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Third Air Force is a numbered air force (NAF) of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE). It is headquartered at Ramstein Air Basemarker, Germanymarker. It is USAFE's component numbered air force for United States European Command.


Third Air Force is one of two numbered air forces in USAFE and responsible for all United States Air Force operations and support activities north of the Alps. As an integral part of America's commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organizationmarker (NATO), Third Air Force's area of responsibility includes missions and personnel in the United Kingdommarker, Germanymarker, the Netherlandsmarker, Norwaymarker, Belgiummarker, Denmarkmarker, Luxembourgmarker and portions of Francemarker.

The command also serves as Headquarters European Command's "single point of contact" for representing U.S. forces in negotiations with the British government, Third Air Force oversees host nation support agreements for all American military forces based in the United Kingdom through the command's 3 AF-UK headquarters at RAF Mildenhallmarker.

Through the Partnership for Peace program, Third Air Force manages military contact and assistance programs for a number of countries in Eastern Europe. Third Air Force is also responsible for contingency planning and support of American security interests in Africa.

It is composed of more than 25,000 military people, and more than 35,000 family members. Third Air Force is assigned more than 200 aircraft, while tasked to provide support servicing to thousands of other transient aircraft that visit its bases each year.


Major operational units under Third Air Force are:

In addition, there are numerous minor units assigned to Third Air Force by HQ USAFE.

  • 603d Air and Space Operations Center
  • 603d Air And Space Communications Squadron
  • 603d Support Group
  • 21st Operational Weather Squadron
  • 4th Air Support Operations Group


Third Air Force was one of the original numbered air forces of the United States Army Air Forces. It was activated at MacDill Fieldmarker, Floridamarker, on December 18, 1940. During World War II, it provided air defense and conducted combat training for personnel of newly-formed units in the United Statesmarker. After the war it served the newly-established Tactical Air Command, then was inactivated on November 1, 1946. It was returned to active service on May 1, 1951, at South Ruislipmarker Air Station, England, as one of the tactical air forces in Europe. It served continuously until again being inactivated on November 1, 2005. The command was reactivated on December 1, 2006.


  • Established as Southeast Air District on October 19, 1940
Activated on December 18, 1940
Redesignated: 3 Air Force on March 26, 1941
Redesignated: Third Air Force on September 18, 1942
Inactivated on November 1, 1946
  • Activated and organized on May 1, 1951
Inactivated on November 1, 2005
  • Redesignated Third Air Force (Air Forces Europe) on November 29, 2006
Activated on December 1, 2006.


  • General Headquarters Air Force
(later, Air Force Combat Command), December 18, 1940
  • Eastern Theater of Operations, December 24, 1941
  • Air Force Combat Command
(later, United States Army Air Forces), January 5, 1942


(later, U.S. Air Base, South Ruislip; South Ruislip Air Station), Englandmarker, May 1, 1951
Ramstein ABmarker, Germanymarker, December 1, 2006 – .

Major Components

  • 1 Ground Air Support
(later, I Air Support; I Tactical Air Division; III Tactical Air Division; III Reconnaissance)
August 12, 1942 – March 21, 1946
II Air Support (later, II Tactical Air Division): January 25, 1943 – October 25, 1945.
3 Air Force Service (later, 3 Air Force Base): October 1, 1941 – May 19, 1942
3 Air Support: September 1, 1941 – March 16, 1942
3 Bomber (later, III Bomber): September 5, 1941 – March 21, 1946
3 Interceptor (later, III Interceptor; III Fighter): June 17, 1941 – March 21, 1946
III Ground Air Support (later, III Air Support; III Reconnaissance; III Tactical Air)
May 27, 1942 – October 24, 1945.

  • 49 Air: June 5, 1952 – July 1, 1956.

Operational History

Third Air Force region of the United States, World War II

World War II

Headquartered at MacDill Army Airfieldmarker, Floridamarker during World War II, Third Air Force initially provided air defense for the southeastern United States (1940–1941) and flew antisubmarine patrols along coastal areas of the Atlantic Oceanmarker and Gulf of Mexicomarker from after Pearl Harbor until October 1942. In addition, the command performed training through Army Air Forces Training Command of units, crews, and individuals for bombardment, fighter, and reconnaissance operations.

After October 1942, the antisubmarine patrols were turned over to the Coast Guard and other agencies and the command was engaged primarily in training replacements for combat units.

In 1944, the majority of the Numbered Air Forces of the USAAF were fighting in various parts of the world, such as the Eighth Air Force in Europe and the Twentieth Air Force in the Pacific. They were supported by four numbered air forces located within the United Statesmarker (known as the Zone of the Interior, or "ZI".) On December 13, 1944, First, Second, Third and Fourth Air Force were all were placed under the unified command of the Continental Air Forces, the predecessor of the later established Strategic Air Command, Tactical Air Command, and Air Defense Command, which were all established in 1946.

Postwar Era

When the Army Air Forces reorganized in 1946, Tactical Air Command (TAC) was established as one of its three major commands. The USAAF Troop Carrier Command (TCC) was inactivated as part of this reorganization and Third Air Force was reassigned to TAC to control the troop carrier units formerly part of TCC. It was headquartered at Greenville AAFmarker, South Carolinamarker. The C-46 Commando and C-47 Skytrain were the primary troop carrier aircraft, but surplus C-54 Skymasters that had been originally purchased for the Air Transport Command (ATC) were made available for troop carrier use.

Third Air Force was inactivated on November 1, 1946 and TAC's troop carrier mission was reassigned to Ninth Air Force with its return from Europe and reassignment to Donaldson.

Cold War

With Allied victory in Europe and the end of World War II came the demobilization and withdrawal of all U.S. Air Force units from the United Kingdom. By the end of 1945, both wartime air forces in the UK, the Eighth and Ninth were withdrawn. Their absence, however, was short lived.

3d Air Division
In August 1948, in response to the Berlin blockade, the U.S. deployed long-range B-29 Superfortress strategic bombers to four East Anglian bases. The USAFE 3d Air Division was activated to receive, support and operationally control the B-29 units deployed in England for training. It also provided aircraft maintenance support at RAF Burtonwoodmarker for C-54 Skymaster aircraft used in the Berlin Airlift. When the Berlin Airlift ended in 1949, the division participated in the Military Assistance Program in England and began an extensive air base construction program through May 1951

Briefly elevated to the Major Command level from January 3, 1949 – January 21, 1951, the 3d Air Division controlled large numbers of USAF organizations based in the United Kingdom and supervised a tremendous airfield construction program.

However With the advent of the Korean War and the growing Cold War threat of the Soviet Unionmarker, the U.S. and UK agreed to an even greater U.S. military presence in the United Kingdom. The resulting growing size and complexity of the American military presence required a larger command and organizational structure that could meet the needs of the increased operations.

Reactivation of Third Air Force
North American F-100D Super Sabres, Serial numbers 55-2805 and 56-3204 of the 79th Tactical Fighter Squadron, RAF Woodbridge
McDonnell F-4D-28-MC Phantom Serial 65-0738 at RAF Bentwaters, September 1972.
Northrop F-5E Tiger II Serials 73-0953, 0956 and 0985 of the 527th TFTAS in formation at RAF Alconbury, 1977
A-10A Serial 81-0991 at RAF Bentwaters.
F-15C Serial 80-082, 53d Fighter Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base

In early 1951 two USAF organizations were activated in England. One to conduct strategic operations, and one to conduct tactical, logistics and support programs.

The 3d Air Division was discontinued on May 1, 1951, and in its place the USAFE Third Air Force was activated to oversee tactical air operations. The Strategic Air Command 7th Air Division controlled deployed bombardment and reconnaissance forces with Third Air Force providing its logistical support. From its headquarters at South Ruislip Air Station near London, Third Air Force carried out that mission basically unchanged through 1966, when the 7th Air Division was inactivated.

Tactical Air Operations
The first tactical unit to come to England under Third Air Force was the 81st Fighter Bomber Wing based at RAF Bentwatersmarker on September 6, 1951. The next assigned unit was the 20th Fighter Bomber Wing, assigned to RAF Wethersfieldmarker. These Republic F-84 Thunderjet/Thunderchief and North American F-86 Sabre units worked with Royal Air Force Fighter Command providing air defense for Englandmarker. In addition, the attached Tactical Air Command 47th Bombardment Wing flew B-45 Tornado and B-66 Destroyer tactical bombers from RAF Sculthorpemarker and RAF Alconburymarker.

Initially the 49th Air Division functioned as the intermediate-level command authority for USAFE's wings in the UK, no operational combat groups were attached. The division supervised and participated in numerous training missions such as Quick Shot, Kingpin, and Bear Claw. it was inactivated on July 1, 1956

During the 1960s, Third Air Force has four to five combat wings and major changes occurred in the types of aircraft deployed in the United Kingdom. North American F-100 Super Sabres, McDonnell F-101 Voodoos, and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs replaced older fighter aircraft. Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers replaced older refueling aircraft.

In June 1972, daily operational control of tactical units in the United Kingdom was transferred to Headquarters USAFE at Wiesbaden Air Basemarker, West Germanymarker. Third Air Force still retained command of the units, but as a result of the change, the headquarters was reorganized, reduced in personnel strength, and moved to RAF Mildenhallmarker, United Kingdom.

In 1979, NATO ministers decided to deploy BGM-109G Gryphon Ground Launched Cruise and Pershing II IRBM missiles to counter the growing Soviet SS-20 intermediate range ballistic missile threat. RAF Greenham Commonmarker and RAF Molesworthmarker were selected as the beddown sites for the GLCM. The 501st Tactical Missile Wing (TMW) was activated at RAF Greenham Common in July 1982 and the 303d Tactical Missile Wing at RAF Molesworth in December 1986. In June 1987, Headquarters USAFE delegated tactical control of Third Air Force units to the Third Air Force commander.

On April 15, 1986, General Dynamics F-111 aircraft based at RAF Lakenheathmarker and RAF Upper Heyfordmarker were launched against suspected terrorist targets in Libya, as part of Operation Eldorado Canyon.

With the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in December 1987, GLCMs deployed to RAF Molesworth were removed to the U.S. and the 303rd TMW inactivated January 30, 1989. The last GLCMs at RAF Greenham Common were removed in March 1991, and the 501st TMW inactivated June 4, 1991.

When Iraqmarker invaded Kuwaitmarker in August 1990, Third Air Force, like many other U.S. military units, received their trial by fire. However, for Third Air Force, the scenario was not similar to any which had been practiced in the past. Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were not classic East-West confrontations in Europe that Third Air Force had been trained for. Thousands of miles removed from the Kuwait theater of operations, Third Air Force played a major support role, deploying half its combat aircraft, several thousand vehicles, approximately 50,000 tons of munitions, and many more tons of supplies and material. Third Air Force also provided 2,250 hospital beds by activating three of its contingency hospitals and was ready in the event of a large number of casualties were received.

Post Cold War

The end of the Cold War with the former Soviet Unionmarker left in its wake many new military challenges, tensions and emerging conflicts. It also drew attention to the need for American military forces to operate in ways and locations outside the traditional NATO construct. The shift in East-West relations and the increasing focus toward Eastern Europe, the southern region and the Middle East led to a changing of the focus of Third Air Force as well.

Recognizing that the threat to NATOmarker was significantly reduced with the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Congress mandated large reductions in the American military budget and American military troop strength based in Europe. From a Cold War high of 450,000 in the late 1980s, American troop strength in Europe was reduced to 100,000 by the mid-1990s.

During the 1990s the USAF restructured itself to meet the emerging needs of the new world order. Several Third Air Force units returned to the U.S., and several more were inactivated. Third Air Force returned many of its bases to the British Ministry of Defence, and scaled down operations at other places.

In March 1996, Headquarters USAFE announced a major reorganization of its numbered air forces. The announcement included news of the inactivation of Seventeenth Air Force at Sembach Air Basemarker Germanymarker, transferring its responsibility for overseeing all U.S. Air Force units north of the Alps to Third Air Force. As a result of the changes, Third Air Force grew substantially, taking on two main operating bases, Ramstein Air Basemarker and Spangdahlem Air Basemarker, both in Germany, and five geographically separated units.

With this 1996 reorganization, Third Air Force was composed of more than 25,000 military people, and more than 35,000 family members. In terms of numbers of aircraft, Third Air Force had more than 200, including KC-135 and F-15 aircraft at bases in England, and A-10, F-16, C-9, C-20, C-21 and C-130E aircraft in Germany.

In addition to a larger area of responsibility, the command reorganization also brought about a subtle change in the mission of the Third Air Force headquarters element. Third Air Force was tasked to take a more active role in the leadership of operational contingencies, and provide trained staff to lead or augment joint and combined task force headquarters elements.

In 2005, USAFE once again realigned its numbered air forces. Sixteenth Air Force was aligned as the command's new Warfighting Headquarters. Third Air Force was inactivated on November 1, ending the unit's prestigious 50-plus year legacy in the UK.

Current Status

Just over a year after inactivation, Third Air Force was reactivated on December 1, 2006, at Ramstein ABmarker, Germanymarker, as USAFE's Air and Space Operations supporting U.S. European Command. Its new mission was to support the EUCOM commander's strategic objectives across the full range of military operations. When a joint task force is created in EUCOM, the Third Air Force commander is ready to assume the roles of Joint Forces Air Component Commander and Commander Air Forces, or lead the JTF as a Joint Force Commander.

See also


  • Much of this text in an early version of this article was taken from pages on the Third Air Force website, which as a work of the U.S. Government is presumed to be a public domain resource.
  • Fletcher, Harry R. (1989) Air Force Bases Volume II, Active Air Force Bases outside the United States of America on 17 September 1982. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0912799536
  • Lloyd, Alwyn T. (2000) A Cold War Legacy, A Tribute to Strategic Air Command, 1946–1992, Pictorial Histories Pub ISBN 1575100525
  • Ravenstein, Charles A. (1984). Air Force Combat Wings Lineage and Honors Histories 1947–1977. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0912799129.
  • Steijger, Cees (1991), A History of USAFE, Airlife Publishing Limited, ISBN 1-85310-075-7
  • [54479] USAAS-USAAC-USAAF-USAF Aircraft Serial Numbers--1908 to Present
  • US Air Force news story on Third Air Force reactivation

External links

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