The United States Air Force has never been smaller. Some would also argue that it has never been less prepared to fight a near peer competitor. Air Force Heather Wilson wants to change all that. So she must, if she is to accommodate the new national defense strategy, which directs the services to prepare for strategic international competitions with China and Russia.
The last great power competition ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. Congress immediately cashed a peace dividend. Year after year of crimped defense funding reduced the size and readiness levels for all of the services, particularly the Air Force. The situation was aggravated as wars in the Persian Gulf coupled with a long term War on Terror ate away at the very fabric of the organization. Fatigue brought on by the continual stream of deployments wore out both men and machines. Retention rates fell. By 2016, the service was short 4,000 aircraft maintenance personnel. Last year, it was short more than 2,000 pilots.
Meanwhile, aircraft readiness rates plunged by half. So did size. The Air Force now has 55 active duty, guard and reserve fighter squadrons — less than half what it had available for Desert Storm. Among the 32 active fighter squadrons, less than half were rated “mission ready” in 2017 for any level of combat; only four were ready for a high-end fight and there is little evidence to show things have improved since. Fully aware of these debilitating conditions Secretary Wilson commissioned a study to determine the size and composition of force she would have to be able to field in order to meet the new defense strategy.
The study concluded that the Air Force needs 386 operational squadrons — 74 more than it has now. The service’s core fighting units, these squadrons include everything from fighter, bomber and airlift units to those responsible for cyber operations. The study determined that the Air Force needs at least 15 more tankers, 50 more bombers, 182 more fighters, and 210 more refueling aircraft.
Are these numbers reasonable? We think so. They jibe well with our own assessments. In preparing the Heritage Foundation index of military strength, we studied what it took, in capacity, to prevail in every major regional conflict from the Korean War to the present. We determined that the only consistently reliable measure of force size is the number of fighter aircraft deployed for each endeavor. Airlift, bomber, tanker, and other mission areas are equally important, but much more challenging to calculate due to the lack of staging/basing within a theater of war. The requirements for each are, therefore, based off the total fighter requirement.
Historically, it takes 600 combat coded fighters (those not dedicated to replacement aircrew training and operational test and evaluation) to win a major regional war. That number doubles — to 1,200 fighters — if the job is to 1) win that war, 2) deter other adversaries from acting up elsewhere, and 3) provide continuation training for pilots who are not deployed. And that three-part mission is exactly what’s set forth in the National Defense Strategy.
The Air Force currently has 924 combat coded fighters in its active duty force — 276 (23 percent) short of what’s needed to execute the national defense strategy. Secretary Wilson’s proposal would increase that force structure by 24 percent — almost an exact match. Few serious analysts who study the Air Force and understand the changing global environment will take issue with these assessments. Yet, when Wilson revealed her vision to add 74 operational squadrons and at least 460 aircraft, critics were quick to object, saying that undertaking such an expansion was flatly impossible in an era of trillion-dollar deficits.
But it’s not defense spending that’s driving record deficits. As a share of the national budget, defense spending today is lower than at any time over the last 70 years. Secretary Wilson is telling the nation what the Air Force needs to execute its National Defense Strategy, and she is telling it straight. She should be commended for delivering the hard truth to the American people. Now they, and Congress, must decide if they are willing to pay what is required to keep our nation safe.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 10/01/18