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The basic unit for generating and employing combat capability is the wing, and some very significant changes have taken place at this level. The wing has always been the prime war fighting instrument. The Air Force has three basic types of wings: operational, air base, and specialized mission.

  • An operational wing, according to Air Force Instruction 38-101 (1994), is a wing that has an operations group and related operational mission activity assigned to it. When an operational wing performs the primary mission of the base, it usually maintains and operates the base. In addition, an operational wing is capable of self-support in functional areas like maintenance, supply, and munitions, as needed. When an operational wing is a tenant organization, the host command provides it with varying degrees of base and logistics support.
  • An air base wing usually maintains and operates a base, and often provides functional support to a major command headquarters.
  • A specialized mission wing may be either a host wing or a tenant wing and performs a specialized mission such as intelligence or training.

The US Army Air Service/Air Corps/Air Forces wings that existed before 1947 are not comparable with the wings of the USAF. World War II wings, for example, were very large administrative and operational organizations that usually controlled several combat groups and numerous service organizations, often located at widely scattered locations. Many of the World War II wings were redesignated as air divisions after the war.

Modern wings began their existence with a service test of combat wings in 1947-1948. These wings were temporary Table of Distribution (T/D) organizations, each having a combat group (the only Table of Organization [T/O&E] establishment of the wings), an airdrome group, a maintenance and supply group, and a station medical group.

During World War II the United States Army Air Force (AAF) combat squadrons were normally organized into combat groups; each group possessed three or four squadrons, and the group served as the basic combat element. This organization changed in 1947 when the Air Force adopted a wing-base plan. It is important to note that the newly established wings were not merely redesignated AAF combat groups. In many cases the groups were still active when the Air Force activated the similarly designated wings. The Air Force policy is that each organization will have a unique lineage, and that no other organization can have the lineage or history of another organization. Consequently, as the Air Force began to inactivate the World War II combat groups, their histories and honors also retired, leaving wings with no World War II history. To perpetuate the heritage of World War II combat groups, the Air Force temporarily bestows individual group histories, awards, and honors upon similarly designated wings.

Toward the end of 1947, a major organizational change occurred. Previously, flying units relied on support from the base commander, usually a non-flying administrator. To reverse this awkward situation, the recently formed U.S. Air Force (created Sept. 18, 1947) adopted the Hobson Plan. At each base, the Air Force created new organizations -- called wings -- that carried the same numerical designation as the groups. Also, support elements were projected to be created and align themselves under the wing commander. These wings, commanded by rated officers, would hold operational control over the flying and support groups through the group commander. In 1948 HQ USAF replaced the T/D wings with permanent T/O&E (constituted) combat wings having a combat group, an air base group, a maintenance and supply group, and a medical group.

Constituted combat wings are always numbered in a single series beginning with a Arabic "1st." Examples: 1st Fighter Wing, 21st Space Wing, and 28th Bomb Wing. All constituted wings have one, two, or three digits in their numerical designations.

In many cases, the numerical designation of the wing came from the combat group which preceded it and became an integral part of the post-World War II wing. In other words, when the 14th Fighter Wing (later, 14th Flying Training Wing) came into existence, it received the "14th" numerical designation from the 14th Fighter Group which had already existed for a number of years and which became the wing's combat component. At the same time, the other component establishments, and units of these establishments, also received the "14th" numerical designations, aligning each of them directly to the 14th Wing. The tactical squadrons of the combat group, however, retained their separate and distinct numerical designations.

The 1950s were a time of change and turmoil for Air Force wings and their subordinate units. During this hectic period, the Air Force struggled to create its own identity after separating from the U.S. Army. At the same time, the service faced an increased tempo in operations as a result of the Cold War. In no area is this clearer than the organizational structure of Air Force wings.

The date of June 16, 1952, was a significant date for many Air Force units and particularly to those assigned to Strategic Air Command. On this day, SAC chose to inactivate many of its operations and maintenance groups and replace them with deputy commanders. In the search for a perfect organizational structure, SAC, and ultimately, the Air Force, had come to view the groups as needless organizations, feeling that the wing commanders could direct operational and maintenance activities in addition to their other duties. In in the following months, SAC developed a new strategy for its dual wing bases. It decreed that air divisions be assigned as a higher headquarters unit in addition to providing support functions, and activated Air Divisions to act as an overseer of the wings' activities and also to provide base support functions for those units.

By the late 1980s, however, another period of hectic Air Force activity began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting end of the Cold War. With that brought efforts to shrink the Air Force. As a result, the Air Force began restructuring its units into objective wings. Key among the changes included an emphasis once again on groups rather than deputy commanders.

1991 Objective Wing Structure

With the divestiture of several headquarters staff functions in 1991, the wing assumed a more important role in the way the Air Force conducts business in both peace and war. In 1991 the Air Force moved away from "stovepipe" organizations which report off-base to some authority other than the installation commander. Communications and weather personnel now work for the installation commander rather than a higher and distant command. With these changes, the chain of command is strengthened and accountability for mission accomplishment clarified.

In 1991 several wings became composite wings, meaning that they operate more than one kind of aircraft. The 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews AFB, Md., operates Air Force One as well as VC-137s, C-9s and C-20s. As such, it is a composite wing. At Seymour Johnson AFB, NC, the 4th Wing operates KC-10s and F-15Es, so it also is a composite wing. The same kind of consolidation happened at Kadena AB in Japan. Some wings have been composite for a long time while others were newly formed. The 51st Wing at Osan AB, Korea, has had multiple fighter types for many years, so it has been a composite wing for some time. Conversely, the unit at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, was a newly constructed composite wing where F-15C/Ds, F-15Es, tankers, AWACS and others formed a unit designed for quick air intervention anywhere in the world. At Pope AFB, NC, the Air Force assembled a wing of A-10s, F-16s and C-130s to train with the Army at nearby Fort Bragg. This wing formed a team with the 82nd Airborne Division.

In the restructured Air Force, not all wings became composite. Some, such as the F-16 wing at Hill AFB, Utah, retained single aircraft type ready to join air campaigns anywhere they are assigned.

Whether a unit is composite or not, there is one basic rule, for wing reorganization: one base, one wing, one boss. The installation commander commands the wing, the base and all the local resources associated with it. This was the principle behind the combination of the KC-10 and F-15 wings at Seymour Johnson. It was also the reason for combining the 1776th Air Base Wing with the both Wing at Andrews.

The level of experience and rank of the installation commander should reflect this. After the reorganization, many more installations had a general officer in charge. To do this and still meet a mandated general officer reduction, a large number of generals moved from staff jobs into the field. Most senior officer "deputy" or "vice" jobs were eliminated, and the same was true for the lower ranks as well. Some positions such as wing commander still had a vice commander, but that type of second-in-command position was more and more rare. The wing also implemented the skip-echelon staff structure that starts at the MAJCOM level. The wing commander assumed a heavy administrative burden and the staff to handle it.

2002 Combat Wing Organization

The Combat Wing organization is very similar to the organization that was in place between 1978 and 1991. It is the organization that brought Mission Capable rates greater than 90% in Desert Storm and it works. The new organization will be comprised of an operations group organized to operate air and space weapons systems, a maintenance group organized to maintain these complex weapons systems, and a mission support group organized to enhance direct mission support for expeditionary, rapid reaction and contingency-based forces. All wing maintenance functions will be organized under the newly formed maintenance group, while all wing supply, transportation, contracting and aerial port functions will be organized under the newly formed mission support group. Air base wings that currently have maintenance functions located in a logistics group will stand up the new maintenance group. Air base wings that currently have support groups will be redesignated as mission support groups.

In the fall of 2001, the Chief of Staff Logistics Review was designated to dissect and examine key wing-level logistics processes and investigate new avenues of innovation, with the ultimate goal of improving combat readiness under the Expeditionary Air Force construct. Review experts recommended that wing-level material management processes be integrated under a single authority responsible for base-level supply and transportation functions and designated as logistics readiness squadrons or division, aligned under the mission support group.

The way Air Force wings are organized underwent major changes beginning 01 October 2002. Those changes include creation of a new maintenance group, restructuring support groups and reducing the taskings of operations groups. On 01 October 2002, the Air Force began the transition to the Combat Wing Organization which pulled maintenance personnel from the flying squadrons and moved them under career maintainers in the Maintenance Group. In lieu of organizational changes it was essential to maintain the teamwork and synergy between ops and maintenance which is vital to the ultimate goal of combat success. This is part of a concerted effort to keep operations and maintenance teamed. Flightline maintenance personnel are assigned to aircraft maintenance units within the new aircraft maintenance squadron. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper directed 22 April 2002 that all Air Force active-duty, Reserve and Air National Guard wings adopt the new standard wing structure to enhance the service's warfighting capabilities.

"After careful deliberations with major command commanders, we reached a decision on a new wing organizational structure that standardizes operations across the Air Force and enhances our expeditionary capabilities," General Jumper said.

"I have often said that the two hardest things we do in our Air Force is fly and fix airplanes.... In the new combat wing organization the rationale is simple. In the operations group, I want the operations group commander to be the role model for every operator in the wing. I want the squadron commander to lead combat missions on the first day of the war, and I want them leading strike forces in Red Flag and I want them to be the most proficient pilot or operator in their unit. And I want all of the people in that unit to look up to that squadron commander as a role model," he said.

"Right now if you're a maintainer you look up to the head of your leadership and it's the operations group commander. Chances are you can never be that person. You look and say who can I be? Well, I can be the logistics group commander, but I have to go do things other than maintain airplanes before I can do that. Then if I get to that position I've got to ask the operations group commander for permission to go out on the flightline to be around the airplanes that I love in the first place. So I want the maintainers to be able to have a career progression that leads them to the head of a maintenance organization, and I want them to be as experienced at maintaining airplanes as the operations group commander is at flying airplanes," he continued.

"Those two things I think are fairly straightforward. The hard part is going to be the combat mission support function which is going to be new. It is going to entail everything that goes into our expeditionary Air Force from the crisis action planning, working with the joint system to get the deployable loads into the airlift system, loading it on the airlift airplanes, the visibility of the stuff while it's in transit, the bedding down at the far end. Where do you put the tent city? Where do you store the munitions? How do you plug into the supply system at the far end? It's a skill set that none of our officers have in total right now. But the new expeditionary support discipline will take all of this into account and we will create a Red Flag-like training operation for the support business, where you will go to a tent city, you will practice commanding a tent city, you will learn all the things that go into that. So that's why it's important," General Jumper said.

The five major changes involved in the standard wing concept include:

  • All aircraft and space maintenance specialists currently assigned to operations and logistics groups will be reassigned to a newly created maintenance group.
  • Supply and transportation squadrons will be combined to form logistics readiness squadrons.
  • Contracting squadrons, aerial ports and logistics readiness squadrons will transfer into existing support groups, which will be renamed "mission support group."
  • Logistics plans functions will transfer to the newly created logistics readiness squadrons.
  • The logistics readiness officer career field initiative, which combines three officer career fields - supply, transportation and logistics plans - had new accessions beginning May 2002.

"My vision is that the groups in our wings will focus on their essential core capabilities," General Jumper said. "Operation of air and space weapons systems is a core competency of the U.S. Air Force," General Jumper said. "Operations group activities focus on planning and executing air and space power. Commanders of operations groups are charged with leading their units in combat. "They will continue to be considered leaders and role models in the tactical employment of their weapons systems," he said.

"The Air Force has also recognized the emerging necessity to more closely integrate tactical skills with execution at the operational level of war. Commanders of operations groups will be increasingly involved in planning and training for the operational level of war. "Maintenance of air and space weapons systems is (also) a core competency of the U.S. Air Force," General Jumper said. "Aging fleets and years of resource shortfalls require increased attention to the balance of sortie production and health of our fleets. This requires career maintenance professionals able to develop the same level of skill and proficiency demanded of our operations, logistics and medical professionals.

"Mission support, in the expeditionary, rapid reaction, contingency-based Air Force of today is (another) core competency," he said. "The Air Force will develop a career path for commanders who understand the full scope of home station employment and sustainment, and deployment, beddown and sustainment at contingency locations: crisis actions, force protection, unit type code preparation, load planning, contracting actions, bare base and tent city preparation, munitions site planning, personnel readiness expeditionary combat support, etc."

Medical groups, General Jumper said, will continue to focus on maintaining a fit and ready force. There will be no change to the structure of medical groups.

General Jumper set Sept. 30, 2003, as the target date to achieve full operational capability.

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