Air Force Could Struggle to Pay for Envisioned Force Expansion
Photo: Air Force
The Air Force wants to add 74 squadrons to its fleet by the 2025 to 2030 timeframe, but it could run up against funding constraints as it pursues a wide range of high-ticket modernization programs.
At the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber conference at National Harbor, Maryland, service leaders have been making their case for adding capacity. The Air Force currently has 312 operational squadrons, but that is insufficient, Secretary Heather Wilson said Sept. 17 during a keynote speech.
“The Air Force is too small for what the nation expects of us,” she said.
Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein noted that the service is facing an era of great power competition against advanced adversaries such as Russia and China.
“America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield,” he said Sept. 18 during a speech at the show. “Victory must be planned for [and] properly resourced.”
In recent months, the Air Force has been assessing its requirements for the 2025 to 2030 timeframe based on modeling and simulation, intelligence analysis, joint operating concepts and the 2018 national defense strategy. A preliminary conclusion from the study is that 74 more squadrons will be needed for a total of 386 squadrons, Wilson said. That is nearly 25 percent higher than current force levels.
The additional units envisioned include: five bomber squadrons, seven space squadrons, 14 tanker squadrons, seven special operations squadrons, nine combat search-and-rescue squadrons, 22 squadrons for command and control, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, seven fighter squadrons, two remotely piloted aircraft squadrons, and one airlift squadron, she said.
But it’s unclear how the Air Force will be able to pay for the larger force structure. Analysts have noted that the service is already facing a modernization “bow wave” in the 2020s as it pursues a new B-21 stealth bomber, ground-based strategic deterrent, KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, T-X trainer, and ramps up procurement of F-35 joint strike fighters, among other acquisition programs.
The Air Force will also have to compete for funding with other Defense Department acquisition needs, as the Navy tries to build up toward a 355-ship fleet, and the Army invests heavily in its top six modernization priorities including: long-range precision fires; the next-generation combat vehicle; future vertical lift family of helicopters; the network; air-and-missile defense; and soldier lethality.
Robert Levinson, a senior defense analyst at Bloomberg Government, estimated that the additional aircraft procurement needed to reach a force level of 386 squadrons could cost about $27 billion, not including operation and maintenance, research, development, test and evaluation costs.
In comparison, the Air Force has been planning to spend about $60.3 billion on aircraft procurement across the future years defense program, he noted Sept. 18 during a briefing for industry.
Even if that additional $27 billion is spread out through 2030, “it’s probably still quite a stretch when you add in the O&M and the RDT&E” costs, Levinson said.
Right now, the 386 squadron force level target is merely “a point for discussion,” he said. “Whether it’s a realistic marker to get to I think is another question, and budgetary realities are going to drive that.”
During a meeting with reporters at the conference, Wilson said the service is aware that funding will be an issue.
“We’re not naive about the financial constraints,” she said. “But we also should know what is required from the perspective of those who plan and develop military forces to execute that [national defense] strategy, and that’s where the 386 squadrons come from.”
Goldfein said the Air Force still needs to flesh out the details of how the expansion would be executed in terms of the number and types of aircraft that would need to be procured, and how many personnel would be required to accommodate a larger force structure.
“Right now we have not got the exact mix of [aircraft] tails,” he told reporters. “Part of that dialogue will be the costing out the number of tails, the number of pilots, the number of maintainers. And so that’s work that is still to be done.”
Wilson said funding for the proposed force expansion was not included in the Air Force’s fiscal year 2020 program objective memorandum that was recently submitted to the office of the secretary of defense. It is currently under review to inform the next presidential budget request.
“This is a longer term conversation,” she said.