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First Air Force

With its headquarters at Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, FL, 1st Air Force is one of four numbered air forces assigned to Air Combat Command. It has responsibility for ensuring the air sovereignty and air defense of the continental United States. As the CONUS geographical component of the binational North American Aerospace Defense Command, it provides airspace surveillance and control and directs all air sovereignty activities for the continental United States. In October 1997, First Air Force became a primarily Air National Guard numbered air force charged with the air defense of the North American continent.

With the transfer of responsibility for continental air defense from the active duty component of the Air Force to the Air National Guard, 1st Air Force became the first numbered air force to be made up primarily of citizen airmen. A combined 1st Air Force command post and CONUS Region Air Operations Center perform the NORAD air sovereignty mission for the continental United States. First Air Force plans, conducts, controls, coordinates and ensures the air sovereignty and provides for the unilateral defense of the United States. The best of America's fighter inventory, the F-15 "Eagle" and the F-16 "Fighting Falcon," are its primary weapons systems. In its role as the CONUS NORAD Region, 1st Air Force also performs counterdrug surveillance operations.

First Air Force has been an Air Combat Command organization since June 1, 1992. Its subordinate units are located throughout the continental United States. It is comprised of nine Air National Guard fighter wings and three air defense sectors for the Northeast, Western and Southeast regions of the country.

One of the four original air forces, 1st Air Force was activated as the Northeast Air District on December 18, 1940 at Mitchel Field, Long Island, NY, It was redesignated First Air Force on April 9, 1941.

In the first months of World War II, 1st Air Force was responsible for the air defense of the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. In January 1942, the command commenced shore based anti-submarine operations flying Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortresses" from Langley Field, VA. Later that year, First Air Force turned to the task of training combat air crews for immediate deployment to overseas theaters.

At the end of World War II, 1st Air Force was again tasked with the air defense of the Northeast. It also continued in the training role (primarily with the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve) until its inactivation on June 23, 1958.

First Air Force was reactivated at Stewart Air Force Base, Newburgh, NY, on January 20, 1966. During this period, the unit was charged with the air defense of the northeastern United States, Greenland, Iceland and parts of Canada. By July 1968, 1st Air Force had again assumed total responsibility for the air defense of the eastern seaboard, just as it had during World War II. Its second period of service was short lived, however, and the unit was again inactivated as the result of an air defense reorganization on December 31, 1969.

On December 6, 1985, the Air Force reactivated the historic 1st Air Force at Langley Air Force Base, VA, and assigned it to Tactical Air Command. Since that time, its mission has been to provide, train and equip combat ready forces for the air defense of the North American continent. Upon its reactivation, 1st Air Force was composed of units of the active Air Force and the Air National Guard. Because of its unique mission and its binational responsibilities, 1st Air Force works closely with the Canadian Forces. Canadian personnel are stationed at 1st Air Force Headquarters at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and at the various regional air defense sectors located throughout the United States.

Activation of the Continental United States North American Aerospace Defense Region on October 1, 1986, resulted in a new structure for the 30-year-old, binational NORAD. Although the U.S. Air Force had already deactivated its Aerospace Defense Command, the continental U.S. region, along with Alaskan and Canadian regions provided an improved command and operational system for North American air defense.

In the years since its third activation, more of the responsibility for the defense of American air sovereignty has shifted to the Air National Guard. Also, reorganization of the command structure of the U.S. Air Force saw the assignment of air defense to Tactical Air Command and later, its successor, Air Combat Command.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the role of the Air National Guard in the defense of North America increased. As this role changed, discussions between the active Air Force and the Air National Guard commenced concerning roles and responsibilities. As the Cold War began to wind down and budgetary constraints became realities, more and more of the missions previously carried out by active duty forces began to be transferred into the reserve components. By the 1990s, 90 percent of the air defense mission was being handled by the Air National Guard.

In 1994, the Air Guard had begun taking over 1st Air Force which provided the command and control mechanisms for providing the air defense and air sovereignty of the continental United States. The original conversations proposing that transition had taken place between Maj. Gen. Killey, then ANG Director, and Gen. Robert D. Russ, then Tactical Air Command Commander, during 1990-1991. General Russ, a strong supporter of the Air Guard, had originated the dialogue. He had noted that all the fighter interceptor squadrons defending the CONUS by that time were ANG units. Defense of the homeland had seemed a natural fit for the Guard. The Air Force had wanted to transfer responsibility for resourcing that mission to the ANG primarily for two reasons. First, it had needed to reduce its own end strength because of post Cold War downsizing. Second, it had thought that the ANG was in a better position to politically defend that mission which had been coming under increasing attack as expensive and unnecessary.

For their part, Air Guard senior leaders wanted to maintain as much of its fighter interceptor force structure as possible. Moreover, they needed to find new missions for much of its combat communications and tactical air control units which faced dramatic drawdowns in the early 1990s. The BRAC report of March 1993 gave the transfer proposal additional impetus. It directed the Air Force to either move the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) from Griffiss AFB, New York or give it to the ANG. Since ACC did not want to move it and was unable to consolidate it with another sector, transfer to the ANG appeared to be a logical choice. Following discussions between General Killey and senior Air Force leadership, agreement was reached to transfer the entire responsibility for 1st Air Force to the ANG. In September 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin approved the transfer.

On 28 January 1994, General Killey, who had just stepped down as Air Guard Director, assumed command of 1st Air Force as directed by General Merrill A. McPeak Air Force Chief of Staff. With that action, the main impetus for completing the transition to Air Guard control shifted to Tyndall AFB, Florida from the NGB, the Air Staff, NORAD, and Headquarters, ACC. However, the transfer was also intended to place the Chief of the NGB and the ANG Director in partnership with the Commander, 1st Air Force to assist the transition. Throughout the conversion process, all affected units had to maintain combat ready status.

On 1 December 1994, Headquarters NEADS was redesignated Headquarters Northeast Air Defense Sector (ANG). During FY 1995, Air Force leadership directed the acceleration of the transfer process and won approval from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs to hire an additional 182 AGR personnel to help accomplish that. In October 1995, the Southeast Air Defense Squadron and the Western Air Defense Squadron were constituted and allotted to the NGB.

Command relationships for 1st Air Force were relatively complicated by traditional Air Guard standards. The NAF came under ACC. As the force provider to NORAD, ACC was responsible for providing organized, trained, and equipped units that maintained the air defense and air sovereignty for the Continental United States NORAD Region (CONAR). The NGB was responsible for ensuring that 1st Air Force was properly resourced, particularly its operations and maintenance as well as its military personnel budgets. ACC remained responsible for major systems acquisition including modernization of the NAF's sector and regional operations centers. NORAD continued as the war-fighting command that 1st Air Force was responsible to in the execution of its operational missions.

All of this was further complicated by the fact that most 1st Air Force personnel were Guardsmen who remained in state status (Title 32, U.S. Code) while organizing, training, and equipping for their federal missions. They automatically converted to federal status (Title 10, U.S. Code) when actually conducting federal missions such as doing intercepts of unidentified aircraft entering U.S. air space because air defense and air sovereignty remained federal, not National Guard, missions. Likewise, certain officers including the ROC/SOC commanders always remained in Title 10 status to insure an unbroken federal chain of command.

The size and composition of 1st Air Force's flying unit force structure continued to be a major issue during the transition. Over recent decades, the air defense interceptor force defending North America had been dramatically reduced from a high of 2,600 dedicated aircraft (including the Royal Canadian Air Force) in 1958. It had shrunk to 20 ANG fighters at 10 alert locations for CONAR by February 1996. However, 1st Air Force continued to face strong budgetary pressures to either eliminate or dramatically reduce dedicated ANG fighter interceptor units for the air defense and air sovereignty.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense rejected efforts to include language in the FY 1996 and FY 1997 Defense Program Guidance to include air sovereignty and air defense as a stated mission and to program resources for them. In 1996, the General Accounting Office (GAO) criticized the Air Guard for continuing to maintain 150 fighters in 10 dedicated air defense units to defend the United States against invading enemy bombers at a cost of nearly $500 million annually nearly a half-decade after the Soviet Union's demise.

The GAO urged that the 10 ANG units be either disbanded or given other missions. That criticism was well established in Washington, D.C. Gen. Colin Powell, while JCS Chairman, had advocated an end to dedicated continental air defense force in 1993 as had the GAO a year later. Both had suggested that general-purpose fighter forces of the Air Force, Navy and Marines -- active duty and reserve components -- could accomplish the mission.

By the end of FY 1997, the ANG had assumed total responsibility for all of 1st Air Force including its three Regional Operational Control Centers and its Sector Operations Control Center as well as its NAF headquarters. The transition to the Air Guard was officially complete. Air Guardsmen had accomplished that unprecedented transition while retaining high readiness levels throughout the process. It represented a major change in the Air Guard's historic role, executing the command and control function for a full-time Air Force mission. But, 1st Air Force faced a difficult balancing act and an uncertain future. Continuing pressures to balance the federal budget and the absence of an international peer competitor suggested that the very survival of 1st Air Force, especially its dedicated fighter-interceptor force, would remain an issue. General Killey turned over responsibility for dealing with such questions when he relinquished command of 1st Air Force to Brig Gen Larry K. Arnold upon his retirement from active duty at Tyndall AFB, Florida effective 18 December 1997.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:11:04 ZULU