USAF vs. USN: What's Done at What Level?

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Zipper730

Chief Master Sergeant
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Nov 9, 2015
This kind of involves the organization of squadrons, air-groups/air-wings (et. al.) during WWII and the Cold War. My interest is predominantly Cold War, but I was curious as to the changes in the USAAF & USN during WWII to the USAF & USN during the Cold War and what was done at what level.

I. WWII
A. US Navy & US Marine Corps: As I understand it...​
1. Air Groups: which were a bunch of squadrons that were under a commanding officer (CAG)
2. Squadrons: Which were basically a bunch of aircraft that were under a commanding officer (Squadron C/O)
Other: I do remember there were Carrier Air Service Units, and possibly other units above and below this point, but above the level of Air-Group.
Generally, as I understand it, the USN usually had a lot of decision making authority under the Squadron C/O with the maintenance units and stuff tied to individual squadrons. And what was effectively (though the term didn't exist yet) command by negation which meant the squadron C/O did what he saw fit unless he was overridden or given orders by somebody above him to do something (as I understand it).
B.
US Army Air Force: As I understand it...​
1. Chief of the Air Corps: He commanded the whole Air-Arm
2. Numbered Air-Force Units: Generally arranged along a geographic area (8th AF controlled USAAF Units in the UK, Northern Europe; 5th AF controlled the Southern Pacific, etc., 20th AF controlled B-29 operations in Burma, China, and then the Marianas).
3. Air Divisions: A intermediate level between Numbered AF Units and Combat Wings and nominally commanded several Wings
4. Combat Wings: A bunch of air-groups tied under a commanding officer.
5. Air Groups: A bunch of squadrons tied under a commanding officer.
6. Squadrons: A bunch of aircraft tied under a commanding officer (Squadron C/O).​
While there might have been some changes even during WWII including additional positions I failed to mention: I'm not sure if decision making was similar to the USN where the Squadron C/O made a decision unless directed/overruled by somebody else, but it seemed that maintenance was at least sometimes at the Squadron Level (the 5th Air Force seemed to do this quite a lot).​

II. Cold War
A. US Navy & US Marine Corps: It would appear that the USN's arrangement changed largely above the CAG level with more centralization of Naval Aviation resources with a COMNAVAIRPAC and COMNAVAIRLANT (modern day there appears to be a COMNAVAIRFOR who seems to command aviation resources), and possibly a few command-level positions below this but above CAG. During the Cold-War time it seemed that most decisions regarding maintenance and stuff were made at the squadron level (unsure about modern day).​
B. US Air Force: As I understand it there's the Chief of Staff, then Major Commands which varied over time and I'm not sure I got the time-table here fully worked out but from what I remember...​
1. Strategic Air Command (1946-1992): It was technically not just a major command but a specified command which seems similar in concept to a joint-command or theater-command, except in this case it was manned entirely by members of the USAAF/USAF.
2. Air Defense Command (1946-1968): Responsible for the Defense of the United States. In WWII there were four commands responsible for this job the Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest Air Districts.
3. Tactical Air Command (1946-1948, 1948-1992): Responsible for units that didn't cover SAC's and ADC's mission.
4. Continental Air Command (1946-1968): Responsible for administering the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units. TAC appears to have been under this command's control from 1948-1950.
5. Military Airlift Command (1966-1992): Previously there was Air Transport Command (USAAF), then MATS which was a joint command, and in 1966 they were placed into USAF control again. There was some additional consolidation in 1982 and in 1992 it was disestablished.
6. Aerospace Defense Command (1968-1980): Basically the Air Defense Command under a new name.​
Then below that there seemed to be Numbered Air Force Units, Divisions/Air Divisions, Wings, Groups, and Squadrons. While I'm not sure if this was the case off the bat, it seems that Groups are organizations that aren't hosted by a Wing and are below Wing but above Squadron.​

Regardless, I'm curious how much autonomy a USAF squadron C/O during the Cold War had over one in the USAAF or USN? I'm also curious when the USAF transferred maintenance functions away from the squadrons and to the Wing level?

B Barrett , davparlr davparlr , fubar57 fubar57 , G Glider , Graeme Graeme GreenKnight121 GreenKnight121 , GTX GTX , nuuumannn nuuumannn , P pbehn , S Shortround6 , swampyankee swampyankee , syscom3 syscom3 , Thumpalumpacus Thumpalumpacus , T tyrodtom , X XBe02Drvr
 
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When I was in, Air Force hierarchy was : How many new airmen will get sore feet?

Headquarters
Major command
Numbered air force
Air division
Wing
Group
Squadron
Flight

This may be different now, but this was the structure instituted in Oct 1947. Groups went by the wayside in the 50s and/or 60s, in favor of wings consisting of 2-4 flying squadrons and other supporting squadrons.

For instance, I was assigned to the 7th Civil Engineering Sq of the 7th Bomb Wing (and yes, all supporting squadrons were numerated with the wing's number, but the fighting squadrons maintained their own numerators -- i.e. 7th CES, or for the tankers, 7th Air Refueling Squadron, but our B-52 squadrons were the 9th and the 20th). 7th BW reported to 19th Air Division, which reported to 8th AF (Numbered Air Force), which reported to SAC (major command), which of course reported to HQ.

As for squadron autonomy, not much. Decisions such as who went where and when were decided at and above the Air Division level, and sometimes higher depending on the importance of the asset. I supported a nuclear bomb-wing. Decisions about where our planes, or even us lowly firefighters, might be sent, had to take into account nuclear readiness posture, and so our Col John Sams didn't have a goddamned thing to do but snap a salute and issue orders. Those decisions were probably taken at SAC-level.

On the other hand, I'm told that squadron and wing commanders in the field were sometimes tasked to support local operations and had more leeway as to what they could and couldn't do -- but that was far above my paygrade. We were concerned with uploads, battle damage, the odd piece of hung-ordnance, regular IFEs, and scaring the local wimmenfolk. I know that the 801st BW(P) I was assigned to during Desert Storm was subordinated, for its brief existence, to CentCom and, presumably, Gen Horner's command. I don't think our wing commander had any say in his targeting, given the strategic nature of our planes, about 18 B-52s and another 6 or so KC-135s plus a couple of KC-10s.

ETA: Maintenance and munitions were both handled by the wing, in the form of a subordinate Munitions & Maintenance Squadron (7th MMS in my case). Active-duty squadrons didn't have their own MMS sections, though maybe Reserve/ANG squadrons did?
 
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When I was in, Air Force hierarchy was : How many new airmen will get sore feet?

Headquarters
Major command
Numbered air force
Air division
Wing
Group
Squadron
Flight
That's a very good way to remember it.
This may be different now, but this was the structure instituted in Oct 1947. Groups went by the wayside in the 50s and/or 60s, in favor of wings consisting of 2-4 flying squadrons and other supporting squadrons.
Generally the case, most were disestablished in the 1960's or 1970's, but there were a few groups that remained with the 3rd Air Support Operations Group having remained in operation. After 1992 some previously disestablished units were re-established.
As for squadron autonomy, not much. . . . I supported a nuclear bomb-wing. . . . On the other hand, I'm told that squadron and wing commanders in the field were sometimes tasked to support local operations and had more leeway as to what they could and couldn't do
So tactical operations generally gave squadron and wing-commanders more leeway with SAC being generally controlled centrally?
Maintenance and munitions were both handled by the wing
When did things change from decisions made at the squadron level to the wing level? Was this in 1947 or later?

Also why does the USAF have wings, squadrons, flights for everything? From what I remember with Naval Units there were numerous designations for different things. You'd think an entity tasked with security would be more infantry-esque than flight, squadron, group, wing, etc.
 
So tactical operations generally gave squadron and wing-commanders more leeway with SAC being generally controlled centrally?

That's my understanding, but I was only a dumb-ass sergeant. I would have to assume that tactical ops require more latitude than chucking a few B-52s around the sky, though. Those things are expensive to launch and maintain.

When did things change from decisions made at the squadron level to the wing level? Was this in 1947 or later?

I couldn't honestly tell you. My readings, and a couple of guys I know, indicate that even in Vietnam a squadron commander had quite a bit of leeway. Such may still be the case now in tactical ops so far as I (don't) know. I think things tightened up in the 80s, but have no direct knowledge or sources to back up that admittedly-personal impression. Occifers like BiffF15 BiffF15 could tell you much better about tactical squadron ops than I ever could.

Also why does the USAF have wings, squadrons, flights for everything? From what I remember with Naval Units there were numerous designations for different things. You'd think an entity tasked with security would be more infantry-esque than flight, squadron, group, wing, etc.

I think that's an Air Force thing - the whole "younger service has to have its own titles" thing. To give perspective, a wing is roughly the comparative to a brigade, about 4-6,000 people, composed of 6-8 squadrons (both combat and support) of 600-800. At least, that's how it was at Carswell when I was there. I don't think it was nearly as cleanly-delineated as Army or Marine units, nor as sloppy as Navy units. But you knew who you needed to salute, and you goddamned sure knew who your shirt was.
 
Navair organization was the same fort both USN and USMC air wings - except for the added "expeditionary" groupings in the USMC. Those are collections of individual squadrons etc from both the air wing and ground units that would deploy together to a combat zone.
 
My readings, and a couple of guys I know, indicate that even in Vietnam a squadron commander had quite a bit of leeway. Such may still be the case now in tactical ops so far as I (don't) know. I think things tightened up in the 80s, but have no direct knowledge or sources to back up that admittedly-personal impression. Occifers like BiffF15 BiffF15 could tell you much better about tactical squadron ops than I ever could.
The latitude permitted in tactical operations kind of does make an intrinsic degree of sense. I'm surprised they would have tightened things up with the various lessons learned in Vietnam. Regardless, tagging BiffF15 BiffF15 is a good idea.
I think that's an Air Force thing - the whole "younger service has to have its own titles" thing.
How did the RAF do things? Did they have a set-up like that where everything was divided into squadron wing group headquarters?
 
There are considerable limits on tactical flexibility. The Air Operations Center, subordinate to the Numbered Air Force, plans and directs all operations via the Air Tasking Order (ATO) and Airspace Coordination Order (ACO). The ATO assigns targets/missions while the ACO provides the operating locations for various orbits (AWACS, AAR, CAS, DCA), restricted operating zones and other airspace coordination means. Unit commanders typically have routing flexibility from the ingress/egress point to/from adversary airspace...but things are more tightly controlled within friendly airspace..

The RAF structure is similar but with one naming juxtaposition that can be confusing:
  • Ministry
  • Command
  • Group
  • Wing
  • Squadron
  • Flight
 
The latitude permitted in tactical operations kind of does make an intrinsic degree of sense. I'm surprised they would have tightened things up with the various lessons learned in Vietnam. Regardless, tagging BiffF15 BiffF15 is a good idea.
How did the RAF do things? Did they have a set-up like that where everything was divided into squadron wing group headquarters?
The latitude permitted for the most part depends on the mission and situation. Leading a strike package into a target area would see Eagles flowing towards any airborne threat but not so far away as to leave the package unprotected. We could flow around weather, go deeper if SAMs went down or off the air, or stay closer if nothing got airborne.

If during a No Fly Zone enforcement mission with strikers, we could be very flexible. The air to air mission commander would work out a few different scenarios with the air to ground commander (or vice versa) that would allow for strikes if triggers were met, or package retrograde / swing to air to air depending on the situation.

During sustained combat squadron / wing commanders could make inputs to the Air Tasking Order (ATO, AKA Frag). A classic example of this would be Robin Olds and Operation Bolo.

I also worked in an AOC for my last five years in the USAF and was an eye opening experience to see what goes on behind the scenes to execute the commanders intent.

Cheers,
Biff
 
This kind of involves the organization of squadrons, air-groups/air-wings (et. al.) during WWII and the Cold War. My interest is predominantly Cold War, but I was curious as to the changes in the USAAF & USN during WWII to the USAF & USN during the Cold War and what was done at what level.

I. WWII
A. US Navy & US Marine Corps: As I understand it...​
1. Air Groups: which were a bunch of squadrons that were under a commanding officer (CAG)
2. Squadrons: Which were basically a bunch of aircraft that were under a commanding officer (Squadron C/O)
Other: I do remember there were Carrier Air Service Units, and possibly other units above and below this point, but above the level of Air-Group.
Generally, as I understand it, the USN usually had a lot of decision making authority under the Squadron C/O with the maintenance units and stuff tied to individual squadrons. And what was effectively (though the term didn't exist yet) command by negation which meant the squadron C/O did what he saw fit unless he was overridden or given orders by somebody above him to do something (as I understand it).
B.
US Army Air Force: As I understand it...​
1. Chief of the Air Corps: He commanded the whole Air-Arm
2. Numbered Air-Force Units: Generally arranged along a geographic area (8th AF controlled USAAF Units in the UK, Northern Europe; 5th AF controlled the Southern Pacific, etc., 20th AF controlled B-29 operations in Burma, China, and then the Marianas).
3. Air Divisions: A intermediate level between Numbered AF Units and Combat Wings and nominally commanded several Wings
4. Combat Wings: A bunch of air-groups tied under a commanding officer.
5. Air Groups: A bunch of squadrons tied under a commanding officer.
6. Squadrons: A bunch of aircraft tied under a commanding officer (Squadron C/O).​
While there might have been some changes even during WWII including additional positions I failed to mention: I'm not sure if decision making was similar to the USN where the Squadron C/O made a decision unless directed/overruled by somebody else, but it seemed that maintenance was at least sometimes at the Squadron Level (the 5th Air Force seemed to do this quite a lot).​

II. Cold War
A. US Navy & US Marine Corps: It would appear that the USN's arrangement changed largely above the CAG level with more centralization of Naval Aviation resources with a COMNAVAIRPAC and COMNAVAIRLANT (modern day there appears to be a COMNAVAIRFOR who seems to command aviation resources), and possibly a few command-level positions below this but above CAG. During the Cold-War time it seemed that most decisions regarding maintenance and stuff were made at the squadron level (unsure about modern day).
B. US Air Force: As I understand it there's the Chief of Staff, then Major Commands which varied over time and I'm not sure I got the time-table here fully worked out but from what I remember...​
1. Strategic Air Command (1946-1992): It was technically not just a major command but a specified command which seems similar in concept to a joint-command or theater-command, except in this case it was manned entirely by members of the USAAF/USAF.
2. Air Defense Command (1946-1968): Responsible for the Defense of the United States. In WWII there were four commands responsible for this job the Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest Air Districts.
3. Tactical Air Command (1946-1948, 1948-1992): Responsible for units that didn't cover SAC's and ADC's mission.
4. Continental Air Command (1946-1968): Responsible for administering the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units. TAC appears to have been under this command's control from 1948-1950.
5. Military Airlift Command (1966-1992): Previously there was Air Transport Command (USAAF), then MATS which was a joint command, and in 1966 they were placed into USAF control again. There was some additional consolidation in 1982 and in 1992 it was disestablished.
6. Aerospace Defense Command (1968-1980): Basically the Air Defense Command under a new name.​
Then below that there seemed to be Numbered Air Force Units, Divisions/Air Divisions, Wings, Groups, and Squadrons. While I'm not sure if this was the case off the bat, it seems that Groups are organizations that aren't hosted by a Wing and are below Wing but above Squadron.​

Regardless, I'm curious how much autonomy a USAF squadron C/O during the Cold War had over one in the USAAF or USN? I'm also curious when the USAF transferred maintenance functions away from the squadrons and to the Wing level?

B Barrett , davparlr davparlr , fubar57 fubar57 , G Glider , Graeme Graeme GreenKnight121 GreenKnight121 , GTX GTX , nuuumannn nuuumannn , P pbehn , S Shortround6 , swampyankee swampyankee , syscom3 syscom3 , Thumpalumpacus Thumpalumpacus , T tyrodtom , X XBe02Drvr
Naval Air Forces Pacific and Atlantic were established in July '42 and activated in September, as I interpret the directives from CNO King.
 
The latitude permitted for the most part depends on the mission and situation. Leading a strike package into a target area would see Eagles flowing towards any airborne threat but not so far away as to leave the package unprotected. We could flow around weather, go deeper if SAMs went down or off the air, or stay closer if nothing got airborne.

If during a No Fly Zone enforcement mission with strikers, we could be very flexible. The air to air mission commander would work out a few different scenarios with the air to ground commander (or vice versa) that would allow for strikes if triggers were met, or package retrograde / swing to air to air depending on the situation.

During sustained combat squadron / wing commanders could make inputs to the Air Tasking Order (ATO, AKA Frag). A classic example of this would be Robin Olds and Operation Bolo.

I also worked in an AOC for my last five years in the USAF and was an eye opening experience to see what goes on behind the scenes to execute the commanders intent.

Cheers,
Biff

Thanks for this concise summary. You explained it much better than I did.

Entirely agree that the degree of tactical flexibility is highly dependent on the mission. On the friendly side of the FLOT (if such a thing exists), things are (rightly) tightly controlled. On the far side of the FLOT, tactical decision-making has more flexibility. However, mission needs will determine how much autonomy unit leads will or won't have. Choreographing a large gorilla with escorting fighters, SEAD etc, is a very different proposition from a pair of recce jets doing their own thing.
 
The RAF structure is similar but with one naming juxtaposition that can be confusing:
  • Ministry
  • Command
  • Group
  • Wing
  • Squadron
  • Flight
Okay, I got some questions.

1. How did an RAF Group compare to the USAF's Numbered Air Force, Air Division, and Wing?
2. Were there differences in designation of units that were responsible for security (i.e. security teams etc.) as well as SAM's? Were they classified as squadrons and flights, or something else?

BTW: Revised to clarify a point
 
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