Defense Primer: United States Airpower

Updated December 15, 2020
Defense Primer: United States Airpower
Almost since the invention of heavier-than-air flight,
worldwide deployments by joint and allied forces possible.
control of the air has been seen as a military advantage.
And Air Force assets work directly with ground units to
Over time, the United States has come to treat air
provide weapons on target when and where needed, and to
superiority as a necessity, and built such capable air forces
secure them against attack from the air.
that no enemy aircraft has killed U.S. ground troops since
Taken together, the Air Force sums up its core missions as
providing “Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global
Modern airpower is able to provide a full range of effects,
from strategic operations at intercontinental ranges to direct
support of troops in combat. Today, every branch of the
Army Aviation
U.S. military employs air forces for various purposes,
Helicopters capable of accompanying troops to provide
employing nearly 14,000 aircraft.
tactical airlift, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance
(ISR), and supporting fires form the backbone of Army
Figure 1. U.S. Air Forces, 2019-2028
aviation, about 3,600 of its more than 4,600 aircraft. The
service also operates light transport, special operations, and
intratheater airlift aircraft. The USAF provides heavy
transport and longer-range missions.
Naval Aviation
The U.S. Navy operates more than 2,500 aircraft (including
about 900 fighters) in 10 air wings. Their unique asset is the
ability to take their operating bases with them, as the

Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers (each with about 40 fighters plus
Source: Department of Defense, Annual Aviation Inventory and Funding
other air assets) provide U.S. presence and operational
Plan, Fiscal Years (FY) 2019-2048, March 2018.
capability far from home. Naval air assets are optimized for

strike; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and
The United States Air Force
fleet defense.
The bulk of U.S. airpower resides in the U.S. Air Force
Marine Corps Aviation
(USAF). With 511,500 active and reserve personnel and
The nearly 1,200 Marine Corps aircraft (including just over
more than 5,000 aircraft, the USAF provides the capability
400 fighters) operate from Navy ships, Marine amphibious
to reach, observe, strike and/or carry people and materiel to
ships, and land bases, including expeditionary land bases
any point on the globe. Four of the Air Force’s five core
with short runways. Some Marine Corps tactical aircraft are
missions directly involve applying airpower.
capable of vertical/short takeoff and landing, a useful
capability because Marine aircraft are deployed and
Table 1. Air Force Core Missions
operated as part of Marine air/ground task forces, in which
aviation is integrated into and moves with the unit, often at

Air and Space Superiority
a remove from prepared airfields.

Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance

Fighting as One

Rapid Global Mobility

While the military services offer different capabilities and

Global Strike
provide the equipment, personnel, and training, under

Command and Control
current joint operations doctrine, they fight as one force. A
joint air component commander oversees all airpower in a
Source: U.S. Air Force, Global Vigilance, Global Reach, Global Power for
given campaign, assigning targets and allocating forces as
America at
needs warrant, without regard for the service that owns a
particular capability.
The Air Force fleet covers the full range of aerial
capabilities, from fighters to intelligence aircraft, bombers,
Major Procurement Programs
transports, and helicopters. Moreover, USAF airpower
The largest current DOD programs include the following:
enables other military services to apply their forces directly.
USAF cargo planes get Army and Marine troops and
 The F-35 Lightning II strike fighter, a multi-service,
equipment to the battlefield, and aeromedical transport
multi-national program slated to acquire 2,456 jets for
rapidly evacuates and treats injured troops. Air Force aerial
the USAF, Navy, and Marine Corps. This is the largest
reconnaissance assets give joint commanders real-time
acquisition program in Department of Defense history.
strategic and tactical intelligence. USAF tankers make

Defense Primer: United States Airpower
 The KC-46 tanker, 179 of which are scheduled to

replace 50-year-old Air Force KC-135s, with possibly
more to follow.
CRS Products
CRS Report RL30563, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program, by
 The B-21 Raider bomber, at least 100 of which are
Jeremiah Gertler
expected to enter USAF service in the mid- to late-
CRS In Focus IF11367, Army Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Program,
2020s, replacing 1980s-era B-1s and B-2s.
by Jeremiah Gertler
 The Navy continues to procure the F/A-18E/F Super
CRS In Focus IF11659, Air Force Next-Generation Air Dominance
Hornet multirole fighter and its electronic warfare
Program: An Introduction, by Jeremiah Gertler
variant, the EA-18G Growler.
CRS Report R43049, U.S. Air Force Bomber Sustainment and
Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress
, by Jeremiah
 The main Army aviation procurement, as has been the
case for many years, is for more UH-60 Black Hawk
CRS In Focus IF10486, Defense Primer: Naval Forces, by Ronald
helicopters to move cargo and troops.
CRS In Focus IF10547, Defense Primer: The United States Air
Several major development programs are underway to offer
Force, by Jeremiah Gertler
future airpower capabilities:
Next-Generation Air Dominance, an Air Force

program to develop the major technologies likely to
Other Resources
appear on next-generation combat aircraft.
Department of Defense. Annual Aviation Inventory and Funding Plan,
F/A-XX, the Navy’s research effort for next-generation
Fiscal Years (FY) 2016-2045, April 2015.
USAF. Global Vigilance, Global Reach, Global Power, September,
 The Army’s Future Vertical Lift program, which seeks
U.S. Navy. Naval Aviation’s Role: Supporting the Six Core
to demonstrate and develop new technologies to enable
Capabilities, January 2010.
a family of advanced rotorcraft.
DOD. Joint Publication 3-30, Command and Control of Joint
Air Operations
, February 10, 2014
Relevant Statutes
Title 10, U.S. Code, Chapter 803 – Department of the Air

Jeremiah Gertler, Acting Senior Advisor to Dir/Sr
Title 10, U.S. Code, Chapter 303 – Department of the Army
Title 10, U.S. Code, Chapter 503 – Department of the Navy
Title 50, U.S. Code, Chapter 44 – National Security

Defense Primer: United States Airpower

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