"Throughout the 1950s, Strategic Air Command bomber units deployed on a
regular rotational basis from the United States to the United Kingdom. The
B-47 Stratojet was a familiar sight in the skies over RAF Mildenhall and
RAF Upper Heyford at this time, as entire wings deployed on 90-day rotations,
Even the massive B-36 deployed to UK bases.
In 1958, the U.S. and UK reached agreement about basing intermediate range
Thor missiles, and four strategic missile squadrons deployed to East Anglia.
Thor missiles remained in the United Kingdom five years, until 1963, when
long range intercontinental ballistic missiles based in the U.S. superseded
the intermediate range Thor. Overseas deployment of the Thor was no longer
The 1960s saw continuous fluctuations in the U.S. Air Force presence in
the United Kingdom. In 1961, some bases were returned and numbered air force
activities merged. Support squadrons were eliminated at South Ruislip, West
Ruislip, Bovingdon, Bushy Park, and Denham. In 1963, project Clearwater
halted large scale rotational bomber deployments to Britain. RAF Fairford,
RAF Chelveston, RAF Greenham Command, and RAF Sculthorpe were returned to
the Air Ministry.
During the 1960s, Third Air Force has four to five combat wings and major
changes occurred in the types of aircraft deployed in the United Kingdom.
F-100s, F-101s, and F-4s replaced older fighter aircraft. KC-135
Stratotankers replaced older refueling aircraft.
In June 1972, daily operational control of tactical units in the United
Kingdom was transferred to Headquarters U.S. Air Forces in Europe at
Ramstein AB, Germany. Third Air Force still retained command of the units,
but as a result of the change, the headquarters was reorganized, reduced in
personnel strength, and moved to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, United Kingdom.
In 1979, NATO ministers decided to deploy Ground Launched Cruise and
Pershing II missiles to counter the growing Soviet SS-20 intermediate range
ballistic missile threat. RAF Greenham Common and RAF Molesworth were
selected as the beddown sites for the GLCM. The 501st Tactical Missile Wing
(TMW) was activated at RAF Greenham Common in July 1982 and the 303rd TMW
at RAF Molesworth in December 1986. In June 1987, Headquarters USAFE
delegated tactical control of Third Air Force units to the Third Air Force
On April 15, 1986, F-111 aircraft based at RAF Lakenheath and RAF Upper
Heyford were launched against suspected terrorist targets in Libya, as
part of Operation Eldorado Canyon.
With the signing of the INF Treaty in December 1987, GLCMs deployed to RAF
Molesworth were removed to the U.S. and the 303rd TMW inactivated Jan. 30,
1989. The last GLCMs at RAF Greenham Common were removed in March 1991,
and the 501st TMW inactivated June 4, 1991.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Third Air Force, like many other
U.S. military units, received their trial by fire. However, for Third Air
Force, the scenario was not similar to any which had been practiced in the
past. Desert Shield and Desert Storm were not classic East-West
confrontations in Europe that Third Air Force had been trained for.
Thousands of miles removed from the Kuwait theater of operations, Third Air
Force played a major support role, deploying half its combat aircraft,
several thousand vehicles, approximately 50,000 tons of munitions, and many
more tons of supplies and material. Third Air Force also provided 2,250
hospital beds by activating three of its contingency hospitals and was
ready in the event of a large number of casualties were received.
Partnership with our host nation at this time could not have been more
evident. In virtually every activity, expeditious cooperation and assistance
from the government and people of the United Kingdom spelled success for
The end of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union left in its wake many
new military challenges, tensions and emerging conflicts. It also drew
attention to the need for American military forces to operate in ways and
locations outside the traditional NATO construct. The shift in East-West
relations and the increasing focus toward Eastern Europe, the southern
region and the Middle East led to a changing of the focus of Third Air
Force as well.
Recognizing that the threat to NATO was significantly reduced with the end
of the Cold War, the U.S. Congress mandated large reductions in the
American military budget and American military troop strength based in
Europe. From a Cold War high of 450,000 in the late 1980s, American troop
strength in Europe was reduced to 100,000 by the mid-1990s.
In recent years, the U.S. Air Force has restructured itself to meet the
emerging needs of the new world order, and stay at the forefront of
airpower. While Third Air Force reduced its manpower by more than 40
percent, and the number of permanently based fighter aircraft by about 80
percent, the headquarters element for Third Air Force was also streamlined
to reflect a shift in emphasis from management to operational command.
Several Third Air Force units returned to the U.S., and several more were
inactivated. Third Air Force returned many of its bases to the British
Ministry of Defence, and scaled down operations at other places."
Source: 3rd Air Force Fact Sheet at http://www.usafe.af.mil/3affc.htm