947.[5] The Act created the United States Department of Defense, which was composed of three branches, the Army, Navy and a newly-created Air Force.[6] 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 created the first antecedent of the Air Force in 1907, which through a succession of changes of organization, titles, and missions advanced toward eventual separation 40 years later. The predecessor organizations of today's U.S. Air Force are:


The Air Force has been involved in many wars, conflicts, and operations since its conception; these include:

Humanitarian operations

The U.S. Air Force has taken part in numerous humanitarian operations. Some of the more major ones include the following:[8]

Administrative organization

The Air Force is one of three service departments (i.e., Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, Department of the Air Force), and is managed by the (civilian) Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF) and the Secretary's staff and advisors. The military leadership is the Air Staff, lead by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF).

USAF direct subordinate commands and units are the Field Operating Agency (FOA), Direct Reporting Unit (DRU), and the currently unused Separate Operating Agency.

The Major Command (MAJCOM) is the superior hierarchical level of command:

The Numbered Air Force (NAF) or equivalent (e.g., USAFE) is a level of command directly under the MAJCOM. Most NAF report, for training and readiness, to a MAJCOM, but may be "dual-hatted" as the air component commander for a Unified Combatant Command:

First Air Force Air Combat Command United States Northern Command
Third Air Force U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) United States European Command
Fifth Air Force Pacific Air Forces United States Pacific Command
Seventh Air Force Pacific Air Forces United States Pacific Command
Eighth Air Force Air Combat Command United States Strategic Command
Ninth Air Force Air Combat Command United States Central Command
Tenth Air Force Air Force Reserve Command United States Pacific Command
Eleventh Air Force Pacific Air Forces United States Pacific Command
Twelfth Air Force Air Combat Command United States Strategic Command
Thirteenth Air Force Pacific Air Forces United States Pacific Command
Fourteenth Air Force Air Force Space Command United States Strategic Command for nuclear operations or any regional Unified Combatant Command
Seventeenth Air Force (headquarters only) U.S. Air Forces in Europe United States Africa Command
Eighteenth Air Force Air Mobility Command United States Transportation Command
Twentieth Air Force Air Combat Command United States Strategic Command
Twenty-third Air Force 23 AF became Air Force Special Operations Command United States Special Operations Command

Wings report to NAF, Groups report to Wings, and Squadrons report to Groups.

Operational organization

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 geographic or functional Unified Combatant Command (CCDR). In the case of AFSPC, AFSOC, PACAF, and USAFE units, forces are normally employed in-place under their existing CCDR. Likewise, AMC forces operating in support roles retain their componency to USTRANSCOM unless chopped to a Regional CCDR.

See air warfare planning for a general view of air warfare doctrine and missions.

There are some special designators for individual aircraft. Air Force One, for example, is not any specific physical aircraft, but the call sign for an aircraft carrying the President of the United States of America. In like manner, Air Force Two is any aircraft carrying the Vice President, while Marine One is a Marine aircraft carrying the president, as, for example, the helicopter that flies from the White House to the long-range transport base at nearby Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Aerospace Expeditionary Task Force

CHOPPED units are referred to as "forces". The top-level structure of these forces is the Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force (AETF). The AETF is the Air Force presentation of forces to a CCDR for the employment of Air Power. Each CCDR is supported by a standing Component Numbered Air Force (C-NAF) to provide planning and execution of aerospace forces in support of CCDR requirements. Each C-NAF consists of a Commander, Air Force Forces (COMAFFOR) and AFFOR/A-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 C-NAF may deploy Air Component Coordinate Elements (ACCE) to liaise with the JFC. If the Air Force possesses the most strategic air assets in a JFC's area of operations, the COMAFFOR will also serve as the Joint Forces Air Component Commander (JFACC).

Commander, Air Force Forces

The Commander, Air Force Forces (COMAFFOR) is the senior Air Force officer responsible for the employment of Air Power in 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

The Air Operations Center (AOC) is the JFACC's Command and Control (C²) center. This center is responsible for planning and executing air power missions in support of JFC objectives.

Air Expeditionary Wings/Groups/Squadrons

The AETF 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.


The vast majority of Air Force members remain on the ground. There are hundreds of support positions which are necessary to the success of a mission.

The classification of an Air Force job is the Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC). They range from flight combat operations such as a gunner, to working in a dining facility to ensure that members are properly fed. There are many different jobs in fields such as computer specialties, mechanic specialties, enlisted aircrew, medical specialties, civil engineering, public affairs, hospitality, law, drug counseling, mail operations, security forces, and search and rescue specialties.

Perhaps the most dangerous Air Force jobs are Pararescue, Combat Control, Combat Weather and Tactical Air Control Party, who deploy with infantry and special operations units who rescue downed or isolated personnel, call in air strikes and set up landing zones in forward locations. Most of these are enlisted positions.

Nearly all enlisted jobs are "entry level," meaning that the Air Force provides all training. Some enlistees are able to choose a particular job, or at least a field before actually joining, while others are assigned an AFSC at Basic Training. After Basic Military Training, new Air Force members attend a technical training school where they learn their particular AFSC. Second Air Force, a part of Air Education and Training Command is responsible for nearly all technical training.

Training programs vary in length; for example, 3M0X1 (Services) has 31 days of tech school training, while 1C2X1 (Combat Control) is 35 weeks long with 10 separate courses. 1N3X4 (Cryptologic Linguist) and 1A8X1 (Airborne Linguist) requires a language course ranging from 23 to 63 weeks, and a 4 to 5 month course. Some AFSC's have even longer training.

Aircraft and systems

Boeing B-52 strategic bomber taking off

The United States Air Force has over 7,500 aircraft commissioned as of 2004. Until 1962, the Army and Air Force maintained one system of aircraft naming, 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.

Historic aircraft

Current aircraft of the USAF:

Unmanned aerial vehicles

Land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles

Space launch vehicles

Major operational weapons



For more information, see: United States Air Force uniform.

United States Air Force personnel wear uniforms which are distinct from those of the other branches of the United States Armed Forces. The current uniform is an olive drab/black/brown and tan combination called the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU). Members deployed to an AOR wear a variation of the BDU, tan/brown and black in color, called the Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU). A new uniform called the Airman Battle Uniform (ABU) is currently being distributed some bases, and in a memo from HQ AFPC at Randolph AFB dated September 2007, will be distributed to basic trainees in their clothing issue starting October 2007. The ABU is already authorized for wear, and is scheduled to completely replace the BDU and DCU by November 2011.

Grade Structure and Insignias

The standard USAF uniform is also decorated with an insignia to designate rank. USAF rank is divided between enlisted airmen, and commissioned officers, and ranges from "Airman Basic" to the commissioned rank of General. Promotions are granted based on a combination of test scores, years of experience, and selection board approval. Promotions among enlisted men and non-commissioned officers rankings are generally designated by increasing numbers of insignia chevrons. Commissioned officer rank is designated by bars, oak leaves, a silver eagle, and anywhere from one to five (only in war-time) stars.

For cadet rank at the U.S. Air Force Academy, see United States Air Force Academy Cadet Insignia.


  1. 80 P.L. 235, 61 Stat. 495 (1947); Air Force Link, (2006)Factsheets: The U.S. Air Force. Retrieved April 7, 2006.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2007 USAF Almanac: USAF Personnel Strength. AIR FORCE Magazine. Retrieved on 4 May, 2007.
  3. Ann Scott Tyson and Josh White, "Top Two Air Force Officials Ousted; Failures in Oversight Of Nuclear Arms Cited," Washington Post June 6, 2008
  4. Air Force Link, (2005). Air Force releases new mission statement. Retrieved December 8, 2005.
  5. U.S. Intelligence Community (October 2004). National Security Act of 1947. Retrieved April 14, 2006.
  6. U.S. Department of State(2006). National Security Act of 1947. Retrieved April 14, 2006.
  7. Air Force Pamphlet 36-2241 (1 July 2007). [1].
  8. The primary source for the humanitarian operations of the USAF is the United States Air Force Supervisory Examination Study Guide (2005)