USAF 75th anniversary: Post-Vietnam to the Global War on Terror

The Air Force modernized its tactical air forces in the late 1970s with the introduction of the F-15, A-10, and F-16 fighters, and the implementation of realistic training scenarios under the aegis of Red Flag.

In turn, it also upgraded the equipment and capabilities of its Air Reserve Components by the equipping of both the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve with first-line aircraft.

The F-117 Nighthawk, the world’s first attack aircraft to employ stealth technology, is retiring after 27 years of U.S. Air Force service. The aircraft made its first flight at the Tonopah Test Range, Nev., in June 1981, just 31 months after full-scale development was authorized. The Nighthawk program remained classified until November 1988, when a photo of the jet was first unveiled to the public. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Aaron D. Allmon II)

Expanding its force structure in the 1980s to 40 fighter wings and drawing further on the lessons of the Vietnam War, the Air Force also dedicated units and aircraft to Electronic Warfare and the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses.

The humiliating failure in April 1980 of the Operation Eagle Claw rescue mission in Iran resulted directly in an increased U.S. Air Force emphasis on participation in the doctrine, equipment, personnel, and planning of Joint Special Operations.

The Air Force provided attack, airlift, and combat support capability for operations in Grenada in 1983 (Operation Urgent Fury), Libya in 1986 (Operation El Dorado Canyon), and Panama in 1989 (Operation Just Cause).

Lessons learned in these operations were applied to its force structure and doctrine, and became the basis for successful air operations in the 1990s and after Sept. 11, 2001.

The development of satellite reconnaissance during the Cold War, the extensive use of both tactical and strategic aerial reconnaissance during numerous combat operations, and the nuclear war deterrent role of the Air Force resulted in the recognition of space as a possible combat arena.

An emphasis on “aerospace” operations and doctrine grew in the 1980s. Missile warning and space operations were combined to form Air Force Space Command in 1982.

In 1991, Operation Desert Storm provided emphasis for the command’s new focus on supporting combat operations.

Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm

Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in late 1990, President George H.W. Bush assembled a coalition to force the Iraqis out of Kuwait.

The U.S. Air Force provided the bulk of the Allied air power during the Gulf War in 1991, flying alongside aircraft of the U.S. Navy and the Royal Air Force.

The F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter’s capabilities were shown on the first night of the air war when it was able to bomb central Baghdad and avoid the sophisticated Iraqi anti-aircraft defenses.

The Air Force, along with the U.S. Navy and the RAF, later patrolled the skies of northern and southern Iraq after the war to ensure that Iraq’s air defense capability could not be rebuilt.

Operation Provide Comfort, 1991-1996, and Operation Northern Watch, 1997-2003, patrolled no-fly zones north of the 36th parallel north; and Operation Southern Watch patrolled a no-fly zone south of the 33rd parallel north.

Air Expeditionary Force

Faced with declining budgets for personnel and resources in the late 1990s, the Air Force realized that it had to change the way it did business if it was to remain in business providing air power in support of America’s national and international interests.

In the mid-1990s, the Air Force was carrying out the “deny-flight” patrols of Operations Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq. These airborne patrols were tedious, boring and placed additional burdens on an Air Force that had been significantly downsized after the end of the Cold War and Operation Desert Storm.

As the mission continued into one of multi-year duration, the obvious drain on equipment and manpower forced the Air Force to reconsider how it was going to meet its future worldwide commitments.

The Air Expeditionary Force concept was developed that would mix Active-Duty, Reserve and Air National Guard into a combined force. Instead of entire permanent units deploying for years on end, units composed of “aviation packages” from several wings, including active-duty Air Force, the Air Force Reserve Command and the Air National Guard, would be married together to carry out the assigned deployment rotation.

In this way, the Air Force and its reserve components did not have to provide complete units of their own to meet the requirements placed before it by the Air Staff and the combatant commanders.

Unlike the overseas major commands already established such as Pacific Air Force, U.S. Air Forces Europe, CENTAF (later AFCENT) would not consist of permanently assigned units. Instead of the “Provisional” deployed units attached to the command during the 1991 (Persian) Gulf War, “Air Expeditionary” units would be the force projection components of CENTAF.

Air Expeditionary Force units are composed primarily of Air Combat Command or ACC gained components, but also components deployed from other major U.S.-based and overseas commands as necessary to meet mission requirements.

AEF organizations are defined as temporary in nature, organized to meet a specific mission or national commitment. As such, they are activated and inactivated as necessary and do not carry any official lineage or history.

Knowing that overseas basing was not something that could always be counted on due to the volatility of U.S. relations with host nations, the Air Force decided that keeping units fixed in static locations was no longer a viable option. Instead of using the Cold War model of a large number of permanent bases with units assigned, the Air Force modified its war plans to include the use of fewer, temporary bases that would be used by multiple AEF units rotating in for a finite amount of time then inactivating afterwards.

Another not-to-be-forgotten benefit of the Air Expeditionary Force concept, at least for the reserve components ó is that their members are all volunteers. When an AFRC or ANG unit is assigned to the AEF rotation cycle, it is the unit’s responsibility to obtain the needed personnel to fulfill the requirement. Other than units activated by presidential order, the utilization of ANG and AFRC personnel to support the AEF rotation cycles has always been accomplished on a completely voluntary basis.

In addition, the various Air Expeditionary Wings formed by the Air Force for the purpose of meeting the various deployment rotations allowed the deployment burden to remote combat areas of AFCENT be spread more evenly over the total force, while providing meaningful training opportunities for reserve component units that otherwise would not have had them.

In 1996, Operation Desert Strike and 1998 Operation Desert Fox, the Air Force bombed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Airmen from the 34th Bomb Squadron work to de-ice a B-1B Lancer March 26, 2011, at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D, in preparation for a mission in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Adam Grant)

Bosnia and Kosovo

The U.S. Air Force led NATO action in Bosnia with no-fly zones (Operation Deny Flight) 1993-96 and in 1995 with air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs (Operation Deliberate Force).

This was the first time that U.S. Air Force aircraft took part in military action as part of a NATO mission. The Air Force led the strike forces as the NATO air force (otherwise mainly composed of RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft) with the greatest capability to launch air strikes over a long period of time.

In 1999, the U.S. Air Force led NATO air strikes against Serbia during the Kosovo War (Operation Allied Force). NATO forces were later criticised for bombing civilian targets in Belgrade, including a strike on a civilian television station, and a later attack which destroyed the Chinese embassy.

Global War on Terror

On Sept. 11, 2001, the world changed.

Following the attacks, in 2001, the U.S. Air Force was deployed against the Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

Operating from Diego Garcia, B-52 Stratofortress and B-1 Lancer bombers attacked Taliban positions. The Air Force deployed daisy cutter bombs, dropped from C-130 Hercules cargo planes, for the first time since the Vietnam War. During this conflict, the Air Force opened up bases in Central Asia for the first time.

The Air Force was deployed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and, following the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Air Force took over Baghdad International Airport as a base.

Operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated the effective utility of Unmanned Air Vehicles, the most prominent of which was the MQ-1 Predator.

A total of 54 Air Force personnel died in the Iraq War.

By December 2011, all U.S. forces were removed from Iraq. By August 2021, all U.S. forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Odyssey Dawn

In March 2011, U.S. Air Force jets bombed military targets in Libya as part of the international effort to enforce a United Nations resolution that imposed no-fly zone over the country and protected its people from the civil war that occurred when its dictator, Muammar Gaddafi suppressed the protests calling for the end of his regime. Protests were inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

The operation was known as Operation Odyssey Dawn, and ran March 19-31.

Modern Day

Today, the U.S. Air Force is the largest, most capable and most technologically advanced air force in the world, with about 5,778 manned aircraft in service, approximately 156 Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles, 2,130 Air-Launched Cruise Missiles, and 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The U.S. Air Force has approximately 328,439 personnel on active duty, 74,000 in the Selected and Individual Ready Reserves, and 106,000 in the Air National Guard. In addition, the Air Force employs 168,900 civilian personnel including indirect hire of foreign nationals.

Today’s airmen are the most educated and highly trained the Air Force has even seen.

It is safe to say that the future of the U.S. Air Force is in good hands.


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