Tactical Air Command

Tactical Air Command

Tactical Air Command (TAC) it an inactive United States Air Force organization. It was a Major Command of the United States Air Force, established on 21 March 1946 being headquartered at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. It was inactivated on 1 June 1992 and its personnel and equipment were absorbed by Air Combat Command.


Tactical Air Command was established to provide a balance between strategic, air defense, and tactical forces of the post-World War II Air Force. In 1948 the Continental Air Command assumed control over air defense, tactical air, and air reserve forces. After two years in a subordinate role, Tactical Air Command (TAC) was reestablished as a major command.

In 1992, after assessing the mission of TAC and to accommodate the decision made regarding Strategic Air Command, HQ United States Air Force inactivated TAC and incorporated its resources into the newly created Air Combat Command.


  • Established as Tactical Air Command, and activated, on 21 Mar 1946

Reduced from major command status, and assigned to Continental Air Command as a subordinate operational command, 1 Dec 1948
Returned to major command status. 1 Dec 1950
Inactivated on 1 Jun 1992.




Major Components

Air Forces

Named Units/Air Divisions

20th Air Division (ADTAC): 1 Oct 1979 - 1 Mar 1983
21st Air Division (ADTAC): 1 Oct 1979 - 23 Sep 1981
23d Air Division (ADTAC): 1 Oct 1979 - 1 Jul 1987
24th Air Division (ADTAC): 1 Oct 1979 - 30 Sep 1990
25th Air Division (ADTAC), 1 Oct 1979 - 30 Sep 1990
26th Air Division (ADTAC), 1 Oct 1979 - 6 Dec 1985
28th Air Division (ADTAC), 1 Apr 1985 - 29 May 1992

Major Aircraft

  • Fighters

Douglas A-1 Skyraider
Ling-Temco-Vought A-7 Corsair II
Fairchild-Republic A/OA-10 Thunderbolt II
Cessna T-37/A-37 Tweety Bird
McDonnell Douglas F/RF-4 Phantom II
Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter
McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle
General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon
North American P/F-51 Mustang
Lockheed P/F/RF-80 Shooting Star
Republic P/F-47 Thunderbolt
Republic Aviation F/RF-84 Thunderjet
North American F-82 Twin Mustang
North American F-86 Sabre
North American F-100 Super Sabre
McDonnell F/RF-101 Voodoo
Lockheed F-104 Starfighter
Republic F-105 Thunderchief
Convair F-106A Delta Dart
General Dynamics F/EF-111
Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk

  • Trainers

North American T-6 Texan
North American T-28 Trojan
Convair T-29
Northrop T-38 Talon
Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star

  • Observation

Cessna O-1 Bird Dog
Cessna O-2 Skymaster
North American OV-10 Bronco

  • Cargo/Transports/Electronic Warfare

de Havilland Canada C-7 Caribou
Douglas C/AC-47 Skytrain
Fairchild C-82 Packet
Fairchild C/AC-119 Flying Boxcar
Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star
Fairchild C-123 Provider
Lockheed C/AC-130 Hercules
Boeing E-3 AWACS
Boeing EC-135 AW&CP
Boeing E-8C Joint STARS

  • Bombers

Douglas B/RB-26 Invader
Martin B/RB-57 Canberra
Douglas B/RB/EB-66 Destroyer

  • Tankers

Boeing KB-29 Superfortress
Boeing KB-50 Superfortress
Boeing KC-97 Stratotanker

  • Helicopters

Bell UH-1 Huey
Hiller OH-23 Raven
Hughes H-6
Sikorsky MH-53J/H Pave Low
Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk
Sikorsky H-19
Sikorsky H-5
Sikorsky R-4
Sikorsky S-62
Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk

P-series (Pursuit) designation changed to F-series (Fighter) designation in 1947.
Source for lineage, assignments, stations, components, aircraft

Operational History

World War II showed the effectiveness of tactical air power in supporting army ground forces. However, the rapid demobilization in late 1945 meant that the huge air armada that had brought Germany to her knees and victory in Europe had been downsized to a shadow of its former self.

Headquarters United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) had little money and most of the wartime personnel had returned to civilian life. Many of its aircraft were being sent to storage or the scrapyards, although the increasing tension with the Soviet Union meant that combat military forces were was still needed. The big questions were how much and what kind of forces.

A major realignment of the USAAF was undertaken in early 1946. As part of the realignment, three major command divisions within the Continental United States (CONUS) were formed. Each was given a specific responsibility, using assets prescribed to accomplish the assigned mission. Tactical Air Command was formed to command, organize, equip, train and administer assigned or attached forces. It was to plan for and participate in tactics for fighter, light bombardment and other aircraft. These included tactical fighters, tactical bombers, tactical missiles, troop carrier aircraft, assault, reconnaissance and support units. TAC also planned for and developed the capability to deploy tactical striking forces anywhere in the world.

During its existence, Tactical Air Command deployed personnel, material and/or aircraft to Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe and Australia in support of its prescribed mission.

TAC's original authorization was 25,500 officers and enlisted men. Aircraft assets available consisted of propeller-driven North American P-51 Mustangs, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and a handful of the new jet-powered Lockheed P-80 Shooting Stars. TAC was also given control of the Third Air Force, Ninth Air Force and Twelfth Air Force.

Berlin Airlift

On 18 September 1947 the United States Air Force was established as a separate military force, with TAC as one of its major commands. Just a few months later, in March 1948 the first test of the United States' resolve began with the blockade of Berlin by the Soviet Union, and the need for tactical air power in Europe to underscore the airlift mission was necessary.

At the time there was only one USAFE tactical air unit available in Europe, the 86th Composite Group at Neubiberg Air Base near Munich, flying P-47Ds. TAC was called upon to send additional units and aircraft to Europe to reinforce the 86th FG. The 36th Fighter Group was transferred from Howard AAF in the Panama Canal Zone to Furstenfeldbruck Air Base flying Lockheed F-80B "Shooting Stars".

In addition to the tactical fighter aircraft, TAC also deployed available C-47s to Europe, transferring them to the United States Air Forces, Europe, which was in control of the airlift. As the airlift continued, TAC also transferred available C-54s to Europe, where they were assigned to the troop carrier groups that had been sent to Germany for the airlift.

Consequently, the Soviet Union entered into negotiations which culminated in an agreement, signed on 5 May 1949, that resulted in the lifting of the blockade, but it did not settle the basic issue of freedom of access. Despite the resumption of surface traffic into the city, the airlift continued until 30 September to mass a reserve of food, fuel, and other supplies in the event the Soviets reimposed the blockade.

Continental Air Command

In December 1948 Air Defense Command and Tactical Air Command were brought together to form Continental Air Command (ConAC). HQ TAC was reduced to the status of an operational headquarters under CONAC. This move reflected an effort to concentrate all fighter forces deployed within the continental United States to strengthen the air defense of the North American continent.

The creation of ConAC was largely an administrative convenience: the units assigned to ConAC were dual-trained and expected to revert to their primary strategic or tactical roles after the air defense battle was won.

Two years later, on 1 December 1950, the Air Force reestablished Tactical Air Command as a major command and removed it from assignment to ConAC in large part due to the need to deploy personnel and aircraft to Japan and South Korea due to the Korean War.

Korean War

On the morning of 25 June 1950, the peace in South Korea was shattered by the clanking of tanks. The North Korean army had crossed the 38th parallel and were driving south towards the South Korean capital of Seoul. The United States Air Force, weakened by demobilization and preoccupied with the threat of the Soviet Union, was thrust into its first war as a separate service when North Korea invaded South Korea.

Air bases in the United States went on mobility alert to prepare for overseas movement in response to the Korean Emergency. Units from SAC and CONAC were deployed to Japan and South Korea. Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units were also called up to active duty and placed under Federal Service in case they were needed. What started out as an Emergency turned into a "Police Action", which was, in reality, a bona-fide war. The Korean War marked the creation of a professional Air Force that would grow in size and strength for decades to come.

From the start, the deployed tactical fighters and bombers to Japan and South Korea were effective. For example, on 10 July a North Korean armored column was trapped at a bombed-out bridge near Pyongtaek. F-80s, B-26s, and F-82s destroyed 117 trucks, 38 tanks, and seven half-tracks. This attack, along with others, gutted North Korea's single armored division. Had it survived, it could easily have punched through the United Nations (UN) defensive line at Pusan and driven UN Command (UNC) forces into the sea.

By the end of August 1950, the initial North Korean onslaught was reversed and Seoul was retaken. As the United Nations forces advanced into North Korea, forces from the Communist China stepped in to help their North Korean allies. The UN advance ground to a halt in December, then retreated south in early 1951, tactical aircraft continued to support of United Nations forces. Eventually the line stabilized along the 38th Parallel, where a stalemate ensued for the next two years.

Known TAC units and aircraft deployed to Far East Air Forces (1950-1953)

Units and aircraft were stationed both in South Korea and Japan and attached to Fifth Air Force during their deployment to Far East Air Force (FEAF). This list does not include ConAC Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard tactical air units federalized and deployed to FEAF during the Korean War.

Deployed from: New Castle Airport, Delaware

Deployed from: Clovis AFB, New Mexico

Deployed from: George AFB, California

Deployed from: March AFB, California

Deployed from: Smyrna AFB, Tennessee

Portland Airport, Oregon

United States Air Forces in Europe

Even with the active war in Korea raging, in the early 1950s Europe received a higher priority of air power than Korea by the Truman Administration and the Department of Defense. Deterring the threat of a Communist takeover of Western Europe was considered more important to the long-term survival of the United States than a Communist victory in Korea.

In September 1950, NATO’s Military Committee had called for an ambitious buildup of conventional forces to meet the Soviets, subsequently reaffirming this position at the February 1952 meeting of the Atlantic Council in Lisbon which had established a goal of ultimately fielding 96 divisions in the event of a conventional war in 1954. In support of this, the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), which consisted of 16 wings totaling 2,100 aircraft, was programmed to expand to 28 wings, 22 of them in NATO’s Central Region alone, backed by deployed Strategic Air Command units sent from CONUS.

The USAF reassigned combat wings from TAC to USAFE during the period from April 1951 through December 1954. These were:

Reassigned to: RAF Bentwaters, United Kingdom

Deployed to: RAF Sculthorpe, United Kingdom
(Remained assigned to TAC's 49th Air Division)

Reassigned to: RAF Wethersfield, United Kingdom

Reassigned to: RAF Manston, United Kingdom

Reassigned to: Sembach Air Base, West Germany

Reassigned to: Spangdahlem Air Base, West Germany

Reassigned to: Hahn Air Base, West Germany

Reassigned to: Chambley-Bussieres Air Base, France

Activated at: Chaumont-Semoutiers Air Base, France
(Replaced ANG 137th Fighter-Bomber Wing)

Reassigned to: Etain-Rouvres Air Base, France

Reassigned to: Dreux-Louvillier Air Base, France

Reassigned to: Toul-Rosières Air Base, France

Reassigned to: Laon-Couvron Air Base, France

These wings gave USAFE/NATO approximately 500 fighters, 100 light bombers, 100 tactical reconnaissance aircraft, 100 tactical airlift transports, and 18,000 personnel.

Rotational Deployments to Mediterranean Bases

With the phase-out of the B-47 Stratojet from SAC in the mid-1960s, the need for Strategic Air Command "Reflex" European bases diminished and the Sixteenth Air Force was turned over to the USAFE on 15 April 1966.

Prior to 1966, TAC routinely deployed CONUS-based North American F-100 Super Sabre wings to Sixteenth Air Force bases in Spain, as well as to Aviano Air Base in Italy. With USAFE taking possession of these bases from SAC, Tactical Air Command reassigned the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing from England Air Force Base, Louisiana to USAFE on a permanent basis to Torrejon Air Base, Spain on 27 April to perform host functions at the base. and to support the rotational TDY duty to Italy and Turkey for NATO alerts.

However, with the 401st's fighter squadrons deployed to South Vietnam, squadrons from Homestead AFB, Florida and Myrtle Beach AFB, South Carolina were utilized to fill the need in Spain. These squadrons remained in Europe until 1970, when the drawdown in Vietnam allowed the squadrons from the 401st which were deeployed to Southest Asia to rejoin their home unit.

Composite Air Strike Force

In aftermath of the Korean War, TAC developed the Composite Air Strike Force (CASF) concept, a mobile rapid-deployment strike concept designed to respond to "brush fire" conflicts around the world. A CASF included fighter bomber aircraft for both conventional and nuclear attack missions, as well as troop carrier, tanker, and tactical reconnaissance assets. TAC composite air strike forces were intended to augment existing combat units already in place as part of United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), or the Alaskan Air Command (AAC).

In addition, the new Century Series of TAC fighters were making their first fights, designed from the lessons learned in the air over Korea. As these new fighters and new transport aircraft cane on line, there were problems with each one. TAC pilots risked life and limb to iron out the problems and make these aircraft fully operational.

Also, with the development of air refueling, TAC could now flex its muscles and demonstrate true global mobility. Deployments to Europe and the Far East became a way of life for TAC units. When Strategic Air Command abandoned its fighter escort force in 1957, those aircraft were transferred to TAC, further augmenting its strength.

The first deployment of the Composite Air Strike Force took place in July 1958 in response to an imminent coup d'etat in Lebanon. TAC scrambled forces across the Atlantic to Turkey, where their presence was intended to force an end to the crisis. A similar CASF was deployed in response to conflicts between China and Taiwan in 1958.

CASF received another test in 1961, when the Berlin Crisis resulted in TAC quickly deploying 210 aircraft to Europe, consisting of 144 North American F-100D Super Sabres and 54 Lockheed F-104C Starfighters, but also including 6 McDonnell RF-101 Voodoo and 6 Douglas RB-66C Destroyer reconnaissance aircraft. Also as part of the CASF, the Air National Guard subsequently deployed 36 Lockheed F-104A Starfighters, 54 North American F-86H Sabres, and 90 Republic F-84F Thunderstreaks. In 1961 Robert McNamara organized the United States Strike Command to integrate CASF efforts with those of the Strategic Army Corps.

TAC had gone from a meager postwar force to a force capable of putting the right amount of assets in the right place when they were needed.

Tactical ballistic missiles

In 1949 TAC began testing the Martin MGM-1 Matador surface-to-surface cruise missile at Holloman AFB, NM. Like so many of the missiles, the initial flight ended in a crash. Testing continued with 46 prototype missiles until March 1954, then with 84 production models between December 1952 and spring 1954. In 1954, another model, the Martin CGM/MGM-13 Mace began development at Holloman AFB, with its first launch in 1956. The Mace was launched from a mobile trailer or a hardened bunker using a solid fuel booster rocket for initial acceleration and an Allison J33 turbojet for flight.

By 1958, development of these tactical missiles was advanced enough to deploy them to Japan and West Germany with operational missile squadrons, where they were active until the late 1960s, by then the U.S. Army had largely assumed the tactical missile program until the 1980s when the General Dynamics BGM-109G "Tomahawk" GLCM was deployed along with the Army's Pershing II missile to counter to the mobile medium- and intermediate- range ballistic nuclear missiles deployed by the Soviet Union in Eastern Bloc.

This entire class of weaponry was eliminated by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF treaty), and thus reducing both the number and the threat of nuclear warheads.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cold War took on a frightening phase in October 1962. Routine photo reconnaissance flights over Cuba revealed that the Soviet Union was in the process of placing nuclear missies on that island. In response the United States let it be known that any use of those missies against any country in the hemisphere would be considered an attack on the United States and a full nuclear response would be the result. The United States and the Soviet Union stood eyeball to eyeball at the brink of nuclear exchange.

Large numbers of Tactical Air Command units were deployed to Homestead AFB, McCoy AFB, MacDill AFB and Patrick AFB in Florida within hours of the call to prepare for movement. Civilian airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach also received TAC Units. TAC recon RF-101 "Voodo" aircraft from Shaw AFB were flying over Cuba on a daily basis photographing suspected missile sites and Cuban military bases to keep an eye on what was going on. In some cases the films were flown directly to Washington, D.C. and onto President John F. Kennedy's desk within hours of being taken.

The United States and Soviet Union stepped back from the brink, and the crisis was resolved without armed conflict. Never in the history of the Cold War had we come so very close to mutual nuclear destruction.

Vietnam War

With the Kennedy Administration, there was the onset of low intensity guerrilla wars, and wars of insurgency. During 1963, the situation in South Vietnam was heating up on a daily basis. More and more "advisors" were being sent to that small country in Southeast Asia.

Special Operations Units

Air Force Special Forces units, known as Air Commando and later Special Operations units became part of the command. Originally assigned to Military Airlift Command, in 1964 this mission was reassigned to TAC. Aircraft of these units consisted primarily of C-47 air transports, but it also contained a combination of gliders, propeller-driven fighter, fighter bomber, observation and liaison aircraft.

Tactical Fighters

In response to what has become known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, Tactical Air Command pilots and support personnel found themselves deployed to places like Da Nang, Takhli, Korat and Phan Rang. Initially TAC began deploying squadrons of F-100 Super Sabre, RF-101 Voodoo and F-105 Thunderchief aircraft to Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) bases in South Vietnam and Thailand

As the American effort in Southeast Asia increased, TAC used a process of deploying squadrons to PACAF operated bases in South Vietnam and Thailand, with the squadrons being attached temporarily on rotational deployments, or being permanently reassigned to the PACAF wing.

For the next decade, TAC would be consumed by operations in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. On a daily basis, flight crews trained by TAC would hurl themselves and their planes at targets across the area of operations, over the skies of North Vietnam. As the command responsible for training aircrews for overseas duty, TAC maintained Readiness Training Units in the United States to train pilots and other aircrew members for fighters, reconnaissance and troop carrier (redesignated tactical airlift after 1 July 1966) squadrons in the Pacific.

Troop Carrier

In December 1964, TAC deployed a squadron of C-123 Provider assault transports from the 464th Troop Carrier Wing at Pope AFB, North Carolina to Clark Air Base, Philippines, then on to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam to set up a tactical air cargo transportation system.

To support the increased military strength in Southeast Asia, TAC also began deploying its C-130 equipped troop carrier (later redesignated tactical airlift) squadrons to bases in Okinawa and the Philippines. In late 1965, TAC transferred two C-130 wings and two additional squadrons, a total of eight squadrons, to PACAF's 315th Air Division for operations in Southeast Asia.

1972 Spring Invasion

In 1970, the war was winding down as the conflict was being Vietnamized. Units from the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) took on more and more combat to defend their nation and USAF tactical air strength was being reduced as several air bases were turned over to the VNAF.

Bombing of North Vietnam (Operation Rolling Thunder) had ended in 1968, and as a result North Vietnamese forces had built up their air defenses and continued to pour men and equipment into the South via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. By the beginning of 1972 there were only about 235 USAF tactical combat aircraft in Southeast Asia.

Vietnamization was severely tested by the Easter Offensive of 1972, a massive conventional invasion of South Vietnam by North Vietnamese Army forces in spring 1972. On 30 March 1972 the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) launched an all out invasion of South Vietnam with over 13 divisions, pushing South Vietnamese units aside with little difficulty. President Nixon stepped up air strikes to turn back the invasion, or at least to slow it down.

In response to the invasion, TAC deployed both squadrons and wings to air bases in Thailand. Known units deployed were:

  • Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base

8th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Eglin AFB, Florida (F-4E)
414th Fighter Weapons Squadron, Nellis AFB, Nevada (F-4E)

  • Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base

4th Tactical Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina

  • Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base

49th Tactical Fighter Wing, Holloman AFB, North Carolina (F-4D)

By October 1972, the effect of the air campaign was being felt in North Vietnam. North Vietnamese delegates returned to the bargaining table in Paris to engage in peace talks in a serious manner. Besides the pressure from USAF, USN and USMC tactical fighters, fighter-bombers and fighter aircraft, as well as USAF B-52 bombers, the political climate in Moscow and Peking had changed to encourage the North Vietnamese to agree to a settlement.

Uneasy Peace 1973

On 27 January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed with an effective date of 28 January 1973. For TAC the war in SEA was almost over. With the official end of hostilities came the long awaited release of American Prisoners of War from inside North Vietnam. The last USAF aircraft left South Vietnam at the end of January 1973, and the final group of Americans was released from North Vietnam on 29 March 1973.

The accords effectively ended United States military operations in North and South Vietnam. Laos and Cambodia, however, were not signatories to the Paris agreement and remained in states of war with their internal rebel forces.

The United States was helping the Royal Laotian government achieve whatever advantage possible before working out a settlement with the Laotian Communists and their allies. The USAF flew combat sorties over Laos during January and February 1973. On 17 April, the USAF flew its last mission over Laos, working a handful of targets requested by the Laotian government.

In Cambodia there was no peace in 1973. Local Communist insurgents of the Khmer Rouge kept up their attacks on the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, so the Cambodian Government urgently called upon the U.S. for help and the USAF in Thailand was ordered to carry out a massive bombing campaign against the insurgents on the outskirts of the city.

The Cambodian Army would attempt to attack Khmer Rouge forces, however the rebels would simply slip away and move somewhere else. This tactic effectively succeeded in wearing down the government forces. In July and August 1973, the Khmer Rouge focused on taking Phanom Penh and other major cities. In addition, it was reported that the Khmer Rouge was utilizing tear gas in its attacks.

Congressional pressure in Washington grew against these bombings, and on 30 June 1973, the United States Congress passed Public law PL 93-50 and 93-52, which cut off all funds for combat in Cambodia and all of Indochina effective 15 August 1973. Air strikes by the USAF peaked just before the deadline, as the Cambodian Army engaged a force of about 10,000 Khmer Rouge rebels that encircled Phnom Penh.

The last shot fired in anger in Southeast Asia was by at Tactical Air command A-7D Corsair II of the TAC deployed 354th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base over the suburbs of Phnom Penh. By the end of 1975 all Tactical Air Command units were withdrawn from Southeast Asia.

Known TAC units and aircraft deployed to Southeast Asia (1964-1975)


Post-Vietnam era

Hard lessons had been learned during the Southeast Asia war. New methods of projecting global air power had been perfected, and several new types of aircraft were developed as a result of some of the lessons and shortcomings that had been learned in the skies over Hanoi. The first F-15A was delivered to TAC's 1st Tactical Fighter Wing at Langley AFB Virginia in November 1974. Training on the new type began at once. The close air support tank busting A-10 began arriving in March 1977 at Myrtle Beach AFB South Carolina, equipping the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing, while the first F-16As were assigned to the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Hill AFB Utah in January 1979.

Red Flag Aggressor training

The 57th Fighter Weapons Wing at Nellis AFB Nevada began giving regular units some of the most intense combat training ever achieved through the Red Flag program, beginning in 1976.

The origin of Red Flag was the unacceptable performance of U.S. Air Force pilots in air combat maneuvering (ACM) (air-to-air combat) during the Vietnam War in comparison to previous wars. Air combat over North Vietnam between 1965 and 1973 led to an overall exchange ratio (ratio of enemy aircraft shot down to the number of own aircraft lost to enemy fighters) of 2.2:1 (for a period of time in June and July 1972 during Operation Linebacker the ratio was less than 1:1).

The Aggressors were originally equipped with readily available T-38 aircraft loaned from the Air Training Command to simulate the Soviet Union's MiG-21. Northrop F-5 Tiger II fighters, painted in color schemes commonly found on Soviet aircraft, were added shortly thereafter and became the mainstay until the F-16 was introduced in the mid/late 1980s.

The Red Flag exercises, conducted in four-to-six cycles a year by the 414th Combat Training Squadron are very realistic aerial war games. The purpose is to train pilots from the U.S., NATO and other allied countries for real combat situations. This includes the use of "enemy" hardware and live ammunition for bombing exercises within the Nellis Air Force Range.

Air defense mission

As part of a realignment of military assets, the Aerospace Defense Command was deactivated in the summer of 1979 and the air assets of ADC were reassigned to TAC. With this move, many Air National Guard units that had an air defense mission also came under the control of TAC, which established a component called Air Defense, Tactical Air Command (ADTAC). ADTAC was headquartered at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), Colorado. In essence, Tactical Air Command became the old Continental Air Command.

Former ADC active-duty Convair F-106A/B "Delta Dart" squadrons were assigned to TAC under six air divisions (20th, 21st, 23d, 24th, 25th and 26th). ADC Air National Guard squadrons under state control were administratively assigned to TAC though their state ANG control for the air defense mission. On 9 December 1985 these ADTAC AD units were placed under the newly activated First Air Force at Tyndall AFB, FL. This arrangement remained in effect until the last F-106 was retired by the 177th FIG of the New Jersey Air National Guard and all Regular Air Force and ANG F-101 and F-106 units had transitioned to either the F-4, the F-15 or the F-16. ADTAC was transferred to Air Combat Command along with the rest of TAC on 1 June 1992.

ADTAC squadrons were:

  • Air National Guard
    • 101st Fighter Interceptor Squadron (F-106)
      102d FIW, Massachusetts ANG, Otis AFB
    • 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (F-101B/F)
      147th FIG, Texas ANG, Ellington AFB
    • 119th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (F-106)
      177th FIG New Jersey ANG, Atlantic City AP
    • 123d Fighter Interceptor Squadron (F-101B/F)
      142d FIG, Oregon ANG, Portland AP
    • 136th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (F-101B/F)
      107th FIG, New York ANG, Niagara Falls AP
    • 159th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (F-106)
      125th FIG, Florida ANG, Jacksonville AP/ANGB
    • 171st Fighter Interceptor Squadron (F-106)
      191st FIG, Michigan ANG, Selfridge AFB/ANGB
    • 178th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (F-4D)
      119th FIG, North Dakota ANG, Fargo AP
    • 186th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (F-106)
      120th FIG Montana ANG, Great Falls AP
    • 194th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (F-106)
      144th FIW California ANG, Fresno AP

Operation Eagle Claw

In 1978, the unrest in Iran against the monarch Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his autocratic rule boiled over into a revolution. In January 1979, the Shah fled Iran to exile in Egypt and Iran was turned into an "Islamic Republic". On 22 October 1979 the Shah was allowed to travel to the United States for medical treatment. This caused widespread anger in Iran. Furious at what was called "evidence of American plotting" by Iranian revolutionaries, the American Embassy in Tehran was taken over with the entire staff became hostages. While the situation was trying to be resolved through diplomatic means no real ground was gained for the release of the hostages. In a bold plan, U.S. military forces were instructed to come up with a plan to go into Iran and get the hostages by force of arms.

In April 1980, TAC air assets were deployed to areas close to Iran to be ready if and when Washington gave the "go". Operation Eagle Claw got underway on 24 April 1980 when USAF special operations MC-130 Hercules transport planes and Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters with Marine Corps crews deployed to Desert One, a small staging site inside Iran itself.

From the start it appeared that the operation was running into problems. After launching from the USS NIMITZ (CVN-68), an unforeseen low-level sandstorm caused two of eight helicopters to lose their way en route to Desert One, but only after men and equipment had been assembled there. A third helicopter suffered a mechanical failure and was incapable of continuing with the mission. Without enough helicopters to transport men and equipment to Desert Two, the mission was aborted. After the decision to abort the mission was made, one of the helicopters lost control while taking off and crashed into an MC-130. In the ensuing explosion and fire, eight US servicemen were killed: five USAF aircrew in the MC-130, and three USMC aircrew in the RH-53. During the evacuation, six RH-53 helicopters were left behind intact.

The failure of the various services to work together with cohesion forced the establishment of a new multi-service organization. The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) was born and finally established as a joint-service force to coordinate the special operations forces for the Army, Navy and Air Force. In 1987, the USAF established a separate Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) from assets that TAC had transferred to Air Mobility Command (AMC) under AMC's 23rd Air Force in 1984. AFSOC then assumed responsibilities for worldwide deployment of special operations forces and assignment within USSOCOM.

USAF Thunderbirds

In January 1982, a devastating accident during a training flight claimed the lives of four pilots from the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron (USAF ADS), better known as the Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds have been part of TAC since they moved to Nellis AFB in the mid-1950s.

While flying T-38As and practicing the 4 plane diamond loop, the formation impacted the ground at high speed, instantly killing all four pilots. The cause of the crash was officially listed by the USAF as the result of a mechanical problem with the #1 aircraft's control stick actuator. The airshow season for that year was canceled and it was also decided to equip the group with the Block 15 F-16B Fighting Falcon and start over for 1983. In 1992 the squadron was upgraded to the Block 32 F-16C.

Fifth generation jet aircraft

The early 1980s were a transition era for most TAC fighter wings, replacing their fourth generation (McDonnell Douglas F-4, General Dynamics F-111, LTV A-7D) Vietnam-Era aircraft for a new fifth generation (McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II). The F-15A/B and subsequent F-15C/D were designed for the air superiority role, which was not really filled since the North American F-86 Sabre in the 1950s. The F-16 was designed for the fighter-bomber role, replacing the F-4D/Es, while the A-10 was designed to fill the close air support mission of the A-7D.

Although developed and initially deployed in the late 1970s, budgetary constraints limited their deployment into the active-duty forces. The Reagan Administration embarked on a massive overhaul of the United States armed forces and large numbers of these aircraft were ordered and deployed to front line active duty Air Force wings beginning in 1983.

The upgrade was not limited to first line units, as beginning in 1985, Air National Guard (ANG) and Air Force Reserve (AFRES) units also began trading in their Vietnam Era aircraft for newer and more sophisticated weapons systems with F-16A/Bs being allocated to Guard and Reserve units as active-duty Air Force units upgraded to the F-16C/Ds models. F-15A/B models of the 1970s were also provided to ANG squadrons when newer F-15C/D models reached front-line wings. As A-10s replaced A-7Ds, these close air support aircraft, along with newly-produced twin seat A-7Ks were flown many ANG squadrons, training with Army National Guard units in ground support operations. The last A-7D/Ks not being retired until 1993, being replaced in the ANG by F-16C/Ds.

In 1984, a new version of the 1960s General Dynamics F-111 began equipping TAC units. This version was known as the EF-111A Raven. Loaded with electronic jamming units, the sole purpose of this aircraft was to fly into enemy airspace and confuse enemy radar so that the strike package could follow and get the mission accomplished, replacing the venerable Douglas RB/EB-66 of the 1950s and 1960s that served in the Vietnam War.

A new version of the F-15, the F-15E Strike Eagle was also developed to replace the F-111E/F tactical strike aircraft in TAC's arsenal. Developed from the twin-seat F-15B, the Strike Eagle was designed for long-range interdiction of enemy ground targets deep behind enemy lines while concurrently retaining air-to-air combat capability. The first F-15Es were deployed to the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base North Carolina on 29 December 1988.

Across the Nevada desert skies, there were reports of strange lights in the night skies. Most of these reports were explained as possible UFOs. Most of these reports seem to come from the area around Tonopah, and an area identified on maps as Nellis AFB'sArea 51. The UFO story seemed to hold water, as the USAF radars at Nellis and FAA radars atLas Vegas could not see any aircraft in the area of question.

The strange lights over the Nevada desert were officially recognized in November 1988 when the Department of Defense unveiled the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter. It is interesting to note that this was a well-kept secret. The first prototype aircraft had first flown in 1981 and one had crashed in June 1984 in the Nevada desert. It took another crash of this aircraft in California in 1988 to finally lift the veil of secrecy. On 9 May 1992, four Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters from the Tonopah Test Range Airport Nevada, arrived at Holloman AFB, NM and were assigned to the 49th Fighter Wing.

Collapse of the Warsaw Pact

One of the effects of this massive buildup of American military might during the 1980s was pressure inside of the Soviet Union to match the United States. However, internal pressures inside the Soviet Union for increased freedoms, along with economic pressures led to the loosening of their control in Eastern Europe. In 1989, one by one of these nations in Eastern Europe began to rebel against their Communist governments, leading to the opening of the Berlin Wall in November. The mighty Warsaw Pact as well as the Soviet Union was crumbling from within.

It was clear that the threat the western democracies faced in Europe was coming to an end as the Soviet Union imploded from within. As a result of the end of Cold War tensions the United States began a period of downsizing the military. The Base Realignment and Closure (or BRAC) process was developed in an attempt to achieve the government's goal of closing and realigning military installations.

Through the BRAC process, numerous active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve bases and stations were marked for closing and units were deactivated. Some units became what were called "Super Wings", comprising more than one unit and aircraft type, along with several different missions. With all of the cutbacks it seemed that any type of major armed conflict was a thing of the past.

Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm

In 1980, Tactical Air Command units of TAC's Ninth Air Force were allocated to President Jimmy Carter's Rapid Deployment Force, formally known as the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF). In 1983, the RDJTF became a separate unified command known as the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), focusing on the Middle East. Ninth Air Force provided the aircraft, personnel and materiel to form United States Central Command Air Forces (CENTAF), the air power of CENTCOM, which is also headquartered at Shaw AFB as a combined orgnaiztion with 9th Air Force. Starting in 1981, Ninth Air Force aircraft and personnel were deployed to Egypt for BRIGHT STAR exercises.

Without warning, ground forces of Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. President George H. W. Bush proclaimed that the situation was not tolerable. With that he drew a "line in the sand". The United States took their case to the United Nations. The United Nations in turn condemned the actions or Iraq and proclaimed that they must withdraw. Iraq refused to withdraw from the small country. The United States, now backed by United Nations mandates again told Iraq to withdraw or suffer the results of continued aggression.

In response to the invasion, the largest military buildup since the Vietnam War got underway. By 15 August the 1st TFW had deployed F-15Cs in a fifteen-hour non-stop flight from Langley AFB to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. They were standing alert within hours of their arrival. Operation Desert Shield was underway.

By January 1991, numerous of Tactical Air Command combat squadrons had been deployed as part of Desert Shield. Diplomacy had failed to resolve the situation and Iraq had been given the ultimatum, "get out of Kuwait or suffer the wrath of the United Nations Coalition". Leaders from Iraq proclaimed that if the UN forces crossed into Iraqi territory they would surfer the "Mother or all wars." As the deadline came and passed, there was no movement of Iraqi forces that indicated a pullback.

In the early morning hours of 17 January 1991 anti-aircraft batteries in Baghdad erupted as the first strikes by F-117A Nighthawks hit critical command and control targets in the Iraqi capital. Operation Desert Storm had begun.

During the next few hours, USAF tactical air assets, along with U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, Royal Air Force, French Air Force, Royal Saudi Air Force and Free Kuwait Air Force tactical aircraft, pounded command and control facilities bridges, and other lines of communication. USAF Wild Weasel F-4Gs went after SAM sites like they had in Vietnam, while USAF A-10s hunted Iraqi tanks and troops. In the first three days of the air war, eleven Iraqi aircraft were shot down by F-15Cs.

During the six-week air war any and all Iraqi military assets were targeted by Coalition attack aircraft. The Iraqis responded by launching Soviet-built SCUD missies. With no accurate guidance system the SCUD missies were very similar to the German V-2 rocket when it came to hitting a specific target. The SCUD went up and returned to earth with a chance of hitting something in the general area that it was pointed at. Classified as a terror weapon, the SCUDs became a top priority for Tactical Air Command aircraft to find the mobile launching sites and destroy them.

The ground war began in late February 1991 and lasted about 100 hours. Tactical Air Command close air support A-10 aircraft supported the ground forces as they had trained in the United States for well over a decade. Military planners and Washington Officials were correct when they proclaimed that the war in the desert would "not be another Viet Nam". Desert Storm would go into the history hooks as one of Tactical Air Command's most shining moments.

Known TAC units and aircraft deployed in Operation Desert Shield/Storm (1990-1991)

  • 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron/388 TFW (F-16C/D) Hill AFB, UT
  • 17th Tactical Fighter Squadron/363 TFW (F-16C/D) Shaw AFB, SC
  • 27th Tactical Fighter Squadron/1 TFW (F-15C/D) Langley AFB, VA
  • 33d Tactical Fighter Squadron/363 TFW (F-16C/D) Shaw AFB, SC
  • 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron/33 TFW (F-15C/D) Eglin AFB, FL
  • 71st Tactical Fighter Squadron/1 TFW (F-15C/D) Langley AFB, VA
  • 74th Tactical Fighter Squadron/23 TFW (A-10A) England AFB, LA
  • 76th Tactical Fighter Squadron/23 TFW (A-10A) England AFB, LA
  • 335th Tactical Fighter Squadron/4 TFW (F-15E) Seymour Johnson AFB, NC
  • 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron/4 TFW (F-15E) Seymour Johnson AFB, NC
  • 353d Tactical Fighter Squadron/354 TFW (A-10A) Myrtle Beach AFB, SC
  • 355th Tactical Fighter Squadron/354 TFW (A-10A) Myrtle Beach AFB, SC
  • 390th Electronic Combat Squadron/366 TFW (EF-111A) Mountain Home AFB, ID
  • 415th Tactical Fighter Squadron/37 TFW (F-117A) Tonopah AP, NV
  • 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron/37 TFW (F-117A) Tonopah AP, NV
  • 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron/388 TFW (F-16C/D) Hill AFB, UT
  • 561st Tactical Fighter Squadron/35 TFW (F-4G) George AFB, CA
  • 963rd Airborne Warning and Control Squadron/552 ACW (E-3B/C) Tinker AFB, OK
  • 964th Airborne Warning and Control Squadron/552 ACW (E-3B/C) Tinker AFB, OK
  • 965th Airborne Warning and Control Squadron/552 ACW (E-3B/C) Tinker AFB, OK
  • 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron/67 TRW (RF-4C) Bergstrom AFB, TX

(Does not include USAF tactical flying units deployed from United States Air Forces in Europe)

Air Combat Command

Desert Storm was also the swan song for Tactical Air Command. The planning and execution of the mission was the result of 45 years of TAC being honed into one of the most effective military organizations in history.

Following the 1991 Gulf War and the end of the Cold War, U.S. military planners perceived a serious blurring between the responsibilities of TAC and SAC. 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. As shown by Desert Shield/Storm, U.S. military forces would increasingly be called upon to participate in smaller-scale regional contingencies and humanitarian operations.

Gen Merrill A. McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff, envisioned a streamlined Air Force, eliminating superfluous organizational layers. General John M. Loh, who served as USAF Vice Chief of Staff before becoming TAC commander on 26 March 1991, was heavily involved in the restructuring decisions.

As a result, in the spring of 1992 the decision was made to merge most SAC and TAC resources, while simultaneously reorganizing the Military Airlift Command (MAC).

On 1 June 1992 Tactical Air Command, Strategic Air Command and Military Airlift Command were inactivated, being replaced by two new major commands, Air Combat Command (ACC) and Air Mobility Command (AMC). A brief ceremony at Langley Air Force Base marked the inactivation of TAC and the activation of ACC. General Loh, who had commanded TAC until its inactivation, became the first commander of ACC.

From escorting C-54s into Templehof Air Base during the Berlin Blockade; the cold of Korea; the steaming jungles of Southeast Asia, and to the heat of the desert, the legacy of Tactical Air Command was turned into history.


Photo Credits:

  • Baugher, Joe. USAAS-USAAC-USAAF-USAF Aircraft Serial Numbers--1908 to present. USAAS-USAAC-USAAF-USAF Aircraft Serial Numbers--1908 to present
  • Donald, David, "Century Jets - USAF Frontline Fighters of the Cold War".
  • Martin, Patrick, Tail Code: The Complete History Of USAF Tactical Aircraft Tail Code Markings, 1994
  • Menard, David, Before Centuries USAFE Fighters 1948-1959, 1998


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