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Wing is a term used by different military aviation forces for a unit of command. The terms wing, group or Staffel are used for different-sized units from one country or service to another.

In some military aviation services, a wing is a relatively large formation of two or more groups, which in turn control two or more squadrons. In other contexts a wing is a smaller unit, comprising two to four squadrons, with several wings forming a group. For example, In the United States Air Force, a wing is equivalent to a group in the air forces of most Commonwealth countries (although the Canadian Forces are an exception; see below) and both are equivalent to an army regiment, and a USAF group is equivalent to a wing in most Commonwealth air forces.

British and
USN pattern
USAF and
USMC pattern
Rank level of
general or commanding officer
Group Wing Air division OF-6 (1-star) or OF-7 (2-star)
Wing Group Wing OF-4 or OF-5
Squadron Squadron Squadron OF-3 or OF-4

Commonwealth usage


On its establishment in 1912, the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was intended to be an inter-service, combined force of the British Army and Royal Navy. Given the rivalry that existed between the army and navy, new terminology was used, in order to avoid marking the corps out as having an army or navy ethos. While the term "wing" had been used in the cavalry, its more general use predominated. Accordingly, the word "wing", with its allusion of flight, was chosen as the term of subdivision and the corps was split into a "Military Wing" (i.e. an army wing) and a "Naval Wing". Each wing consisted of a number of squadrons (the term "squadron" already being used by both the Army and the Navy).

By 1914, the naval wing had become the Royal Naval Air Service, and gained its independence from the Royal Flying Corps. In 1915, the Royal Flying Corps had significantly expanded and it was felt necessary to create organizational units which would control two or more squadrons; the term "wing" was re-used for these new organizational units.

The Royal Flying Corps was amalgamated with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1918, creating the Royal Air Force. The RFC usage of wing was maintained in the new service.[1]

Current use

Unit type Commanding Officer NATO standard
rank scale
Operational flying wings Group Captain OF-5
Ground-based wings Wing Commander OF-4

In most Commonwealth air forces, as well as some others, a wing is usually made up of three or four squadrons. In these air forces a wing is inferior to a group. Originally all wings were usually commanded by a wing commander (equivalent to a lieutenant colonel). From World War II onwards, operational flying wings have usually been commanded by group captains (equivalent to colonels), whereas ground-based wings have continued to be commanded by wing commanders.

A wing may also be used for non-flying units, such as the infantry forces of the RAF Regiment, (in which a wing equates to a battalion). Additionally, RAF stations are administratively divided into wings.

In 2006, expeditionary air wings were established at the RAF's main operating bases. These expeditionary air wings consist of the deployable elements of the main operating base and other supplementary forces. Expeditionary air wings may be subordinated to an expeditionary air group.

In the British Air Training Corps, a wing consists of a number of squadrons within a designated geographical area, usually named after the county in which it is based. In this regard, a wing is inferior to a "region" which is made up of six wings. In all, there are 36 Air Training Corps wings in six regions within the United Kingdom, each of which is commanded by a RAFVR(T) wing commander.

Canadian usage

While the original pre-unification Royal Canadian Air Force followed the British pattern, the modern Royal Canadian Air Force is an example of a Commonwealth air force which does not follow British usage. The size of a wing (base) follows US usage (see below); it varies greatly and may comprise personnel numbering in the thousands.

In the 1990s, the Canadian Forces Air Command (the post-1968 RCAF until 2011) altered the structure of those bases under its control, declaring them to be Wings under the overall control of 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg. For instance, CFB Trenton in Ontario was redesignated 8 Wing Trenton. The base commander of these bases (as well as other wings whose headquarters were stood up on bases not controlled by Air Command, such as 16 Wing at CFB Borden and 1 Wing at CFB Kingston) were re-designated Wing Commanders (or Wg Comd). As well as continuing their functions as the commanding officers of the bases they were assigned to, they also serve as formation commanders to all squadrons and units duly assigned to them by 1 CDN AIR DIV HQ and AIRCOM HQ (regardless if they are physically located on the base in question or elsewhere; as witness 12 Wing in Nova Scotia, which has one unit, 443 Maritime Helicopter Squadron, based at Patricia Bay near CFB Esquimalt in British Columbia, on the other side of the country from Shearwater).

United States Air Force usage

Diagram of a typical US Air Force wing organizational structure.

By comparison, in the United States Air Force, a wing is normally the organizational tier below a Numbered Air Force. Most USAF wings are commanded by a Colonel, but some are commanded by Brigadier Generals. USAF wings structured to fulfill a mission from a specific base, and contain a headquarters and four groups: an operations group, a maintenance group, a medical group and a mission support group. Such a wing is referred to as a Combat Wing Organization, which is comparable to a brigade in the US Army. Other wings, such as Air Expeditionary Wings, exist for various other purposes, and their scope may extend to one base, one theater or worldwide.

In United States Air Force usage, a military organization above a squadron level (group, wing, division, command, air force) is an establishment, while that of a squadron and lower (squadron, flight, detachment) is a unit.[2]

"The U.S. Army Air Service/U.S. Army Air Corps/U.S. Army Air Forces wings that existed before 1947 are not comparable with the wings of the USAF. World War II wings, for example, were very large administrative and operational organizations that usually controlled several combat groups and numerous service organizations, often located at widely scattered locations. Many of the World War II wings were redesignated as air divisions after the war. Modern wings, as we know them, began their existence with a service test of combat wings in 1947-1948. These wings were temporary Table of Distribution (T/D) organizations, each having a combat group (the only Table of Organization establishment of the wings), an airdrome group, a maintenance and supply group, and a station medical group. In 1948, at the end of the service test, HQ USAF replaced these T/D wings with permanent Table of Organization and Equipment (constituted) combat wings having a combat group, an air base group, maintenance and supply group, and a medical group.

"Constituted combat wings are always numbered in a single series beginning with Arabic “1st.” Examples: 1st Fighter Wing, 21st Space Wing, and the Strategic Air Command's 509th Bomb Wing. All constituted wings have one, two, or three digits in their numerical designations.

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

"The Air Force has three basic types of wings: operational, air base, and specialized mission. According to Air Force Instruction 38-101 (1994):

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

Other U.S. services

The United States Navy follows the British structure in that a Wing is an administrative formation commanding two or more squadrons of aircraft that are based on land. Several Wings may be combined into a group. For example the Patrol and Reconnaissance Group (CPRG) is in command of the three Patrol and Reconnaissance Wings (CPRW), which in turn command the various Patrol Squadrons (VP) or Fleet Reconnaissance Squadrons (VQ). A Carrier Air Wing (CVW, formerly known as a Carrier Air Group) consists of several squadrons and is an operational formation that is based on an aircraft carrier. The squadrons of a CVW are also assigned to an administrative type wings (such as Strike Fighter Wing Atlantic). Navy groups are commanded by Rear Admirals (Lower Half) and wings are commanded by Captains.

In the United States Marine Corps, a wing is an overall command consisting of at least two Marine Aircraft Groups and their subordinate squadrons and support units. Being equivalent to a division in size, its commander is usually a Major General.

In the Civil Air Patrol, there are 52 wings (each of the 50 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico). Each wing supervises the individual groups and squadrons, which are the basic operational unit of the organization. Some wings, for example Delaware Wing have only one group due to the small size of the wing.

Equivalents in other countries

Most other Western air forces tend to follow the USAF nomenclature, with squadrons coming directly under groups. Immediately above this however, some air forces have foreign terms which are equivalent to a US "wing". For example: Geschwader in the German Luftwaffe; Polk (Regiment) in Russia, see Aviation Regiment; Stormo in Italy; and escadre in pre-World War II French Air Force, which is also the official French translation of a wing in modern-day Canadian Forces.

German usage

Unit type Commanding Officer
Operational flying Geschwader Geschwaderkommodore (OF-5)
Ground-based Geschwader Geschwaderkommodore (OF-5)

The World War II German Luftwaffe used Geschwader, Gruppe, Staffel similar to "wing, group, squadron" of the United States Army Air Forces of the same era.


  1. Command Development_P
  2. Strategic Air Command An Organizational History, The Battermix Publishing Company, and Organizational History Branch, Research Division, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Organization descriptions

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