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The United States Air Force (USAF) is the aerial warfare and space warfare branch of the U.S. armed forces and one of the American uniformed services. Initially part of the United States Army, the USAF was formed as a separate branch of the military on 18 September 1947 under the National Security Act of 1947. It is the most recent branch of the U.S. military to be formed.

The USAF provides the critical capabilities of Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power, with 5,573 manned aircraft in service (3,990 USAF; 1,213 Air National Guard; and 370 Air Force Reserve); approximately 180 unmanned combat air vehicles, 2,130 air-launched cruise missiles, and 446 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The USAF has 327,452 personnel on active duty, 115,299 in the Selected and Individual Ready Reserves, and 106,700 in the Air National Guard as of September 2008. In addition, the USAF employs 171,313 civilian personnel, and has 57,000 auxiliary members in the Civil Air Patrol.

The Department of the Air Force is headed by the civilian Secretary of the Air Force who oversees all administrative and policy affairs. The Department of the Air Force is a division of the Department of Defensemarker, headed by the Secretary of Defense. The highest ranking military officer in the Department of the Air Force is the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.


According to the National Security Act of 1947 (61 Stat. 502), which created the USAF:
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.

§8062 of Title 10 US Code defines the purpose of the USAF as:
  • to preserve the peace and security, and provide for the defense, of the United States, the Territories, Commonwealths, and possessions, and any areas occupied by the United States;
  • to support national policy;
  • to implement national objectives;
  • to overcome any nations responsible for aggressive acts that imperil the peace and security of the United States.

The stated mission of the USAF today is to "fly, fight, and win in air, space, and cyberspace".

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 USAF as responsible for aeronautical SAR in the continental U.S. with the exception of Alaska. Both agencies maintain Joint Rescue Coordination Centers to coordinate this effort. To help the USAF with the vast amount of search and rescue operations, the USAF tasks the Civil Air Patrol -- the official United States Air Force Auxilliary—in many inland search and rescue missions.

Air sovereignty

The USAF, through the Air National Guard, is the lead agency to maintain control of America's airspace.

On 30 July 2009, Lt. Gen. Harry Wyatt, director of the Air National Guard said that "Technologies needed for the mission include an active, electronically scanned array radar (which can be used to detect small and stealthy air threats including cruise missiles), infrared search and track systems and beyond-line-of-sight communications".

On 14 September 2009, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, chief of staff of the USAF, said that he hopes "to bring a combination of F-22, F-35, legacy aircraft, including upgraded F-15 and F-16 fighters, and unmanned aircraft to the [air sovereignty alert] ASA mission."

Even so, the USAF plans to retire up to 80% of their total force air sovereignty mission aircraft, which would leave no viable aircraft at 18 current air sovereignty sites after 2015. The GAO found that 17 of the 20 commanders of the ASA units "stated that the Air Force treats ASA operations as a temporary mission and has not provided sufficient resources."

Irregular warfare

In response to the conflicts in which the United States has been engaged since the end of the Cold War, on 1 August 2007, Air Force Doctrine Document 2-3 was released showing how air power could be used to support or defeat an insurgency.

In order to help support these missions the USAF is considering outfitting a counter-insurgency wing with small cheap ground support fighters that can also be used for training USAF and allied pilots in addition to counterinsurgency operations.


The USAF provides both strategic and tactical airlift in support of wartime, peacetime, and humanitarian efforts of the Department of Defense.

The GAO found that Air Force plans should cover strategic airlift, but that it may fall short in providing tactical airlift in support of the United States Army.


The Army created the first antecedent of the USAF in 1907, which through a succession of changes of organization, titles, and missions advanced toward eventual separation 40 years later. The USAF became a separate military service on 18 September 1947, with the implementation of the National Security Act of 1947. The Act created the United States Department of Defensemarker, which was composed of three subordinate departments, namely the Department of the Army, the Department of the Navy and a newly-created Department of the Air Force. Prior to 1947, the responsibility for military aviation was shared between the Army (for land-based operations), the Navy (for sea-based operations from aircraft carriers and amphibious aircraft), and the Marine Corps (for close air support of infantry operations).

Roundels that have appeared on US aircraft

5/17-2/18 2.
2/18-8/19 3.

5/42-6/43 5.
6/43-9/43 6.

The predecessor organizations of today's USAF are:

Recent history

In 2007, the USAF undertook a reduction-in-force. Because of budget constraints, the USAF planned to reduce the service's size from 360,000 active duty personnel to 316,000. The size of the active-duty force in 2007 was roughly 64% of that of the USAF at the end of the Gulf War in 1991. However, the reduction was ended at approximately 330,000 personnel in 2008 to meet mission requirements. These same constraints have seen a sharp reduction in flight hours for crew training since 2005.

On 5 June 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, accepted the resignations of both the Secretary of the Air Force, Michael W. Wynne, and the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, Gen. T. Michael Moseley. Gates in effect fired both men for "systemic issues associated with declining Air Force nuclear mission focus and performance". This followed an investigation into two embarrassing incidents involving mishandling of nuclear weapons, and were also the culmination of disputes between the Air Force leadership and Gates. To put more emphasis on nuclear assets, the USAF established the nuclear-focused Air Force Global Strike Command on 24 October 2008.

On 26 June 2009, the USAF released a force structure plan that cuts fighter aircraft and shifts resources to better support nuclear, irregular and information warfare. On 23 July 2009, The USAF released their Unmanned Aerial System Flight Plan, detailing UAV plans through 2047. One third of the planes that the USAF plans to buy in the future are to be unmanned.


The United States has been involved in many wars, conflicts, and operations using military air operations. Air combat operations before, and since the official conception of the USAF include:

Humanitarian operations

The USAF has also taken part in numerous humanitarian operations. Some of the more major ones include the following:


Administrative organization

The USAF is one of three service departmentsmarker, and is managed by the civilian Department of the Air Force. Guidance is provided by the Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF) and the Secretary's staff and advisors. The military leadership is the Air Staff, led by the Chief of Staff.

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. Including the Air Force Reserve Command, as of 30 September 2006, USAF has nine major commands. The Numbered Air Force (NAF) is a level of command directly under the MAJCOM, followed by Operational Command (now unused), Air Division (also now unused), Wing, Group, Squadron, and Flight.

Force structure (Major Commands)

Headquarters, United States Air Force, The Pentagonmarker, Arlingtonmarker, Virginiamarker
Several aircraft in a squadron at Hurlburt Field

The permanent establishment of the USAF, as of 30 September 2006, consisted of:
  • Active duty forces:
    • 57 flying wings, 8 space wings, and 55 non-flying wings
    • 9 flying groups, 8 non-flying groups
      • 134 flying squadrons, 43 space squadrons
  • Air Force Reserve
    • 35 flying wings, 1 space wing
    • 4 flying groups
      • 67 flying squadrons, 6 space squadrons
  • Air National Guard
    • 87 flying wings
      • 101 flying squadrons, 4 space squadrons
The USAF, including its air reserve components, field a total of 302 flying squadrons.

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 Regional Combatant Commander (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.

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 USAF 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 classification of any USAF 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, communication systems, avionics technicians, medical specialties, civil engineering, public affairs, hospitality, law, drug counseling, mail operations, security forces, and search and rescue specialties.

Perhaps the most dangerous USAF jobs are Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), Combat rescue officer, Pararescue, Security Forces, Combat Control, Combat Weather and Tactical Air Control Party, who deploy with infantry and special operations units who disarm bombs, rescue downed or isolated personnel, call in air strikes and set up landing zones in forward locations. Most of these are enlisted positions. Other jobs have seen increasing combat, including engineers, vehicle operators, and OSI.

Nearly all enlisted jobs are "entry level," meaning that the USAF 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 Military Training (BMT). After BMT, new airmen 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 3E8X1 (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) is one year of training with a preliminary school and a main school consisting of over 10 separate divisions, sometimes taking students close to two years to complete.

USAF rank is divided between enlisted airmen, non-commissioned officers, and commissioned officers, and ranges from the enlisted Airman Basic (E-1) to the commissioned rank of General (O-10). Enlisted promotions are granted based on a combination of test scores, years of experience, and selection board approval while officer promotions are based on time-in-grade and a promotion board. Promotions among enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers 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.

Commissioned officers

The commissioned officer ranks of the USAF are divided into three sections: company grade, field grade, and general officers. Company grade officers are those officers in pay grades O-1 to O-3, while field grade officers are those in pay grades O-4 to O-6, and general officers are those in pay grades of O-7 and above.

Currently, promotion from Second Lieutenant to First Lieutenant is virtually guaranteed after two years of satisfactory service. The promotion from First Lieutenant to Captain is competitive after successfully completing another two years of service. Promotion to Major and above is through a board process. An officer's record is reviewed by a selection board at the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Basemarker in San Antonio, Texas. This process occurs approximately between the seven- and ten-year mark, where a certain percentage of Captains will be selected for Major. This process will repeat at the 11-14 year mark for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, and then around the eighteen-year mark for promotion to Colonel.

Pay grade O-1 O-2 O-3 O-4 O-5 O-6 O-7 O-8 O-9 O-10 Special1
Title Second
Captain Major Lieutenant
Colonel Brigadier
General General
of the Air Force
Abbreviation2 2d Lt 1st Lt Capt Maj Lt Col Col Brig Gen Maj Gen Lt Gen Gen GOAF
NATO Code OF-1 OF-2 OF-3 OF-4 OF-5 OF-6 OF-7 OF-8 OF-9 OF-10
1 Awarded as an honorary rank or during periods of a declared war.

2 No periods are used in actual grade abbreviation.

Enlisted airmen

USAF enlisted members in the foreground

Enlisted members of the USAF have pay grades from E-1 (entry level) to E-9 (senior enlisted). While all USAF military personnel are referred to as Airmen, the term also refers to the pay grades of E-1 through E-4, which are below the level of non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Above the pay grade of E-4 (i.e., pay grades E-5 through E-9) all ranks fall into the category of NCO and are further subdivided into NCOs (pay grades E-5 and E-6) and Senior NCOs (pay grades E-7 through E-9); the term Junior NCO is sometimes used to refer to staff sergeants and technical sergeants (pay grades E-5 and E-6).

The USAF is the only of the five branches of the United States military where NCO status is not achieved until an airman reaches the pay grade of E-5. In all other branches, NCO status is generally achieved at the pay grade of E-4 (e.g., a Corporal in the Army and Marine Corps, Petty Officer Third Class in the Navy and Coast Guard). However, E-4s in the Army with the rank of Specialist are not considered NCOs. The Air Force mirrored the Army from 1976 to 1991 with an E-4 being either a Senior Airman wearing three stripes without a star or a Sergeant (referred to as "Buck Sergeant"), which was noted by the presence of the central star and considered an NCO. Despite not being an NCO, a Senior Airman who has completed Airman Leadership School can be a supervisor.

US DoD Pay grade E-1 E-2 E-3 E-4 E-5 E-6 E-7 E-8 E-9
Insignia No Insignia
Title Airman
Airman Airman First
Senior Master
Chief Master
Command Chief
Master Sergeant
Chief Master Sergeant
of the Air Force
Abbreviation AB Amn A1C SrA SSgt TSgt MSgt SMSgt CMSgt CCM CMSAF
NATO Code OR-1 OR-2 OR-3 OR-4 OR-5 OR-6 OR-7 OR-8 OR-9 OR-9 OR-9
¹ The USAF does not have a separate First Sergeant rank; it is instead a duty denoted by a diamond within the upper field.


USAF personnel wear uniforms that are distinct from those of the other branches of the United States armed forces. The first USAF dress uniform, in 1947, was dubbed and patented "Uxbridgemarker Blue" after "Uxbridge 1683 Blue", developed at the former Bachman-Uxbridge Worsted Company. The current Service Dress Uniform, which was 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 flight cap, all in Shade 1620, "Air Force Blue" (a darker purplish-blue). This is worn with a light blue shirt (Shade 1550) and Shade 1620 herringbone patterned necktie. 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 epaulet loops on the shirt. USAF personnel assigned to Base Honor Guard duties wear, for certain occasions, a modified version of the standard service dress uniform, but with silver trim on the sleeves and trousers, with the addition of a ceremonial belt (if necessary), wheel cap with silver trim and Hap Arnold Device, and a silver aiguillete placed on the left shoulder seam and all devices and accouterment.

The current utility uniform is called the Airman Battle Uniform (ABU). The previous utility uniform called the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) is still authorized for wear but is becoming less common. The ABU is scheduled to completely replace the BDU by 1 October 2011 (Fiscal Year 2012).

Awards and badges

In addition to basic uniform clothing, various badges are used by the USAF to indicate a job assignment or qualification-level for a given assignment. Badges can also be used as merit-based or service-based awards. Over time, various badges have been discontinued and are no longer distributed. Authorized badges include the Shields of USAF Fire Protection, and Security Forces, and the Missile badge, which is given after working on a missile system for over a year.


All non-prior service enlisted Airmen must undergo basic military training (BMT), which takes place at Lackland AFB, Texasmarker. All officers are commissioned through the United States Air Force Academy, Officer Training School, Academy of Military Science, or the AFROTC program.Civil Air Patrol Cadets that make it to Cadet 2nd Lt. may join the USAF as an E-3(Airman First Class)

Air Force Fitness Test

USAF members training at Lackland AFB

The US Air Force Fitness Test (AFFT) is designed to test the body composition, muscular strength/endurance and cardiovascular respiratory fitness of airmen in the USAF. As part of the Fit to Fight program, the USAF adopted a more stringent physical fitness assessment; the new fitness program was established on 1 January 2004, and replaces the annual ergo-cycle test that the USAF had used for several years. In the AFFT, airmen are given a score based on performance consisting of four components: waist circumference, the crunch, the push-up, and a run. Airmen can potentially earn a score of 100; while a passing score is 75 points.


Name Type Versions Picture Name Type Versions Picture
Bombs Missiles
BLU-109 Penetration bomb AGM-65 Air-to-surface
BLU-116 Penetration bomb AGM-158 Air-to-surface cruise missile
CBU-87 Cluster bomb AIM-9 Short-range Air-to-air missile
CBU-89 Cluster bomb AIM-120 Medium-range Air-to-air missile
CBU-97 Cluster bomb
GBU-12 laser-guided bomb
GBU-24 laser-guided bomb
GBU-27 laser-guided bomb
GBU-28 laser-guided bomb
Name Type Versions Ammunition Used by Picture
Aircraft guns
GAU-8 Avenger Seven-barrelled Gatling gun 30 mm A-10/OA-10 Thunderbolt II
M61 Six-barrelled Gatling gun 20 mm F-15 Eagle
F-16 Fighting Falcon
F-22 Raptor

GAU-16 12.7 mm UH-1 Iroquois
GAU-17 Six-barrelled Gatling gun 7.62 mm HH-60 Pave Hawk
UH-1 Iroquois
M240 7.62 mm UH-1 Iroquois
Small arms
M4 carbine
M9 pistol
Name Type Versions QuantityAviation Week & Space Technology 2009, 26 JAN 2009 240. Web.28 Aug 2009. />. Picture
Fixed-wing Aircraft
A-10/OA-10 Thunderbolt II Attack Aircraft /

Observation Aircraft
B-1 Lancer Supersonic Strategic bomber B-1B 66 (2 are test aircraft)
B-52 Stratofortress Strategic bomber B-52H 85
C-5 Galaxy Cargo Aircraft C-5A
C-17 Globemaster III Cargo Aircraft C-17A 185
Learjet C-21 Cargo Aircraft C-21A 76
C-130 Hercules Cargo Aircraft C-130E
E-3 Sentry Airborne Command and Control Aircraft E-3B
EC-130 Commando Solo Electronic Warfare Aircraft EC-130E
F-15 Eagle Multirole Fighter F-15A
F-16 Fighting Falcon Multirole Fighter F-16A
F-22 Raptor Stealth Air superiority fighter F-22A 145
HC-130 Hercules Search and Rescue Aircraft HC-130N
KC-10 Extender Tanker Aircraft KC-10A 59
KC-135 Stratotanker Tanker Aircraft KC-135E
MC-130 Hercules Multi-mission Aircraft MC-130E
T-1 Jayhawk Trainer Aircraft T-1A 179
T-6 Texan II Trainer Aircraft T-6A 337
T-38 Talon Trainer Aircraft T-38A
U-2 Dragon Lady Reconnaissance Aircraft U-2S 28
Rotary-wing Aircraft
UH-1 Iroquois Utility Helicopter UH-1N
HH-60 Pave Hawk Search and Rescue Helicopter HH-60G 101
Ground vehicles
R-11 Refueler Aircraft Refuel Vehicle
C300 Ground Refuel Vehicle
MQ-1 Predator Multi-mission aircraft 195
RQ-4 Global Hawk Surveillance aircraft
MQ-9 Reaper Multi-mission aircraft 28+
RQ-11 Raven Surveillance aircraft
Atlas V EELV/Medium-heavy launch vehicle
Delta IV
Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Meteorology Surveillance
Defense Support Program Reconnaissance
Global Positioning System Navigation and Timing 30


The culture of the United States Air Force is primarily driven by pilots and so the pilots of various aircraft types have driven its priorities over the years. At first there was a focus on bombers, followed by a focus on fighters.

In response to the 2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident the leadership of the USAF was changed, and for the first time a Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force was chosen who did not have a background as a fighter or bomber pilot.

Daniel L. Magruder, Jr defines USAF culture as a combination of the rigorous application of advanced technology, individualism and progressive airpower theory. Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr. adds that Air Force culture includes an egalitarianism bred from officers as warriors who work with small groups of enlisted airmen either as the service crew or onboard crew of their aircraft.

The 21st Century saw another culture shock for the Air Force as "Lone Wolf" pilots were reassigned as Unmanned Aerial System(UAS) operators.

Slogans and creeds

The United States Air Force has had numerous recruiting slogans including "No One Comes Close" and "Uno Ab Alto". For many years, the U.S. Air Force used "Aim High" as its recruiting slogan; more recently, they have used "Cross into the Blue", "We've been waiting for you" and "Do Something Amazing", and the newest one, "Above All". Each wing, group, or squadron usually has its own slogan(s). Information and logos can usually be found on the wing, group, or squadron websites.

The Airman's Creed is a statement introduced in the spring of 2007 to summarize the culture of the Air Force. The Air Force Core Values are: "Integrity First", "Service Before Self", "Excellence In All We Do".

To help further knowledge of their mission and functions, the Air Force has also produced videos, such as "Setting the Conditions for Victory" and "How We Fight", to outline the Air Force role in the war on terrorism and how the service succeeds in its domains of air, space, and cyberspace. The Above All campaign continues to support the message of "air, space and cyberspace" dominance.

See also


References to U.S. Army predecessors of today's U.S. Air Force are cited under their respective articles.

External links

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