US Air Forces in Europe turns 70

by Charles Newell
U.S. Air Forces in Europe History Office

Saturday marks U.S. Air Forces in Europe’s 70th birthday. During the year, USAFE and Team Ramstein will honor its mission, people and heritage by reminding everyone of USAFE’s accomplishments ― then and now ― from the Second World War, through the Cold War, and in today’s expeditionary era.

Born out of necessity during World War II, the command is the second oldest major command in the Air Force. Throughout its history, USAFE has remained a critical element of U.S. policy, strategy and presence in Europe.

The War Department originally designated the command as Headquarters, Eighth Air Force, on Jan. 19, 1942, as United States Strategic Air Forces Europe, from Feb. 22, 1944, and as its current designation, United States Air Forces Europe, on Aug. 7, 1945.

Each redesignation represented a change of mission and responsibility, from the buildup of forces and initial operations in the U.K., to the command of daylight strategic bombing, to follow-on operations in Germany after the war.

When the War Department activated and assigned personnel to Headquarters, Eighth Air Force, on Jan. 28, 1942, in Savannah, Ga., it intended the new organization to act as the air component for a task force invading Axis-held northwest Africa. When that operation was postponed, Eighth Air Force became the headquarters for the air power buildup in the U.K. It would be the first in many evolutions for the command.

The shift in assignment saw the Eighth at the center of the Allies’ plans for winning the war as it went on to lead the Combined Bomber Offensive. This strategic bombing campaign helped the Allies achieve air superiority over Northwestern Europe, damaged Germany’s war industries, and led to Allied victory.

The Cold War era, 1946 to 1991, witnessed continual modernization and expansion in direct response to the threat of attack by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Soon after the Cold War began, the command directed the Berlin Airlift – saving the city, thwarting communism and validating the newly created U.S. Air Force.

The Korean War, the erection of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War and the Soviet War in Afghanistan all challenged USAFE’s mission. Ensuring Freedom’s Future was as true then as it is now.

While combat readiness in direct support of NATO was USAFE’s top priority in those years, the command also took part in hundreds of humanitarian operations from Iceland to Bangladesh and from sub-Saharan Africa to Eastern Europe.

The command fought its second war in 1991 as part of the coalition opposing Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. USAFE provided critical en route support to units deploying to Persian Gulf-hosted forward bases for B-52s and KC-135s and contributed vital logistics and maintenance support for those deploying forces. The bulk of Joint Task Force Proven Force, which opened a second front against Iraq from Turkey, came primarily from USAFE’s ranks. The command deployed 15 percent of its people, 55 percent of its planes, and 33 percent of its munitions to Proven Force to join the fight, where its people fought as an integral part of coalition forces. USAFE pilots accounted for 15 of 33 coalition air-to-air victories before the cease fire in April 1991.

The pace of USAFE’s humanitarian efforts accelerated after the end of the Gulf War. USAFE people and aircraft stayed in Turkey to help protect Iraqi Kurds. This mission, known as Operation Provide Comfort, which replaced Operation Northern Watch in 1997, included the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Northern Iraq and lasted until 2003.

In 1992, the command also delivered food and medical supplies to 11 former Soviet republics in Operation Provide Hope and helped the United Nations with subsequent relief efforts in Somalia during Operation Provide Relief and Restore Hope.

In 1997, the command airlifted West African peacekeepers into Liberia during Operation Assured Lift.

Closer to home, USAFE reached out to the new Central and Eastern European democracies, paving the way for NATO’s 1993 “Partnership for Peace” initiative and the acceptance of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as new members in 1999.

By the mid-1990s, the command was heavily involved in Yugoslavia, which had erupted into civil war in the summer of 1991. USAFE C-130s flew relief supplies into Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital, from July 3, 1992, to Jan. 9, 1996, making Operation Provide Promise the longest lasting humanitarian airlift in history. The airlift task force flew 12,886 missions and delivered more than 160,000 metric tons of supplies.

When NATO began Operation Deny Flight to enforce a United Nations no-fly zone over Bosnia in April 1993, USAFE was there. Its pilots fired NATO’s first shots, downing four Krajina Serb aircraft violating the no-fly zone on Feb. 28, 1994.

A year and a half later, USAFE was a mainstay in NATO’s Operation Deliberate Force that not only enforced a NATO heavy-weapons exclusion zone around Sarajevo, but also helped bring the warring parties to the peace table at Dayton in late 1995.

USAFE, as part of the newly expanded NATO, went to war once again on March 24, 1999, when the alliance launched air attacks on Yugoslavia to halt military action in Kosovo and compel the Yugoslav government to accept an international settlement of the Kosovo dispute. In the 78-day campaign known as Operation Allied Force, USAFE people and aircraft flew a significant number of the nearly 35,000 sorties that forced Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to ask for a cease-fire, evacuate his forces from Kosovo and permit an international peacekeeping force into the province. Shortly after the bombing campaign began, the mass exodus of Kosovar citizens into neighboring countries led to the establishment of Joint Task Force Shining Hope. This task force provided immediate relief to more than 450,000 refugees in Albania and Macedonia by airlifting food, equipment and medical supplies to the region. By the end of June 1999, USAFE was supporting the peacekeeping operation Joint Guardian, enabling refugees to return to Kosovo in hopes of rebuilding their homes and lives.

USAFE supported all these missions in the 1990s with a smaller resource base. With the Cold War over and Washington wrestling with budget and trade deficits, USAFE closed bases and returned aircraft to the U.S. From more than 800 planes, 72,000 people and 27 bases in 1990, USAFE had shrunk to 230 aircraft, more than 32,000 people, and six bases with active flying missions by the end of 1998.

After the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, USAFE responded to the Global War on Terrorism. The command played a key role in humanitarian airdrops over Afghanistan. Planes flew more than 2 million humanitarian rations from Ramstein to Afghanistan during the initial stages of Operation Enduring Freedom. USAFE people and aircraft also made critical contributions to the campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida. The command also contributed to Operation Iraqi Freedom, which toppled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in the spring of 2003.

With the command now marking its seventh decade of active service, USAFE continues to provide combat-ready forces, maintains vital access to three continents, and assures friends and allies while building their operational capacity.

Last year, these unique attributes came to the forefront during U.S. support to operations in Libya. When the U.N. called upon the international community for aid, USAFE was able to quickly draw upon its people and resources to first provide humanitarian assistance in the early crisis and later provide on-hand combat forces as part of a coalition of European and other partner nations to protect the Libyan populace from the violence of the Qadhafi regime. After NATO assumed responsibility for operations in Libya in April 2011, USAFE continued its support.

USAFE has changed in many ways since its creation in 1942. Despite the changes, its mission has remained constant: to defend freedom and democracy in Europe. Political and economic ties with the U.S. make Europe an area vital to American national security.

As the command embarks on its seventh decade of service to the nation, today’s Airmen build on the achievements of hundreds of thousands of talented and dedicated professionals who served before.

Happy 70th USAFE!