How the U.S. Air Force Works

Structure of the Air Force

The Air Force has both a political/civilian/administrative structure and a military structure. The Department of the Air Force is part of the Department of Defense, and is headed by the Secretary of the Air Force. That leaves only the Secretary of Defense and the President above the Secretary of the Air Force in the chain of command. Below the Secretary of the Air Force is a Chief of Staff -- the heads of the major Air Force commands report to him.

Secretary of the Air Force, Michael W. Wynne
Photo courtesy of the United States Air Force
Secretary of the Air Force, Michael W. Wynne
Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General T. Michael Moseley
Photo courtesy of the United States Air Force
Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General T. Michael Moseley

The Air Force is divided into major commands. Within the United States, the commands are divided by function. Outside the U.S., they are divided by geographic area.

  • Air Combat Command – Coordinates and provides all combat airpower.
  • Air Education and Training Command – Provides additional training and technical education to all members of the Air Force.
  • Air Force Materiel Command – Conducts research and development, testing, and acquisition of new technologies for the Air Force.
  • Air Force Reserve Command – Operates the Air Force Reserve.
  • Air Force Space Command – Projects U.S. airpower into space.
  • Air Force Special Operations Command – Provides rapid response special forces, like air commandos.
  • Air Mobility Command – Coordinates and provides the transportation of troops and supplies.
  • Pacific Air Forces – Responsible for the Asia-Pacific region.
  • U.S. Air Forces in Europe – Responsible for Europe and Africa, coordinates with NATO.
  • Air Force Cyberspace Command – The newest Major Command, Cyberspace Command will be tasked with protecting U.S. communications and commerce from network-based attacks. Not yet operational -- in the planning stages as of February 2007 with no definite launch date set.

The Major Commands are divided into 17 Numbered Air Forces (NAFs). The specific roles of the NAFs are subject to frequent reorganization. Within the NAFs are wings, each with 1,000 to 5,000 personnel. A wing may be an operational wing, an air-base wing or a specialized mission wing. An operational wing is often independent with all the support functions necessary to operate. Air base wings are assigned to specific air force bases and conduct the operations of the base.

There can be three to 10 squadrons within a wing. A squadron supports up 24 aircraft and their operational crews, although non-air units are also referred to as squadrons. Squadrons can also be further divided into flights, with up to 100 personnel. There are two types of flights: numbered flights and alphabetic flights. Numbered flights are units with unique numbered missions, such as training (in fact, they are typically used only in training). An alphabetic flight is a small component of a squadron.

During conflicts, the Air Force may divide their forces into Groups or Expeditionary Task Forces. The breakdown of Air Force units is more flexible (and more chaotic) than other military branches in part due to the Air Force’s high mobility, as well as the need to thoroughly integrate their efforts with those of the other armed forces.

Official Air Force Ranks and Abbreviations
Commissioned Officers
Enlisted Officers
General of the Air Force - Five-star general (General Henry "Hap" Arnold is the only person to ever have held this rank.
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (SMSAF)- hightest ranking enlisted officer in the Air Force, reports directly to the Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force.
General (GEN) - Four-star general
Command Chief Master Sergeant (CCM)
Lieutenant General (LTG) - Three-star general
Chief Master Sergeant (CMSGT)
Major General
Senior Master Sergeant
Brigadier General (BG)
Master Sergeant
Colonel (COL)
Technical Sergeant (TSGT)
Lieutenant Colonel (LTC)
Staff Sergeant (SSGT)
Major (MAJ)
Senior Airman (SRA)
Captain (CPT)
Airman First Class (A1C)
First Lieutenant (1LT)
Airman (AMN)
Second Lieutenant (2LT)
Airman Basic (AB)
First Sergeant - There is no seperate First Sergeant rank in the Air Force. Master Sergeant, Senior Master Sergeant and Chief Master Sergeants may also be designated First Sergeant, a special duty that involves reporting to the unit commander