United States Air Forces in Europe

United States Air Forces in Europe
United States Air Forces in Europe
United States Air Forces in Europe.svg
United States Air Forces in Europe emblem
Active 7 August 1945 - Current
Country United States of America
Branch United States Army Air Forces
United States Air Force
(1947 - present)
Type Major Command
Part of U.S. European Command
Garrison/HQ Ramstein Air Base, Germany
Nickname USAFE
Engagements Streamer WWII V.PNG
Streamer EAMEC.PNG
Streamer NOS E.JPG
  • World War II Victory Medal
  • European-African-Middle Eastern Theater (1942-1945)
Air Offensive, Europe: 4 July 1942 to 5 June 1944
Normandy: 6 June to 24 July 1944
Northern France: 25 July to 14 September 1944
Rhineland: 15 September 1944 to 21 March 1945
Ardennes-Alsace: 16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945
Central Europe: 22 March to 11 May 1945.
Humanitarian Airlift
Decorations AFOEA Streamer.JPG
General Mark A. Welsh III
Lt General Curtis E. LeMay
General John P. Jumper
General David C. Jones
General Richard H. Ellis
General Michael J. Dugan

The United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) is the United States Air Force component of U.S. European Command, a Department of Defense unified command, and is one of two Air Force Major Commands outside of the continental United States, the other being the Pacific Air Forces. It is, however, the only USAF Major Command to be headquartered outside of the United States.

USAFE is headquartered at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. It is the oldest continuously active USAF major command, being constituted on January 19, 1942, as the 8 Air Force by the United States Army Air Forces. The command was activated on February 1, 1942, at Langley Field, Virginia.

As of March 2011, the commander of USAFE is General Mark A. Welsh III.[1] Lieutenant General Stephen P. Mueller is Vice Commander,[2] and Chief Master Sergeant David W. Williamson is the Command Chief Master Sergeant, United States Air Forces in Europe.[3] The command has more than 39,000 active-duty, Reserve and civilian employees assigned.



The mission of the United States Air Forces in Europe is to be the air component for the U.S. European Command, directing air operations in a theater spanning three continents, covering more than 20,000,000 square miles (52,000,000 km2), containing 91 countries and possessing one-fourth of the world's population and about one-third of the world's Gross Domestic Product.

As part of this mission, USAFE trains and equips U.S. Air Force units pledged to NATO, maintaining combat-ready wings based from Great Britain to Turkey. USAFE plans, conducts, controls, coordinates and supports air and space operations in Europe, parts of Asia and Africa to achieve U.S. national and NATO objectives based on taskings by the U.S. EUCOM commander.

Current operating units

USAFE is headquartered in Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

Numbered air forces

Third Air Force, headquartered at Ramstein Air Base Germany, plans combat and humanitarian operations in the USAFE area of responsibility and conducts day-to-day operations for USAFE and European Command to organize, train and equip Airmen for the functions they could be called upon to accomplish around the world.

Seventeenth Air Force was activated on 1 October 2008 to serve as the air component for United States Africa Command and is headquartered at Ramstein Air Base.

Operating bases

The command has five main operating bases along with 80 geographically separated locations. These are:

Secondary and Support Facilities:

Note: In addition to the above, several Munitions Support Squadrons (MUNSS) are geographically separated units (GSU) located throughout Europe assigned to the 52 FW at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. MUNSS are located at Ghedi AB Italy, Buechel AB Germany, Volkel AB Netherlands, and Kleine-Brogel AB Belgium. They are co-located on other NATO main operating bases and work together with the host nation wing.[4]

The United States Air Forces in Europe Band with its 45 members is located at Sembach Air Base near Kaiserslautern, Germany.[5]



  • Established as 8th Air Force on 19 January 1942
Activated on 28 January 1942.
Redesignated: Eighth Air Force on 18 September 1942
Redesignated: United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe on 22 February 1944
Redesignated: United States Air Forces in Europe on 7 August 1945
Was a specified command of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 22 January 1951-1 July 1956


  • Air Force Combat Command, 28 January 1942
Attached to 1st Air Force for training
  • European Theater of Operations, U. S. Army, c. 18 June 1942
  • European Command, 15 March 1947
  • United States Air Force, 26 September 1947–present




  • Air Disarmament (Provisional): 15 September 1944-1 February 1945
  • Eastern, USSTAF: 20 August 1944-2 August 1945
  • European Air Materiel: 15 September-10 November 1947
  • European Aviation Engineer (Provisional): 22 December 1945-20 November 1946
  • Headquarters, Command, USAFE (Provisional): 12 October 1946-1 July 1948
  • VIII Bomber (later, Eighth Air Force): 1 February 1942-16 July 1945
  • VIII Ground Air Support (later, VIII Air Support): 28 August 1942-1 December 1943
  • VIII Troop Carrier: c. July 1942-16 October 1943 (detached entire period)
  • 8th Interceptor (later, 8th Fighter; VIII Fighter): 1 February 1942-22 February 1944; 16 July 1945-20 March 1946
  • 8th Air Force Base (later, 8th Air Force Service; VIII Air Force Service; Air Service, USSTAF: Air Technical Service Command in Europe): c. 9 June 1942-30 September 1945
  • IX Air Defense: 2 December 1945-1 February 1946
  • XII Tactical Air: 15 November 1945-10 November 1947

Task Forces

  • Airlift (Provisional): 29 July-4 November 1948
  • 1st Airlift: 14 October 1948-1 October 1949
  • Air Depot Areas: Advanced: 18 October 1943-1 March 1945
  • VIII Air Force Base (later, Base): 18 October 1943-1 March 1944; 30 September 1945-25 May 1946
  • VIII Strategic (later, VIII Air Force Service Command), 9 November 1943-20 July 1945
  • Eighth Strategic (Provisional) (later, VIII Air Force Service Command): 9 November 1943-20 July 1945

Air Forces

Attached 12 September-9 November 1942
Assigned 7–31 August 1945; 21 January 1951-1 January 1958

Air Divisions

  • 2d Air Division: 1 June 1949-20 January 1951; 15 April 1955-1 April 1962
  • 3d Air Division: 23 August 1948-2 January 1949; 21 January-1 May 1951; 25 October 1953-1 March 1954. 40: c. 31 October 1945-20 December 1946
  • 42d Air Division: 26 July-13 October 1945
  • 65th Air Division: 1 July 1960 - 1 January 1965
  • 86th Air Division: 1 July 1948-10 October 1949; 1 January 1958-15 November 1959; 1 July-1 September 1963; 20 May 1965-5 October 1968.
  • 302d Air Division: 18 July-c. 8 December 1945
  • 306th Air Division: 15 November 1959-1 April 1960
  • 322d Air Division: 1 March-1 April 1954
  • 7217th Air Division: 15 November 1959-9 September 1970
  • 7499th Air Division: 29 July-5 September 1948


  • 1st Bombardment Division: 13 September 1942-22 February 1944
  • 1st Fighter Division (Provisional): c.June-13 November 1943.
  • 2nd Bombardment Division: 13 September 1943-22 February 1944.


  • European Air Transport: 4 September 1945-20 December 1947.


Patch 8thUSAAF.png

USAFE originated as the United States Army Air Forces' Eighth Air Force in 1942. Eighth Air Force was the command and control authority over its three combat commands, VIII Bomber, VIII Fighter and VIII Air Support Command.

On 22 February 1944 a massive reorganization of American airpower took place in Europe. Eighth Air Force was redesignated as United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF),

The VIII Bomber Command was redesignated as Eighth Air Force and brought under the control of USSTAF. The tactical air force in England, Ninth Air Force was also brought directly under its control. USSTAF also exercised control over the other two Air Forces in the European Theater, Twelfth Air Force and Fifteenth Air Force, both in Italy.

The other combat commands of the former Eighth Air Force, VIII Fighter and VIII Air Support Commands were brought under the command of the newly redesignated Eighth Air Force. VIII Bomber Command was inactivated.

On 7 August 1945, the United States Strategic Air Forces (USSTAF) was redesignated as the "United States Air Forces in Europe" (USAFE) and headquarters USAFE was relocated to Wiesbaden, Germany, on 28 September 1945.

Postwar Europe


Within 18 months of VE-Day, virtually all U.S. armed forces personnel had left Europe except for the Occupation Forces in Germany, Austria, and a small number of Army troops in Italy to control the Trieste problem.

USAFE had been reduced from a force of 17,000 aircraft and about 500,000 personnel to about 2,000 aircraft and 75,000 personnel. USAFE's wartime Air Forces had been rapidly demobilized or reassigned. Eighth Air Force was deployed to Okinawa in August 1945; Twelfth Air Force was inactivated in August 1945; Fifteenth Air Force was inactivated in September 1945 and Ninth Air Force was inactivated in December 1945.

The units which USAFE commanded as part of the Army of Occupation (1945–1948) were:

XII Tactical Air Command
(7 May 1945 - 10 November 1947)
Units assigned directly to HQ USAFE after 10 May 1947

2d Bombardment Group
Foggia, Italy, 19 November 1945-28 February 1946
10th Reconnaissance Group
Fürth, Germany, 28 April 1945 - April 1947
Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany, April - June 1947
27th Fighter Group
Fritzlar, Germany, 20 August 1946 - 25 June 1947
31st Fighter Group
Giebelstadt, Germany, 20 August - 30 September 1946
Kitzingen, Germany, 30 September 1946 - 25 June 1947
33d Fighter Group
Neubiberg, Germany, 20 August 1946 - July 1947
Bad Kissingen, Germany, July - 25 August 1947
36th Fighter Group
Kassel/Rothwesten, Germany, 21 April 1945 - 15 February 1946
Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany, August 1948 - 17 November 1952
52d Fighter Group
Schweinfurt, Germany, 9 November 1946 - 5 May 1947
Bad Kissingen, Germany, 5 May 1947 - 25 June 1947
55th Fighter Group
Kaufbeuren, Germany, 22 July 1945 - 28 April 1946
Giebelstadt, Germany, 29 April - 20 August 1946
60th Troop Carrier Group
Kaufbeuren, Germany, 1 July 1948
Faßberg RAF Station, Germany, 20 January 1949 - 1 October 1949
Wiesbaden AB, West Germany, 1 October 1949 - 2 June 1951
61st Troop Carrier Group
Rhein-Main AFB (later, AB), Germany, 1 July 1948 - 2 June 1951
(Unit operated Rhein-Main AB, Germany, 1 July 1948 - 2 June 1951, and Templehof AB, Germany, 1 July - 5 November 1948. Also operated Tulln Airport in Austria, 1 July - 10 December 1948)
78th Fighter Group
Straubing, Germany, 20 August 1946 - June 1947
86th Fighter Group
Neubiberg, West Germany, 1 July 1948 - 21 August 1952
306th Bombardment Group
Giebelstadt, Germany, December 1945 - February 1946
Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany, 16 August - 13 September 1946
Lechfeld, Germany, 13 September - 25 December 1946
344th Bombardment Group
Oberschleißheim, Germany, 15 September 1945 - 15 February 1946
355th Fighter Group
Gablingen, Germany, 3 July 1945 - 15 April 1946
357th Fighter Group
Neubiberg, Germany, 21 July 1945 - 20 August 1946
366th Fighter Group
Munster/Handorf, Germany, 11 April - 25 June 1945
Bayreuth/Bindlach, Germany, 25 June - 14 September 1945
Fritzlar, Germany, 14 September 1945 - 20 August 1946
368th Fighter Group
Rhein-Main AB, Germany, 15 April 1945 - 13 May 1946
Buchschwabach, Germany, 13 May - 13 August 1945
Straubing, Germany, 13 August 1945 - 20 August 1946
394th Bombardment Group
Kitzingen, Germany, September 1945 - 15 February 1946
406th Bombardment Group
Handorf, Germany, 15 April - 9 June 1945
Nordholz, Germany, 5 June 1945 - 20 August 1946

In addition, USAFE commanded the European Air Transport Service (EATS), which controlled some C-46 and C-47 transport squadrons.

USAFE also controlled Templehof Airport (Various units until 1 July 1948, 7350th Air Base Group 1 July 1948 -) in Berlin which functioned as an airport for personnel and cargo in the American Zone of the occupied former Third Reich capital and Tulln Airport (516th Troop Carrier Group), near Vienna, the Four-Power occupied capital of Austria.

There were also some scattered units (mostly transport squadrons and some administrative flights) in England and France.

Note: Germany used until 7 October 1949. West Germany used after that date due to establishment of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) by the Soviet Union.

P-51D Mustangs, mostly from the 78th Fighter Group, in storage at Duxford Aerodrome, England, Summer 1945. Most of these aircraft were returned to the United States or used by USAFE units in Germany.
He 162 in postwar trials in the United States

A major mission for the postwar USAFE was Operation Lusty, in which former Luftwaffe jet aircraft, such as the Messerschmitt Me 262 and Heinkel He 162 were located on various airfields around Munich and shipped to the United States for inspection and evaluation. At the Lechfeld air base near Augsburg, large numbers of Me 262s were discovered but also valuable German air-to-air rockets. At the Oberpfaffenhofen air base near Munich, USAFE found a high-speed Dornier Do 335. This propeller-driven aircraft could reach a speed of 760 km/h, about 100 km slower than the Me 262 jet fighter. Other former Luftwaffe aircraft were collected and simply sent to blast furnaces for metal recycling.

Elevation to MAJCOM

In March 1946, USAAF Chief General Carl Spaatz had undertaken a major re-organization of the postwar USAAF that had included the establishment of Major Commands (MAJCOM), who would report directly to HQ United States Army Air Forces. In the United States, three MAJCOMs were established: Strategic Air Command (SAC), to provide a long-range striking force capable of bombardment operations in any part of the world; Air Defense Command (ADC), to defend the United States against attack from the air; and Tactical Air Command (TAC), to support the operations of ground forces.

In addition to its commands in the United States, the USAAF established four MAJCOMS for its forces overseas, the Far East Air Forces (FEAF); United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE); Caribbean Air Command (CAC), and Alaskan Air Command (AAC) for the various areas of operations worldwide.

With the establishment of the United States Air Force on 18 September 1947, the USAAF major command structure was retained. However, a further reorganization of the command structure occurred in July 1948 when the chain of command was modified. The Numbered Air Forces (NAF) (ex: Eighth Air Force, Ninth Air Force) were assigned a subordinate role to the MAJCOMs; the World War II Commands (ex: VIII Fighter, XXII Bomber) were eliminated, with the World War II Wings being redesignated Air Divisions (AD) reporting to the NAF. A new Wing echelon was established, with one or more similarly designated groups (ex: 393d Bomb Group, 44th Fighter Group) as its components. Squadrons reported to group commanders, each composed of one or more flights.

Although changes and expansion have occurred over the years, the United States Air Force has retained this basic hierarchical organizational structure.

Beginning of the Cold War

An uneasy peace

Concerned about the massive drawdown of USAFE and the United States Army in Europe (USAREUR), The US High Commissioner for Germany (USHCG), John J. McCloy had grave concerns that there would be insufficient troops to enforce the peaceful transition in his zone of occupation. The United States' European wartime allies, Britain and France, had also rapidly demobilized.

The other major World War II ally, the Soviet Union, had quite different goals during these immediate postwar years. Its main goal was to force the United States, France and Britain out of the four-power divided cities of Berlin and Vienna. Secondary goals were to conquer Turkey and Greece through communist proxy-inspired civil wars. The longer term Soviet goal was to eventually force the western powers completely out of Austria and the western-occupied zones of Germany, eventually making all of Western Europe, including France and Italy into communist states largely controlled by Moscow.

In response to concerns about Soviet activities, the US began a series of reconnaissance flights over Soviet-controlled territory in Germany that led to numerous skirmishes and high tensions. During the War, American photographic and observation groups in England routinely carried out photo recon flights over Germany. When these flights were resumed after the war, the purpose of these flights was aerial intelligence and mapping. Between the autumn of 1945 and 1947, USAFE carried out a series of projects to map areas in west and central Europe, North Africa and Atlantic Islands for future military use in Operation Casey Jones.

RB-24 reconnaissance aircraft used to carry out Casey Jones recon missions. Cameras were mounted in the nose and bomb bay

Casey Jones flights were made by RB-24 Liberators and RB-17 Flying Fortresses converted for photographic use. These flights were only supposed to be flown over the Western Allies occupation zones, but there is a strong suspicion that these aircraft also operated over the Soviet zone. As was likely, Soviet fighters regularly opened fire on American aircraft operating over their occupation zone. On April 22, 1946, an American C-47 near the Tulln Air Base near Vienna over the Soviet zone of Austria was attacked by Soviet Bell P-39 Airacobra fighters. On August 9, Yugoslavian fighters opened fire on a C-47 and forced it to land.

Tensions with the Soviet Union began as early as 1945 at the Yalta Conference and the disagreement between the western Allies and the Soviet Union over the status of Poland. Also the western Allies were particularly agitated by the Soviet expansionist drive in Bulgaria and Rumania and also threatened Hungary. Also, in violation of the agreement with the Allies, Russian troops still occupied parts of Iran and the Russians were putting pressure on Turkey and Greece in order to gain control of the Dardanelles and a passage to the Near East from the Black Sea.

Also, by 1947, the U.S. had serious concerns that the governments of France and Italy would be taken over by their internal communist political parties. The best option for preventing a communist takeover was to create strong, financially stable countries. To revive the economies of Europe, the United States offered a comprehensive economic aid program in June 1947, known as the "Marshall Plan" after the then-United States Secretary of State, George C. Marshall.

The Marshall Plan achieved great success in Western Europe but the Soviets remained steadfast in their goal of communist domination.

Transition of USAFE to combat readiness

Arrival of SAC B-29s in Germany, 1946
F-47D's of the 86th Fighter Wing, Neubiberg Air Base, Germany

The Russian activity in Eastern Europe formed the basis of Winston Churchill's speech on 5 March 1946 in Fulton, Missouri, where he spoke of an "Iron Curtain" being drawn from Stettin on the Baltic Sea, to Trieste on the Adriatic Sea. President Harry S. Truman decided to take a hard line with Russia, lest the situation evolve into a new war. Truman wanted no more compromises. The United States refused to acknowledge the communist regimes in Rumania and Bulgaria; demanded Russian troops leave Iran immediately and demanded an agreement with Russia over the payment of Lend-Lease debts.

Militarily, the United States established a Mediterranean Fleet, and retained its World War II bases in Iceland. In Germany, the former Luftwaffe airfields at Furstenfeldbruck near Munich; Giebelstadt near Würzburg and Rhein-Main near Frankfurt were rebuilt to accommodate B-29 Superfortress bombers. In addition, the B-50 Superfortress (an enhancement of the wartime B-29) was put into production. The B-50A had a range of nearly 7,000 kilometers and was fully Atomic Bomb capable. Preparations were also made to produce the B-36 Peacemaker, an intercontinental bomber developed for very long range missions to Japan from the United States, that could be used to reach targets deep inside the Soviet Union from the United States.

President Harry S. Truman also decided to realign USAFE into a combat-capable force. SAC wanted its B-29 fleet as close to the Soviet Union as possible because of their limited range. It was decided to permanently station them in Europe. In November 1946 six B-29 bombers from SAC's 43d Bombardment Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona were deployed to RAF Burtonwood, England and from there to various bases in Germany as a "training deployment".

From Germany and England, the B-29s were flown to bases in France, Turkey, Greece and were flown along the borders of Bulgaria and Russia over the Black Sea to "show the flag". In May 1947, SAC stationed a number of B-29s in Germany at Giebelstadt and Furstenfeldbruck. This series of deployments ("training deployments", as they were called at the time) were intended to give SAC pilots the opportunity to gain flight experience in Europe. To keep up the pretense of a training program, these B-29 squadrons were constantly rotated back to the United States, being replaced with new squadrons.

The factual aim of these B-29 deployments were to have a strategic air force permanently stationed in Europe. SAC also deployed Boeing B-29 Superfortresses to the United Kingdom where they performed rotational deployments to Royal Air Force bases such as RAF Marham, RAF Waddington, RAF Scampton and RAF Lakenheath.

Military aid by the United States was also provided to the Greek Air Force to help the nation resist the communists trying to overthrow the Greek Government. AT-6 Texans and C-47 transport aircraft, along with armored vehicles, small arms weapons, munitions and RADAR were provided. In Turkey, various intelligence gathering aircraft were deployed along the northern Black Sea coast, providing the United States intelligence about the Soviet Republics of Armenia and Gruzia. Overflights over the Soviet Union were also performed.

The Berlin Airlift

C-47s unloading at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift.
Air corridors to Berlin.

The Berlin Airlift was one of the defining events of and marked the beginning of the Cold War. The 464-day effort to supply a city's needs solely through the air demonstrated the resolve of democratic nations to oppose communist repression. The massive humanitarian effort was an early triumph for the young United States Air Force, and symbolized Western commitment to rebuilding democracy in Europe after World War II.


In 1945 the Soviets, Americans, British and French divided Germany into occupation zones. Berlin, although in the Soviet zone, also was divided among the four powers. With the removal of the Nazi government in 1945, the governing body of Germany was the Allied Control Council (ACC), in which all four Allies participated.

Opposing political systems and goals strained relationships between the Soviets and their recent allies as the American, British and French prepared western Germany to govern itself. By 1948, Germany had become a major pawn in Allied efforts to prevent the westward march of communism. The Soviets pushed the Allies for reparations from western Germany's industrial plants, though this had not been agreed to. Predictably, President Truman refused to give the Soviet Union reparations and Joseph Stalin responded with a Soviet withdrawal from the ACC on 20 March 1948.

With the withdrawal from the ACC, the Soviet Union established checkpoints on the land transit route to Berlin to seriously delay western road traffic in an effort to force the western Allies out of the city, located deep within the Soviet zone of occupation. Protests by the western Allies fell on deaf ears.

On June 18, 1948, the three Western sectors agreed on a new common German currency, coming into force on June 20, that ended the use of occupation currency and introduced the Deutsche Mark. This was a way of putting pressure on the Soviet Union for the reunification of Germany and to spur the German reconstruction. The Soviets objected to this move. Having been invaded twice by Germany in the preceding three decades, they wanted Germany demilitarized like Japan before a reunification should take place. The Soviets also considered this move a breach of agreements reached at the 1945 Potsdam Conference, which stated that Germany would be treated as one economic unit.

In response to the currency reform action by the West, on 23 June the Soviets cut off electrical power to a large part of the western sectors of Berlin. Previously, the Soviets destroyed a large, nearly new power station during their stay in the British sector shortly after the war, and there were only a few very old and obsolete power stations operating in the western sectors. The water supply was also affected because the pumps received very little electricity to pump water from the city's wells.

The next day, June 24 the Soviet Union blocked western all road, rail and barge access going through the Soviet occupation zone of Germany that connected to the three Western-held sectors of Berlin. The Western powers had never negotiated a pact with the Soviets guaranteeing these access rights to Berlin, which lay deep inside the Soviet Zone. Also, amid the fallout of the London Conference, the Soviets now rejected western arguments of their occupation rights in Berlin and the western use of the routes during the previous three years which had given the West a legal claim to unimpeded use of the highways and railroads.

USAF mobilization
C-54s stand out against the snow at Wiesbaden Air Base during the Berlin Airlift in the Winter of 1948-49

General Lucius D. Clay, the United States Military Governor General in Germany, reacted by sharply criticizing the Soviet Union's attempt to create mass famine in Berlin to force the western Allies out of the city. Clay recommended to President Harry S. Truman that an armed convoy be dispatched from the Allied-controlled western Germany to break the roadblocks by force. The consensus from Washington was that the Soviet Union would react violently to an armed effort to break the roadblocks and possibly lead to war. Also it was clear that USAFE's Tactical Air Force was far too small to play a role of any significance if an armed conflict broke out. Preference was given to supplying Berlin by air, as the Soviet blockade had little effect on the three air corridors which were used to fly into Berlin.

With the announcement of the Berlin Airlift, the Soviet Union did not initially interfere with the cargo aircraft flying to Berlin, as they were convinced that supplying two million Berliners by air was an impossible task, even for the United States. In this belief, the Soviets made a serious mistake.

At the dawn of the Cold War, USAFE strength was low both in quantity and quality. The command consisted of 485 aircraft of various types consisting of two C-47 troop carrier groups (60th, 61st) assigned to the European Air Transport Service (EATS) at Rhein-Main and Wiesbaden Air Bases near Frankfurt and some P-47s with the 86th Fighter Group at Neubiberg Air Base near Munich.

USAAF Republic P-84 Thunderjet jets arriving in Germany 1947 with the 31st Fighter Group aircraft over the skies of Germany, 1948

On the morning of 26 June, two days after the blockade began, the first C-47 loaded with milk and medicine took off from Wiesbaden Air Base for Tempelhof Air Base in Berlin. A total of 32 flights were made on that first day. Far too little, because it would take many hundreds of cargo flights each day to provide the 12,000 tons of food, fuel, clothing and medicine it was estimated was necessary to sustain the two million people of western Berlin. There were simply not enough C-47s available, as it was estimated that over 900 would be needed to fly the necessary tonnage to Berlin each day. However, if the larger C-54 Skymaster was used, about 180 could supply the cargo necessary. However, there simply weren't that many aircraft available. The Military Air Transport Service (MATS) was ordered to mobilize all available C-54s and C-82 wherever they could in the world to support the airlift, and to refurbish as many as possible of the C-47s presently in storage at Davis-Monthan AFB for airlift duty. The C-74 Globemaster was also considered for use, as its massive cargo carrying capacity would drastically reduce the number of flights and aircraft necessary. However, the aircraft's landing requirements far exceeded what was available in Berlin, and it was unsafe to land it on the short runways. The C-74, however did support the Berlin Airlift by flying cargo from the United States to staging bases in Europe.

To enhance USAFE's tactical air strength, in July 1948 75 Lockheed F-80B Shooting Stars were transferred to Germany with the 36th Fighter Group, being assigned to Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base, near Munich. This move considerably increased USAFE's tactical airpower, but also was considered as having great psychological value.

In August 1948, 10 C-54s finally arrived in Germany to begin airlift service. In addition, civilian DC-4s, the civil name of the C-54 were loaned to the Air Force for airlift duty. The United States Navy provided 21 R-5Ds, their version of the C-54 as well. The airfields at Rhein-Main and Wiesbaden began to start filling to capacity with planes, and the decision was made to use the Royal Air Force airfields at Celle and Faßberg for transport of cargo to Berlin.

USAFE airlifted more than 2.3 million tons of food, fuel and medical supplies with the aid of the U.S. Navy and the British Royal Air Force.

SAC mobilization
Bell-Atlanta B-29-60-BA Superfortress serial 44-84088 assigned to the 718th Bomb Squadron (28th BW) at RAF Scampton, 1948

The Berlin Airlift taxed existing USAF resources of cargo aircraft, aircraft engines, skilled aircrews, and maintenance personnel. Unfortunately most American citizens believed that the vast airpower created during World War II still existed within the new peacetime Air Force. This was a totally false assumption that would be proven during the Korean War.

To give armed support to these flights, the USAF activated the 3rd Air Division in England. Strategic Air Command had begun rotating B-29 squadrons to Europe beginning in 1946, however with the advent of the Berlin crisis, SAC stationed two squadrons to Goose Bay Air Base in Newfoundland, Canada where they were held in readiness for quick deployment to Europe. It was hoped that the stationing of the atomic bomb capable bombers would have a deterrent effect on the Soviets. From Giebelstadt and Fürstenfeldbruck Air Bases, the B-29s could easily reach Moscow. On the other hand, putting the B-29s so close to the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, and within range of Soviet aircraft in Czechoslovakia carried a significant safety risk. All things considered, it was decided not to send the bombers to Germany, but to Royal Air Force bases in Britain where they would be less vulnerable.

The 28th and 307th Bombardment Groups were deployed to the newly activated Third Air Force station at RAF Marham. The RAF had made several other airfields available to the USAF, including RAF Scampton, RAF Waddington, and RAF Lakenheath. Lakenheath was also large enough to accommodate the largest USAF bomber, the B-36 Peacemaker which was beginning to be deployed to the 7th Bombardment Group at Carswell AFB, Texas. Although the group was not yet Operationally Ready, if necessary it could be used in case an armed conflict broke out with the Soviet Union.

Triumph of Tegel Airfield
Berliners watching C-54 land at Tempelhof, 1948

After several months of airlift operations, it was clear that the two freight facilities in Berlin, Gatow (In the British Sector) and Templehof (In the US Sector) were just too small for the volume of supplies being transported. They could not cope with the number of takeoffs and landings, but the associated infrastructure was not built to cope with the thousands of tons of freight per day. A third airfield was absolutely needed. A suitable site was found in the Reinickendorf suburb in the French Sector which had been used as a training field for the Luftwaffe and was presently unused.

Construction of Tegel Airfield began on 5 August 1948. This involved the construction of a 5,500-foot (1,700 m) runway, 6,020 feet (1,830 m) of taxiway, 4,400 feet (1,300 m) of access road, 2,750 feet (840 m) of access railroad and over one million square feet of apron area used for unloading operations and aircraft parking. Rubble from bombed-out buildings was cleared and 17,000 German workers were hired, working in teams around the clock seven days a week in the construction of Tegel Airfield. The greater part of the runway and taxiways were constructed using shattered brick debris from the destroyed buildings of Berlin, then paved over with asphalt, which had been flown into Berlin using 10,000 55-gallon drums. Largely hand-built due to a lack of heavy construction equipment, Tegel was literally pounded by hand out of the ground.

Amazingly, by the middle of November 1948, the runway was operational and could handle the C-54 and C-47 transport aircraft. Operations at Tegel during the first two weeks were slowed due to a serious landing hazard posed by the transmitter towers of the Soviet controlled Berliner Radfunk radio station. The studios and offices were in the Soviet Sector, but the transmitter and towers were actually located in the French Sector. The Soviets had refused requests to relocate the towers. On 15 December 1948, the French resolved the issue by physically removing Soviet radio personnel from the tower area and destroying the towers with explosives.

Soviet reaction

After a few months it was clear to the Soviets that the Americans were succeeding in supplying the western sectors of Berlin with the minimal amount of supplies necessary to sustain it. Mock attacks by Soviet Air Force fighters began in the air corridors to scare the American pilots caused great confusion and considerably increased the danger of air collisions. Also as many Yakovlev and Lavochkin fighters as possible were assembled around Berlin and then flown en masse in a westerly direction though the corridors. Near the western border of the Soviet occupation zone, they peeled off and flew along the zone border to the next corridor so they could fly back to Berlin along it, against the traffic, to their airfields around Berlin. Western radio frequencies were jammed and chaff was released to confuse radar operators. Searchlights were shone on aircraft in the corridors at night. By the spring of 1949, USAFE announced that there were incidents of Soviets firing at cargo aircraft with anti-aircraft artillery, and of barrage balloons being allowed to float within the corridors. Fortunately, no serious aircraft accidents occurred as a result of this Soviet intimidation.

Airlift completed
Memorial to Berlin Airlift at Rhein-Main Air Base, showing a C-47 and C-54. Photo taken in 1975

The efforts of many hundreds of pilots and the many thousands of military and German civilians involved in the airlift kept the people of Berlin free of communist rule. On one day, the Berlin Airlift delivered nearly 13,000 tons of provisions with almost 1,400 flights. So great was the stream of aircraft that an aircraft landed almost once a minute at one of the three western Berlin airfields. The continuous engine noise of the aircraft stream of heavy transports on their way to Berlin not only made an impression on the citizens of Berlin, but on the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union came to realize that the blockade of Berlin would not achieve the desired political effect they wished. On 12 May 1949, the Soviet blockade was lifted. However airlift operated at a reduced level until the end of September to insure adequate supplies were available in Berlin in case of a re-imposition of the blockade.

This was not a victory for the Allied Forces, but a victory by all of the citizens of Berlin. These were citizens who braved the hardships, the hunger and the cold. These were the citizens who toiled long hours unloading aircraft and making new runways. Berlin was no longer the defeated, demoralized capital of a vanquished foe. The new West Berlin was a city, emerged from the rubble, unified and proud of its peoples' accomplishments. Berliners had earned their right to celebrate and stand among the free people of the world.

The Soviet Union had lost the first skirmish of the Cold War.

The formation of NATO

With the increase of tensions between the West and Soviet Union, discussions led to a multinational defense agreement. The Treaty of Brussels, signed on March 17, 1948 by Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, and the United Kingdom, is considered the precursor to the NATO agreement. This treaty established a military alliance, later to become the Western European Union. However, American participation was thought necessary in order to counter the military power of the Soviet Union, and therefore talks for a new military alliance began almost immediately.

These talks resulted in the North Atlantic Treaty, which was signed in Washington, D.C. on April 4, 1949. It included the five Treaty of Brussels states, France, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Three years later, on February 18, 1952, Greece and Turkey also joined. In 1955, West Germany was also granted membership.

A central NATO defense strategy was the use of tactical air power to offset the Soviet Union with NATO membership, the United States was committed to help defend Western Europe and USAFE again strengthened its airpower.


F-86Fs of the USAFE 48th Fighter-Bomber Wing "Skyblazers" aerobatic team at Chaumont-Semoutiers Air Base performing over Paris – 1955

When the Korean War began June 25, 1950, the USAF had been an independent branch of the U.S. military establishment for less than three years, and was very small and ill-equipped for its assigned worldwide missions. The Air Force Chief of Staff, General Hoyt S. Vandenburg, later stated that in the summer of 1950 we had "a shoestring Air Force". A serious shortage of combat aircraft began to develop by the fall of 1950.

Even with the active war in Korea raging, in the early 1950s, Europe received a higher priority of air power than Korea by the Truman Administration and the Department of Defense. Deterring the threat of a Communist takeover of Western Europe was considered more important to the United States' long-term survival than defeating Communism in Korea.[citation needed]

In September 1950, NATO's Military Committee had called for an ambitious buildup of conventional forces to meet the Soviets, subsequently reaffirming this position at the February 1952 meeting of the Atlantic Council in Lisbon, which had established a goal of ultimately fielding 96 divisions in the event of a conventional war in 1954. In support of this, USAFE, which consisted of 16 wings totaling 2,100 aircraft, was programmed to expand to 28 wings, 22 of them in NATO's Central Region alone, backed by deployed Strategic Air Command units sent from CONUS.

The USAF transferred thirteen combat wings from its Tactical Air Command plus one air depot wing from Air Material Command, and relocated the units to USAFE during the period from April 1951 through December 1954. Eight wings were regular Air Force wings, four wings were federalized Air National Guard units, and one wing was a mobilized Air Force Reserve unit.

Four of these wings deployed to the United Kingdom, three into West Germany, and six wings were deployed to France. These wings gave USAFE/NATO approximately 500 fighters, 100 light bombers, 100 tactical reconnaissance aircraft, 100 tactical airlift transports, and 18,000 personnel.

Along with these new units from the United States, existing USAFE bases in West Germany were realigned to be moved west of the Rhein River. Existing bases in Bavaria (Erding Air Depot, Furstenfeldbruck, Landsberg, Kaufbeuren and Neubiberg Air Bases) were deemed too vulnerable to Soviet attack and were closed by 1960.

In 1955, the force structure was as follows:

  • United Kingdom:
RAF Alconbury 86th Bombardment Squadron
RAF Bentwaters 81st Fighter-Interceptor Wing
RAF Burtonwood 59th Air Depot Wing
RAF Manston 123d Fighter-Bomber Wing
RAF Molesworth 582d Air Resupply Group
RAF Sculthorpe 47th Light Bomb Wing
RAF Shepherds Grove 78th Fighter Bomber Squadron
RAF Wethersfield 20th Fighter-Bomber Wing
RAF Woodbridge 79th Fighter-Bomber Squadron
Rhein-Main AB 433d Troop Carrier Wing
Sembach AB 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing
Hahn AB 50th Fighter-Bomber Wing
Bitburg AB 36th Fighter-Bomber Wing
Ramstein/Landstuhl AB 86th Fighter Interceptor Wing
Spangdahlem AB 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing
Tempelhof AB (West Berlin) 7350th Air Base Group
Wiesbaden AB HQ USAFE/7110 Air Base Group
  • France:
Bordeaux AB 126th Light Bomb Wing
Chambley AB 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing
Châteauroux AD 73rd Air Depot Wing
Chaumont AB 48th Fighter-Bomber Wing
Dreux AB 60th Troop Carrier Wing
Etain AB 388th Fighter-Bomber Wing
Évreux AB 322nd Air Division
Laon AB 38th Tactical Bombardment Wing
Phalsbourg AB 23rd Helicopter Squadron
Toul AB 465th Troop Carrier Wing
  • Netherlands:
Soesterberg AB 32nd Fighter-Day Squadron

.*** Note: Erding, Fürstenfeldbruck, Landsberg, Kaufbeuren and Neubiberg Air Bases, although nominally under USAF control, were being used to train German Air Force pilots. When training was complete, the bases were turned over to West German control. The last of these bases were turned over by 1960. Erding Air Base was shared by USAFE interceptors briefly in the early 1970s.

North American F-100D Super Sabres, Serial numbers 55-2805 and 56-3204 of the 79th Tactical Fighter Squadron, RAF Woodbridge, UK

In addition, by 1960, USAFE controlled air bases in French Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Spain.

However, the dramatic disparity between Western and Soviet forces, coupled with the economic burden imposed on the West, soon worked to undermine this desire. Following Joseph Stalin's death in 1953, the European governments withdrew from the ambitious 96-division goal, seeing their economic circumstances as more pressing than their defense concerns. Then, in October 1953, the Eisenhower administration, desiring to minimize the size and expense of American forces both overseas and at home, adopted a "New Look" defense doctrine that emphasized strategic and tactical nuclear response to Soviet aggression, a doctrine known by the shorthand of "massive retaliation".

This doctrine, enunciated in National Security Council document NSC 162/2, stated that "in the event of hostilities the United States will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other weapons." On December 17, 1954, the North Atlantic Council approved MC 48, a key document in the evolution of NATO nuclear thought. MC 48 emphasized that NATO would have to use atomic weapons from the outset of a war with the Soviet Union whether the Soviets chose to use them first, giving the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR) the same prerogatives for automatic use of nuclear weapons as existed for the commander-in-chief of Strategic Air Command.

In the spring of 1955, West Germany's entry into NATO prompted the Soviet Union to form its own military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. Within the framework of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviets could station troops in Eastern Bloc countries without the resulting political problems.

During a five-day summit conference held in Geneva, Switzerland at the end of July 1955, the Soviet Union and United States held serious talks about disarmament and the United States put forward proposals for mutual reconnaissance flights over each other's air space, known as the Open Skies proposal.

The United States had a large number of RB-47s and RB-36 recon aircraft at its disposal for such activities, however the Soviets turned down this proposal. However, this Geneva Conference was universally accepted as a turning point in the Cold War. The tensions in Europe were felt to be a stalemate; however both the Soviet Union and United States were willing to talk about their differences, rather than increase them into a state of war.

1956 Suez Crisis

The Suez Crisis was a war fought on Egyptian territory in 1956. The conflict pitted Egypt against an alliance among the United Kingdom, France and Israel.

This alliance against Egypt largely took place as a result of the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's action of nationalizing the Suez Canal Company, which operated the Suez Canal, an important asset to French and British economies, particularly as a chokepoint in world oil shipments. British policy makers initially feared an Israeli attack on Egypt, and sought cooperation with the United States throughout 1956 to deal with Egyptian–Israeli tensions.

The alliance between the two European nations and Israel was largely one of convenience; the European nations had economic and trading interests in the Suez Canal, while Israel wanted to reopen the canal for Israeli shipping and end Egyptian-supported guerrilla incursions.

When the USSR threatened to intervene on behalf of Egypt, Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson feared a larger war and came up with a clever plan to separate the opposing forces by placing United Nations forces between them to act as a buffer zone or 'human shield' (he later won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the conflict). This gave birth to the concept of UN peacekeeping operations.

1956 Hungarian Revolution

F-86D Serial 52-4063 of the 513th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, Phalsbourg-Bourscheid Air Base, France - 1958 performing a vital Air Defense role in Europe.

The Soviet Union made good use of the turmoil in the West caused by the Suez Crisis. On November 4, 1956, Soviet troops, who shared no sympathy for the Hungarians, invaded. While the Soviet Union justified its second intervention on the basis of responsibility to a Warsaw Pact ally, in the form of the Kádár government formed on November 3, the Soviet forces allocated came from national reserves, and other Warsaw Pact countries did not supply troops.

In response, the United States deployed sixteen Convair B-36 Peacemaker bombers to RAF Burtonwood, England. It is still unknown if the B-36s were armed with nuclear weapons, however it is unlikely they were deployed to Europe unarmed. SAC was also brought into a high state of readiness with several SAC "Reflex" deployments of B-47 bombers to bases in England and North Africa. The crisis passed and the SAC bombers went off alert status and returned to normal rotational deployments.


1961 Berlin Crisis

East German construction workers building the Berlin Wall, November 20, 1961.

The 1961 Berlin Crisis became USAFE's first test of what was known as a "Flexible Response" strategy. In the spring of 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided that the Soviet Union would sign a peace treaty with the East German government. In effect the German Democratic Republic would control the Russian zone of Berlin and could end joint occupation of the city. This action was a clear violation of the Potsdam Agreement of 1945.

When the Western allies objected to this proposed peace treaty, Khrushchev began speaking about restricting the West's aerial access to Berlin and preventing the entry of East Germans into the city. This possibility started an exodus of Germans from the eastern zone as they rushed to leave their sector and relocate in West Germany.

Departures snowballed from a few dozen refugees daily to a flow of 4,000 per day by August 1961. On the night of August 12, 1961 the Soviet backed East German government began erecting the Berlin Wall to prevent this flow of workers from communism, precipitating a new Cold War crisis that had been brewing for the previous twelve months. Berlin became a divided city. The response agreed to by the Kennedy Administration was to rapidly increase conventional tactical airpower in Europe during the summer of 1961.

This new international crisis required expansion of U.S. military forces. On August 25, 1961 the Department of Defense announced 148,000 reserve personnel would be called on October 1 for twelve months of active duty service. 27,000 of these would be from Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard flying squadrons and support units to augment the Air Force, and 112,000 were Army reservists. Many Army reservists were sent to Europe to bring ground combat units up to full strength. The Air National Guard was tasked to supply six tactical fighter wings and one tactical reconnaissance wing to expand USAFE. Also deployed to Europe was a complete ANG Tactical Control Group consisting of six Tactical Control Squadrons manned by 230 officers and 1,850 airmen having many tons of mobile ground radar and radio equipment for battlefield command and control of tactical air power.

These tactical control units were dispersed throughout West Germany. The Air Force responded with a two-phase deployment of reinforcements to Europe - the largest such overseas movement of aircraft since World War II. The first phase began on September 5 with Operation TACK HAMMER. Tactical Air Command launched eight F-100D squadrons from its Composite Air Strike Force to augment USAFE strength with 144 fighters. All TACK HAMMER fighters moved across the Atlantic Ocean with air tanker refueling en route. The TACK HAMMER deployment was an interim measure until ANG units could relieve Tactical Air Command squadrons.

The second phase began with the movement of eleven Air National Guard squadrons in late October and November 1961. Operation STAIR STEP was the code name for the rapid aerial movement of the fighters to Europe. Aircraft supplied by ANG wings totaled one hundred tour F-84Es, twenty RF-84Fs, seventy-eight F-86Hs, and seventy-two F-104As. The majority of the fighters arrived on 4 November and amazingly had no losses en route. The F-84E and F-86Fs were considered old and obsolete aircraft even though they were only seven to nine years out of the factory. The three F-104 squadrons were activated on November 1, 1961. They disassembled their Starfighters and loaded them into MATS C-124s which delivered them to air bases in Germany and Spain.

F-84Fs from the activated Air National Guard 7108th Tactical Wing in formation over Chaumont-Semoutiers Air Base France. With the end of the Berlin Crisis, these aircraft were reassigned to the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing.

The primary combat mission of the STAIR STEP units was air superiority and offensive tactical air support operations using conventional munitions to defend West Germany if a war developed over Berlin access. Upon arrival in Europe their missions consisted of command inspections, theater flying training, air-ground close support operations, gunnery training, photo missions, and air defense alert duty. Though equipped with conventional weapons, the STAIR STEP F-84F and F-86H squadrons maintained their proficiency to deliver nuclear weapons by practicing toss bombing. By March 1962, the Berlin crisis was subsiding, and plans were being made for departure of the ANG wings from Europe. Units were to return all personnel, equipment, and aircraft to CONUS by September 1, 1962 for early release from active duty.

However, the Berlin Wall was built and a barbed wire fence with minefields extended the entire north-south length of a divided Germany. The wall effectively isolated East Germany for the next twenty-eight years. But the American, British, and French Zones still remained in Berlin and access to the city was not challenged again. TACK HAMMER and STAIR STEP forces had served their purpose; their rapid deployment to France had unequivocally demonstrated the United States' determination to defend Berlin. It is possible that the sudden appearance of 170 tactical fighters with nuclear weapon delivery capability changed Khrushchev's attitude toward his Berlin "settlement."

Beginning about 1963 due to the Vietnam War, USAFE/NATO's total strength steadily declined, as the U.S. reduced forces in Europe to fight a limited war in Southeast Asia for ten years.

French withdrawal from NATO

On March 7, 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle announced that France would withdraw from NATO's integrated military structure but not leave the political organization. He gave NATO forces one year (until April 1, 1967) to depart France.

The United States Department of State, Department of Defense, and Air Force carefully managed the news about the American departure from France, and the attendant problems of an integrated NATO air defense for western Europe and the decrease in tactical airpower. Fortunately for State and DOD, the media was focusing on Vietnam, so the removal of NATO forces from France went virtually unreported in the US.

During 1966-67 all USAF offices and facilities in France were closed and personnel and equipment moved to other NATO countries. The last USAFE activities were the 1630th Air Base Squadron at Orly Airport and the Paris Administration Office. Both were closed in June 1967. A C-47 variant, the C-117B "Super Skytrain" Serial 45-2549 departed from Orly on May 31, 1967. That was the last USAF aircraft to depart France.

A-7 Corsair II aircraft of the Iowa (IA) and South Dakota (SD) Air National Guard flying near RAF Waddington, UK during Crested Cap exercises, 1979

On October 23, 1967, all foreign flags were furled and after 17 years all NATO forces departed France. With the French departure, a major reorganization of USAFE was needed. On May 2, 1967, the US Department of Defense announced that due to the loss of the French bases, the 49th TFW's three squadrons at Spangdahlem Air Base and the 417th TFS of the 50th TFW at Hahn Air Base plus several thousands of the troops stationed in West Germany would be recalled to the US. Although the squadrons were relocated to the US, they were still part of the USAFE's permanent force. According to the Pentagon this new strategy followed the so-called dual-basing principle which meant that the squadrons in the US were held in such a state of readiness that they could return to their European bases at any given moment without lengthy preparations being necessary.

During 1967, the 49th TFW's three squadrons flew back to the US where they were stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. The 417th TFS did not return to the US until 1968. The squadron was stationed at Mountain Home AFB in Idaho. In 1968, the four squadrons switched over completely to McDonnell Douglas F-4D fighter-bombers and then undertook intensive preparations for their new role within the USAFE. The primary task of the four dual-based squadrons was to carry out Project CRESTED CAP. Crested Cap was the Air Force part of the Army's REFORGER, in which annual exercises of Army and Air Force units from CONUS would be deployed to Europe for multinational exercises. In addition, air supply lines are tested, and most of the heavy equipment such as armoured vehicles, artillery, etc., were shipped by sea to exercise that transportation component. Troops are flown via military and contract transport aircraft.

Although the withdrawal of USAFE forces from France was completed in 1967, it took until the mid-1970s until USAFE fully realigned its forces in Europe. Zweibruken AB in West Germany and RAF Upper Heyford in England came under USAFE control within the next several years, and older, but still useful reconnaissance and tactical fighter aircraft were redeployed from their former French bases to Southeast Asia to supplement the PACAF forces engaged in the Vietnam War.

USAFE in Spain

Before joining NATO in 1982, the USAF had for many years, used Spanish air bases. Initially used primarily by the Strategic Air Command, they were at Morón near Sevilla in southern Spain and Torrejon near Madrid. Here, sometimes for weeks on end, B-47s were held in readiness for 'Reflex-duty' and quite often Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses were sent by SAC.

The Spanish air bases were also important for reinforcing the US Air Force in Europe via the southern Atlantic route. Aircraft that flew to Europe via Lajes in the Azores always made a refueling stop at Morón, and later at Torrejon as well. These bases also had American facilities for carrying out necessary repairs and so forth.

Although the Spanish air bases were also in regular use as assembly and departure points for deployments on the way to the US, it was primarily the good weather that drew USAFE to Spain for weapons training, which at that time was still mainly held in Libya.

McDonnell F-4C-23-MC Phantom Serial 66-0768 of the 307th TFS / 401st Tactical Fighter Wing, Torrejon Air Base, Spain. (Photo taken at Ramstein Air Base, West Germany)
General Dynamics F-16A Block 15H Fighting Falcon of the 615th Tactical Fighter Squadron / 401st TFW Torrejon Air Base

After June 1960. when SAC's 65th Air Division was transferred to the USAFE, the USAFE's activities in Spain increased significantly. Two interceptor squadrons equipped with Convair F-102A Delta Daggers were formed, the 431st FIS being stationed at Zaragoza and the 497th FIS at Torrejon. As compensation for the permanent use of these Spanish bases, the Spanish aircraft industry was brought in to maintain the F-102 air defense fighters that the USAFE had stationed in Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. The CASA aircraft factory at the Morón base was given responsibility for the inspection and routine maintenance of the Delta Daggers of the five American interceptor squadrons in Europe.

As the American-Libyan relationship worsened throughout the second half of the 1960s, a growing number of USAFE fighter-bomber squadrons in England and Germany went to Zaragoza and gunnery ranges in Spain for weapons training. Zaragoza later became an important weapons training site for the USAFE and was also visited by F-15 Eagle Squadrons for "Dissimilar Air Combat Training". During these air combat training exercises, the F-15s often practiced against Spanish Air Force Dassault Mirage F-1 fighters.

In April 1966, the 16th Air Force was transferred from SAC to the USAFE, with USAFE taking control of the Spanish air bases at Zaragoza and Morón. Under USAFE, the Spanish bases became host to a growing number of deployments from CONUS. Morón received regular visits from Lockheed F-104C Starfighters of the 479th TFW from George AFB, California. During the Cuban Missile crisis a squadron of F-104Cs was stationed at Morón. Concern, at the height of the crisis, led to these aircraft being transferred to Hahn air base in Germany where they strengthened the air defense of central Europe. Some time later, when the crisis had passed, the aircraft returned to the US via Morón. On April 1, 1963, their place was taken by Republic F-105D "Thunderchief" fighter-bombers from the 4th TFW at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina.

During the mid 1960s, the 16th Air Force also gradually took over responsibility for all USAFE operations around the Mediterranean.

USAFE in Turkey

The Turkish US Logistics Group (TUSLOG) is the primary command element in Turkey of Sixteenth Air Force. TUSLOG not only commands various USAFE units, but also supports all other US military organizations and government agencies in Turkey.

TUSLOG was established in 1955 to support the Turkish armed forces and USAFE's activities and was headquartered in Ankara. The 39th Air Base Wing at Incirlik Air Base near Adana supports training deployments and regional exercises; communications for National Command Authority taskings; providing support for various units and an Air Mobility Command tenant unit providing air transport of passengers and cargo. In the 1950s - 1970s, the 39th supported various SAC activities in Turkey, which used Incirlik intensively as a base for U-2 reconnaissance flights along the Soviet border and in the Middle East. (Incirlik was also a former Forward Operational Location of the CIA.)

In the Turkish capital of Ankara, the 7217th ABG manages the logistical support for more than 40 units and agencies, as well as the needs of the American Embassy, and US Defense Attaché Office.

At İzmir, the 7266th Air Base Group supports the two NATO headquarters LANDSOUTHEAST and SIXATAF. The 7241 ABG is the only US military unit in Turkey not located at a single site, but is scattered about İzmir in various buildings.


Changes continued through the early 1970s. Headquarters USAFE transferred from [Lindsey Air Station]], Germany, to Ramstein Air Base in March 1973 and NATO's Allied Air Forces Central Europe was established at Ramstein Air Base in June 1974. The USAFE commander in chief then took command of Allied Air Forces Central Europe, in addition to commanding U.S. Air Force units in Europe.

By 1975, the USAFE Force Structure was as follows:

  • United Kingdom
RAF Alconbury 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing
RAF Chicksands 7274th Air Base Group (USAFSS)
RAF Fairford 7020th Air Base Group
RAF Lakenheath 48th Tactical Fighter Wing
RAF Mildenhall 513th Tactical Airlift Wing
RAF Bentwaters/Woodbridge 81st Tactical Fighter Wing
RAF Upper Heyford 20th Tactical Fighter Wing
  • Italy
Aviano AB 40th Tactical Group
San Vito AS 7275th Air Base Group
  • Belgium
Chièvres AB 7104 Air Base Squadron
  • Greece
Hellenikon AB 7206th Air Base Group
Iraklion AS 7276th Air Base Group
  • Netherlands
Soesterberg AB 32d Tactical Fighter Squadron
Rhein-Main AB 469th Air Base Group
Sembach AB 601st Tactical Air Control Wing
Hahn AB 50th Tactical Fighter Wing
Bitburg AB 36th Tactical Fighter Wing
Ramstein AB HQ USAFE / 86th Tactical Fighter Wing
Spangdahlem AB 52d Tactical Fighter Wing
Tempelhof AB (West Berlin) 7350th Air Base Group
Zweibrücken AB 26th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing
  • Spain
Zaragoza AB 406th Tactical Fighter Training Wing
Torrejon AB 401st Tactical Fighter Wing
Morón AB 496th Air Base Group
  • Turkey
Ankara AS 7217th Air Base Group
Incirlik AB 39th Tactical Group
İzmir/Cigli AB 7241st Air Base Group

AB = Air Base. Flying/Operational base with permanently assigned aircraft.

AS = Air Station. No permanently assigned aircraft, may or may not have a runway and flying facilities.

Project Ready Eagle

McDonnell Douglas F-15D-25-MC Eagle Serial 79-0008 of the 525th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Bitburg Air Base, West Germany

In 1976, the modernization of USAFE began with the introduction of the advanced McDonnell-Douglas F-15A Eagle air superiority fighter. The F-15A design stemmed from the mid-1960s when far-sighted military planners in the Pentagon came to the conclusion that a new air defense fighter was needed, and quickly, as an answer to new Soviet air defense fighters. Although the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom was equipped with modern infra red-guided AIM-9 Sidewinder and radar-controlled AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles, it often proved no match for the manoeuvrable MiG-19 Farmer and MiG-21 Fishbed fighters in Vietnam. One reason was the young American pilots' lack of air combat experience. Another was that while the F-4 was an ideal platform for a great variety of weapons and suit-able for an equal number of different tasks, it had not been developed as a dedicated air superiority fighter.

The USAF's last real air superiority fighter was the North American F-86 Sabre that had been lord and master of the air during the Korean War. The American F-86 pilots were nicknamed `MiG-killers' and in the period 1950–1953 shot down at least 792 MiGs, most of which were MiG-15 fighters - the Russian showpiece of the communist North Korean Air Force. America's own losses were only 78 Sabres. At the heart of this success lay the F-86's remarkable flight characteristics. The F-86 was not only fast, it had exceptional acceleration and it was extremely manoeuvrable even under difficult conditions. The F-86 was built for air combat and all its best features were echoed in the McDonnell Douglas F-15A Eagle.

The Soviet Union's new MiG and Sukhoi fighters made the American military anxious. The MiG-25 Foxbat made them pull out all the stops to get the F-15A into USAFE

The F-15A was deployed to Germany in April 1977 with the 36th TFW at Bitburg Air Base West Germany. The 32nd TFS at Soesterberg AB Netherlands was also upgraded to the McDonnell-Douglas F-15A "Eagle" as part of Project Ready Eagle. By 1986, all F-4 wings were replaced by F-15 and F-16 fighters. The 36th TFW's existing F-4E Phantoms were incorporated into three new USAFE squadrons which were established at Hahn Air Base (313th TFS), Spangdahlem Air Base (480th TFS) and Ramstein Air Base (512th TFS). Preparations for the switch to the F-15 went ahead at full speed. Its introduction to the USAFE was given the project name `Ready Eagle' and, naturally, included transition training for the USAFE pilots.

This retraining was the joint responsibility of the USAFE and TAC and first began in January 1976 at Langley AFB, Virginia, where the 1st TFW, was stationed. At Langley the USAFE's future F-15 pilots were given a crash course that familiarized them with the new aircraft in a relatively short time. The first F-15A's arrived at Bitburg on January 7, 1977. These were two TF-15A trainers (serial numbers 75-049 and 75-050), that had flown non-stop from Langley in seven and a half hours.

These Eagles were to be used primarily for ground crew familiarization in anticipation of the arrival of the 525th TFS's first F-15As. The 23 aircraft for this first operational squadron left Langley on April 27, 1977 for a mass Atlantic crossing. Over the following months the aircraft for two other squadrons (22nd TFS and 53rd TFS) arrived. The 36th TFW's full strength of 79 fully operational F-15As was reached in December 1977. Project Ready Eagle was completed in precisely one year.

However, after flying the F15A and F-15B for just 18 months, the USAFE exchanged these models for the new F-15C and F-15D Eagles. In May 1980 the 32d flew five of its F-15A/B Eagles to Eglin Air Force Base Florida to participate in the weapons systems evaluation program. While at Eglin the united swapped its aircraft for the newer models. These planes arrived at Soesterberg on 13 June, making the 32d the first unit in the USAFE to be equipped with the latest versions of the F-15. The 32nd completed the upgrade on 25 November 1980. At that time the squadron possessed 18 F-15C's and two F-15D's fighter aircraft.

SS-20s pointing at Europe

Soviet SS-20 IRBM
Pershing II IRBM

By 1975 NATO had lost its strategic nuclear lead over the Soviet Union and with the introduction of the SS-20 had even fallen behind. NATO's answer was not long in coming and on December 12, 1979, NATO decided to deploy 572 new nuclear missiles in Europe: 108 Pershing II Missiles and 464 BGM-109G Ground Launched Cruise Missiles. Of the cruise missiles, 160 were stationed in England, 96 in West Germany, 112 in Italy, 48 in the Netherlands, and 48 in Belgium. All 108 Pershings were stationed in West Germany.

The second significant aspect of the NATO decision was the readiness to `horse trade' with the Soviet Union for the reduction or total elimination of these missiles against similar reductions or elimination of the Russian SS-20s.

East-West relations were put under more pressure by the Soviet troops' invasion of Afghanistan during the Christmas holiday of 1979. Together, the Soviet troops and Afghan government troops took up the fight against Islamic rebels. In his reaction to this brutal assault, President Jimmy Carter said that, under the circumstances, ratification of the new SALT-2 Agreement - the agreement between the US and the Soviet Union concerning the maximum number of strategic nuclear missiles on both sides would be improper. The American Congress agreed wholeheartedly.

In addition, NATO carried out its plans to station cruise missiles in Europe despite strong protests from the peace movements and heavy diplomatic pressure in the European Parliament.

NATO's condition for not carrying out its plans was the Soviet Union's willingness to halt the deployment of mobile SS-20 nuclear missiles aimed at Europe and remove the missiles already deployed. In 1979, when the NATO decision was taken, the Soviet Union had 14 (1 operational) SS-20 launch sites. The eighty located in the GDR and Czechoslovakia were aimed at targets in West Europe. According to Western estimates, at the beginning of 1986 the Soviet Union already deployed 279 SS-20 launching installations with a total of 837 nuclear warheads in the GDR and Czechoslovakia.

In 1986, the US Army had three battalions, with a total of 108 Martin Marrieta Pershing 2 missiles, stationed in the Federal Republic at Neu Ulm, Mutlangen and Neckarsulm. The Pershing 2s replaced a similar number of Pershing 1As that had been stored in the Federal Republic since 1962.

The first General Dynamics BGM-109G Tomahawk cruise missiles to arrive in Europe went to the 501st Tactical Missile Wing (TMW) at RAF Greenham Common, England. The controversial weapons were delivered by a Lockheed C-141B Slarlifter on November 14, 1983. By 1986, there were 32 operational cruise missile launching installations in England (Greenham Common and Molesworth), Belgium (Florennes), and on Sicily (Comiso). Because each GLCM launching installation comprises four weapons, the total number of cruise missiles stationed in Europe was 128.

Luckily disarmament talks between East and West resulted in a disarmament treaty being signed by Russian Party Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan at the end of 1987 during Gorbachev's visit to the US_ The Soviet Union promised to dismantle the SS-20s and with that the deployment of American cruise missiles in Europe was over once and for all.

The historic Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, ratified in 1988, mandated the first-ever elimination of an entire class of weapons from U.S. and Soviet inventories. USAFE completed removal of the ground-launched cruise missiles and other weaponry on March 26, 1991, when the last 16 missiles were removed from Comiso Air Station, Italy.

End of the Cold War

Fraying amongst the members of the Warsaw Pact nations and instability of its western allies, first indicated by Lech Wałęsa's 1980 rise to leadership of the trade union Solidarity, accelerated, leaving the Soviet Union unable to depend upon its satellite states for protection of its borders, as buffer states.

By 1989, the Soviet Union had repudiated the Brezhnev Doctrine in favor of non-intervention in the internal affairs of its Eastern European allies, thereby fatally depriving the Eastern European regimes of the assurance of Soviet assistance and intervention in the event of popular uprising. Gradually, each of the Warsaw Pact nations saw their communist governments fall to popular elections and, in the case of Romania, a violent uprising.

By 1990, the Soviet government had virtually lost control over economic conditions. On February 7, 1990 the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union agreed to give up its monopoly of power.

On December 8, 1991, the leaders of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian republics met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha to issue a declaration that the Soviet Union was dissolved and replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Gorbachev described this as a constitutional coup, but it soon became clear that the development could not be halted.

The Soviet flag as it was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR. By December 31, 1991 all official Soviet institutions had ceased operations as individual republics assumed the central government's role. The Soviet flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin.

Post Cold War era

The great irony is that USAFE per se never had to fight the Soviet military machine in Europe. As World War II caused unrealistic expectations in the minds of many about the likelihood of future war, so, too, did the end of the Cold War, with a clamoring for a "peace dividend" and questions from many about the appropriate size and purpose of American military forces.

All American military forces, and those of the NATO organization as well, experienced rapid change. In the case of USAFE, this spearhead of NATO air power shrunk from over 850 aircraft and 72,000 personnel scattered among 27 bases in 1990 to approximately 240 aircraft, 33,000 personnel, and six flying bases by the end of 1996.

However, a new crisis was quickly in the brewing.

Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm

USAFE F-15s and F-16s flying over the Kuwaiti desert - February 1991

With the onset of Operations Desert Shield in August 1990 and Desert Storm the following January, USAFE resources mobilized and moved to Southwest Asia.

More than 180 aircraft and 5,400 people assigned to USAFE units deployed to the Persian Gulf area. In conjunction, more than 100 aircraft and 2,600 personnel deployed to Turkey for Operation Proven Force. A total of 60,000 USAFE personnel were committed to the war effort; however, fewer than 10,000 actually deployed. More than half of the command's aircraft deployed to support Desert Storm.

The command's air support was lethal. For example, USAFE accounted for only 20 percent of the air-to-air assets in Desert Storm, but claimed half of the air-to-air kills. Command support personnel shipped 85,000 tons of munitions, including more than 35,000 bombs and 7,800 missiles.

USAFE activated aeromedical staging facilities and contingency hospitals, increasing available bed space 1,500 percent above normal peacetime operations. More than 9,000 patients, mostly suffering from noncombat-related illnesses and injuries, were evacuated to Europe. More than 3,000 were treated at USAFE medical facilities. Almost 7,600 patients were later air evacuated to the continental United States for follow-on treatment.

Operation Provide Comfort

While most of the world celebrated the coalition victory, Kurdish rebels and Iraqi forces were fighting in Northern Iraq. The Kurds began a mass exodus toward Turkey and later Iran. USAFE and U.S. European Command personnel stepped in to save lives during Operation Provide Comfort.

The operation immediately began air dropping food and supplies to the refugees. More than 2,400 USAFE people deployed in support of Provide Comfort, along with 36 fighter aircraft to provide protection for the transports. In a relatively new role, USAFE used A-10 aircraft to spot and mark the pockets of Kurds needing humanitarian relief.

As Operation Provide Comfort drew to a close, Kurdish leaders asked for continued protection from the Iraqi army. Operation Provide Comfort II picked up where the first operation left off, building a multinational rapidly deployable air and ground force in Turkey ready to defend the Kurds.

Balkans operations

USAFE also provided air protection over the skies of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Operation Deny Flight. Along with allies from NATO countries, USAFE aircrews applied airpower in Operation Deliberate Force, the bombing campaign that paved the way for the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. USAFE then helped deploy Peace Implementation Forces and equipment to Bosnia for Operation Joint Endeavor and sustained them by airlift.

USAFE forces again mobilized in March 1999 when NATO intervened in Kosovo to stop Serbian fight against Albanian Liberation Army of the province's of Kosovo. USAFE forces was air support for Albanian fighters on the ground. Albanian refugees appeared after the beginning of hostilities. Efforts to find a diplomatic solution collapsed, resulting in Operation Allied Force–the NATO-led air war over Kosovo. The 78-day operation ended June 20 culminating in the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo and the eventual return of refugees. USAFE's 3rd Air Force led Joint Task Force Shining Hope, established to assist the hundreds of thousands of refugees who left Kosovo because of war. USAFE continues to contribute to NATO-led forces promoting peace and stability in Kosovo.

Global War on Terrorism

USAFE has been in the front lines of the Global War on Terrorism since September 11, 2001. During Operation Enduring Freedom, it supported an air bridge from Europe to Asia that delivered 3,300 tons of humanitarian daily rations to northern Afghanistan, opened a base in Kyrgystan for coalition forces, and established a medical evacuation network that moved nearly 4,000 patients. USAFE deployed 24 fighter aircraft, eight KC-135 tankers and nearly 2,400 people in Operation Iraqi Freedom. It opened an important airfield in northern Iraq and provided critical en route support to deploying forces, not to mention vital logistical and medical support to forward-deployed forces.

Today, USAFE airmen are engaged in a wide range of active U.S. military efforts in Europe and Africa, including realistic U.S. and NATO exercises and the Global War on Terrorism. The command also plays a major role in furthering democracy in the former Eastern Bloc, as USAFE people take part in Partnership for Peace exercises and Military-to-Military contact programs.

See also


 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

  • This article includes content from United States Air Forces In Europe website, which as a work of the U.S. Government is presumed to be a public domain resource. That information was supplemented by:
  • Endicott, Judy G. (1999) Active Air Force wings as of 1 October 1995; USAF active flying, space, and missile squadrons as of 1 October 1995. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. CD-ROM.
  • Fletcher, Harry R. (1989) Air Force Bases Volume II, Active Air Force Bases outside the United States of America on 17 September 1982. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0-912799-53-6
  • Maurer, Maurer (1983). Air Force Combat Units Of World War II. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0-89201-092-4.
  • Ravenstein, Charles A. (1984). Air Force Combat Wings Lineage and Honors Histories 1947-1977. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0-912799-12-9.
  • Rogers, Brian (2005). United States Air Force Unit Designations Since 1978. Hinkley, England: Midland Publications. ISBN 1-85780-197-0.
  • "17th may be reactivated for Africa missions". Air Force Times, 19 November 2007

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