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Eleventh Air Force

The 11th Air Force plans, conducts, controls and coordinates air operations in accordance with the tasks assigned by the commander, Pacific Air Forces, and is the force provider for Alaskan Command, the Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region (ANR) and other unified commanders.

This mission is accomplished largely through the 611th Air Operations Group and the 611th Air Support Group. Together they provide a network of critical air surveillance and command, control, and communications functions necessary to perform tactical warning and attack assessment in defense of Alaska.

Military aircraft began to deploy to Alaska during the last half of 1940. To coordinate air activities there, the Alaskan Defense Command established the Air Field Forces, Alaskan Defense Command on May 29, 1941. Under authority from Western Defense Command, the Alaskan Defense Command replaced the Air Field Forces, Alaskan Defense Command, with the Air Force, Alaskan Defense Command, on October 17, 1941. Neither the Air Field Forces nor the Air Force, Alaskan Defense Command, were legitimate War Department establishments and must be classified in the same category as provisional units, although the term "provisional" was never used in connection with them. The War Department activated the Alaskan Air Force on Elmendorf Field on January 15, 1942, to manage the buildup of the Army Air Forces in Alaska and replacing the Air Force, Alaskan Defense Command.

Alaska was at that time nearly entirely a pristine wilderness and the operating environment for the Army Air Forces was among the most challenging seen anywhere in World War II. Redesignated the 11th Air Force on 5 February 1942, the Air Forces in Alaska worked feverishly to shore up defenses stretching thousands of miles.

Following the Japanese bombing of Dutch Harbor in the eastern Aleutian Islands and the occupation of Attu and Kiska in the western Aleutians in early June 1942, the 11th Air Force launched an air offensive against the Japanese on the two islands. Aircraft launched initially from Cape Field on Umnak Island in the eastern Aleutians and later from fields built on Adak and Amchitka. As the mission was almost solitarily in in the Western Aleutian Islands, Headquarters 11th Air Force moved to Davis Field, Adak in early 1943. The United States retook Attu in May 1943, and the Japanese withdrew their garrison from Kiska in late July the same year.

The Aleutian Campaign ended with the reoccupation of Kiska on 15 August 1943. Primarily an air war, it was the only World War II campaign fought on North American soil. The 11th Air Force flew 297 missions and dropped 3,662.00 tons of bombs. One hundred and fourteen airmen died in action, another forty-two were listed as missing in action, and forty-six died as a result of accidents.

Illustrative of the challenges omnipresent in Alaska, only 35 aircraft were lost in combat compared to 150 operational accidents. It was the highest American combat-to-accidental loss ratio for any theater in World War II. Weather was the prime culprit.

The 11th Air Force accounted for approximately 60 Japanese aircraft, one destroyer, one submarine and seven transport ships destroyed by air operations. Following the occupation of Kiska, the 11th Air Force declined from peak strength of 16,526 in August 1943 to 6,849 by the end of the war. For the remainder of the war, it flew bombing and reconnaissance missions against Japanese military installations in the northern Kurile Islands from Attu and Shemya Islands. The first land-based bombing mission of World War II against the Japanese home islands was launched from Attu against the Kuriles on 10 July 1943.

After the war, Alaska remained strategically important in posturing against new threats. The vast construction completed in World War II brought Alaska distinctly into a new age and into the American consciousness. The 11th Air Force became the Alaskan Air Command on 18 December 1945, and its headquarters moved from Adak to Elmendorf AFB once more on 1 October 1946 to better manage Alaska's emerging air defense system.

Alaska's air defenses greatly expanded during 1945-1955 period. The United States built an extensive aircraft control and warning (AC&W) system along Alaska's coast and interior. The Alaskan segment of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line was built, and later the DEW Line was extended to the Aleutian Islands. The Command was initially equipped with P-51s, which were replaced in succession by F-80s, F-94s, F-89s and F-102s.

By 1957, AAC had reached its peak strength with over 200 fighter interceptors assigned to six squadrons. Eighteen aircraft control and warning sites and 12 DEW Line locations provided early warning and fighter direction. The White Alice Communications System tied the network together. Alaskan Air Command's assigned strength was 20,687. The forces were organized into two air divisions providing "Top Cover for America."

The late 1950s and the 1960s saw a major reduction in AAC's forces as Air Force air defense doctrine began changing, and emphasis shifted to a defense against a mixed threat of missile and bomber attacks. The number of fighter interceptor squadrons shrank to one, the air divisions were inactivated, and the aircraft control and warning sites declined to 13. The assigned strength dropped to 9,987 in 1969. The Aleutian DEW Line segment was dismantled. Emphasis shifted towards supporting other commands.

The F-102s were replaced with F-4Es in 1970. The arrival of the versatile F-4E marked another turning point in AAC's history. It gave AAC a tactical air-to-ground attack capability.

The Command's command, control, communications and surveillance system underwent a modernization during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The labor-intensive, 1950s era aircraft control and warning system radars were replaced with minimally attended AN/FPS-117 long range radars. The system achieved its operational capability in October 1985. The outdated, semi-automated Alaskan NORAD Control Center was replaced with the fully automated Regional Operations Control Center. It achieved an operational capability on 14 June 1983.

Further improvements were made to the force structure with the arrival of F-15As in 1982, upgraded to "C" models during 1987-86. On 1 July 1986, the 962d Airborne Warning and Control Squadron (AWACS) activated at Elmendorf AFB. It operated two E-3 Sentry aircraft on rotational duty to Alaska. (The aircraft were later assigned to the squadron.) A second F-15C squadron was added the next year. The modern radar system, F-15s and the E-3 resulted in a greater capability to protect the air sovereignty of North America. The number of Soviet aircraft intercepts increased dramatically from an average of ten a year during the first half of the 1980s to a record of 31 in 1987, after which the numbers began to decline dramatically following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and today such intercepts are rare occurrences. The air sovereignty role while still important, has diminished in utility to that of the "Polar Thrust" whereby Alaskan aircraft deploy anywhere in the globe on short notice to deliver whatever ordnance or capability is required.

Joint operations in Alaska are a practical necessity. After the initial sub-unified "Alaskan Command" (ALCOM) was disestablished in 1975, The Commander, AAC assumed the additional responsibility of Commander, Joint Task Force-Alaska, a provisional joint command that could be activated in the event of an emergency, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in March 1989. Emergency activation did not provide the daily resources needed by the vast Alaska mission, however, and ALCOM activated again shortly after the spill on 7 July 1989, as a subordinate unified command under the U.S. Pacific Command in recognition of Alaska's strategic importance to the defense of the Pacific.

With the activation of the Alaskan Command, the next logical step was to place its air component (AAC) under the Pacific Air Forces. By reorganizing from AAC to a Numbered Air Force, the Air Force was able to reduce its administrative manpower requirements during a period of massive reoragnization and down-sizing throughout the Air Force. On 9 August 1990, the Alaskan Air Command was redesignated the 11th Air Force once again.

The early 1990s marked a period of major organizational mission changes and force modernization. The 11th Air Force was reorganized as an objective Numbered Air Force during 1992-1993 and its headquarters reduced to but 100 authorizations. Its major units also changed. The 21st Tactical Fighter Wing was inactivated and the 3rd Wing transferred from Clark AB to Elmendorf AFB in December 1991. The F-15E-equipped 90th Fighter Squadron was added as were the 517th Airlift Squadron (C-130Hs and C-12Fs) and the 962th Airborne Control and Warning Squadron (E-3B).

There were also significant changes at Eielson AFB. The A-10As assigned to the 18th Fighter Squadron were replaced with F-16Cs in 1992 and an OA-10A squadron was activated. Eielson AFB became home of the Cope Thunder training exercise series and the Alaskan range complex was greatly expanded and improved to accommodate not only Cope Thunder but other joint training requirements as well. Finally, in keeping with Air Force Chief of Staff guidance to retain the most illustrious units, the 343rd Wing, a veteran of the Aleutian Campaign, was inactivated in August 1993. The 354th Fighter Wing was activated in its place.

Other changes during the period included upgrading the 11th Tactical Air Control Group to the 11th Air Control Wing (11 ACW) in January 1992. During yet another reorganization, the wing subsequently inactivated 1 July 1994 in favor of three smaller groups directly subordinate to the 11th Air Force; the 611th Air Operations Group, 611th Logistics Group and the 611th Air Support Group. The 11th Air Force also accomplished the daunting drawdown of the forward operating bases at Galena Airport, King Salmon Airport and Eareckson Air Force Station (Shemya Island), in a two-year period of time, 1993-1995.

The mission of the 11th Air Force moved inexorably from statically defending Alaska against a bomber threat to committing its forces to worldwide deployment. The shift from a Major Command to an Objective Numbered Air Force was among the most drastic reorganizations undertaken anywhere in the Air Force.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:09:00 ZULU