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Third Air Force
F-15 Eagle of the 48th Fighter Wing, RAF Lakenheath, England
Active 18 December 1940
Country  United States
Branch Flag of the United States Air Force.png  United States Air Force
Part of United States Air Forces in Europe.png  United States Air Forces in Europe
Garrison/HQ Ramstein Air Base
Lieutenant General Craig A. Franklin
Lewis H. Brereton
Roscoe C. Wilson
Francis H. Griswold
Emblem of the Third Air Force 3d Air Force.png

The Third Air Force (3 AF) is a numbered air force of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and United States Air Forces Africa . It is headquartered at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. It is responsible for all United States Air Forces in Europe and United States Air Forces Africa (AFAFRICA) operations and support activities in the U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command areas of responsibility.

One of the four original pre–World War II numbered air forces, it was established on 26 March 1941, at Tampa, Florida with a mission of air defense of the Southeastern United States and Gulf Coast regions. During the war, its primary mission became the organization and training of combat units prior to their deployment to the overseas combat air forces.

It is commanded by Lt Gen Craig A. Franklin. Its Command Chief Master Sergeant is Chief Master Sergeant Craig A. Adams.


The command directs all USAFE and AFAFRICA forces engaged in contingency and wartime operations in the United States European Command (EUCOM) and United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) areas of responsibility. It also has a unique mission as the U.S. military's primary liaison to the British government, which is conducted through the command's 3 AF-UK headquarters at Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, England. As an integral part of America's commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Third Air Force's area of responsibility includes missions and personnel in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, and portions of France.

The command also serves as Headquarters United States European Command's "single point of contact" for representing U.S. forces in negotiations with the British government, Third Air Force oversees host nation support agreements for all American military forces based in the United Kingdom through the command's 3 AF-UK headquarters at RAF Mildenhall.

Through the Partnership for Peace program, Third Air Force manages military contact and assistance programs for a number of countries in Eastern Europe. Third Air Force is also responsible for contingency planning and support of American security interests in Africa.

It is composed of more than 25,000 military people, and more than 35,000 family members. Third Air Force is assigned more than 200 aircraft, while tasked to provide support servicing to thousands of other transient aircraft that visit its bases each year.


F-16s of the 31st Operations group, 555th Fighter Squadron, Aviano Air Base, Italy

C-130Es of the 86th OG on the ramp at Ramstein AB, Germany

A-10A 81-0976 of the 52d Operations Group, Spangdahlem AB, Germany

Major operational units under Third Air Force are:

In addition, there are numerous minor units assigned to Third Air Force by HQ USAFE.



  • Established as Southeast Air District on 19 October 1940
Activated on 18 December 1940
Redesignated: 3 Air Force on 26 March 1941
Redesignated: Third Air Force on 18 September 1942
Inactivated on 1 November 1946
  • Activated and organized on 1 May 1951
Inactivated on 1 November 2005
  • Redesignated Third Air Force (Air Forces Europe) on 29 November 2006
Activated on 1 December 2006.


  • General Headquarters Air Force
(later, Air Force Combat Command), 18 December 1940
  • Eastern Theater of Operations, 24 December 1941
  • Air Force Combat Command
(later, United States Army Air Forces), 5 January 1942


  • MacDill Field, Florida, 18 December 1940
  • Tampa, Florida, 8 January 1941
  • Greenville AAB, 28 March 1946 – 1 November 1946
  • Victoria Park Estate
(later, U.S. Air Base, South Ruislip; South Ruislip Air Station), England, 1 May 1951
Ramstein AB, Germany, 1 December 2006 – .

Major components


  • 1 Ground Air Support
(later, I Air Support; I Tactical Air Division; III Tactical Air Division; III Reconnaissance)
12 August 1942 – 21 March 1946
II Air Support (later, II Tactical Air Division): 25 January 1943 – 25 October 1945.
3d Air Force Service (later, 3d Air Force Base): 1 October 1941 – 19 May 1942
3d Air Support: 1 September 1941 – 16 March 1942
3d Bomber (later, III Bomber): 5 September 1941 – 21 March 1946
3d Interceptor (later, III Interceptor; III Fighter): 17 June 1941 – 21 March 1946
III Ground Air Support (later, III Air Support; III Reconnaissance; III Tactical Air)
27 May 1942 – 24 October 1945.



One of the four original numbered air forces, Third Air Force was activated as the Southeast Air District of the GHQ Air Force on 18 December 1940, at MacDill Field, Florida. It was redesignated Third Air Force on 26 March 1941 with a mission for the defense of the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico regions of the United States.

World War II

Third Air Force region of the United States, World War II

Headquartered at MacDill Army Airfield, Florida during World War II, Third Air Force initially provided air defense for the southeastern United States (1940–1941) and flew antisubmarine patrols along coastal areas of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico from after Pearl Harbor until October 1942. In addition, the command performed training through Army Air Forces Training Command of units, crews, and individuals for bombardment, fighter, and reconnaissance operations.

In 1942, the antisubmarine patrols were turned over to the Coast Guard and other agencies and the command was engaged primarily in training replacements for combat units. It supported Army Air Forces Training Command's mission of training of units, crews, and individuals for bombardment, fighter, and reconnaissance operations. After personnel graduated from AAFTC flight schools; navigator training; flexible gunnery schools and various technical schools, Third Air Force organized the personnel, aircraft and equipment into combat groups and squadrons. The newly formed units received secondary training prior to their assignment to the deployed combat air forces in the various overseas theaters. Third Air Force primarily trained B-25 Mitchell and B-26 Marauder medium bomber groups and A-20 Havoc and A-36 Apache light bomber groups. It also trained replacement fighter pilots, initially using P-39 Aircobra and P-40 Warhawks in 1942, later with P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs beginning in 1943 and 1944 as they became available. Third Air Force also provided support to the Army Air Forces School of Applied Tactics operated by Army Air Forces Training Command in Florida. By 1944, most of the Operational Training of groups ended, with the command concentrating on the training of replacement personnel, using Army Air Force Base Units (AAFBU) as training organizations at the airfields controlled by Third Air Force.

Also by 1944, the majority of the Numbered Air Forces of the USAAF were fighting in various parts of the world, such as the Eighth Air Force in Europe and the Twentieth Air Force in the Pacific. They were supported by four numbered air forces located within the United States (known as the Zone of the Interior, or "ZI".) On 13 December 1944, First, Second, Third and Fourth Air Force were all were placed under the unified command of the Continental Air Forces, the predecessor of the later established Strategic Air Command, Tactical Air Command, and Air Defense Command, which were all established in 1946.

Postwar era

When the Army Air Forces reorganized in 1946, Tactical Air Command (TAC) was established as one of its three major commands. The USAAF Troop Carrier Command (TCC) was inactivated as part of this reorganization and Third Air Force was reassigned to TAC to control the troop carrier units formerly part of TCC. It was headquartered at Greenville AAF, South Carolina. The C-46 Commando and C-47 Skytrain were the primary troop carrier aircraft, but surplus C-54 Skymasters that had been originally purchased for the Air Transport Command (ATC) were made available for troop carrier use.

Third Air Force was inactivated on 1 November 1946 and TAC's troop carrier mission was reassigned to Ninth Air Force with its return from Europe and reassignment to Donaldson.

Cold War

In August 1948, in response to the Berlin blockade, the U.S. deployed long-range B-29 Superfortress strategic bombers to four East Anglian bases. The USAFE 3d Air Division was activated to receive, support and operationally control the B-29 units deployed in England for training. It also provided aircraft maintenance support at RAF Burtonwood for C-54 Skymaster aircraft used in the Berlin Airlift. When the Berlin Airlift ended in 1949, the division participated in the Military Assistance Program in England and began an extensive air base construction program through May 1951

Briefly elevated to the Major Command level from 3 January 1949 – 21 January 1951, the 3d Air Division controlled large numbers of USAF organizations based in the United Kingdom and supervised a tremendous airfield construction program.

However With the advent of the Korean War and the growing Cold War threat of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and UK agreed to an even greater U.S. military presence in the United Kingdom. The resulting growing size and complexity of the American military presence required a larger command and organizational structure that could meet the needs of the increased operations.

Reactivation of Third Air Force

F-84Gs of the 77th Tactical Fighter Squadron, RAF Wethersfield

File:20th Fighter Wing F-100Ds, RAF Wethersfield.jpg

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

McDonnell F-4D-28-MC Phantom Serial 65-0738 at RAF Bentwaters, September 1972.

Northrop F-5E Tiger II Serials 73-0953, 0956 and 0985 of the 527th TFTAS in formation at RAF Alconbury, 1977

A-10A Serial 81-0991 at RAF Bentwaters.

F-15C Serial 80-082, 53d Fighter Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base

The 3d Air Division was discontinued on 1 May 1951, and in its place the USAFE Third Air Force was activated to oversee tactical air operations. Strategic Air Command's 7th Air Division controlled deployed bombardment and reconnaissance forces with Third Air Force providing its logistical support. From its headquarters at South Ruislip Air Station near London, Third Air Force carried out that mission basically unchanged through 1966, when the 7th Air Division was inactivated.

Tactical Air Operations

The first tactical unit to come to England under Third Air Force was the 81st Fighter Bomber Wing based at RAF Bentwaters on 6 September 1951. The next assigned unit was the 20th Fighter Bomber Wing, assigned to RAF Wethersfield. These Republic F-84 Thunderjet/Thunderchief and North American F-86 Sabre units worked with Royal Air Force Fighter Command providing air defense for England. In addition, the attached Tactical Air Command 47th Bombardment Wing flew B-45 Tornado and B-66 Destroyer tactical bombers from RAF Sculthorpe and RAF Alconbury.

Initially the 49th Air Division functioned as the intermediate-level command authority for USAFE's wings in the UK, no operational combat groups were attached. The division supervised and participated in numerous training missions such as Quick Shot, Kingpin, and Bear Claw. it was inactivated on 1 July 1956

During the 1960s, Third Air Force has four to five combat wings and major changes occurred in the types of aircraft deployed in the United Kingdom. North American F-100 Super Sabres, McDonnell F-101 Voodoos, and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs replaced older fighter aircraft. Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers replaced older refueling aircraft.

In June 1972, daily operational control of tactical units in the United Kingdom was transferred to Headquarters USAFE at Wiesbaden Air Base, West Germany. Third Air Force still retained command of the units, but as a result of the change, the headquarters was reorganized, reduced in personnel strength, and moved to RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom.

In 1979, NATO ministers decided to deploy BGM-109G Gryphon Ground Launched Cruise and Pershing II IRBM missiles to counter the growing Soviet SS-20 intermediate range ballistic missile threat. RAF Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth were selected as the beddown sites for the GLCM. The 501st Tactical Missile Wing (TMW) was activated at RAF Greenham Common in July 1982 and the 303d Tactical Missile Wing at RAF Molesworth in December 1986. In June 1987, Headquarters USAFE delegated tactical control of Third Air Force units to the Third Air Force commander.

On 15 April 1986, General Dynamics F-111 aircraft based at RAF Lakenheath and RAF Upper Heyford were launched against suspected terrorist targets in Libya, as part of Operation Eldorado Canyon.

With the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in December 1987, GLCMs deployed to RAF Molesworth were removed to the U.S. and the 303rd TMW inactivated 30 January 1989. The last GLCMs at RAF Greenham Common were removed in March 1991, and the 501st TMW inactivated 4 June 1991.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Third Air Force, like many other U.S. military units, received their trial by fire. However, for Third Air Force, the scenario was not similar to any which had been practiced in the past. Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were not classic East-West confrontations in Europe that Third Air Force had been trained for. Thousands of miles removed from the Kuwait theater of operations, Third Air Force played a major support role, deploying half its combat aircraft, several thousand vehicles, approximately 50,000 tons of munitions, and many more tons of supplies and material. Third Air Force also provided 2,250 hospital beds by activating three of its contingency hospitals and was ready in the event of a large number of casualties were received.

Post Cold War

The end of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union left in its wake many new military challenges, tensions and emerging conflicts. It also drew attention to the need for American military forces to operate in ways and locations outside the traditional NATO construct. The shift in East-West relations and the increasing focus toward Eastern Europe, the southern region and the Middle East led to a changing of the focus of Third Air Force as well.

Recognizing that the threat to NATO was significantly reduced with the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Congress mandated large reductions in the American military budget and American military troop strength based in Europe. From a Cold War high of 450,000 in the late 1980s, American troop strength in Europe was reduced to 100,000 by the mid-1990s.

During the 1990s the USAF restructured itself to meet the emerging needs of the new world order. Several Third Air Force units returned to the U.S., and several more were inactivated. Third Air Force returned many of its bases to the British Ministry of Defence, and scaled down operations at other places.

In March 1996, Headquarters USAFE announced a major reorganization of its numbered air forces. The announcement included news of the inactivation of Seventeenth Air Force at Sembach Air Base Germany, transferring its responsibility for overseeing all U.S. Air Force units north of the Alps to Third Air Force. As a result of the changes, Third Air Force grew substantially, taking on two main operating bases, Ramstein Air Base and Spangdahlem Air Base, both in Germany, and five geographically separated units.

With this 1996 reorganization, Third Air Force was composed of more than 25,000 military people, and more than 35,000 family members. In terms of numbers of aircraft, Third Air Force had more than 200, including KC-135 and F-15 aircraft at bases in England, and A-10, F-16, C-9, C-20, C-21 and C-130E aircraft in Germany.

In addition to a larger area of responsibility, the command reorganization also brought about a subtle change in the mission of the Third Air Force headquarters element. Third Air Force was tasked to take a more active role in the leadership of operational contingencies, and provide trained staff to lead or augment joint and combined task force headquarters elements.

In 2005, USAFE once again realigned its numbered air forces. Sixteenth Air Force was aligned as the command's new Warfighting Headquarters. Third Air Force was inactivated on 1 November, ending the unit's prestigious 50-plus year legacy in the UK.

Current Status

Just over a year after inactivation, Third Air Force was reactivated on 1 December 2006, at Ramstein AB, Germany, as USAFE's Air and Space Operations supporting U.S. European Command. Its new mission was to support the EUCOM commander's strategic objectives across the full range of military operations. When a joint task force is created in EUCOM, the Third Air Force commander is ready to assume the roles of Joint Forces Air Component Commander and Commander Air Force Forces, or lead the JTF as a Joint Force Commander.

Upon the inactivation of the Seventeenth Air Force in 2012, Third Air Forces became the numbered air force supporting United States Air Forces Africa.[1]


 This article incorporates public domain material from the Air Force Historical Research Agency website

  • 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
  • Lloyd, Alwyn T. (2000) A Cold War Legacy, A Tribute to Strategic Air Command, 1946–1992, Pictorial Histories Pub ISBN 1-57510-052-5
  • 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.
  • Steijger, Cees (1991), A History of USAFE, Airlife Publishing Limited, ISBN 1-85310-075-7
  • [1] USAAS-USAAC-USAAF-USAF Aircraft Serial Numbers—1908 to Present
  • US Air Force news story on Third Air Force reactivation

External links

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