The basic fighting unit of the US Air Force is the squadron. A constituted squadron is the basic unit in the Air Force, and is numbered with one, two, or three Arabic numerals. A squadron may be a mission unit or a functional unit, and may vary in size according to responsibility.

Squadrons are configured to deploy and employ in support of crisis action requirements. They are not designed to conduct independent operations but rather to interact with other units to provide the synergy needed to conduct sustained and effective operations. As such, an individual squadron should not deploy by itself; it should deploy along with the appropriate support and command elements (a "group slice"). Afield, it would look more like a group.

The squadron ususally consists of two or more flights. The squadron commander gives orders to the flight commanders rather than to the commanders of the individual planes. The squadron is the smallest air force unit that has both tactical and administrative duties. Each squadron includes ground personnel whose duties are to administer and furnish the ground services.

The composition of a squadron is determined by the type of airplane it operates and the nature of its mission. All squadrons have headquarters, mess, supply, technical, and maintenance personnel. Local conditions and the mission determine the number of planes to be grouped in one squadron for maximum efficiency, and the number of men, the equipment, and the supplies required to keep the planes flying. A squadron may contain a dozen or more planes.

The term "squadron" literally means a square (from the Latin quadrare, to square). In military application, squadron describes a body of troops drawn into a square or arranged in formal order. For more than four centuries, western armed forces have ordered personnel and equipment in organizations known as squadrons. In navies, a squadron is a group of vessels consisting of two or more divisions of a fleet. For armies, the cavalry squadron is the most common type and consists of two or more elements called troops. How air forces came to adopt the squadron is an interesting story.

Early in the 20th century military doctrine treated air operations as an extension of the cavalry-a sky cavalry, so to speak. For example, a Jan 1912 report to the French Chamber of Deputies argued that "the aeroplane should not replace the cavalry, even in reconnaissance work; its action should be auxiliary to that of [the cavalry] and complete it." Echoing this sentiment in 1913, General George P. Scriven, Chief Signal Officer of the US Army, testified before Congress that "the aeroplane is an adjunct to the cavalry." Even as late as 1920 a much celebrated Air Service regulation seemed to reflect cavalry connections: "pilots will not wear spurs while flying!"

When the time came to form tactical aviation organizations, most military planners simply adapted the cavalry squadron organization to their purposes. Like the cavalry squadron, the new aero squadrons were administrative and tactical units which usually consisted of two or more elements. In England, the Royal Flying Corps formed the first two aero squadrons in May of 1912. Other nations quickly followed the British example. The widespread adoption of the squadron model prompted General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Commanding General of the US Army Air Forces in World War II, to observe that it is "the smallest administrative organization practically universally accepted for air units."

The US Army Signal Corps organized the 1st Provisional Aero (now, 1st Reconnaissance) Squadron on 5 Mar 1913. Initially, US aero squadrons consisted of two elements called companies. By the time the United States entered World War I, they contained two or more elements called flights. Through the years, squadrons have varied in size and composition according to specific mission needs. However, the basic aero squadron design still endures and continues to give formal order to US Air Force assets. Air Force Instruction 38-101, "Air Force Organization", defines the squadron as "the basic unit in the Air Force." A squadron may be either a functional organization, such as a maintenance, communications, or transportation squadron, or a mission organization, such as a flying, space and missile squadron.

In 1992, the Air Force decided to reconfigure its fighter force into smaller squadrons. This decision occurred at a time when the Secretary of Defense was attempting to reduce defense operating and infrastructure costs.

To achieve directed force structure reductions, the Air Force reduced the number of F-15 and F-16 aircraft in its inventory. Between fiscal years 1991 and 1997, the Air Force reduced its F-15 aircraft from 342 to 252. Over this same period, the Air Force reduced its F-16 aircraft from 570 to 444. In 1991, F-15 and F-16 aircraft were configured in 42 squadrons. By fiscal year 1997, these aircraft were configured in 37 squadrons.

Until 1992, the Air Force predominantly organized its active fighter aircraft in wings of three squadrons, with 24 combat aircraft in each squadron. However, in 1992, the Air Force Chief of Staff directed that the squadrons be reduced to 18 aircraft. By 1997, most fighter squadrons were reduced to this smaller size, leaving only 54 aircraft in most wings.

The primary benefit of using smaller-sized squadrons was increased operational deployment flexibility. With fewer fighters in the Air Force inventory, reducing squadrons to 18 aircraft increases the number of squadrons above the number there would have been had the aircraft been organized in traditional squadrons of 24 aircraft. These additional squadrons were needed to respond to conflicts that reflect the new security environment, characterized by multiple contingency operations and the possibility of two nearly simultaneous military regional conflicts.

The primary use of squadron organizations in a regional conflict operation is to manage the daily flight shifts. Squadron structures become almost invisible because all aircraft are controlled by the theater's air component commander. Thus, from the CINC's perspective, the number of squadrons in which aircraft are organized is largely immaterial.

Another benefit of smaller squadrons was "span of control"--the ability to manage personnel and the collective tasks for which they are responsible. The decentralization of flight line aircraft maintenance from the wing to the squadron was part of an Air Force reorganization called "Objective Wing." This change gave the squadron commander responsibility for managing some maintenance assets for the first time. Previously flight line maintenance and associated personnel were controlled by the wing. When this function was shifted to the squadron in 1991-92, a typical 24-aircraft squadron would have increased from about 85 to over 300 people. This fourfold growth would have weakened the commander's ability to effectively manage people and missions. The reduced number of squadron aircraft helped to offset this effect because a smaller squadron reduces the number of squadron personnel. The Air Force's standard for span of control for maintenance squadrons commanders is 700 people, about twice the number of personnel being supervised by flight squadron commanders.

As the USAF drew down the force, it changed the structure of the typical fighter wing and fighter squadron from a notional organization of a three-squadron wing of 72 airplanes to two or three-squadron wings with squadrons of only 18 airplanes. In many cases, squadrons had different airplanes in each squadron. That was not a very efficient way to run an Air Force. For an organization that started out with 18 airplanes in a squadron, and with a typical operational deployment of 12 airplanes, there wasn't anything left at home. The deployment only took 12 airplanes with them, but those were the good ones. Of the six left at home, probably a couple weren't in very good shape: there was one in depot mod, a couple going through phase maintenance, and one that was in maintenance training. The part of the squadron that stayed home didn't have anything to work with. So the Air Force started looking at reorganizing back toward squadrons of 24 airplanes and wings of squadrons with the same type of aircraft.

Subsequently as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) F-15C squadrons were reinstated to 24 primary assigned aircraft (PAA). This was intended to reduce stress on the F-15C squadrons as they dealt with an increasing operations tempo with reduced manning. Annual operating cost for 72 F-15s are about $12 million less if they are organized into squadrons of 24 aircraft instead of squadrons of 18. The annual savings are primarily due to reduced military personnel requirements, in such areas as command, staff, administrative and maintenance. The savings cost associated with reduced military personnel requirements accounts for about 70 percent of the total savings, of which over 90 percent is enlisted pay. Also, larger squadrons allow maintenance specialty shops to be used more efficiently, requiring little or no change in staffing. Within the wing structure, larger squadrons provide a benefit since young pilots no longer have to perform additional duties. This allows the new pilots time to study, learn and practice thus maturing into the weapon system.

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