U.S. Air Force Seeks 24 Percent Increase In Force Size To Support Trump Defense Strategy
When Air Force leaders appeared before Congress earlier this year to present their service’s planned posture and budget for 2019, they were asked what they needed to successfully implement the Trump administration’s defense strategy. That strategy shifts the emphasis in military planning from fighting terrorism to deterring and/or defeating “revisionist” states — Russia and China in particular, but also Iran and North Korea.
On Monday, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff David Goldfein gave Congress their answer. After six months of detailed analysis, the service has decided it needs a 24% increase in the size of its force to accomplish the military tasks it is likely to be assigned under the revised National Defense Strategy. Specifically, it needs to increase the number of operational squadrons the service sustains from 312 to 386.
Squadrons are the basic building blocks of the modern Air Force. They number anywhere from eight to 24 aircraft per squadron depending on the type of plane, but the Air Force also organizes its space capabilities, cyber forces and special operations units in squadrons. The service had 401 squadrons when the Cold War ended, so growing to 386 would make its force structure almost as big as when the Soviet Union last existed.
The rationale for growth is straightforward: the service is too small to sustain the pace of operations demanded by current military needs much less take on new tasks, and it requires a different mix of warfighting systems as it shifts to deterring Russia and China rather than fighting the likes of ISIS. Last year, the Air Force carried out 172,000 separate flights (“sorties”) in the campaign to destroy ISIS, an average of nearly 500 per day.
About 98,000 of those flights were precision-strike missions employing air-to-ground munitions, which means the service is using up smart bombs at a furious pace. Its 2019 budget seeks to bolster readiness by purchasing weapons such as Lockheed Martin’s Hellfire missile and Boeing’s Joint Direct Attack Munition at the maximum rate current industry capacity can sustain. It is also straining to retain highly trained pilots and skilled maintainers in order to support current operating tempo.
But with national strategy adding to the list of tasks that the Air Force must accomplish, it needs to grow. Secretary Wilson, a pilot and former member of Congress, explained the need in her keynote address Monday at the Air Force Association’s annual Air-Space-Cyber Conference near the capital. Her reasoning was elaborated in subsequent remarks by Chief of Staff Goldfein. The Air Force provided me with some of the details that would be disclosed in advance of the conference.
The Air Force calculates that it would need 40,000 more personnel to support the addition of 74 squadrons to its current force structure. Building to a total of 386 squadrons would require roughly a dozen years as the new people are recruited and trained while more warfighting systems are acquired. So the 24% increase in size describes how Wilson and Goldfein think the Air Force should look circa 2030.
But “the Air Force we need,” as Secretary Wilson’s Monday address describes it, is not just bigger. Its space squadrons would be more resilient than those in operation today, as the service accelerates a modernization push that began under the previous administration. The heavy bomber fleet would grow faster than the rest of the force to correct a decline in numbers since the Cold War ended. A quarter-century ago the service had 290 long-range bombers, but that number has dwindled to a mere 158 today.
Most of the bombers in the current fleet are programmed to retire after Northrop Grumman’s new B-21 begins joining the force in 2025. Cold War strike fighters will be replaced by the F-35, which like the B-21 is invisible to radar. A key question in fleshing out the proposed force structure will be the rate at which new hardware is acquired. If the F-35 is bought at a rate of 50 per year, half the fighter force in 2030 will still consist of planes developed in the 1970s. If 100 are bought per year, only 20% will be aged fighters in 2030.
Wartime losses would be far greater if the fighter force continued to consist mainly of older, non-stealthy planes. The same dynamic applies to modernizing the bomber force, although bombers at least can be equipped with long-range cruise missiles so that the planes themselves do not need to penetrate enemy defenses. Another question as yet unanswered is the rate at which new KC-46 tankers built by Boeing will be bought and older tankers retired. Aerial refueling is crucial to the effectiveness of fighters, bombers and other combat aircraft.
The Air Force has not tried to answer such questions in its initial assessment of what it needs, nor has it assigned budget estimates to the proposed increases. It has stuck with existing operational plans and the prevailing mix of active and reserve forces to calculate what will be needed to win a war against a great-power coalition in 2030. Much of the underlying analysis is classified — secret — but the overarching conclusion is clear enough. The Air Force needs to be bigger if it is to do its part in executing the National Defense Strategy.
I have business ties of one sort or another to several companies that would likely benefit if the Air Force grew in size or purchased new warfighting systems faster.
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