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3rd AF leadership reflects on 80th birthday, focuses on future

Graphic with Third Air Force historical facts

The following graphic was created to commemorate Third Air Force’s 80th birthday. Third Air Force was designated March 26, 1941. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Senior Airman Taylor Slater)

Ramstein Air Base, Germany --

Third Air Force turns 80 years old on March 26, 2021, making it seven years older than the Air Force itself.

The numbered air force’s long history predates World War II. It was activated as the Southeast Air District of the United States Army Air Corps in December 1940. About three months later in early 1941, the Southeast Air District was redesignated Third Air Force with a mission for the defense of the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico regions of the United States.

Today, its role is the product of an 80-year legacy, focusing on the development of more than 32,000 Airmen across two continents.

“Somebody has to be there to make sure the Airmen and wings are getting everything they need to organize, train, equip and develop so they’re able to deliver when the (U.S. Air Forces in Europe - Air Forces Africa commander) needs to employ forces,” said Chief Master Sgt. Randy Kwiatkowski, Third Air Force command chief. “We do that.”

Third Air Force’s mission is to support 10 wings, from the 86th Airlift Wing here to the 100th Air Refueling Wing at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England. As the only NAF in USAFE-AFAFRICA, one of their roles is to support initiatives on development, and they accomplish those initiatives by focusing on three elements that define Third Air Force: “develop, defend, and deliver.”

“Developing is looking at the culture and climate inside of our organizations and making people feel a part of something greater than themselves,” Kwiatkowski said. “The defend piece is defending freedom and justice across two continents. The third one is deliver, and that's delivering on a promise that we've made to our nation's parents: that we're going to care for their sons and daughters in the best way that we can.”

These initiatives also go a long way in supporting the National Defense Strategy, which provides a clear road map for the Department of Defense to meet the challenges posed by a re-emergence of long-term strategic competition with China and Russia. The National Defense Strategy acknowledges an increasingly complex global security environment, characterized by overt challenges to the free and open international order. Third Air Force leadership detailed how USAFE-AFAFRICA has stepped up to this global challenge.

“Being ready is deterrence,” said Maj. Gen. Randall Reed, Third Air Force commander. “Some of that is supporting rotational forces that go in and out of the theater in a number of ways. One of those that’s very visible, but reassures our friends and allies here, are the bomber task force missions. The other thing we do is Agile Combat Employment.”

Reed was also quick to mention that partnerships are crucial to maintaining a leg-up on adversaries.

“We send squadrons to other countries to operate with them from other locations, such as Poland,” Reed said. “We have operations that are in the interest of the United States and the rest of NATO. Part of what the chief and I do is go out and make sure that all Airmen are able to strengthen those relationships. When we strengthen those, we make it really hard for the adversary to disrupt that.”

Third Air Force leadership also keeps in mind that Airmen are individuals when taking care of them.

“Whatever it takes to remove an Airman’s concerns so they can wake up every day and be excellent, we take it on,” Reed said. “We have gone into the schools to make sure that the education system is as strong as it can be and to identify challenges that parents are having with remote or hybrid education. We look at food service and make sure all of that is squared away. We get very involved in making sure that food arrives to Airmen in Africa, and that it’s in great condition and remains safe along the way.”

Within all the hustle and bustle of their jobs, leadership is also highly aware that their time as Third Air Force command staff is limited, which is why Reed and Kwiatkowski focus their goals on winning one day at a time.

“I’m reminded of the day after General Reed took command,” Kwiatkowski said. “I sent him a text and it said, ‘729 days and counting.’ That’s just a reminder to us that we only have 729 days to do the things that we need to do, and we need to win every one of those days. Did we do everything in our power to enhance the quality of life for our Airmen and our families? Doing that starts with every single day.”

Developing the Third Air Force of the future is an important part of the force, but leadership is most impressed by how many Airmen are able to improve their lives and the lives of others all on their own.

“We have Airmen at the 52nd (Fighter Wing) who designed a portable refueling kit,” Reed said. “They fabricated a small kit that’s about the size of (a table), but does the same job of something bigger than a Mack truck. This handful of dedicated professionals used innovation to find a smart, wise and inexpensive way to accomplish the mission.”

This idea ended up going all the way to Air Force Headquarters and winning an honorable mention in the Spark Tank competition, and they have already received approval from the Air Force to use it for all F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft.

“When chief and I travel, we are constantly on the lookout for folks that are showing up to work with the intent of being excellent,” Reed said. “The only thing that surprises us is that they don’t realize they’re being excellent and that’s what we’re there to help them understand.”

Finally, this leadership team is proud to serve as the Third Air Force commander and command chief during this historical period.

“It is an honor to be one of those blocks that have built upon this 80-year legacy,” Kwiatkowski said. “And an understanding that we’re going to have to hand that block off or give somebody else an opportunity to put their mark on this amazing enterprise after we leave here.”

Reed agrees.

“It is truly outstanding to be serving in this capacity at this time,” Reed said. “To be here at the same time we’re celebrating 80 years will be something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”