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Posted 9/27/2012 Printable Fact Sheet

On Oct. 19, 1940, the Air Corps created the Southeast Air District. The district was formally activated at MacDill Field, Fla., on Dec. 18, 1940. The Southeast Air District was redesignated as Third Air Force on April 9, 1941. The basic purpose of both organizations was coastal defense.

At the outbreak of World War II, Third Air Force took on the additional role of aircrew training. Between December 1941 and August 1945, 3rd AF trained 856 combat units - consisting of 18,894 officers and 168,733 enlisted personnel. Third Air Force units - based throughout the war in the United States - also participated in anti-submarine patrols, earning an antisubmarine campaign streamer in addition to the Numbered Air Force's American Theater streamer.

Third Air Force was inactivated on Nov. 1, 1946, and remained so until May 1, 1951, when it replaced Third Air Division in the United Kingdom. This would not be the only change to face the command over the years. In 1953, British civilians replaced U.S. Air Force support personnel at several bases. The next year saw 10 bases closed and returned to the Ministry of Defence. Further consolidations and reductions closed bases every year from 1961 to 1965. Another significant change to 3rd AF occurred in 1961, when U.S. Air Forces in Europe gave operational control of 3rd AF units to 17th Air Force. Third Air Force then concentrated on base support and its role with the British government. However, the transfer of 1961 had proven too difficult on unit command and control to sustain, so by 1963, USAFE returned operational control of UK units to 3rd AF. The unit's headquarters moved from South Ruislip to RAF Mildenhall in 1972 in order to enhance combat readiness of its units.

Considerable changes occurred in the 1980s. In 1982, the first of two ground-launched cruise missile units activated at RAF Greenham Common. The placement of GLCMs at RAF Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth resulted in numerous protests at these bases--and sparked heated debate throughout the UK.

On the night of April 14, 1986, Third Air Force launched the first U.S. combat operation from the United Kingdom since 1945. The target was Libya. Eighteen of RAF Lakenheath's F-111Fs struck targets at Benghazi, Azziziyah, and Sidi Bilal. EF-111As from RAF Upper Heyford provided tactical jamming support during the raid, while tankers stationed at RAF Mildenhall and RAF Fairford provided in-flight refueling.

In December 1987, just as the last GLCM unit reached initial operational capability, the United States and the Soviet Union concluded an agreement that eventually eliminated the GLCM system. In 1988, Third Air Force had nine major units and 10 main operating bases. Six years later, it had only two main operating bases, one standby base, and a handful of geographically separated units.

In 1996, two more important changes took place for Third Air Force. During that year, the USAFE commander decided to eliminate 17th Air Force and transfer its units to Third Air Force. At the same time, USAFE reoriented its two remaining numbered air forces. While 16th Air Force focused on wartime operations (primarily in the Balkans), Third Air Force was assigned the task of operations short of war with a primary focus on Africa. During that first year, Third Air Force participated in three African operations, the largest being GUARDIAN ASSISTANCE, a relief effort in Rwanda. In 1997 and 1998, Third Air Force personnel deployed to Africa four more times, once as the lead for a joint task force to support President Clinton's historic visit to Africa.

In 1999, Third Air Force became the lead element for Operation SHINING HOPE, the U.S. military's humanitarian operation in Albania. The headquarters provided support in bedding down additional forces brought into the UK to support NATO operations against Yugoslavia. Third Air Force's wings provided the bulk of U.S. combat forces in the conflict, flying combat missions from their home stations.

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 Nov. 1, ending the unit's prestigious 50-plus year legacy in the UK.

Just over a year later, Third Air Force was reactivated once more on Dec. 1, 2006, at Ramstein AB, Germany, as USAFE's Air and Space Operations supporting U.S. European Command. It is responsible for supporting 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 Forces, or lead the JTF as a Joint Force Commander.

From 2011 to 2012, USAFE reorganized its numbered air forces by consolidating Third Air Force and 17AF directorates within HQ USAFE. In addition, the Third Air Force staff in UK was aligned under USAFE, and redesignated from 3AF-UK to USAFE-UK. Finally, the 617th AOC was consolidated with the 603rd AOC, retained the 603rd AOC designation, and supports both EUCOM and AFRICOM areas of responsibility.

On 20 April 2012, Third Air Force assumed responsibility as the numbered air component for U.S. Africa Command when 17th Air Force was inactivated.

Today, Third Air Force plans, executes and assesses a full spectrum of airpower operations. The command consists of its headquarters operations directorate, the 603rd Air and Space Operations Center, and 10 wings consisting of more than 33,000 personnel.

3rd Air Force Public Affairs Office; Unit 3050, Box 170; APO AE 09094-0170; DSN 314-478-1159 or (49)6371-405-1159; e-mail:


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