Air Force Cross

Updated: December 24, 2022
In this Article

    After the Medal of Honor, the Air Force Cross is the highest award an Air Force member can earn. The Air Force Cross is the service-specific equivalent to the Distinguished Service Cross awarded to members of the United States Army, and to the Coast Guard Cross and Navy Cross.

    There are five top-ranking military medals awarded for valor. They are, in reverse order of precedence:

    Of the list above, the Crosses are equal; the Air Force Cross has the same precedence as the Coast Guard Cross, etc. They come second to the Medal of Honor but are placed above the Silver Star.

    That means that an Air Force Cross is awarded for acts that didn’t qualify for the Medal of Honor, and the Silver Star is awarded for valor that didn’t meet Air Force Cross requirements but still deserves recognition.

    Qualifying Criteria For The Air Force Cross

    The Air Force Cross is awarded for specific individual acts of valor that occurred during an operation or mission during a fixed period of time. The Air Force Cross is considered when actions recognized by the award took place on a certain date or range of dates under qualifying criteria that includes bravery.

    • While engaged in military operations against an “opposing foreign force,” OR
    • While serving with, “friendly foreign forces” against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.
    • The required heroism, while of a lesser degree than that required for award of the Medal of Honor, must nevertheless have been performed with marked distinction.

    It should be noted that the Air Force Cross is not a unit-level award, but an individual honor. It’s also good to remember the last item in that list above; the Air Force Cross is awarded to those who have performed exceptionally in combat but whose actions did not qualify them for the Medal of Honor.

    Other military awards and decorations follow a similar hierarchy, providing recognition for efforts that did not fully qualify for higher honors but are fully worth honoring in their own right.

    The Process Of Awarding An Air Force Cross

    Service members must be nominated for the Air Force Cross, and that nomination must be approved by a “decoration approval authority.”

    The nomination package is written up and submitted on the service member’s behalf, and the process begins. The Defense Department’s goal for recommendations for valor awards includes receiving nominations for them within 45 days of the qualifying circumstances that earned the award.

    DoD literature suggests there is an effort to make decisions on  Air Force Cross and other valor award submissions within 12 months after the paperwork has been started.

    Origins Of The Air Force Cross

    The origin story of the Air Force Cross really starts with the approval of the creation of the United States Army’s Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). That happened in 1918 due to a request from General John Pershing.

    The General had petitioned President Woodrow Wilson to establish an award that could recognize exceptional valor in combat that was not quite worthy of the Medal of Honor but required some form of official acknowledgment. That request got attention from the President and the Secretary of War.

    Congress established the Distinguished Service Cross award by legislation. Title 10 of the United States Code, Section 3742 and War Department General Order No. 6, 1918 would authorize the DSC.

    It would be a few decades before the Air Force was brought into its own as a separate and equal branch of military service. In 1947 it was obvious that the new branch of service would require its own version of the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross.

    Indeed, the earliest version was meant to be known as the Distinguished Service Cross (Air Force), but when the Cross was established by law via Public Law 88-593 in 1960, the law amended Title 10, U.S. Code. Part of that amendment was changing the designation of the Air Force award to the Air Force Cross.

     In 2017, it was reported then that 197 recipients of the Air Force Cross had been recorded beginning with an award for valor during the Cuban Missile Crisis, plus retroactive Air Force Cross awards for heroism during World War Two. Other conflicts where Air Force Crosses have been awarded include:

    • The Vietnam War
    • Gulf War 1
    • Somalia
    • Afghanistan (Operation Anaconda and other missions)

    There have been 50 posthumous awards of the Air Force Cross, at least 13 awarded to those who were held as prisoners of war, and approximately 30 awards for troops missing in action.

    Written by Joe Wallace

    Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News.