Third Air Force
Third Air Force, with headquarters at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, United Kingdom, is one of two numbered air forces in U.S. Air Forces in Europe, and responsible for all U.S. Air Force operations and support activities north of the Alps. As an integral part of America's commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Third Air Force's area of responsibility includes missions and personnel in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg and portions of France.
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 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.
Third Air Force units bring together an impressive array of combat capability. RAF Mildenhall, England, is home of the 100th Refueling Wing, equipped with KC-135 refueling aircraft. Mildenhall serves as an aerial port for strategic and tactical airlift, and is host to several tenant organizations, including Air Force Special Operations Command's 352nd Special Operations Group, Air Combat Command's 95th Reconnaissance Squadron, Air Intelligence Agency's 488th Intelligence Squadron, and Air Mobility Command's 627th Air Mobility Support Squadron. Mildenhall is also responsible for several geographically separated units in England and Norway.
RAF Lakenheath, England, is home of the 48th Fighter Wing, equipped with two squadrons of F-15E and one squadron of F-15C aircraft. Lakenheath operates a regional medical center and oversees support services for nearby RAF Feltwell, home of Air Force Space Command's 5th Space Surveillance Squadron.
Ramstein Air Base, Germany, is home of the 86th Airlift Wing, equipped with C-130, C-9, C-20 and C-21 aircraft. Other major units at Ramstein include Headquarters U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Headquarters, Allied Air Forces Central Europe. Ramstein oversees support services for the Kaiserslautern Military Community, a 43,000 strong community composed of members of every military service, and one of the largest concentrations of Americans outside the U.S.
The 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem AB, Germany, is U.S. Air Forces in Europe's only composite wing, composed of two F-16 squadrons, one F-15 squadron and an A-10/OA-10 squadron. Spangdahlem is also responsible for several geographically separated units in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The 4th Air Support Operations Group is headquartered with U.S. Army Europe's V Corps at Heidelberg, Germany, and provides air liaison officers and enlisted terminal attack controllers to divisions and brigades of V Corps at several sites in Germany, and one in Italy.
All together, Third Air Force 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 our bases each year.
Since the Gulf War, Third Air Force people have supported numerous contingency operations across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. In recent years, Third Air Force has deployed personnel and equipment to Operations Provide Comfort (Iraq), Deny Flight and Provide Promise (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Provide Hope (Russia), Restore Hope (Somalia), Southern Watch and Vigilant Warrior (southwest Asia), Support Hope (Rwanda), Uphold Democracy (Haiti), Quick Lift (Croatia), Deliberate Force (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Assured Response (Liberia), Guardian Assistance (Rwanda), Northern Watch (Iraq), and most recently, Operation Quick Lift (western Africa).
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. Their absence, however, was short lived. In 1948, in response to the Berlin blockade, the U.S. deployed long-range B-29 strategic bombers to four East Anglian bases. Third Air Division was activated to receive, support and operationally control the B-29 units.
Third Air Division continued to control U.S. Air Force operations in Britain until early 1951, when the 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. Two organizations were activated: one to conduct strategic operations, and one to conduct tactical, logistics and support programs.
Third Air Force was activated on May 1, 1951 to oversee tactical air operations from the United Kingdom and provide logistics and support to the Seventh Air Division. With headquarters at South Ruislip Air Station near London, Third Air Force carried out that mission basically unchanged through 1966, when Seventh Air Division was inactivated.
The first tactical unit to come to England under Third Air Force was the 81st Fighter Bomber Wing based at RAF Bentwaters on Sept. 6, 1951. The next assigned unit was the 20th Fighter Bomber Wing, going to RAF Wethersfield. These F-84 and F-86 jet fighter units worked with Royal Air Force Fighter Command providing air defense for England.
With the Korean War and the growing threat of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and UK agreed to an even greater U.S. military presence in the United Kingdom. By 1955, American military forces in Britain reached 45,900, and adding the dependents, the total U.S. military presence in the UK was over 80,000.
Throughout the 1950s, Strategic Air Command bomber units deployed on a regular rotational basis from the United States to the United Kingdom. The B-47 Stratojet was a familiar sight in the skies over RAF Mildenhall and RAF Upper Heyford at this time, as entire wings deployed on 90-day rotations, Even the massive B-36 deployed to UK bases.
In 1958, the U.S. and UK reached agreement about basing intermediate range Thor missiles, and four strategic missile squadrons deployed to East Anglia. Thor missiles remained in the United Kingdom five years, until 1963, when long range intercontinental ballistic missiles based in the U.S. superseded the intermediate range Thor. Overseas deployment of the Thor was no longer needed.
The 1960s saw continuous fluctuations in the U.S. Air Force presence in the United Kingdom. In 1961, some bases were returned and numbered air force activities merged. Support squadrons were eliminated at South Ruislip, West Ruislip, Bovingdon, Bushy Park, and Denham. In 1963, project Clearwater halted large scale rotational bomber deployments to Britain. RAF Fairford, RAF Chelveston, RAF Greenham Command, and RAF Sculthorpe were returned to the Air Ministry.
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. F-100s, F-101s, and F-4s replaced older fighter aircraft. KC-135 Stratotankers replaced older refueling aircraft.
In June 1972, daily operational control of tactical units in the United Kingdom was transferred to Headquarters U.S. Air Forces in Europe at Ramstein AB, Germany. 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 Royal Air Force Mildenhall, United Kingdom.
In 1979, NATO ministers decided to deploy Ground Launched Cruise and Pershing II missiles to counter the growing Soviet SS-20 intermediate range ballistic missile threat. RAF Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth 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 303rd TMW 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, F-111 aircraft based at RAF Lakenheath and RAF Upper Heyford were launched against suspected terrorist targets in Libya, as part of Operation Eldorado Canyon.
With the signing of the INF Treaty in December 1987, GLCMs deployed to RAF Molesworth were removed to the U.S. and the 303rd TMW inactivated Jan. 30, 1989. The last GLCMs at RAF Greenham Common were removed in March 1991, and the 501st TMW inactivated June 4, 1991.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait 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. 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.
The end of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union 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 NATO 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.
In recent years, the U.S. Air Force has restructured itself to meet the emerging needs of the new world order, and stay at the forefront of airpower. While Third Air Force reduced its manpower by more than 40 percent, and the number of permanently based fighter aircraft by about 80 percent, the headquarters element for Third Air Force was also streamlined to reflect a shift in emphasis from management to operational command. 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 17th Air Force, currently based at Sembach AB, Germany, and the transfer of 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 AB and Spangdahlem AB, both in Germany, and five geographically separated units. All together, the "new" Third Air Force is composed of more than 25,000 military people, and more than 35,000 family members. In terms of numbers of aircraft, Third Air Force now has 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 at our bases 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.
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