Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on Monday called for growing the Air Force from its current size of 312 operational squadrons to 386 by 2030, as it prepares for a possible conflict against a major nation such as China or Russia.
This 24 percent increase in squadrons is the centerpiece of the service’s “Air Force We Need” proposal, which has been in the works for six months. This proposal seeks to lay out what it would take for the Air Force to fight a peer adversary and win, as well as defend the homeland, provide a credible nuclear deterrent, counter a medium-sized rogue nation that might try to take advantage of the Air Force’s focus on the major adversary, and fight violent extremists such as the Taliban and the Islamic State.
This follows the National Defense Strategy that the Pentagon unveiled earlier this year, which is structured around the need to shift away from the violent extremist fight and instead focus on deterring or fighting nations with significant, well-developed militaries.
In her keynote address at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space, Cyber Conference, Wilson referenced the massive Russian military exercises launched last week, involving more than 300,000 of their troops, and China’s unveiling of its first aircraft carrier and its ongoing militarization of islands in the South China Sea to extend its long-range bombers' reach.
“We must see the world as it is,” Wilson said. “That was why the National Defense Strategy explicitly recognizes that we have returned to an era of great power competition.”
But Wilson reiterated the service’s view that the Air Force is not big enough to carry out all the missions currently being asked of it.
The Air Force has to meet the threats facing the nation with its most basic unit: the squadron, Wilson said.
“Our operational squadrons are the combat power of the Air Force," Wilson said. "They are the clenched fist of American resolve.”
The additional squadrons would require a significant increase in total force manpower, including Guard, Reserve and civilians. Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said that the Air Force now has about 670,000 active duty, Guard and Reserve airmen and civilians. By the end of the next five-year cycle in fiscal 2023, that should grow to about 685,000, Stefanek said.
And adding the 74 new squadrons, if the entire request is approved, would require 40,000 more airmen and civilians in all. Meaning by the time the projected squadron growth is completed in 2030, the Air Force could grow to about 725,000, Stefanek said.
Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, the new deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said the Air Force has not yet decided on the “mix” of new airmen, such as where they would serve, that would be added as part of that growth. But he stressed the airmen needed for the new squadrons will not be taken from existing squadrons.
“It’s not a trade,” Kelly said.
In addition to the additional Command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or C2ISR, squadrons would see the biggest growth, increasing from 40 squadrons to 62 between 2025 and 2030, Wilson said. Tanker squadrons, which Wilson said is facing one of the biggest shortfalls, would also see significant growth under this plan, increasing from 40 to 54 squadrons.
The Air Force would add seven fighter squadrons to its current tally of 55, she said. And combat search-and-rescue squadrons would grow by one-third, from 27 to 36.
Bomber squadrons would grow from nine to 14, space squadrons would grow from 16 to 23, special operations squadrons would grow from 20 to 27, airlift squadrons would grow from 53 to 54 and remotely piloted aircraft squadrons would grow from 25 to 27.
Cyber and missile squadrons would remain unchanged at 18 and nine, respectively, but require modernization, Wilson said.
A 24 percent growth in squadrons would require a massive hike of the Air Force’s budget, which in fiscal year 2019 amounts to about $49.9 billion, pointed out Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The cost of pay and benefits for 40,000 airmen is about $5.2B per year (give or take),” he wrote in a Tweet on Friday. “Right now the Air Force spends about $53B per year on aircraft operations, training, and recruiting. Increasing the number of squadrons by ~24% would probably add another $13B per year in these operating costs.”
This new structure will also mean a sea change in how the Air Force deploys its airmen, Goldfein said in an interview with Air Force Times Monday morning.
“A squadron commander today — very few are preparing their squadrons to go forward as a complete, intact unit, with the unit cohesion that’s essential for combat effectiveness,” Goldfein said. “Our focus has been on being a force provider, and somewhat crowdsourcing our approach to force presentation, as opposed to intact units that are an echelon of command, that have the responsibility for establishing operations and being able to fight in a contested environment.”
Currently, airmen often deploy in small groups of no less than three, but usually more. These piecemeal deployments mean that having 15 to 20 percent of any wing on the road at any given time has become “the new normal,” Goldfein said.
That can work for missions such as the war against violent extremist groups such as the Taliban and Islamic State, where airmen can arrive at well-established bases such as Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar and find everything they need in a safe environment.
But if the Air Force ends up fighting a war against a “peer,” it’s going to need to deploy whole squadrons or even wings. And they can’t always expect to find a base like Al Udeid waiting for them when they arrive in the war zone, he said.
In such a conflict, Goldfein said, Air Force wings could be expected to show up in a matter of weeks — or even days — and quickly establish a base, possibly under fire. They would have to defend it against hostile forces, and then be ready to receive reinforcements, set up command and control connectivity, and fight from that base, he said.
And if the enemy cuts off that newly established base from higher Air Force leaders, that base needs to be able to continue operating on its own, and keep up the momentum in the campaign, he said.
Goldfein compared it to his experience as a young captain, deploying with his wing as part of Operation Desert Shield. Goldfein’s wing took off without knowing where they would land, and were told to keep a close eye on their fuel gauges because it wasn’t clear whether they would have enough gas to fly such a long distance. Goldfein ended up going to the United Arab Emirates, where airmen quickly moved to set up what would become Al Dhafra Air Base, while being prepared to defend it in case Saddam Hussein sent his army south beyond Kuwait.
The Air Force has fallen out of practice at doing these kinds of things over the last 17 years, as it has concentrated on fighting wars in the Middle East. But, he said, he thinks those skills can be regained without much difficulty.
“That kind of muscle memory is not that far off from what we’ve done,” Goldfein said. “We just haven’t exercised it in a while.”
Squadrons, wings and other units will begin practicing and preparing for such unit-wide deployments under the new strategy, Goldfein said.
This will help shape daily training for airmen at their home bases, he said, because the Air Force can’t expect them to show up downrange and adjust to a completely different battle rhythm than that to which they have grown accustomed.
It will also drive inspections of Air Force units, to see how well they’re meeting these new goals.
This means the Air Force needs to make sure its wing commanders, as well as other leaders and staff, are developed and trained enough to make sure their units can carry out such a deployment into a contested environment.
“This is as much about development of leaders to be able do that at all levels,” Goldfein said.
Reporter Valerie Insinna contributed to this report.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.