What does the US Air Force do? The answer might surprise you. Sure, there are the well-known missions like flying wicked cool airplanes and dropping bombs on people we don’t like, but what about Nuclear Deterrence, Cyberspace Superiority and Global Integrated ISR? It’s a brave new world, folks, and your United States Air Force (USAF) is in the thick of it. Read on to get a very high-altitude update on the world’s most powerful flying force.

The official mission of the USAF is to “fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace.”  They combine about a dozen core functionalities to get the job done right. Here is a short description of the functions directly involving flying things. Keep in mind, the USAF has an active inventory of approximately 60 different aircraft types, so there’s a good chance I won’t mention all of them.

Nuclear Deterrence: The USAF supports the Nuclear Triad with Minuteman III missiles housed in silos across the United States, and with nukes carried by strategic bombers. Several fighters and bombers can also deploy tactical nuclear weapons. If deterrence doesn’t work, another “official” option is massive retaliation. Haters take note.

Air, Space and Cyberspace Superiority: Each results in the ability for friendly forces to move about the airspace, cyberspace or space-space unhindered, and denies the same to the enemy. All three support the US Military’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

-Air Superiority is usually associated with fighter aircraft in an offensive or defensive role, but it also includes missile defense, chemical, biological and radiological detection, and nuclear defense.

-Space Superiority includes launching, deploying and maintaining satellites, spacecraft, and interstellar (cool!) weapons into space. The USAF handles 90% of all military space operations, and 70% of all satellites currently in orbit belong to and are operated by the USAF.

-Cyberspace Superiority might necessitate computer network attack, computer defense or computer network exploitation, is highly dependent upon ISR and could be employed passively or actively. The types of threats being defended against range from cyber espionage to an attack on the US electrical grid to this fun new thing called “hacktivism”, where groups with a political or social agenda hack into specific computer systems to disrupt service and draw attention to their cause.

Global Integrated ISR is the synchronization, coordination and processing of the sensors and assets that collect information, as well as the information itself. The USAF gathers information through electronic sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s), satellites, manned aircraft and human intelligence teams. They also coordinate with the intelligence gathering systems of other arms of the US Military.  Effective ISR coordination can provide early warning of enemy threats and critical data that enables more effective use of US and international military assets.

Command and Control is the exercise of authority and direction over assigned forces in accomplishment of the mission. You’ve probably seen it combined in an acronym like C4ISR, which stands for “command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance and radar”.  In the USAF, this includes activities associated with air, space, cyberspace, nuclear, and agile combat support operations and involves use of E-3 and E4B aircraft, among others. The E-3 is a specially equipped Boeing 707 airborne early warning and control aircraft, commonly known as AWACS, and provides all-weather surveillance, command, control, and communications. It’s distinguished by the rotating radome attached to the top of fuselage. The E-4 series was specially modified from the Boeing 747 for the National Emergency Airborne Command Post program. The E-4 serves as a survivable mobile command post for the president of the United States and his commanders and staff during national emergencies and threats to the government.

Global Precision Attack (GPA) is “the ability to strike rapidly and persistently, with a wide range of munitions, any target and to create swift, decisive, and precise effects across multiple domains”, according to USAF Basic Doctrine. I admit that this is my favorite description of a USAF functionality. Quick and to the point. GPA includes Strategic Attack, Air Interdiction, and Close Air Support.

-Strategic Attack is offensive action designed to weaken the ability or will of the adversary to engage in conflict. It may involve the physical bombing of high value targets or countermeasures like towed decoys, missile warning systems or active electronic jamming. The USAF’s strategic bomber fleet includes the venerable B-52, B-1 and B-2 aircraft. One of the service’s highest priorities is the development of a new long-range bomber, the LRS-B, which will eventually replace all three. The Air Force uses the EC-130 and the EH-60 Blackhawk helicopter for electronic warfare.

-Air Interdiction destroys the enemy’s ability to strike before they get a chance to bring it to bear. Akin to “softening the beach”, it involves the precision bombing of enemy assets in order to prevent a battle altogether or lower its threat to friendly forces. The USAF’s F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-35 have ground attack capabilities as well as classic air-to-air dogfighting teeth.

-Close Air Support (CAS) is the battlefield protection of friendly forces on the ground in close proximity to the enemy. It requires precise, timely coordination because of the immediate nature of the threat, and can be pre-planned or on-demand, where a forward operating ground-based controller will “call in” a strike close to their position when there is an imminent threat. The A-10 and the AC-130 are the USAF’s CAS weapons of choice.

Rapid Global Mobility is the deployment, employment and sustainment of military forces and capabilities across the range of military operations (ROMO) and includes airlift, air refueling and aeromedical evacuation.

-Airlift is strategic if it moves personnel and equipment outside of the battlefield and tactical if it transports to or from, or inside the battlefield. The primary USAF strat airlift assets are the C-5, C-17 and C-130. The C-17 and C-130 also fly tactical airlift missions, as does the CV-22, a transgender turboprop aircraft that has helicopter-like vertical takeoff and landing capability.

-Air Refueling increases the range and reach of US Military fighter, airlift and special operations aircraft. The USAF uses KC-135’s and KC-10’s for this mission, and is awaiting the delivery of the KC-46A tanker, a two-engine 767derivative replacement for the KC-135. Air refueling also allows US military less dependence on forward staging bases or overflight/landing clearances. For example, during the 1986 attack on Libya, France, Italy and Spain refused to allow US aircraft to fly over their territory, which added 2,600 total nautical miles to the journey and necessitated multiple air refueling sorties.

-Aeromedical evacuation is the movement of patients under medical supervision to and between medical treatment facilities and is accomplished using specially outfitted C-130, C-17 and KC-135 aircraft, although any non-fighter USAF aircraft can be modified to carry patients.

Special Operations are conducted in hostile or politically sensitive environments to achieve military, diplomatic, informational, and/or economic objectives. These operations often require covert, clandestine, or low-visibility capabilities. Spec Ops involves nearly every other USAF functionality in one aspect or another, and often those of other countries. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is the special operations component of the USAF and believe me, these are the folks you want on your side when S*#t goes down. You will never know all the things that they do, and you probably don’t want to.

Today’s AFSOC includes Air Commandos, Pararescue, Special Operations Weather, Combat Controllers, and a host of other less publicized resources and functions. They utilize aircraft like the MC-130 and HC-130, and the HH-60 rescue helicopter, and we all remember the tricked-out stealth technology Blackhawk helicopters used in the Bin Laden raid. I’m sure there are multiple other aircraft in AFSOC use that we don’t know about. Bottom line: they do all sorts of stuff we’re glad we don’t know about, but we’re very glad they’re doing it.

Personnel Recovery is the ability of the US government and its international partners to affect the recovery of isolated personnel across the ROMO and return those personnel to duty. Not only does it allow us to protect and bring our soldiers home, but it denies the enemy the opportunity to exploit them and our nation through propaganda. Personnel recovery includes combat and civil rescue, humanitarian assistance, disaster response and medical evacuation.

The USAF has a very specialized combat rescue capability that falls under AFSOC. Pararescuemen, or PJ’s, are highly trained medical airmen who operate as part of a helicopter crew and are inserted into combat situations where there are injured US or allied soldiers (and sometimes civilians). The aircrew flies the M/HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter which is air-refueling capable and armed with machine guns and countermeasures.

Building Partnerships. USAF airmen interact with international military members or civilians to form relationships for mutual benefit and security. We see a lot of these types of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it’s often referred to as winning the “hearts and minds” of the people we really want on our side. These airmen learn and speak the language, customs and cultures of the region in order to build trust and establish long-lasting partnerships where the US needs an ally.

The USAF does a lot more than just fly airplanes, and there are a lot of missions we just ran out of room to talk about (aircraft training, flying the president…). Along with using a lot of acronyms, they protect the citizens of the United States on the ground, in the air, in space and through the airwaves, and work with other countries to build strong defenses of their own.