Bringing the Air Division Back to the Future

Pietrucha-Renken Figure 1-header_edited

Figure 1: Homestead-based F-104 Interceptors of the 319th Fighter Interceptor Squadron over Biscayne Bay in 1958. The 319th was attached to the 32nd Air Division, which was responsible for air defense of the Southeastern U.S. (U.S. Air Force).


The scope of changes that the U.S. Air Force must undertake to meet the direction of the National Defense Strategy is difficult to overstate. Recent clear-eyed assessments of threats from great powers like Russia and China, combined with the opportunity to reduce U.S. military investment in the Middle East has given the service’s planners a window of opportunity to let intentional design, rather than events, drive how it organizes, trains, equips, and presents its force.

With notable exceptions among some strategic forces, today’s combat Air Force is organized, trained, and equipped to provide rotational power projection into mature theaters of low-intensity conflict. Moreover, when forces are deployed, the fighting team meets for the first time in theater, having never planned or exercised together before they are expected to fight together. This is by design. By building permanent “expeditionary” wings from borrowed pieces of garrison wings — a squadron here, a unit there — the Air Force was able to manage a delicate balance. Airmen thus satiated a constant combatant commander demand for forward forces while leaving enough residual capability at each garrison location to be ready for other mission essential tasks.

If today’s forward organizational structure sounds challenged, the command and control architecture that operationalizes it is an even larger cause for concern. Per Joint Publication 3-30, the joint forces air component commander is responsible for unifying command and execution of joint air forces. Generally operating from a theater-level Air and Space Operations Center (AOC), the commander issues direct orders to every aircraft, at dozens of bases, with no intermediary layers. The tasked carrier strike group, wing, or squadron commanders can certainly influence those orders while they are being drafted, but the air tasking order goes directly from the highest-ranking airman in the theater to every air asset, excepting only army rotary wing and marine aviation assigned to a marine air-ground task force. Coordination of theater air forces — from tanker tracks to interdiction and close air support assignments, to the positioning of rescue forces — is a daily, centralized coordination effort by dozens of agencies and hundreds of planners.

This centralized structure was an intentional adaptation to optimize the efficiency of U.S. force presentation. It allowed the United States to “do more with less” by consolidating planning of air operations at the theater level. The choices that led to the Air Force’s current configuration were predicated on an unstated assumption that no adversary can meaningfully impact the efficiency of this paradigm. And so long as future wars can be won by ad hoc forces that have time to constitute at sanctuary bases supplied by uncontested logistics and seamlessly orchestrated by a distant but omniscient headquarters, the current model will be fine. General H. R. McMaster once said about Operation Iraqi Freedom, “there are two ways to fight the United States — asymmetrically and stupidly. The Iraqis chose stupid.” The Russians and Chinese have already telegraphed their intention to choose asymmetric.

In a follow-on to the “Blurring the Lines” trilogy, we take a look at the challenges in how the U.S. Air Force is organized to fight. The fact that the Air Force has been organized for efficiency for so long — an entire generation — means we need to either look laterally to organizations that have not adapted to the same pressure, or backwards towards solutions from the past, blurring the lines between the current, rigid structure and more flexible combat-focused architectures. 

The Russians and Chinese Won’t Make the Same Mistake

Great power rivals hardly need to invest in a fighter jet that can beat an F-35 in the air if they can ensure that it can be destroyed on the ground by long-range fires, or disarmed by a disrupted logistics network, or paralyzed by lack of operating orders. This asymmetric approach is the foundation of both Russia’s and China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities and concepts. Long range attack systems like the Russian SS-26 and SS-N-30, or the Chinese DF-21 and DF-26 can turn the brick and mortar basing and theater operations centers (and to an extent, their maritime counterparts) into smoking wreckage. And non-kinetic cyber-attacks can confuse or disrupt the network-centric, AOC-centered approach to running an air campaign that allows disparate elements to provide effects or support from their siloes of maximum efficiency. Under such conditions, the existing overcentralized model is likely to be ineffective.

But while the scale of this problem faced by the Air Force presents new challenges, the approaches necessary to overcome these problems are not new. Neither the U.S. Army nor Marine Corps has ever been able to operate with a guarantee that their logistics activities would occur in a sanctuary, or that the adversaries would only disrupt communications of tactical forces, or that their bases will be beyond the reach of attacks. For that reason, the Army and Marine Corps have sustained larger formations of forces such as the division or marine expeditionary unit. These larger formations necessarily accept some redundancy and mission duplication. While that may represent “inefficiency,” it also creates resilient structures that can provide unity of command and allow tight alignment of supporting forces with their combat components. Efficiency is necessarily traded for effectiveness under contested conditions.

The conditions in the European and Pacific theaters are widely different. In Europe, there is a NATO alliance structure with a high density of airfields (not as high as decades ago, but that’s true for both sides), in a close-range fight where allied populations are at risk from ground forces. Communications distances are shorter, and it is feasible to execute some form of command & control even if U.S. forces have to resort to carrier pigeons or motorcycle couriers. In the Pacific, the distances are greater, the land masses smaller, allies fewer, and the number of airfields lower. The distances are so great that beyond line-of-sight communications are imperative for coordinated action across the theater, and these communications are vulnerable to interruption. But those same distances separate the adversaries, where none of America’s treaty partners share a land border with China. In both cases, there is a need for independent, self-contained combat formations, albeit for different challenges.

Adversary attacks in a great power conflict will be broadly directed; intended not only to disable U.S. command and control, but to undermine the alliance foundation that Air Force command and control requires to function. Competition to set conditions for conflict have already started. Russia and China are already trying to undermine political will, unravel logistics, complicate planning and deny basing opportunities long before the first overt move. Combine this with a lack of forward-based forces and the closure of overseas basing infrastructure built during the Cold War, and the United States would be fighting at a disadvantage. The Air Force has to address the problem of how to build effective organizations in advance so it can effectively assemble and embark in spite of attack, and how it can disembark and disperse to operate without making deploying air elements into easy targets. And the Air Force needs to do it all while anticipating severe disruption to its command and control.

New Problems Are Old Problems With a Twist.

The Air Force has confronted “how” to solve this problem multiple times in its past. The “Composite Air Strike Force” (CASF) was Tactical Air Command’s (predecessor to today’s Air Combat Command) response to the slow mobilization of air power in the Korean conflict. CASF was a rapidly deployable force that was designed to respond to brushfire conflicts and augment forces in place. The CASF included a command element, communications support units, and a mix of fighter, reconnaissance, troop carrier (airlift) and later, air refueling units. The command element was designated as 19th Air Force, a 91-person command headquarters designed solely for rapid deployment with an assigned CASF — rapid meaning “on the move within four hours.” In effect, 19th Air Force was a “suitcase Air Force” that could immediately deploy to direct airpower in support of contingencies.

CASF was employed in the Lebanon Crisis in July 1958, when CASF Bravo deployed to Incirlik Air Base, with fighters landing in Turkey a mere 13 hours after receipt of orders. Tactical Air Command directed 12th Air Force to set up a backup deployable headquarters when 19th Air Force deployed to Lebanon and it was well that they did. On Aug. 29, the second CASF was sent to the Philippines and then to Taiwan. CASF was used in Operation Quick Span in 1960 and again in 1961 in response to the Berlin Crisis. The final “real” CASF operation occurred in the Cuban Missile Crisis, although CASFs were used throughout the 1960s for training, advisory work, and exercises. Ironically, 19th Air Force disbanded scant months before the Yom Kippur War in 1973. By then, the war in Vietnam had absorbed much of the resources that 19th Air Force needed.


Figure 2: F-100 pilots react to a scramble order at Incirlik Air Base in the fall of 1958 (Photo by MSgt Bob Rowan)

Pendulums swing and solutions that were incompatible with prevailing conditions can find new relevance as conditions change. As the sage said, “history doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.” So what might it look like to bring back a force structure that can be postured for rapid mobilization into a contested environment today? Historically, the Air Force has regularly made use of a distributed formation that functionally aligned forces from multiple wings. That formation was called the “Air Division.”

The Return of the Air Division

As late as 1992, the Air Force had air divisions, though they will be unfamiliar to all but a few of today’s airmen. The Army’s divisions were (and are) combined arms combat formations with self-contained, self-sustaining sub elements. The division emerged from the French army during conflicts that began with the Seven Years War, and was designed to overcome challenges that remain relevant today: contested logistics, need for close alignment of multiple force elements, need for a command structure capable of independent action by subordinates while preserving unity of command.

In 1931, the Army Air Corps formed the 1st Air Division. By World War II, the air division was ubiquitous and in 1944 the 1st Air Division (previously 1st Bombardment Division) was an 8th Air Force command based in Brampton Grange, U.K., with six bombardment wings and a fighter wing under command. As such, it operated as an echelon between the wings and the 8th Air Force, which conducted the strategic bombing of Germany. The air division was retained after the birth of the Air Force, and air divisions were used through Korea and Vietnam, intermittently.



Air divisions have proven remarkably flexible in application. They have been both administrative units and operational formations. Some were temporary; for instance, the Air Force stood up three provisional air divisions for the Cuban Missile Crisis. Some were functional; the 831st Air Division existed to align electronic warfare activities for specialized platforms across multiple wings. Some were designed only for peacetime; the 65th Air Division in U.S. Air Forces in Europe aligned U.S. Air Force and NATO training activities but was intended to disperse members back to fighting units in the event of war. Some were explicitly fighting formations; the 2nd Air Division was formed in 1962 in Vietnam and eventually grew so large that it was renumbered as 7th Air Force. The 834th Air Division in Saigon controlled all U.S., Vietnamese, and Royal Australian Air Force tactical airlift in Vietnam from 1966 to the end of 1971, shedding its fighter squadrons when it deployed to Vietnam. Air divisions remained multiple-wing units, often operating different systems, not limited to aircraft.


Figure 3: Units of the 1st Air Division on June 6, 1944 with subordinate units of the 67th Fighter Wing broken down further

Figure 4: The 831st Air Division flagship, F-4E 72-0141, on the ramp at George AFB, 9 March 1990. The 831st consisted of the 37th and 35th Tactical Fighter Wings, flying F-4E and F-4G. It was disbanded a little over a year later (Alex Watanabe)

Today, the squadron is the basic fighting unit of the Air Force. Permanent wings, which contain two or more groups with multiple squadrons, are a garrison echelon that generate forces for “expeditionary wings” to employ. The transition to piece-meal deployment was well underway by Desert Storm where units were reorganized on the fly as they deployed. F-4Gs, for example, came from the 52nd Tactical Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem and the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing at George Air Force Base. In theater, they were all placed at Shaikh Isa Air Base and reorganized under the 35th Fighter Wing (Provisional). On 5 Dec. 5, 1990, Tactical Air Command created two provisional Air Divisions — the 14th (with components of ten fighter wings) and the 15th (functionally aligned to electronic combat, command & control, and reconnaissance).

Despite their use in a pinch, air divisions were on their way out before the Gulf War, and the Air Force retired them from use in the drawdown after Operation Desert Storm. In the pressure to pursue efficiencies, the “tail” of an air division staff was offset to sustain funding for the “tooth” of combat capabilities. This was all occurring while the military was adapting to the full force of a technological revolution in communications that allowed centralized headquarters to sustain tight connectivity with fielded forces. Thus, in the 1990s the pendulum swung towards centralized execution and the divestment of “division staffs.” But the wheels of history keep turning and the same centralization and pursuit of efficiency that was a virtue is now a vulnerability.

Today, no Air Force organization is designed to deliver a consolidated package of combat, mobility and reconnaissance forces, together with their enabling agile combat support consisting of engineers, defenders, signals, and logistics. Because there are no such forces, no one is responsible for reporting on their readiness as a team. Unit commanders do report readiness on thousands of unit tasking codes, but without an operational structure to give meaning to those reports, or to understand trades between them, it is data without context. A larger problem is that no one is responsible for developing training, exercise, and inspection opportunities to validate the readiness of those teams to fight together. And that means no one is working on optimized equipment or tactics that may make them more effective as a team. We propose that an air division could change that.

Figure 5: A comparison of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and the U.S. Marine Corp’s Marine Expeditionary Unit. Both contain C2, Maneuver, Fires and Effects, and organic Sustainment. All aligned under a unified commander. The air division would be similar (Author’s work).

Tomorrow’s Fight

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and European Command are both actively developing approaches that reduce dependencies on main operating bases. In the Pacific, the “Agile Combat Employment” concept seeks to exploit the archipelagic geography of their area of responsibility to confront a Chinese aggressor with a 21st century island hopping campaign. In Europe, airmen are experimenting with a “Deployable Air Base System” to rapidly open re-locatable operating positions to complement the remaining military and highway-strip architecture sustained since the Cold War. But the effectiveness of these efforts will be radically enhanced if follow-on forces arrive with all of the organic capabilities that allow air forces to maneuver on the battlespace. Maneuver requires organic intelligence, sustainment, mobility, and combat forces. Unless an adversary seems inclined to offer the forces the time to develop maneuver plans on the fly, the only way to arrive ready to fight is to have built a composite force ready to fight that way in advance.

A force that must forward deploy into a contested theater and maneuver after it arrives looks fundamentally different than what we have today. Technical capabilities aside, it requires a cultural change that enables a turn away from a centralized command & control architecture to a culture of mission command and initiative among subordinate units that align with higher echelons when able, and issue local mission orders when necessary. Like the CASF, a mix of C2, fighter/attack, reconnaissance, air mobility, and tanker assets are necessary, but this time the Air Force should also incorporate special operations, rescue and cyber capabilities — with the authority to use them.

Today, only the Air Component Commander, and arguably only the Joint Force Commander, has the command relationships to control all of these activities. And that is the problem. Conducting multi-domain operations at the speed of relevance cannot be completely dependent on highly vulnerable command structures. If an agile multi-capability fighting force is the answer, the return of the air division may be the Air Force’s best point of departure for planning.

We propose that the Air Force brings back an air division to manage forces being postured to meet the “Immediate Response Force” bin of the military’s new “Global Force Management” construct. The Air Division Commander should be a one-star general to ensure sufficient rank to direct the activities of multiple assigned wings and supporting units from multiple major commands. The last point is important. No one major command has all of the enablers needed to fight as a division. An Air Division Commander will need to fight forces assigned or allocated to Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, and Air Force Special Operations Command. Thus, the air division must be able to act like a permanent joint task force, commanding units from various commands over long periods of time.

The Complete Air Division

Building an air division will be the subject of a whole other article. As rapidly deployable combat formations, they could benefit from a regional focus — planned in advance to support specific locations. A Pacific Air Division would have significant differences from one focused on northern or southern Europe, which would also differ from one focused on the Arabian Peninsula. We anticipate three or more stateside-based air divisions, with the possibility of a permanent forward formation in Central Command. To some extent, air divisions would back each other up, just as the CASFs did in 1958.

An air division would not just be a “super wing” and might look a lot like the 19th Air Force of old, with improvements. As a permanent joint task force, air divisions should be capable of providing the core of a joint task force headquarters. This will necessitate professional education, sustained staffing, certification exercises, and staff activities to prepare to employ forward as a joint task force headquarters. Air divisions could provide a stepping stone in professional and leadership development for commanders and staff personnel who currently have few broadening opportunities between their experience in a wing, and ultimately becoming a JFACC or AOC staff. This will groom airmen for the role and give them relevant operational experience.

Air divisions should be able to design training to allow their forces to train together, mobilize together, and sustain together in peacetime — to ensure they will be lethal and survivable when they fight together. Carrier strike groups and army divisions use capstone events to certify that they are ready to go to war as a team, but air force squadrons are exercised and assessed individually. An air division training evolution — culminating in certification — would provide a natural forcing function to align service exercises, and aggregate the readiness data to assess the goals, answering readiness of the various parts to fight as a unit. This will connect the readiness dots and endure that both the combat elements and support elements share a readiness evaluation. The team is not ready for combat unless all of its parts are.

The air division is an example drawn from a time when we faced great power competition and were able to field forces organized, trained, and equipped for operations in a great power conflict. Given that the Air Force already has more mission than force, the planning and resourcing effort to make air divisions a reality is daunting. However, with airpower a highly favored aspect of American combat power, the Air Force must adapt to emerging conditions, and (re)emerging adversaries who are much more broadly capable than the insurgents that have been our focus for almost two decades. We believe that returning to the air division as a fighting organization provides a credible alternative to our current organizational models.



Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently assigned to Air Combat Command.

Lt. Col. Jeremy “Maestro” Renken is an instructor pilot and former squadron commander in the F-15E Strike Eagle, credited with over 200 combat missions and one air to air kill in five combat deployments. He is a graduate of the USAF Weapons Instructor Course and is currently an Air Force Fellow assigned to Air Combat Command. 

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.