The Air Force Reserve at 60 -- Still going strong

  • Published
  • By Mark W. Nelson
  • ARPC history office
Last Sept. 18, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Air Force. It was a special time for all Airmen ... past and present, uniformed and civilian. Air Force people worldwide took time to remember the glories of the past while preparing for future challenges. 

And now, in 2008, we have another diamond anniversary to celebrate ... 60 years of the Air Force Reserve. 

The historical origin of the Air Force Reserve can be traced to National Defense Act of 1916, which answered the lack of military preparedness before World War I. It provided for an expanded Army (including more funds for the Army Air Service), more funding for an expanded National Guard and created the ROTC program. 

The interwar years were lean for all the branches of the military, and an independent Air Force was not an affordable option. The Army Air Corps and the Air Corps Reserve were founded in 1926, and the Army Air Corps was designated the Army Air Forces on June 20, 1941. 

World War II proved that air power was essential to winning a modern conflict and gave new impetus for an independent Air Force. 

Finally, after much argument and political wrangling, the National Security Act of 1947 became law. This was the birth of our U.S. Air Force. On April 14, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Circular 103 Air Force Letter 35-124, which formally established the Air Force Reserve and the Honorary Air Force Reserve. President Truman envisioned a program similar to the one established in World War I, with reservists trained and ready to serve during wartime. On Dec. 1, 1948, Continental Air Command was established to manage the Reserve field program, under the command of Lt. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer. 

The Air Force Reserve struggled with a shortage of funds and modern aircraft from its earliest days, so it did not participate in the 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift. However, it received a baptism by fire in the summer of 1950 when the Korean War began. 

At that time, there were more than 315,000 nonparticipating members and more than 58,500 participating ("drilling") reservists in combat-sustaining units. These units included 20 troop carrier wings with C-46 Commando and C-47 Skytrain aircraft, and five light bombardment wings equipped with B-26 Invaders. 

In 1952, C-119 Flying Boxcar aircraft were also deployed to Korea. From July 1950 to June 1953, the Air Force mobilized more than 147,000 reservists for service periods from one to three years. 

Reserve Airmen performed well in the Korean War, attested to by the number of unit citations received and the fact that several recalled pilots became aces. The Air Force Reserve received its first jet aircraft when T-33 Shooting Star aircraft were assigned to the 349th Fighter Bomber Wing at George Air Force Base, Calif. on Aug. 6, 1953. 

Another outgrowth of the Korean War was the establishment of the Air Reserve Records Center on Nov. 1, 1953, to centralize and standardize the custody of Reserve records. That facility grew and later became the Air Reserve Pesonnel Center. 

Following the Korean conflict, there were several legislative acts addressing concerns with the nation's Reserve program, and established the Ready, Standby and Retired Reserve categories in 1953. 

In August 1961, Public Law 87-117 authorized the president to mobilize a portion of the Ready Reserve for up to 12 months without advance Congressional notification. The Air Force Reserve performed its first "real world" missions in June 1956, as part of Operation Sixteen Ton supporting the U.S. Coast Guard. 

To improve readiness, Reserve leaders saw the need to have a nucleus of full-time Reserve Airmen assigned to units, and created the Air Reserve Technician program in January 1958. Responding to the Soviet aggression in Berlin and the construction of the Berlin Wall, on Oct. 1, 1961, President Kennedy mobilized more than 5,500 Air Force reservists in two Troop Carrier Wings and five C-124 Globemaster II groups. 

A little more than a year later, the Soviets deployed intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Cuba, and the president ordered a much larger mobilization as part of the response to the threat. Reserve aircrews flew men and materiel to Homestead AFB, Fla., and to Key West Naval Air Station in preparation for a possible invasion of Cuba. 

More than 14,200 reservists and 420 aircraft were on active duty by Oct. 28, 1962. 

The active Air Force again called upon the Air Force Reserve during the war in Vietnam. Reservists voluntarily provided both direct and indirect support, and consequently, there were few mobilizations. 

To meet the need for strategic airlift into the theater, Air Force Reserve C-124 units flew missions as part of their two-week annual training requirement ... many reservists flew an additional 36 days of inactive Reserve man-days. Air Force Reserve rescue and recovery units, intelligence and medical specialists, maintenance people, aerial port personnel, lawyers and chaplains were all part of this effort. 

However, even this augmentation proved inadequate to meet the need. Therefore, in 1968, the Air Force initiated the "associate unit" concept in which Air Force Reserve personnel would "associate" with an active duty unit equipped with modern aircraft, flying and performing maintenance together. 

Initially, the program involved C-141 Starlifter and C-9 Nightingale aircraft. In January 1968, tensions rose between North Korea and the United States when the USS Pueblo was captured in international waters by North Korean patrol boats. Five airlift groups and one aerospace rescue and recovery squadron were mobilized in response to the crisis. 

In August 1970, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird adopted the "Total Force" concept, and the Air Force Reserve became a true multimission force, flying the same aircraft as the active force. Mobilization planning and evaluation were integrated with active duty functions, and the Air Force Reserve was expected to maintain the same readiness standards as active duty units. 

Previous to Total Force, reservists only flew airlift, rescue and mission support duties -- under the new concept, reservists soon were tasked with special operations, air refueling, weather reconnaissance and fighter missions as well. 

The associate wing concept grew to include the C-5 Galaxy airlifter in 1973. In October 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, 630 Reserve crewmembers volunteered for Middle East airlift missions and more than 1,500 others performed worldwide "backfill" missions, which freed more active duty crews for the airlift. 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Air Force Reserve was expanded and modernized with more up-to-date aircraft. KC-10 Extender tanker and airlift aircraft were added to the associate program in 1981, and more modern F-4 Phanton IIs and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs were added to the fighter force. The first F-16 Fighting Falcons were delivered in 1984. 

Air Force Reserve associate units assisted in the evacuation of more than 700 civilians from Grenada, and also evacuated wounded U.S. Marines from Lebanon. In April 1986, tankers from the Air Force Reserve supported F-111 and EF-111 aircraft during Operation El Dorado Canyon, the strike against Libyan terrorist targets. 

During Operation Just Cause in Panama in late 1989, the Air Force Reserve partnered with the active force and performed aeromedical evacuation, special operations and air refueling missions. 

Within days of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Air Force Reserve airlift and tanker crews were supporting Operation Deser Shild. More than 23,000 reservists were mobilized and more than 15,000 others volunteered to serve supporting operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Once ground operations started in February 1991, Reserve A-10s operated in close concert with special operations and rescue forces. A Reserve pilot also scored the A-10's first air-to-air kill when he shot down an Iraqi helicopter. 

By the end of the Gulf War, the Air Force Reserve had become virtually indistinguishable from the active force. It flew the same aircraft, performed the same missions and did so with the same professionalism. Air Force reservists were involved in enforcing the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq after operation Desert Storm, and also flew numerous humanitarian relief missions in the area. 

In 1993, when ethnic tensions occurred in the former Yugoslavian republic of Bosnia, Air Force Reserve tanker and fighter units participated in Operation Deny Flight, enforcing a U.N-mandated no-fly zone in that country as well. In fact, since the Air Force Reserve was being relied upon more and more by the active force, Congress sought to clarify the "operational placement" of the Reserve in the late 1990s. The National Defense Authorization Act of 1997 directed each service to establish a "Reserve command." Therefore, on Feb. 17, 1997, the Air Force Reserve officially became Air Force Reserve Command, the service's ninth major command. 

From March through September 1999, reservists were mobilized or volunteered for Operation Allied Force, the NATO air campaign to combat ethnic fighting in the Balkan nation of Kosovo. Reservists participated in missions over Kosovo and Serbia, marking the ninth time the Air Force had requested mobilization of reservists since 1950. The Reserve force proved once again that it was effective, adaptable and capable of performing a wide range of missions. 

When international terrorism struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, reservists responded immediately. Joining with the Air National Guard, AFRC F-16s flew Combat Air Patrol missions over American cities while KC-135 Stratotankers provided refueling, and E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft provided critical early warning support. This mission became known as Operation Noble Eagle. 

Fighters and tankers were deployed supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan from the outset, and by the end of 2001, more than 11,000 Reserve Airmen had been recalled to active duty as part of the global war on terrorism. 

In March 2003, military operations were initiated against Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom. AFRC Airmen, both mobilized and volunteers, established "air bridges" at Westover ARB, Mass. and March Air Reserve Base, Calif., and also provided airlift, paratroop airdrop, air refueling, fighter and bomber combat sorties, and other operations. Despite the high operational tempo brought on by two simultaneous combat operations, AFRC Airmen also engaged in humanitarian assistance missions in Sudan (October 2004), southeast Asia (December 2004 to January 2005), and within the United States itself in response to Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, Ophelia and Rita (August to November 2005). 

The U.S. Air Force Reserve has a proud heritage of service, a tradition of honor, and a legacy of valor. For more than six decades, the men and women of the Air Force Reserve have met challenges head on, and have neither faltered nor failed to serve their country. 

For more than 16 consecutive years, the U.S. Air Force has been involved in combat and humanitarian operations worldwide, and reservists have been a vital part of that history. 

Our "Citizen Airmen" have proven their mettle in adverse circumstances, and many have given their lives for their country. As Americans and Air Force members, we should all be proud of that heritage and that legacy.