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Air Force Organization 101

The United States Department of the Air Force is a large organization with over 317,000 active duty Airmen. The tiered command organizational structure of the service helps manage the Airmen and their efforts to organize, train, equip, and execute military capability while effectively taking care of the individuals and their families.

The Department of the Air Force is led by a civilian, the Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF).  The SECAF has her own staff members, located at the Pentagon in Washington D.C.  There is also a Headquarters Air Force (HAF), based out of the Pentagon.  The HAF is led by the highest-ranking military officer in the Department of the Air Force, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF).  The SECAF and CSAF lead the Air Force in working on service-wide issues.

The next tiered organization is the Major Command (MAJCOM).  There are eleven MAJCOMs, specializing in management of forces to assure they are organized, trained, and equipped.  These organizations are based on functionality and geography.  The MAJCOM commander is typically a 4- or 3-star General.

The functionally based Major Commands are:      

Pyramid chart showing the tiered structure of the Air Force
Figure 1: Air Force Organizational Structure. Each line of the organizational hierarchy is labeled with its unit designator and the number of units, where applicable.
  1. Air Combat Command
  2. Air Education and Training Command
  3. Air Force Global Strike Command
  4. Air Force Material Command
  5. Air Force Reserve Command
  6. Air Force Space Command
  7. Air Force Special Operations Command
  8. Air Force Mobility Command

The geographically based Major Commands are:  

  1. Pacific Air Forces
  2. United States Air Forces Central Command
  3. United States Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa

Subordinate to the MAJCOMs are the Numbered Air Forces (NAF).  There are twenty-five NAFs, which are referred to as tactical echelons, providing operational leadership and supervision for the assigned operational units under them.  “A numbered Air Force is usually assigned for geographical purposes, and primarily used only during wartime.  In peacetime, they generally only consist of a limited number of headquarters staff whose job it is to prepare and maintain wartime plans.”1 The NAF commander is typically a 3- or 2-star General.

Within the NAFs are wings, groups, and squadrons.  Just like the MAJCOMs and NAFs, the wings are spread throughout the world.  Wings are led by either Brigadier Generals or Colonels.  Most wings have approximately four groups within them, consisting of an Operational Group, Maintenance Group, Mission Support Group, and Medical Group.  Groups are typically led by Colonels.

The organizations under the groups are the squadrons, which are known as the pulse in the Air Force.  The Air Force has around 3,300 squadrons.  Squadrons are primarily led by Lieutenant Colonels, but you can find some squadrons led by Majors and Captains.  While the support squadrons, groups, and wings rarely deploy together, the operational flying squadrons are more likely to deploy intact.  Squadrons come in all sizes ranging from 7 personnel to over 600 personnel.  The squadrons are usually fairly specialized in a tactical or functional mission.  The traditional squadrons most are familiar with include fighter squadrons, bomber squadrons, mobility squadrons, tanker squadrons, missile squadrons, intelligence, surveillance reconnaissance squadrons, command and control squadrons, and training squadrons.  These specialized squadrons, along with an operational support squadron, usually make up the operational group on any specific base.  Other squadrons include medical squadrons, aircraft maintenance squadrons, civil engineering squadrons, mission support squadrons, and security forces squadrons.

As displayed in Figure 1, the structure is very hierarchically designed.  That being said, General David Goldfein, CSAF, has set ‘revitalizing the squadrons’ as his first priority.  When visiting one of the wings in the Air Force, he stated that squadrons are “where Airmen and families thrive; it’s where innovation occurs.”2 The organizations above the squadrons are helping to assure the squadrons are ready to be deployed when the Nation calls on them.

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