Anyone who’s been hip to military media for the past few years probably knows the second largest air force in the world is the U.S. Navy’s air forces. What people may not know about is the old fleet of United States ships floating around out there with the prefix USAF instead of USS.
The U.S. Air Force has its own navy – but no, it is not the second largest navy in the world. The U.S. Navy isn’t even the second largest, by the way. More on that some other time.
Now, does the Air Force field anything that could actually rival the naval forces of another country? No, of course not. The Air Force Navy is a very specific fleet with very specific missions. For example the USAF Rising Star is the air service’s lone tugboat, used for the two months of the year that ships near Greenland’s Thule Air Force Base can access the port there – 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Thule is the northernmost deepwater port in the world.
The tugboat is needed during the critical summer resupply period on Greenland, aligning huge cargo ships, moving tankers into position, and helping pump fuel to the base. It also pushed icebergs away from the area in which these big ships operate.
The rest of the USAF’s current fleet operates in the Gulf of Mexico out of Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. Tyndall is home to the 82d Aerial Targets Squadron, a unit that still flies the F-4E Phantom fighter plane. Only these converted F-4s have a special mission. Flying in groups of three, one acts as a chase plane and another two, unmanned drone planes flying with advanced countermeasures. These two are actually converted into drones and destined to be full-scale aerial targets for the Air Force. That’s where the ships of the USAF “Tyndall Navy” come in.
Tyndall’s three 120-foot drone recovery vessels are used in the Gulf of Mexico to recover the wrecks and assorted bits and pieces from the waters below the Air Force’s “Combat Archer” aerial target practice training area. At its peak, the USAF had a dozen or so ships in the water, each with a designated role in supporting Air Force operations. At one point, the Air Force had so many ships, the Coast Guard might have been envious.