Let's Talk About The Air Force's Plan To Increase Squadrons From 312 To A Whopping 386

The USAF needs to increase capacity in certain areas, but it stands to face extreme personnel and budget hurdles realizing such a large change. 

Senior Airman John Linzmeier—18th Wing Public Affairs

You know you are truly living in a flush defense budget era when the Secretary of Air Force can present an initiative to massively expand service's force structure, going from 312 squadrons today to 386 by 2030, with a straight face. This is an increase in overall size of nearly 25 percent. Just a couple years ago the USAF couldn't even afford the fleet it already had yet alone the one it planned to procure. Now it wants to execute the biggest end-strength expansion since the Cold War. 

The proposal, which was introduced today by Secretary Heather Wilson at this year's Air Force Association symposium, is very similar to the Navy's 355 ship fleet initiative. In all reality, it was very likely developed at least partially as a response to the seagoing service's plan that has proven to be quite marketable on Capitol Hill. Wilson said that the increase in combat capacity is needed to confront potential threats posed by Russian and China in an age of "great power competition"

That justification is up for debate, but Secretary Wilson is right, the USAF needs more capacity, at least in certain areas, to meet even current demands. Over the last decade and a half, the force as a whole has shrunk continuously to become just a shadow of what it was during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, let alone what it was during Desert Storm over a decade earlier. In 30 years, the number of fighter squadrons the service has on hand alone has dropped by 59%, from 134 to just 55.

The last major round of cuts, which occurred around 2013-2014, left many highly concerned that the USAF was being cut to the point that there was be little left in the tank, a move that could be paid for with blood should a major conflict arise. The fact that the USAF leadership seemed dangerously obsessed with prioritizing procurement over readiness and combat capacity didn't help the matter either. 

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Secretary Heather Wilson

The cold hard truth is that you can have the best aircraft in the world, but they can only be in one place at one time, and that place is as often as not sitting broken on the ground. Additionally, the Air National Guard has morphed into something far more akin to a frontline force due to the proportion of the total force's combat power they provide. Its air defense tasked fighter units would struggle greatly to maintain their air sovereignty mission over the United States should a major conflict erupt overseas. 

This is not just about fighters, quite the contrary. The USAF's notional plan is to expand in most capability sets. Here is the USAF's official breakdown of where the extra squadrons would be added:

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There is a lot going on here and I am going to save our in-depth analysis for a larger article on an ideal force structure for the USAF that has been in the works for some time. But there are a few big questions worth highlighting. 

First off is the obvious one, where will the money come from? We are talking major procurement increases, infrastructure investments, and expansion in personnel under this plan. It is unlikely future defense budgets will continue to grow or even be maintained at their current size. I predict a significant retraction in defense spending in the coming decade regardless of the threat situation short of an impending war. 

Rapidly ballooning end strength like this could prove to be incredibly wasteful if much of it has to be rolled back in a number of years. America's new 'and the kitchen sink' nuclear strategy is similarly an issue. But even if current budget levels are maintained, these funds have to come from somewhere even if that somewhere is Congress's willingness to blow an even larger hole in the national deficit in the years and decade to come.

But one issue unique to the USAF's flying squadrons when it comes to the feasibly of realizing an ambitious goal like this surrounds pilots, or the lack thereof I should say. The USAF is experiencing a major pilot shortfall and is scrambling to recruit new candidates and retain the pilots they already have. This initiative includes large incentive bonuses aimed at retaining pilots, as well as making significant changes to how squadrons function. The increasingly corporate culture of the USAF and the heavy administrative burdens placed on pilots, combined with a shrinking number of annual flying hours, has negatively impacted the USAF's ability to do its mission. Constant deployments overseas by an overtaxed force that is too small to meet demands hasn't helped keep pilots interested either. 

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The pilot shortage issue alone can really be a deal breaker for this plan. I have some ideas on how to solve this issue and achieve more end strength in the most economical and effective way possible that I will present in my upcoming piece, but under the current circumstances, even if the money was there, you need highly trained individuals to operate the aircraft and the USAF doesn't have them now and may struggle to obtain them in the future.

In the end, yes the USAF needs to increase its capacity in certain areas, but the devil is truly in the details. What's missing here is any sort of an estimate on what this would cost, both in terms of initial startup and sustainment over time. Exactly what planes it plans on filling these billets with and where they would be located will be a major factor in those figures as well, one that will also have huge industrial repercussions. 

Considering the branch was doing anything it possibly could to retire roughly 300 tactical jetsA-10 Warthogs of course—that it already owned and operated just months ago, it's a bit nauseating to think that a relatively short time later the same service is saying it needs to expand its tactical jet squadron count significantly. It reminds us of just how poor the flying service's track record is when it comes to these kinds of critical force structure decisions.

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The USAF is already facing a pilot shortage of around 25% yet it wants to grow its squadron number by more than 25% in the coming decade. 

With so many hands trying to force their way into the Trump era defense budget honey jar, the USAF is going to have to fight hard to make any of this a reality. Finding many billions of dollars to procure and sustain a much larger Air Force, especially over multiple administrations, in order to reach its 386 squadrons goal will be a challenge, to say the least. There are so many competing priorities, from nuclear arsenal recapitalization and enhancement, to the looming hypersonic arms race, to missile defense, to a 355 ship Navy, and so much more, that the dollars may be in greater supply than they were under the Obama administration, but that doesn't mean they are easily spoken for. Even the Space Force initiative, which comes directly from the President himself, is slated to cost $13B just to get up and running.

The upside here is that Wilson's plan still seems to be very much a work in progress and will probably change a bit in the future. There are five separate studies that are looking into the USAF's force structure as well that will impact the case for this plan and potentially the plan itself. But don't expect the USAF to back off that number once they brand it. And brand it they will! The goal here is to make it a catchphrase just like the Navy did with its 355 ship fleet concept. A big round accessible number like that is easy to reference and for Congress to toss around during hearings. It sets the marker high and comes with a disclaimer stating anything less will incur too much risk. 

So don't be surprised if you start getting bombarded by the number 386 when it comes to USAF talking points that are often forced into press releases and official speeches. 

Because if you say it enough it has to come true.... Right?

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com