The Fifteenth Air Force (15th AF) was established on 1 November 1943 in Tunis, Tunisia as part of the United States Army Air Forces in the World War II Mediterranean Theater of Operations as a strategic air force and commenced combat operations the day after it was formed. The first commander was General Jimmy Doolittle.
15th AF resulted from a reorganization of Doolittle’s Twelfth Air Force into the 15th with Doolittle in command, and the Ninth Air Force (9th AF) with Lewis H. Brereton in command. The new air force was activated with a strength of ninety B-24 Liberators and 210 B-17 Flying Fortresses, inherited from the Twelfth Air Force and Ninth Air Force. In December, new groups, most of which were equipped with B-24s soon started arriving from the United States. Thirteen new groups were added. It was hoped that the 15th AF stationed in the Mediterranean would be able to operate when the Eighth Air Force (8th AF) in England was socked in by bad English weather. The 9th AF would later move to England to serve as a tactical unit to take part in the invasion of Europe. Once bases around Foggia in Italy became available, the 15th was able to reach targets in southern France, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkans, some of which were difficult to reach from England.
On 31 March 1946, Fifteenth Air Force was reactivated at Colorado Springs AAB, Colorado and assigned to the ten day old Strategic Air Command. 15th AF assumed the assets and personnel of the former Continental Air Forces Second Air Force, which was inactivated on 30 March.
On 25 June 1950, the armed forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) invaded South Korea. On 27 June the United Nations Security Council voted to assist the South Koreans in resisting the invasion. President Harry S. Truman authorized General Douglas MacArthur (commander of the US occupying forces in Japan) to commit units to the battle. MacArthur ordered General George E. Stratemeyer, CIC of the Far Eastern Air Force (FEAF) to attack attacking North Korean forces between the front lines and the 38th parallel.
At that time, the 22 B-29s of the Twentieth Air Force 19th Bomb Group stationed at Andersen Field on Guam were the only aircraft capable of hitting the Korean peninsula, and this unit was ordered to move to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and begin attacks on North Korea. These raids began on 28 June. On 29 June, clearance was given for B-29 attacks on airfields in North Korea.
On 8 July, a special FEAF Bomber Command was set up under the command of Major General Emmett O’Donnell. Although President Truman wasn’t willing to risk extensive use of the U.S. bomber force in the United States, which was being used as a deterrent for possible Soviet aggression in Europe, a few groups of B-29 bombers – that were not part of the nuclear strike force – were released. On 13 July, the FEAF Bomber Command took over command of the Twentieth Air Force 19th Bombardment Group and of the Fifteenth Air Force’s 22nd and 92nd Bombardment Groups which had been transferred from SAC bases in the United States. Later in July, the Fifteenth Air Force 98th and 307th Bombardment Groups were sent to Japan to join the FEAF. The 92nd and 98th BGs and the 31st SRG operated from bases in Japan, whereas the 19th, 22nd, and 307th BGs were based in Okinawa.
When the Korean War ended on 27 July 1953, the B-29s had flown over 21,000 sorties, nearly 167,000 tons of bombs had been dropped, and 34 B-29s had been lost in combat (16 to fighters, four to flak, and fourteen to other causes). B-29 gunners had accounted for 34 Communist fighters (16 of these being MiG-15s) probably destroyed another 17 (all MiG-15s) and damaged 11 (all MiG-15s). Losses were less than 1 per 1000 sorties.
With the end of fighting in Korea, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had taken office in January 1953, called for a “new look” at national defense. The result: a greater reliance on nuclear weapons and air power to deter war. His administration chose to invest in the Air Force, especially Strategic Air Command. The nuclear arms race shifted into high gear. The Air Force retired nearly all of its propeller-driven B-29/B-50s and they were replaced by new Boeing B-47 Stratojet aircraft. By 1955 the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress would be entering the inventory in substantial numbers, as prop B-36s were phased out of heavy bombardment units rapidly.
Also after the deployment of forces to Far East Air Force to engage in combat over Korea, the history of Fifteenth Air Force becomes indistinguishable from that of Strategic Air Command. During the Cold War, Fifteenth Air Force aircraft stood nuclear alert, providing a deterrence against an attack on the United States by the Soviet Union. During the Vietnam War, squadrons of 15th Air Force B-52 Stratofortesses (B-52Ds mostly, some B-52Gs) were deployed to bases on Guam, Okinawa and Thailand conducting Arc Light strikes on communist forces.
Between the Vietnam War and 1991, 15th AF units commanded reconnaissance aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Fifteenth Air Force became exclusively a tanker command on 1 September 1991. When Strategic Air Command was inactivated 1 June 1992, and its assets divided between the newly created Air Mobility Command and Air Combat Command, Fifteenth Air Force became part of Air Mobility Command.
Headquarters Fifteenth Air Force moved from March Air Force Base to Travis Air Force Base on 2 July 1993 with the BRAC transition of March AFB to March Air Reserve Base, and merged its tankers with the airlift aircraft of the Twenty-Second Air Force. The Twenty-Second Air Force’s flag moved to the Air Force Reserve Command at Dobbins Air Force Base, Georgia.
As a result of the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, Fifteenth Air Force was redesignated the Fifteenth Expeditionary Mobility Task Force, and is currently engaged in operations in support of the Global War on Terrorism.
Fifteenth Air Force is one of the two numbered air forces assigned to the Air Mobility Command. Headquartered at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., its main area of operations is the region stretching west of the Mississippi River to the east coast of Africa, pole to pole, but is often tasked to support Air Mobility Command’s global reach mission. Its primary mission is to provide strategic and theater airlift for all Department of Defense agencies as well as air refueling for the Air Force in both peace and wartime. This includes the aeromedical evacuation of sick and injured.
The task force provides rapid and flexible transportation from six major Air Force bases in the United States and 47 locations throughout the Pacific. More than 71,000 people, including active duty and gained Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard personnel, operate and support airlift, tanker and aeromedical aircraft as part of the 15 EMTF.
With the assigned military work force of 28,912 personnel and an assigned civilian work force of 5,288 people, Fifteenth Air Force manages almost 300 aircraft and many support facilities in the United States and in the Pacific and Indian Oceans—all the way to Diego Garcia.