An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

USAFE: Yesterday, today, tomorrow

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Ryan Crane
  • U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa

From the creation of Eighth Air Force in 1942, to Operation Atlantic Resolve in 2017, U.S. Air Forces in Europe has answered the call to service for 75 years.

USAFE’s 75th anniversary is Jan. 19, but the command will celebrate the diamond anniversary of the U.S. Air Force presence in Europe on Jan. 23.

Headquarters U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Wiesbaden, Germany

While the command, as it is named today, did not exist during World War II, the presence of U.S. Air Force assets under the Eighth Air Force designation was established in 1942, only two months after the U.S. declared war on Nazi Germany and Italy. Throughout the war, Eighth Air Force amassed nearly 17,000 aircraft and 500,000 Airmen throughout Europe. By 1945, Berlin fell to the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler was dead. 

In August 1945, Allied-occupied Germany was divided into sectors for administrative purposes and the U.S. was responsible for the Southeast portion of the country. A month later, U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe was re-designated as U.S. Air Forces in Europe and the headquarters was moved to Wiesbaden, Germany. Nearly 18 months after Victory in Europe Day, U.S. aircraft and personnel in Europe were reduced to only 2,000 aircraft and 75,000 personnel.

While the command was born amidst tumultuous times, their vision for the future was that of peace and prosperity for Europe. 

The first major test of USAFE’s capabilities came in 1948, when the Soviet Union blockaded all travel to and from the eastern zone. This left West Berlin with barely a month’s worth of food and coal to supply them for an unknown amount of time. U.S. European Command directed USAFE to airlift supplies to Berlin. At the height of The Berlin Airlift, or Operation Vittels as it was called by the U.S., 225 C-54s were in Germany supporting the airlift. By the time the Soviets lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949, the U.S. had flown nearly 196,000 missions transporting 1.5 million tons of cargo. This incredible feat highlighted the U.S. Air Force’s ability to get cargo and people into places otherwise blocked by land or sea routes.


48th Tactical Fighter Wing, 1950s

Throughout the 1950’s the U.S., under President Harry Truman, continued to prioritize airpower to Europe, despite the Korean War raging on. New bases and U.S. units were established in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Turkey. Unbeknownst to the U.S. and Western Europe, the Cold War was only just beginning. 

Fast forward to the 1960s and tensions once again reached a boiling point over access to Berlin. In 1961, the Soviet Union ordered the Berlin wall’s construction to stop the flow of refugees from the East to the West. The U.S. responded to this new, divided, Berlin by mobilizing the largest contingent of aircraft since WWII. 

Operation Tack Hammer launched eight F-100D squadrons, totaling 144 fighters. This, however, was only a temporary move until the more permanent Air National Guard squadrons could be mobilized to take over. Operation Stair Step saw the deployment of nearly 250 fighters whose primary mission was to provide air superiority and tactical air support to defend West Germany should an air war break out over Berlin. 

By 1962, the Berlin Crisis had subsided and the mobilized aircraft returned home. In 1963, the total strength in Europe decreased as the U.S. shifted focus to the Vietnam War, which would remain their primary focus for the next 10 years.

1st Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, RAF Alconbury, England, 1975 

Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, USAFE continued to receive the latest and greatest air superiority aircraft, namely the F-15C Eagle. These were meant to replace the aging fighters currently providing air defense for West Germany, which were quickly becoming obsolete as the Soviet Union fielded their MiG and Sukhoi fighters.

In 1989, the Berlin wall, a symbol of the divide between Western Europe and the Soviet Union, was torn down and one year later the Soviet Union collapsed. The Cold War was over and Germany was united again on Oct. 30, 1990.

From 1947-1991 the U.S. and other NATO allies slowly built up defenses for a war they hoped never came. With the threat of the Soviet Union no longer looming, this force quickly decreased to a fraction of its previous size. The U.S. Air Force presence dropped from 850 aircraft and 72,000 Airmen over 27 bases, to just 240 aircraft and 33,000 Airmen at six flying wings by 1996.

While the Cold War was beginning to thaw, USAFE was called upon to deploy 182 aircraft to Southwest Asia for Operation Desert Shield in response to the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait. They also deployed another 85 aircraft to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. Operation Desert Storm, the action taken by the U.S. and 33 other nations to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait lasted less than two months from January through February. In that time, USAFE pilots assigned to U.S. Central Command shot down nine Iraqi aircraft, plus three more violating the southern no-fly zone in March 1991. 

F111F of the 48th Fighter Wing prepares for a combat mission during Operation Desert Storm, 1991.

Throughout the ‘90s, USAFE was involved in more than 80 operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa to include Operation Deny Flight and Operation Allied Force. 

The operations of the ‘90s proved the flexibility of airpower and how it could be leveraged in vastly different scenarios. This flexibility would be pushed to its limits following the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Operation Enduring Freedom was the first large-scale operation the U.S. was involved in since Desert Storm 10 years earlier. It would require an air bridge in Europe to help ferry troops, supplies and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan as the U.S. fought to remove Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban from power. 

In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq with the aim of toppling the government of Saddam Hussein, a regime the U.S. believed was in possession of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.

At the height of these two conflicts, the U.S. had over 100,000 forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as numerous others who supported these operations in Southwest Asia.

USAFE’s mobility hubs at Rhein Main AB and Ramstein AB in Germany, became crucial pieces in the transportation and aeromedical evacuation functions that supported both conflicts. As both operations came to an end, USAFE once again provided the air bridge and logistics to move the equipment and personnel back to the U.S from more than a decade in the Middle East.

In 2012, USAFE merged with Air Forces Africa to become the only major command in the U.S. Air Force to support two separate combatant commanders: U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command. Today, USAFE-AFAFRICA directs air operations in a theater spanning three continents, covering more than 15 million square miles, containing 104 independent states, and possessing more than one-fifth of the world’s population and more than a quarter of the world’s gross domestic product. 

Currently, USAFE-AFAFRICA has approximately 35,000 personnel and more than 200 fighter, rotary wing, tanker and transport aircraft assigned.