NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force in fiscal 2024 will experiment with further changes to how it deploys airmen, service leaders announced at the Air and Space Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference here this week.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said Monday the service is creating three “air task forces,” or packages of airmen that the Air Force can offer to Pentagon planners to tackle crises around the world.
Two teams will be assigned to U.S. Central Command while a third will focus on the Pacific. Squadrons that become part of those task forces will start training together next summer as part of the two-year cycle now in place to adequately prepare airmen for combat, and begin deploying together in fiscal 2026, according to an Air Force spokesperson.
The Air Force has not said which units will staff the task forces or where they will be located.
The proposal is the Air Force’s attempt to mirror the force packages put forward by the other armed forces — like a Navy carrier strike group — to offer a standard set of combat capabilities to commanders around the globe.
“These are not the final, permanent deployable units we expect to form, but they are a major step in the right direction and we will learn from this experience,” Kendall said.
The service has been refining its idea for new expeditionary teams for months. Air task forces would replace air expeditionary wings and expeditionary air base teams in the evolving lexicon of terms used to describe those who fight America’s air wars on short-notice deployments overseas.
It’s part of an attempt to move away from the longtime approach of deploying airmen piecemeal as jobs open up overseas, or dispatching flying squadrons on a one-off basis without the attached support staff.
Along with more predictable schedules and ample training, the Air Force hopes its budding force-generation model will lead to more capable expeditionary units that can function away from brick-and-mortar bases.
Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for operations who is nominated to become its vice chief of staff, told reporters here Tuesday that each task force will include four elements: a command staff; mission-generation forces like pilots and maintainers; combat support troops like civil engineering; and base support airmen like security forces and contract specialists.
“We need to build … air task forces that have those elements without drawing from 93 bases,” he said.
Airmen who staff the air task forces are expected to handle tasks that fall outside their usual job description, like cooks that can drive a forklift, Slife said. More specialized jobs, like explosive ordnance disposal or air traffic control, would be left to those who are properly trained to do them.
But the capabilities that an air task force may offer depends on where it’s going, he said.
“If you’re going to [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command] to do a series of exercises, you may not need a substantial force protection capability as part of that task force,” Slife said. “If you’re going to [U.S. Central Command], where there is a large main operating base that is reasonably well-developed, you may not need as many civil engineers as if you were going to build it from scratch.”
Officials believe that more routinely deploying support airmen like security forces and civil engineers will likely mean fewer services at home. That could mean closing one base gate or a runway because there isn’t enough staff to keep them open.
But Slife said that’s a necessary tradeoff for the Air Force to succeed in the modern era of war.
“It largely works in a relatively uncontested environment where you have large, main fixed operating bases that you know are going to be free from attack,” he said of the past approach. “That’s not the world we’re living in anymore.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.