The creation of Air Combat Command (ACC) on 1 June 1992 resulted in part from dramatic changes in the international arena. The collapse of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War led senior defense planners to conclude that the structure of the military establishment which had evolved during the Cold War years was not suited to the new world situation. The likelihood of a large-scale nuclear conflict seemed far more remote, but US military forces would increasingly be called upon to participate in smaller-scale regional contingencies and humanitarian operations.
Consequently, the Air Force began to reconsider the long-standing distinction between two major commands: Strategic Air Command (SAC) and Tactical Air Command (TAC). The term “strategic” had become almost totally linked to the notion of nuclear deterrence. The focus of “tactical” operations, on the other hand, was on a cooperative mission, with the Air Force working in tandem with ground and naval forces. The distinction, however, did not lend itself to a limited conflict. During the war in Southeast Asia, “strategic” B-52 bombers performed “tactical” missions (including close air support), while “tactical” fighter aircraft carried out “strategic” bombing deep in enemy territory. The conduct of Operation Desert Storm in early 1991 further blurred the distinction between the two terms. Consequently, as senior Air Force officials sought to re-examine roles and missions, the redundancy of this former division came under their scrutiny.
Gen Merrill A. McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff, envisioned a streamlined Air Force, eliminating superfluous organizational layers. The Vice Chief of Staff, Gen John M. Loh, had pondered the strategic-tactical distinction for some time and discussed with the Chief of Staff and Air Force Secretary Donald B. Rice the need to restructure major commands in the face of the blurring of this distinction. General Loh continued to examine this matter after assuming command of Tactical Air Command on 26 March 1991. Gen George L. Butler, Commander-in-Chief, SAC, also supported change. These three general officers spearheaded the drive to integrate the assets of SAC and TAC into a single operational command.
Senior planners reviewed numerous options before agreeing on the final conclusion — a merger of most SAC and all TAC resources and a reorganization of the Military Airlift Command (MAC). This restructuring of forces consolidated airlift and most refueling assets under a single umbrella, the new Air Mobility Command (AMC). This command represented the “global reach” facet of the Air Force mission, while the new ACC provided the Air Force’s “global power.”
The birth of ACC on 1 June 1992 took place amidst momentous changes within the Air Force and the Department of Defense. A brief ceremony at Langley Air Force Base (AFB) marked the inactivation of TAC and the activation of ACC. General Loh, who had commanded TAC until its inactivation, became the commander of ACC. On the same day, AMC at Scott AFB, Illinois, came into being. Following the inactivation of SAC at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, a new unified command, the US Strategic Command, stood up at Offutt, created to manage the combined strategic nuclear forces belonging to the Air Force and the Navy.
The ceremony at Langley signaled the birth of a new major command with a new mission, not just a successor of the former TAC and SAC. The Air Combat Command was responsible for providing combat-ready forces for deterrence and air combat operations. Upon activation, ACC assumed control of all fighter resources based in the continental United States, all bombers, reconnaissance platforms, battle management resources, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Furthermore, ACC had some tankers and C-130s in its composite, reconnaissance, and certain other combat wings.
One of the earliest significant challenges to the new command came as the result of a natural disaster. Following the destruction of Homestead AFB, Florida, by Hurricane Andrew on 24 August 1992, ACC immediately began to support displaced personnel, clean up debris, and evaluate the condition of the installation. Although the presidential candidates promised to rebuild Homestead, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission designated the installation for realignment to the Air Force Reserve, and on 1 April 1994, Headquarters, ACC inactivated its base support units, effectively ending ACC ownership of the base.
Not long after activation, ACC underwent organizational and mission changes dictated by the Air Force Chief of Staff’s evolving vision of the Air Force. The first such major change was the transfer of the combat search and rescue mission from AMC to ACC. With the realigning of search and rescue units, ACC gained additional resources, as well as a new mission. This move was due to General McPeak’s decision to remove the responsibility for combat search and rescue from a “support” command and integrate it into the Air Force’s warfighting organizational structure. The formal transfer took place on 1 February 1993, when the Air Rescue Service (ARS) was assigned to ACC. On 2 July of the same year, the ARS was redesignated the USAF Combat Rescue School and was assigned to the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
One of the most significant changes for ACC resulted from an overhaul of flying training responsibilities. Following its activation, ACC was responsible for aircraft-specific aircrew training, including initial weapon system and continuation training. On 1 July 1993, the 58th and 325th Fighter Wings — F-16 and F-15 training units — transferred from ACC to the Air Education and Training Command (AETC). Concurrently, Luke AFB, Arizona, and Tyndall AFB, Florida, for which those respective wings were the host units, also moved from ACC to AETC ownership. The transfer of these units and bases was part of the training consolidation implemented during General McPeak’s “Year of Training” emphasis.
Another significant change for ACC involved a mission inherited from SAC: responsibility for the Air Force’s ICBM resources. These assets formed one of the three major legs of the “nuclear triad,” an important deterrent in the Cold War era. In November 1992, General McPeak declared his intention of transferring responsibility for ICBMs to the Air Force Space Command. The transfer served to bring the ICBM mission in line with the Air Force’s space mission. The reassignment took place on 1 July 1993, with Twentieth Air Force, six missile wings, one test and training wing, and F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, transitioning to Air Force Space Command ownership.
That same day, ACC lost another numbered air force. While ACC restructured its Eighth, Ninth, and Twelfth Air Forces as “general purpose” numbered air forces — i.e., NAFs with a mix of weapon systems and an approximately equal distribution of units and bases — Air Force leadership introduced plans to inactivate Second Air Force. This NAF, inherited by ACC from SAC, was responsible for reconnaissance operations. The current climate of downsizing and scrutinizing roles and missions made Second Air Force a prime candidate for inactivation since it did not have the area of responsibility commitment of the general purpose NAFs. On 1 July 1993, Second Air Force was inactivated, and its subordinate units were assigned to Ninth and Twelfth Air Force.
The next major organizational change resulted from a fine-tuning of tanker and airlift resources. From its activation, ACC had assumed ownership of a few C-130 theater airlift assets and KC-10 and KC-135 tankers. Just as ownership of overseas C-130 resources had already been transferred to theater commanders, General McPeak determined that all C-130s based in the CONUS would be under the control of ACC, while at the same time, almost all KC-135 tankers would be assigned to AMC.
There was historical precedent for the reassignment of C-130s to ACC. During the earliest days of TAC, the command had carried out the “tactical” or combat airborne aspect of airlift operations, leaving the “strategic” or aerial resupply mission to Military Air Transport Service (the precursor of MAC). The tactical airlift mission included logistical airlift, airborne operations, aeromedical evacuation, and air support for special operations. This division of the airlift mission continued until 1 December 1974, when TAC transferred its CONUS-based tactical airlift units, including ANG and Reserve units, to MAC. MAC gained the overseas units from theater commands on 31 March 1975.
On 1 October 1993, all AMC C-130s transferred to ACC and all ACC KC-135 tankers except those at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, which supported the fighter and bomber aircraft of the composite wing stationed there, transferred to AMC. The command also kept two KC-135s at Offutt AFB. Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, transferred to AMC on 1 October 1993, with McConnell AFB, Kansas, and Fairchild AFB, Washington, transferring in January and July, respectively, of the following year.
The participation of ACC units and personnel in a variety of operations throughout the world has consistently illustrated the command’s motto: “Global Power for America.” In Southwest Asia, ACC provided active duty and reserve component forces for Operations Desert Storm and Southern Watch to deter Iraqi aggression. In October 1994, ACC also demonstrated its ability to react quickly to the buildup of Iraqi troops near the border of Kuwait. In addition, ACC, from its inception, has provided indispensable support to counter-drug operations, including Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), reconnaissance and fighter aircraft, and radar and connectivity assets.
Participation in humanitarian operations has also been a recurring theme. Air Combat Command supported the humanitarian efforts of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), deploying active duty and air reserve component forces to Provide Promise and Deny Flight in Eastern Europe and Operation Provide Comfort out of Incirlik AB, Turkey. Provide Promise offered humanitarian relief airlift support to the city of Sarajevo, while Deny Flight enforced the “no-fly” zone against Serb air attacks on Bosnian civilians. Operation Provide Comfort, another humanitarian operation, also provided relief to Kurdish inhabitants of northern Iraq who had undergone fierce repression by the Iraqi government.
In addition, ACC supported US Atlantic Command’s humanitarian relief to Haitian refugees associated with Operation GTMO at Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Similarly, the command supported Operation Safe Haven and the processing of Cuban refugees during the latter part of the summer of 1994. Across the Atlantic, Air Combat Command units participated in Operation Restore Hope, largely an Air Mobility Command humanitarian operation intended to provide food for Somalia. Also, ACC regular and gained C-130 Air National Guard units deployed to Uganda and Kenya to participate in Support Hope. This operation, conducted by the US European Command, comprised part of the United Nations effort to provide humanitarian relief to victims of the civil war in Rwanda.
In keeping with its global responsibilities, ACC initiated a series of “Global Power” missions in 1993. ACC’s bomber wings are required to perform out-of-CONUS training flights to demonstrate the capability to perform their “quick reaction” worldwide mission. On one of the global power missions, two B-1B aircraft of the 28th Bomb Wing, Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, set a B-1 flying time record on the first leg of their round-the-world flight, 11-13 August 1993. The following year, two B-52s from the 2d Bomb Wing, Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, circumnavigated the globe in 47.2 hours, the longest jet aircraft flight in history.
Since its activation in June 1992, Air Combat Command has found itself in an almost constant state of flux. While on the one hand losing its ICBMs, nearly all its tankers, and a part of its training mission, ACC has gained the combat rescue and theater airlift missions. At the same time, sweeping changes in our nation’s military policy have imposed on ACC not only force structure reductions but a requirement for much greater flexibility than ever before. ACC’s forces remain “on call” to perform a variety of missions including support to international peace-keeping operations, to humanitarian needs at home and abroad, and protection of our nation’s interests around the globe. Despite its brief history, ACC has already established a tradition of providing combat-ready forces capable of responding to the challenges of a changing world.
Information courtesy U.S. Air Force