Air Force Combat Organizations: Tactical Air Forces

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Air Force Combat Organizations: Tactical Air Forces. Tactical air forces are air combat forces that are organized to conduct operations within a theater of war in support of military campaign and possibly national objectives. The traditional view of these forces is that they provide offensive and defensive support to ground and naval surface forces. However, after its creation in 1947, the United States Air Force (USAF) increasingly viewed tactical air power as a potentially decisive factor in modern warfare that should be organized and used as an independent combat force whenever possible. The differing views on the proper roles of air power have often generated significant debates between the USAF (and its predecessors) and the other three armed services. The other services—army, navy, and Marines—tend to view air power as a subordinate and supporting capability.

The modern USAF tactical air force structure has been built upon the framework of the early military aviation units and the experiences of air power in combat. The earliest basic U.S. aviation tactical unit was an aerosquadron, later called a squadron. As its role evolved, squadrons were characterized by a specific combat function and were normally equipped with a single type of aircraft. Squadrons were often subdivided into “flights.” Squadrons remain the basic operational unit in the modern USAF. In the early years of U.S. military aviation, when used in combat, squadrons were assigned directly to ground units. This situation reflected the view of aviation units as primarily support for surface units, a role that was also illustrated by aviation's overall subordination as the Aeronautical Division or Aviation section within the Signal Corps until 1918.

The experience of World War I led to the formation of a somewhat more independent organization, the Division of Military Aeronautics of the U.S. Army, in 1918. The First World War experience also defined the basic roles of tactical air power: reconnaissance and observation, air superiority (control of the air—the most critical function of air power—through offensive and defensive action, normally by pursuit or fighter aircraft), attack (support for friendly surface forces either through close air support or interdiction), and bombardment (deep attacks on enemy surface forces and support capabilities). Air forces also showed promise for other missions, including emergency logistic support and tactical movement of ground forces. Many air leaders extrapolated from the experience and envisioned even greater roles for air power in future conflict. As a minimum, these leaders, like Gen. Billy Mitchell, envisioned air power as a key to breaking away from the bloody trench warfare of the past war, and many believed that air power could change the very nature of future wars.

The debates on the role of air power that emerged during and after World War I have continued into the post–Cold War period. The more revolutionary perspective of air power potential has focused on the concept of strategic bombardment, meaning direct attacks on the enemy's homeland and his ability, as well as willingness, to support continued combat operations. Although strategic bombardment became the focal point of the effort to define the role of air power in modern warfare, many air leaders believed that the capabilities of air power must be used in a decisive manner in tactical operations as well. Air power advocates believed that air power, tactical as well as strategic, must be organized centrally under the control of airmen who understood the inherent abilities of air power as well as its limitations. This centralized control would allow air forces commanders to exploit the inherent offensive capability and flexibility of air power, to focus on air assets on potentially decisive targets, and to respond rapidly to changing combat conditions.

During the inter‐war period, Army leaders maintained overall control of aviation forces, although the push for greater independence by air leaders led to the creation of the Army Air Service in 1920 and the Army Air Corps in 1926. Even more importantly, in 1935, the Army created General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force to control all combat forces in the continental United States. In 1941, the Army created the Army Air Forces in recognition of the increasingly important role of the aviation branch. Along with the evolution of the higher command and control organizations, the operational forces also evolved. Squadrons remained the key tactical units, and were normally organized into groups, which in turn were organized into wings. A group normally included several squadrons and also controlled the support functions needed to operate an air base and sustain the operational forces stationed at the base.

During World War II, wings contained several groups and were organized into numbered air forces (e.g. Eighth Air Force, Ninth Air Force, or Fifth Air Force). As needed, intermediate organizations, including divisions and commands, were formed under the air forces to meet theater or campaign requirements. The most important of these for theater operations was the tactical air command or TAC (e.g. IX TAC or XIX TAC), which was specifically formed to provide offensive and defensive support for surface forces. Air Force leaders believed that the experiences in Europe and the Southwest Pacific validated the value of tactical air power as a coequal combat power with the surface forces. Army commanders generally concurred that air power had been a critical factor, but they viewed aviation as a supporting, indeed subordinate, capability, not a coequal force.

The creation of an independent USAF in 1947 and the associated changes in the national defense structure incorporated an increased emphasis on independent air power. The flight, squadron, and wing structure of the tactical forces remained the foundation of the combat capabilities. (Following the creation of the USAF, the wing replaced the group as the standard base‐level unit controlling all the base activities, including the combat squadron.) Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the strategic mission tended to dominate the image and the force structure of the USAF. But, centrally controlled tactical forces also provided important combat capabilities to the U.S. military. Due in part to the competition imposed by limited budgets, the other services aggressively criticized the USAF for both its emphasis on strategic operations and for its emphasis on centralized control in theater operation and for independent operations.

The USAF theater capabilities were organized to support the unified commanders within the U.S. national command and control structure. Each regional commander had a USAF component command—organizationally equal to the surface components—that was also a major command for the USAF. For example, in Europe, the air forces were commanded by the U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and in the Pacific by first the Far East Air Forces (FEAF) and then Pacific Air Forces (PACAF). In the continental United States, the tactical forces were controlled by the Tactical Air Command (TAC) for most of the post–World War II period—replaced by the Air Combat Command (ACC) in the post–Cold War era. TAC trained forces, developed doctrine, and provided combat forces to overseas commanders. Within the major commands, the key subordinate organizations were number air forces, with air divisions providing another management level above the wings.

As the unified command structure matured and concepts of joint operations evolved, the theater command and control system developed to include a joint forces air component commander (JFACC), who controlled all air assets from all services involved in theater operations. The JFACC position represents the maturation of the concept of centralized control of theater air power. In the perspective of the USAF, the JFACC concept and the modern role of theater air power was validated in Operation Desert Storm against Iraq, in which air assets were used in a combination of strategic and tactical operations to independently create the conditions of victory. The interpretation of this experience varies: the other U.S. military services continue to argue that air power still primarily supports surface operations, while the USAF continues to claim that air power is indeed decisive in modern warfare, including theater or tactical operations, and must not be tied too tightly to surface force concepts.
[See also Air Force Combat Organizations: Strategic Air Forces; Air Force, U.S.: Overview; Air Force, U.S.: The Predecessors of, 1907 to 1946; Air Force, U.S.: Since 1947; Army Combat Branches: Aviation, Persian Gulf War, 1991.]


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Jerome V. Martin