U.S. Air Force

An Assessment of U.S. Military Power

U.S. Air Force

Oct 20, 2021 About an hour read

U.S. Air Force
A U.S. Air Force T-38 Talon aircraft and B-2 Spirit aircraft fly in formation during a training mission over Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., Feb. 20, 2014. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder, U.S. Air Force

John Venable

The U.S. Air Force (USAF), originally part of the Army Signal Corps, became a separate service in 1947, and its mission has expanded significantly over the years. Initially, operations were divided among four major components—Strategic Air Command, Tactical Air Command, Air Defense Command, and Military Air Transport Service—that collectively reflected the Air Force’s “fly, fight, and win” nature. Space’s rise to prominence in the early 1950s brought a host of faculties that would expand the service’s portfolio and increase its capabilities in the mission areas of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and command and control (C2). Together, the addition of the Space Force as the fifth uniformed service within the Department of Defense (DOD) and the onset of the global SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic have had a notable impact on the Air Force in the year since the 2021 Index of Military Strength was published.

With the birth of the Space Force in December 2019,1 the Air Force began to move its space portfolio of assets and personnel to the new service. This change will affect at least three mission areas: air and space superiority, ISR, and C2. Each of these mission areas was born from air-breathing assets, and while the loss of the space portfolio will reduce the service’s inherent capabilities, they will remain within the Department of the Air Force (DAF) and allow the Air Force to focus the weight of its efforts on the core missions in the air and cyber domains.

Today’s Air Force has five principal missions:

  • Air superiority (space superiority is now the responsibility of the Space Force);
  • Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance;
  • Mobility and lift;
  • Global strike; and
  • Command and control.

The summer of 2021 finds the Air Force, like the rest of DOD, recovering from the effects of COVID-19. Recruiting and other training pipelines like pilot training have slowed considerably, and this has affected accessions. The service’s ability to generate sorties and flying hours for training has reached near-historic lows with equally grim readiness levels. All of this comes on the heels of reductions in force size and a drought in readiness from which the Air Force has been trying to recover for the past several years.

The pandemic’s impact on the economy has reduced external hiring opportunities, particularly with the airlines, and this has helped to mitigate the separation from the Air Force of the most experienced airmen in critically manned areas.2 However, because the COVID-19 vaccine’s distribution is now widespread and the economic recovery is underway, it could well become harder to retain trained personnel.

Unlike some of the other services, the Air Force did not grow larger during the post-9/11 buildup. Instead, it grew smaller as acquisitions of new aircraft failed to offset programmed retirements of older aircraft. Following the sequestration debacle in 2012, the Air Force began to trade size for quality.3 Presidential defense budgets from 2012 through 2017 during the Obama Administration proved merely aspirational, and as the service sustained the war on terrorism, it struggled also to sustain the type of readiness required to employ in a major regional contingency (MRC) against a near-peer threat.

The Air Force was forced to make strategic trades in capability, capacity, and readiness to meet the operational demands of the war on terrorism and develop the force it needed for the future. The collective effects left the Air Force of 2016 with just 55 total force fighter squadrons, and the readiness levels within those organizations were very low. Just four of the Air Force’s 32 active-duty fighter squadrons were ready for conflict with a near-peer competitor, and just 14 others were considered ready even for low-threat combat operations.4

Recognizing the threat from a rising China and resurgent Russia, the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) directed the services to prepare for a large-scale, high-intensity conventional conflict with a peer adversary.5 Later that same year, the Air Force released “The Air Force We Need” (TAFWN), a study of the capacity it would need to fight and help the U.S. win such a war. Based on thousands of war-game simulations, the study found that the service needed to grow by 25 percent, from 312 to 386 squadrons, to execute that strategy. That growth included one additional airlift squadron and seven additional fighter, five additional bomber, and 14 additional tanker squadrons.6 That equates to an additional 182 fighter, 50 bomber, 210 air refueling, and 15 airlift platforms.7 During the same period, the service’s most senior leaders conveyed the need for more time in the air for its aircrews,8 and these collective demands required a bigger budget.

In a series of speeches in 2018, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein highlighted the shortfall and the need for more funding to increase the service’s capacity with next-generation platforms: in other words, to buy all-new-design aircraft rather than continuing to purchase aircraft that have been in production since the 1980s and 1990s).9 To meet that requirement, the Trump Administration increased DAF funding by 31 percent from 2017 to 2021.10

Considering this shortfall, one might assume that the Air Force increased its procurement budget and accelerated acquisition of fifth-generation offensive platforms and next-generation tanker aircraft during that period by a substantial margin. However, funding for aircraft procurement remained relatively flat, growing from $22.4 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2017 to just $25.6 billion in FY 2022—a rate of growth that did not keep up with inflation. The budget for procurement fell from $28.4 billion in FY 2021 to $25.6 billion in FY 2022, a straight decrease of 11 percent but, accounting for inflation, a loss of buying power that approaches 14 percent.

The budget for research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E), on the other hand, has more than doubled since FY 2017, growing from $20.5 billion in FY 2017 to $40.1 billion in FY 2022, and now exceeds procurement by more than 50 percent.11 Much of that funding was used to develop and field the digital backbone for the Airborne Battle Management System (ABMS) to help move information to the warfighter, process targets, and optimize their engagement.


At the height of the Cold War buildup in 1987, the active-duty Air Force had an inventory of 3,082 fighter, 331 bomber, 576 air refueling, and 331 strategic airlift platforms. When the strategic reserve assets within the Air National Guard (Guard) and Air Force Reserve (Reserve) are added, the 1987 totals were 4,468 fighter, 331 bomber, 704 air refueling, and 362 strategic airlift platforms. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the United States shifted from a force-sizing construct centered on great-power competition to one capable of winning two simultaneous or nearly simultaneous MRCs. Those numbers for capacity have been reduced significantly over the years.


It is projected that at the end of FY 2021, the Air Force will have a total aircraft inventory (TAI) of 2,183 fighters, 140 bombers, 512 tankers, and 274 strategic airlift platforms. After just three years of adding to that inventory, the service returned to the idea of trading capacity for some future gain through RDT&E.12 In 2021, Chief of Staff General C.Q. Brown announced plans to cut another 137 fighters and 32 tankers from the USAF’s inventory by the end of FY 2022. While the service has not stated where those reductions will be made, it will reduce the TAI to 2,096 fighters, 140 bombers, 483 tankers, and 274 by the end of FY 2022.13 The Air Force will have a total force that equates to 47 percent of the fighter and bomber assets and 69 percent of the tanker and airlift assets that it possessed the last time the United States was prepared to fight a peer competitor.

The idea that aircraft production lines will somehow surge to come to the rescue in a peer-level crisis may seem plausible to some,14 but even if Congress were to throw an unlimited amount of funding at production lines, there would not likely be enough time to bring new fighters into the force to meet the 2018 NDS’s scenario and timing requirements.15

The Index of U.S. Military Strength uses “combat-coded” fighter aircraft within the active component of the U.S. Air Force to assess capacity. Combat-coded aircraft and related squadrons are aircraft and units with an assigned wartime mission, which means that those numbers exclude units and aircraft assigned to training, operational test and evaluation (OT&E), and other missions.

The software and munitions carriage and delivery capability of aircraft in non-combat-coded units renders them incompatible with and/or less survivable than combat-coded versions of the same aircraft. For example, all F-35As may appear to be ready for combat, but training wings and test and evaluation jets have hardware and software limitations that would severely curtail their utility and effectiveness in combat. While those jets could be slated for upgrades, hardware updates sideline jets for several months, and training wings and certain test organizations are generally the last to receive those upgrades.

Of the 5,504 manned and unmanned aircraft projected to be in the USAF’s inventory at the end of FY 2021, 1,482 are active-duty fighters, and 983 of those are combat-coded aircraft.16 It is important to separate the active-duty fighters and units from the strategic reserve because it would take several months to get elements of the latter up to manning and readiness levels that allowed their first elements to deploy. Unfortunately, there are other factors that also affect the number of fighters the service could actually employ in combat.

Most squadrons will have to pack up and deploy several thousand miles to be able to fight. Because of the additional wartime manning requirements and the fact that most squadrons have several jets that are in disrepair at any given time, it takes the resources of approximately three active-duty squadrons to deploy two combat-capable fighter units forward.17 That effectively reduces the total number of active-duty, combat-coded fighters to 649 jets.

The strategic reserve has 518 fighters, of which 419 are combat coded. Because of the additional manning requirements and the fact that Guard and Reserve units generally have just one squadron at each location, it takes two squadrons to deploy one combat-capable unit forward.18 In terms of capacity, this means that 649 active-duty and 210 strategic reserve fighters, for a total of 859 combat-coded fighters, could be deployed into combat, leaving virtually nothing in reserve.

Capacity also relies on the stockpile of available munitions and the production capacity of the munitions industry. The actual number of munitions within the U.S. stockpile is classified, but there are indicators that make it possible to assess the overall health of this vital area. The inventory for precision-guided munitions (PGM) was severely stressed by nearly 18 years of sustained combat operations and budget actions that limited the service’s ability to procure replacements and increase stockpiles. From 2017 through 2021, funding for munitions was significant, and the service, believing the inventory is now sufficiently restocked, has reduced the number of PGMs it will acquire to a total of 8,365 munitions in FY 2022.

However, even though the munitions stockpile may have returned to a level capable of supporting a surge in expenditures associated with a conflict similar to the one in which the U.S. has been engaged for the past 19-plus years, it would not likely support a peer-level fight that lasts more than a few weeks. Typically, there is a delay of 24–36 months between funding and delivery of additional munitions, and while the potential exists for a rapid expansion of production, it is hard to envision how such an expansion could be rapid enough to exceed demand before the stockpile is depleted. (See Table 5).



The risk assumed with capacity has placed an ever-growing burden on the capability of Air Force assets. The ensuing capability-over-capacity strategy centers on the idea of developing and maintaining a more-capable force that can win against the advanced fighters and surface-to-air missile systems now being developed by top-tier potential adversaries like China and Russia, which are also increasing their capacity.

Any assessment of capability includes not only the incorporation of advanced technologies, but also the overall health of the inventory. Most aircraft have programmed life spans of 20 to 30 years based on a programmed level of annual flying hours. The bending and flexing of airframes over time in the air generates predictable levels of stress and fatigue on everything from metal airframe structures to electrical wiring harnesses.

The average age of Air Force aircraft is 31 years, and some fleets, such as the B-52 bomber, average 60 years. In addition, KC-135s comprise 78 percent of the Air Force’s 483 tankers and are more than 59 years old on average. By the end of FY 2022, 71 brand-new KC-46s will make up 15 percent of the tanker inventory, but they will not be capable of refueling aircraft during combat operations—the jet’s primary mission—until sometime in FY 2024.19

The average age of the F-15C fleet is more than 37 years,20 significantly exceeding the programmed service life of a fleet that comprises more than half of USAF air superiority platforms.21 The planes in the F-16C/D fleet are almost 31 years old on average,22 and the service has used up nearly 87 percent of their expected life span. In 2018, the Air Force announced its intent to extend the service lives of 300 F-16s through a major service life extension program (SLEP) that will allow those jets to continue to fly through 2050.23 SLEPs lengthen the useful life of airframes, and these F-16 modifications also include funding for the modernization of avionics within those airframes. These modifications are costly, and the added expense reduces the amount of funding the service has to invest in modernization, which is critical to ensuring future capability. Even with a SLEP, there is a direct correlation between aircraft age and the maintainability of those platforms. (See Table 6).


The Air Force’s ISR and lift capabilities face similar problems in specific areas that affect both capability and capacity. The majority of the Air Force’s ISR aircraft are now unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The Air Force will accept delivery of 19 MQ-9s to its inventory in FY 2022 for a total of 351 Reapers.24 The service lost an RQ-4 to an Iranian missile in 2019 and intends to reduce its inventory by another 21 platforms by the end of FY 2022, leaving it with just 10 of these strategic reconnaissance platforms. These unmanned surveillance aircraft have largely replaced older manned platforms, but not entirely. With an average age of 39 years,25 the U-2, a manned high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, is still very much in demand and currently has no scheduled retirement date.26

The E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (J-STARS) and RC-135 Rivet Joint are critical ISR platforms. Each was built on the Boeing 707 platform, and the last one came off the production line 42 years ago. The FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Air Force not to retire the E-8 until a replacement system is available. However, the President’s FY 2022 budget request includes the retirement of four of those platforms.27

The Air Force is working on an incremental approach for a J-STARS replacement that focuses on advanced and disaggregated sensors (a system of systems) that would require enhanced and hardened communications links. Known as the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS),28 it is envisioned as an all-encompassing approach to both airborne and ground Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) that would allow the Air Force to fight and support joint and coalition partners in high-end engagements.29

With respect to air combat, the Active Air Force has just 98 F-15Cs left in its fleet,30 and concerns about what platform will fill this role when the F-15C is retired are fully justified. The Department of Defense planned to purchase 750 F-22A stealth air superiority fighters to replace the F-15C, but draconian cuts in the program of record reduced the acquisition to a total of just 186 F-22As: 166 Active Duty and 20 Air National Guard.31

The ability to fulfill the operational need for air superiority fighters will be further strained in the near term because of the F-22’s low availability rates and a structural repair program that causes some portion of those jets to be unavailable for operational use. The program had six F-22s off the flight line at any given time32 to make alterations required to extend the airframe’s service life to 8,000 hours. That program was completed in late 2020 and will now transition to a 10-year program to refurbish the low-observable coatings on the engine inlets and inspect and overhaul the aircraft’s flight control system that will run through 2031.33

The Air Force’s number-one acquisition priority remains the F-35A, the next-generation fighter scheduled to replace all legacy multirole and close air support aircraft. The jet’s full operating capability (FOC) was delivered in early 2018.34 The rationale for the Air Force’s planned acquisition of 1,763 aircraft is to replace every F-117, F-16, and A-10 aircraft on a one-for-one basis.35 The F-35A’s multirole design favors the air-to-ground mission, but its fifth-generation faculties will also be dominant in an air-to-air role, allowing it to augment the F-22A in many scenarios.36

A second top acquisition priority is the KC-46A air refueling tanker. The KC-46 has experienced a series of problems and delays, the most recent of which involves the air refueling system that currently cannot refuel fighters in an operational environment. The Air Force will have 68 KC-46s (44 Active, 12 Guard, and 12 Reserve) by the end of FY 2021 and will receive three more for a total of 71 in FY 2022.37 The program plans to acquire another 108 tankers for a total of 179 by the end of FY 2028. The KC-46 will replace less than half of the current tanker fleet and will leave the Air Force with over 200 aging KC-135s (already averaging 59 years old) that still need to be recapitalized.38

The third major USAF acquisition priority is the B-21 Raider, formerly called the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRSB). The USAF awarded Northrop Grumman the B-21 contract to build the Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) phase, which includes associated training and support systems and initial production lots. The program has completed an Integrated Baseline Review for the overall B-21 development effort as well as the jet’s Preliminary Design Review. The Air Force is committed to a minimum of 100 B-21s at an average cost of $564 million per plane.39

With the budget deal that was reached for FY 2018 and FY 2019, the Secretary of the Air Force announced the service’s intent to retire all B-1s and B-2s and sustain a fleet comprised of 100 B-21s and 71 B-52s.40 The B-21 is programmed to begin replacing portions of the B-52 and B-1B fleets by the mid-2020s.41 In the interim, the Air Force continues to execute a SLEP on the remaining fleet of B-1s in the inventory to restore the bomber’s engines to their original specifications. Through 2020, the Air Force sustained a fleet of 61 B-1s, but the state of repair of 17 of those jets has deteriorated to the point where the Air Force will retire them by the end of FY 2021.42

The Air Force had planned to modernize the B-2’s Defense Management System but cancelled the plan in 2021 because of a software coding mismatch with its legacy computer system.43 Stores Management Operational Flight Program and Common Very-Low-Frequency/Low Frequency Receiver Program elements will be fielded to ensure that this penetrating bomber remains viable in highly contested environments, keeping it fully mission capable until it is replaced by the B-21.44

Modernization efforts for the B-52 are also underway. The jet was designed in the 1950s, and the current fleet entered service in the 1960s. The FY 2018 budget funded the re-engineering of this fleet with upgrades that will include a new Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile, improved radar, new computers, new communication links, and a new suite of electronic warfare countermeasures. The aircraft will remain in the inventory through 2050.45

When the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff rolled out “The Air Force We Need” in 2018 to expand the number of squadrons from 312 to 386, one of the stated elements of that campaign was to fill the ranks of those new squadrons with only the newest generation of aircraft—F-35s, B-21s, and KC-46s—because of the capabilities that those platforms bring to bear.46 Curiously, the Air Force is now acquiring the fourth-generation F-15EX, based primarily on the ill-perceived notion that it will be cheaper to acquire and operate than the F-35A.47 The FY 2022 budget funds 12 F-15EXs, and the Air Force has an unfunded request for 12 more. Although the service will certainly increase its numbers with that approach, the F-15EX will not be survivable in the high-threat environment in which deployed assets will be required to fight by the time fielding has been completed. The Air Force is using precious acquisition dollars to buy an aircraft that, by all indicators, will have very limited utility in a conflict with a peer competitor.


The 2018 National Defense Strategy’s focus on peer-level war was designed to facilitate a clear and rapid paradigm shift away from the tiered levels of readiness the Air Force had adopted because of years of relentless deployments and funding shortfalls. In a move that would refine the service’s focus on great-power competition as spelled out by the new NDS, Secretary of Defense James Mattis directed the Air Force to increase the mission-capable rates of the F-16, F-22, and F-35 aircraft to 80 percent by the end of September 2019.48 The move was designed to make more of an all-too-small fleet of combat aircraft available to deploy in the numbers required to deter or defeat a peer adversary.

Early in 2019, General Goldfein stated that the service would likely not meet the 80 percent mission-capable (MC) threshold directive until 2020, and in the spring of 2020, he made it clear that the threshold was no longer a focus for the Air Force. MC rates are a measure of how much of a certain fleet is “ready to go” at a given time, and the general stated in clear terms that he regarded them as an inaccurate portrayal of the service’s overall health.

Instead of using that historic marker for readiness, the service moved to highlight how deployable the fleet is within a short period of time49 and shifted its focus to the number of “force elements” (fighters, bombers, and tankers) that it has across the Air Force and how quickly those forces need to be ready. One of the examples that Goldfein used was the rapid deployment of a “task force” of four B-52s to the Middle East in May 2019.50 The bombers, from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, had two days to deploy and immediately began to fly combat missions even though the B-52 fleet had a mission-capable rate of 65.73 percent at the time. While the ability to prepare and then deploy four of 58 operational bombers rapidly is a capability, it is more in line with responding to a regional contingency than it is with the capacity requirements spelled out in the 2018 NDS.

In the USAF’s FY 2020 posture statement, Secretary Wilson and Chief of Staff Goldfein said that more than 90 percent of the “lead force packages” within the service’s 204 “pacing squadrons” are “ready to ‘fight tonight.’” They went on to say that “pacing squadrons are on track to reach 80% readiness before the end of Fiscal Year 2020.”51 In the FY 2021 posture statement, however, Goldfein and new Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett were unable to declare that pacing squadrons had actually achieved that level of readiness, saying only that pacing squadron mission-capable rates had increased and that the Air Force was continuing its efforts to improve MC rates “across all fleets.”52

The definitions for “pacing unit” and “pacing squadrons” are somewhat elusive. Assuming that a pacing squadron is an operational unit that is fully qualified and ready to execute its primary wartime mission (C1), one is still left wondering what the “lead force packages” within those 204 pacing/mission-ready units are and what the limits on the remaining portions of those units might be. Taken together, these statements imply that only portions of the Air Force’s combat-coded squadrons are currently qualified to execute the unit’s primary wartime mission.

The FY 2022 Air Force posture statement offers no more clarity or assurances of readiness, but it has moved (again) to change the terminology. The simplified, three-phase force-generation model is designed “to more effectively articulate” otherwise undefined “readiness impacts and capacity limits.”53

In 2017, the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff informed Congress that “[w]e are at our lowest state of full spectrum readiness in our history.”54 In the four years since their testimony, DOD has stifled open conversation or testimony about readiness, limiting the Air Force’s ability to be forthcoming with open-source readiness indicators. While this makes any assessment of readiness difficult, there are three areas that can support an assessment: MC rates, aircrew training, and deployability.

MC rates are defined as the percentage of a unit’s aircraft that are capable of executing its mission set. Several factors drive MC rates, but two are common to mature systems: manning and operations and maintenance (O&M) funding. Taken together, they dictate the number of sorties and flight hours that units have available for aircrew training. Multiplying the MC rates by the actual number of aircraft within a particular fleet yields the actual operational capacity of that capability.

There are 186 F-22As in the total aircraft inventory, but 28 are dedicated trainers, and 16 are primary development aircraft inventory (used for testing new equipment). In 2020, the F-22A had an MC rate of 52 percent, which means that there were just 74 F-22As that could be committed to combat at any given time.55 The last time the United States was prepared to fight a peer competitor, the Air Force had more than 700 F-15C air superiority fighters with an MC rate of more than 80 percent for that fleet. If just 500 of them were combat coded, more than 400 mission-capable jets were ready to fight the Soviet Union. Although the F-22A is an incredibly capable fighter and 74 F-22s would be a formidable capability against a regional threat, numbers are critical to winning a peer fight, particularly for offensive platforms, and 74 would not be sufficient. For a summary of the mission-capable rates for combat-coded (operational) aircraft of the five fighter weapons systems, see Table 7.


There are 33 operational B-1s in the Lancer fleet,56 and with an MC rate of 52.78 percent, 17 are available for combat at any given time during the year. The small size of the B-2 fleet, coupled with its 62.41 percent MC rate, means that, on average, just 12 are combat capable. If the B-52 operational fleet and its mission-capable rate of 60.51 percent are added, just 64 bombers in the Air Force inventory were capable of executing combat missions on any given day in 2020.

Maintenance manning is now healthy across the board (see Table 8), but the pilot shortage shows no signs of abating. In March 2017, Lieutenant General Gina M. Grosso, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel, and Services, testified that at the end of FY 2016, the Air Force had a shortfall of 1,555 pilots across all mission areas: 608 Active, 653 Air National Guard, and 294 Reserve. Of that total, the Air Force was short 1,211 fighter pilots: 873 Active, 272 Air National Guard, and 66 Reserve.57


The numbers continued to fall, and in the middle of FY 2020, the Air Force was short 2,100 pilots. Today, the total Air Force has a shortfall of 1,925 pilots, and while this is an improvement of 175 pilots over 2020, almost all of that improvement was due to the cessation of airline hiring caused by COVID-19.58 The ability of the Air Force to recover from that shortfall will depend on how well the service addresses several major issues, especially the available number of pilot training slots, an area in which it appears that some progress is being made.

In FY 2018, the Air Force graduated 1,200 pilots; it added 1,279 in FY 2019 and projected that 1,480 would graduate in 2020, but the impact of COVID-19 was such that only 1,263 received their wings. The vast majority of candidates who did not graduate washed back and will graduate some time in FY 2021.

Those projected numbers rely on a very high annual graduation rate of approximately 94 percent of the candidates that enter flight school. According to the data the Air Force provided for the 2021 Index of Military Strength, the graduation rates for 2016, 2017, and 2018 were 93 percent, 98 percent, and 97 percent, respectively.59 Those numbers, however, were incorrect, and the actual graduation rates were 96 percent for 2016, 92 percent for 2017, and 93 percent for 2018.60

Throughout the pilot shortage, the Air Force has done an excellent job of emphasizing operational manning instead of placing experienced fighter pilots at staffs and schools, but the currency and qualifications of the pilots in operational units are at least as important as manning levels. Although the quality of sorties is admittedly subjective, a healthy rate of three sorties a week and flying hours averaging more than 200 hours a year have been established as “sufficient” over more than six decades of fighter pilot training.61 In the words of General Bill Creech, “Higher sortie rates mean increased proficiency for our combat aircrews,”62 and given the right number of sorties and quality flight time, it takes seven years beyond mission qualification in a fighter for an individual to maximize his potential as a fighter pilot.63

COVID-19’s impact on flying hours hit the Air Force as it was beginning to recover from an 18-year drought in training for combat with a near-peer competitor. Flying hours and sortie rates across all fighter platforms fell to historic lows as the average line combat mission-ready fighter pilot received less than 1.5 sorties a week and 131 hours of flying time that year. That is significantly below the healthy fighter force thresholds of three sorties a week and 200 hours a year per pilot. Moreover, to the extent that the Air Force lacks available aircraft, it will remain unable to train pilots to those thresholds.

As noted, the primary drivers for mission-capable rates are maintenance manning and O&M funding. Maintenance manning has been healthy for more than four years, and FY 2022 O&M funding is 42 percent higher than the funding O&M received for FY 2017. However, flying hours across the fleet of fighters have increased by just 9 percent over that same period, and senior Air Force leaders actually decreased the flying hour budget for FY 2022 by some 80,000 hours (7 percent).64 This calls into question how well maintenance is organized to generate those sorties.

The sortie production recovery that took place at the end of the hollow-force days of the Carter Administration happened while levels of maintenance experience and inventories of spare parts were still low and well before the Reagan Administration’s increase in defense spending.65 The maintenance organization that created that turnaround was changed in 1989 to “save money by reducing maintenance staffing, equipment, and base level support,”66 which may help to explain the lackluster performance. No matter what the rationale may be, even with robust manpower and funding, flying hours and sortie rates are still short of the levels required for a rapid increase in readiness levels across the fighter force.

Five years of increases in the O&M budget have not translated into a proportionate growth in flight hours or greater readiness levels. Fighter pilots received an average of 13.0 hours per month in 2017, and an incremental O&M budget increase of 16.4 percent over the next three years delivered 12.9 hours per month in 2018 and 14.1 hours per month in 2019—only 8 percent higher than in 2017.67 (For data related to flight hours and sorties, see Tables 9 through 14.)







Combat mission-ready pilots generally fly more than average, and those assigned to a combat-coded (operational) unit received just 14.6 hours and 7.5 sorties a month in 2019,68 which is an average below two sorties a week when they need three per week to sustain their skills.69 The Air Force did its best to fly through the effects of COVID-19, but the pandemic had a devastating effect on hours and sortie rates. The average fighter pilot flew just over one sortie a week for the duration of 2020, which in a high-performance jet reduces competency levels to the point where excellent pilots begin to question the execution of very basic tasks.70

It will take several more years of robust training for fighter pilots within fighter squadrons to regain what they lost in 2020 alone. Unfortunately, the Air Force is not moving on that path and will cut 87,479 flying hours from its budget in FY 2022—a reduction of 7 percent.71


Deployability. Because long-term inspections and depot-level work affect the availability of support equipment and aircraft, it takes three active-duty squadrons to deploy two squadrons forward. For that reason, up until the end of the Cold War, the Air Force organizational structure was based on a three-squadron wing. On any given day, units have several aircraft that are not flyable because of long-term inspections, deep maintenance, or the need for spare parts. By using aircraft from one of the three squadrons to “plus up” the others, the wing could immediately deploy two full-strength units into combat. The handful of fully flyable jets and pilots left at the home station were then used to train new and inbound pilots up to mission-ready status so that, among other things, they could replace pilots that were lost during combat.72

Normal, active duty fighter squadron manning levels are based on a ratio of 1.25 aircrew members for every aircraft,73 which means that a unit with 24 assigned aircraft should have 30 line pilots and five supervisor pilots who are combat mission ready.74 Flight times, sortie rates, mission planning teams, and flight supervision requirements are significantly higher in combat, and to cover those requirements, the manning ratio normally increases to 1.50 pilots per aircraft, or 36 line pilots per squadron. In other words, every squadron deployed to fight requires six more pilots than it has on its roster.75 Pilots from “donor” squadrons can fill those slots for the deploying units.

With the downsizing that has taken place since the end of the Cold War and the reduction in the number of fighter squadrons, the Active Air Force has reduced the number of fighter squadrons to two or even one in many wings. All operational Guard and Reserve wings are comprised of a single squadron, which complicates the math behind the total number of deployable fighter squadrons.

Of the 55 operational fighter squadrons on the Air Force roster, 32 are Active and 23 are Guard or Reserve Units. (See Figures 2 and 3.) Using the notion that it takes three squadrons to get two active-duty ones forward, the airframe disposition of each active-duty wing would allow just 21 active-duty fighter squadron equivalents (24 fighter aircraft each) to deploy to a fight. That equates to 480 active-duty fighters that could deploy to meet a crisis situation, which is well short of the 600 it takes to win a single MRC and means that a war with a peer competitor will draw heavily on our strategic reserve.

Guard and Reserve units face the same manning and deployment challenges that the active-duty service faces, except that the vast majority of those units have just one fighter squadron per wing, further straining their ability to muster the airframes and manning to meet an emergency deployment.76 Planning for low-threat, low-intensity deployments to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom took this into consideration by mapping deployments out months (often years) in advance of the required movement, allowing pilots to deconflict their civilian work schedules not just for the deployment, but also to get the training and time in the air that they needed to employ successfully in those low-threat combat operations.77 Nevertheless, it was common for Guard units to pull pilots from other units to fulfill manning requirements for “rainbow” fighter squadrons,78 and in a conflict where there is little time from warning order to deployment, it would likely take two Guard and Reserve squadrons to enable one to deploy forward.79


The average Guard and Reserve fighter squadron has one-third fewer jets than similar active-duty units have. By rainbowing units with similar aircraft, they could muster 12 squadrons as a strategic reserve of 288 fighters that could deploy sometime after the active-duty units deploy. In other words, the service could muster just 768 fighters (480 Active and 288 Guard and Reserve) for a peer-level fight. Unfortunately, the gravity of that mix is not fully understood. The Guard and Reserve numbers are based on airframes alone, but other factors such as manning levels would also limit the number of sorties and the amount of combat power that those fighters could generate continually in a high-end confrontation with a peer competitor.

The declaration in Air Force posture statements for FY 2020 and FY 2021 that lead force packages within the service’s 204 pacing squadrons are ready to fight also conveys the fact that only portions of its most capable squadrons have enough mission-capable aircraft and mission-ready aircrews to respond readily to a crisis. Because of the pilot shortage, actual unit manning levels in fighter squadrons are below peacetime requirements (if only slightly), which obviously is not enough to meet the significantly increased demands and the tempo required for combat operations.

The service has already moved the majority of pilots who were in staff or other non-flying billets back to the cockpit in an effort to relieve the manning shortfall. Thus, the only way units can meet wartime manning requirements is by pulling pilots from other “donor” squadrons. The complications that this involves are significant and call into question the idea that the portions of the 55 fighter squadrons that are unable to deploy immediately in a crisis could be combined to create more combat power. The vast majority of aircraft and aircrew that are left would be used for homeland defense and to train replacement pilots or as replacement aircraft that are lost through combat attrition.

Scoring the U.S. Air Force

Capacity Score: Marginal

One of the key elements of combat power in the U.S. Air Force is its fleet of fighter aircraft. In responding to major combat engagements since World War II, the Air Force has deployed an average of 28 fighter squadrons. Based on an average of 18 aircraft per squadron, that equates to a requirement of 500 active component fighter aircraft to execute one MRC. Adding a planning factor of 20 percent for spares and attrition reserves brings the number to 600 aircraft.

As part of its overall assessment of capacity, the 2022 Index looks for 1,200 active-duty, combat-coded fighter aircraft to meet the baseline requirement for two MRCs.80 That number of fighters lines up well with the fighter requirement from the 2018 TAFWN. The bomber, tanker, and strategic air requirement from that study are also used in this assessment.

  • Two-MRC Fighter—Threshold: 1,200 combat-coded active-duty fighters / 62 squadrons.
  • Two-MRC Fighter—Actual 2021 Level: 983 active-duty combat-coded fighters (82 percent) / 55 total force squadrons (88 percent).
  • TAFWN Bomber Squadron—Threshold: 14 combat-coded bomber squadrons / 140 bombers.
  • TAFWN Bomber Squadron—Actual 2021 Level: nine combat-coded bomber squadrons (64 percent) / 114 combat-coded bombers (81 percent).
  • TAFWN Tanker Squadron—Threshold: 54 tanker squadrons / 540 combat-coded tankers.
  • TAFWN Tanker Squadron—Actual 2021 Level: 39 combat-coded tanker squadrons (72 percent) / 414 combat-coded tankers (76 percent).
  • TAFWN Airlift Squadron—Threshold: 54 airlift squadrons / 540 combat-coded airlifters.
  • TAFWN Airlift Squadron—Actual 2021 Level: 50 combat-coded airlift squadrons (93 percent) / 538 combat-coded airlifters (99 percent).

Based on a pure count of combat-coded squadrons and platforms that have achieved initial operating capability (IOC), the USAF currently is at 86 percent of the capacity required to meet a two-MRC/TAFWN benchmark. However, the disposition of those assets limits the ability of the service to deploy them rapidly to a crisis region. While the active fighter and bomber assets that are available would likely prove adequate to fight and win a single regional conflict, when coupled with the low mission capability rates of those aircraft (see Table 7), the global sourcing needed to field the required combat fighter force assets would leave the rest of the world uncovered.

Nevertheless, the capacity level is well within the methodology’s range of “marginal.” With programmed retirements that will exceed acquisitions, capacity is now trending downward.

Capability Score: Marginal

The Air Force’s capability score is “marginal,” based on scores of “strong” for “Size of Modernization Program,” “marginal” for “Age of Equipment” and “Health of Modernization Programs,” but “weak” for “Capability of Equipment.” These assessments are the same as those in the 2021 Index. New F-35 and KC-46 aircraft continue to roll off their respective production lines, but these additions are more than offset by aircraft retirements. As a consequence, this score will probably not improve over the next three to five years.

Readiness Score: Weak

The Air Force scores “weak” for readiness in the 2022 Index, one grade lower than it received in the 2021 Index. The USAF’s sustained pilot deficit and the impact of COVID-19 on already low sortie rates and flying hours certainly contribute to this assessment. The Air Force’s mission-capable rates improved slightly in 2020, but the lack of a systemic effort to increase operational training reflects a service that is content with being ready to respond to a regional contingency rather than building the readiness levels required to meet the 2018 NDS.81

The Air Force should be prepared to respond quickly to an emergent crisis not with a “task force” of four bombers, but with the speed and capacity required to stop a peer competitor in its tracks. With the significant curtailment of deployments in support of the global war on terrorism, the Air Force should be much farther along in its full-spectrum readiness than we have witnessed to date.

Overall U.S. Air Force Score: Weak

This is an unweighted average of the USAF’s capacity score of “marginal,” capability score of “marginal,” and readiness score of “weak.” The shortage of pilots and flying time for those pilots degrades the ability of the Air Force to generate the quality of combat air power that would be needed to meet wartime requirements. Fighter pilots should receive an average of three or more sorties a week and 200 hours per year to develop the skill sets needed to survive in combat, and while the service cannot be blamed for the effects of COVID-19 on readiness, it elected not to surge to acquire more aircraft or significantly increase training/sortie production in the window of robust funding.

Although it would likely win a single MRC in any theater, there is little doubt the Air Force would struggle in war with a peer competitor. Both the time required to win such a conflict and the attendant rates of attrition would be much higher than they would be if the service had moved aggressively to increase high-end training and acquire the fifth-generation weapon systems required to dominate such a fight.




  1. S. 1790, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, Public Law 116-92, 116th Cong., December 20, 2019, Title IX, Subtitle D, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/1790 (accessed July 5, 2021).
  2. Oriana Pawlyk, “Coronavirus Pandemic Could Mitigate the Air Force’s Pilot Shortage, General Says,” Military.com, April 13, 2020, https://www.military.com/daily-news/2020/04/13/coronavirus-pandemic-could-mitigate-air-forces-pilot-shortage-general-says.html (accessed July 5, 2021).
  3. The Honorable Michael B. Donley, Secretary of the Air Force, and General Mark A. Welsh III, Chief of Staff, United States Air Force, “Fiscal Year 2014 Air Force Posture Statement” before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, April 12, 2013, p. 2, https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/documents/budget/2014-budget-posture-statement.pdf (accessed July 5, 2021).
  4. John Venable, “Independent Capability Assessment of U.S. Air Force Reveals Readiness Level Below Carter Administration Hollow Force,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3208, April 17, 2017, p. 2, https://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2017-04/BG3208.pdf.
  5. James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, U.S. Department of Defense, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  6. U.S. Air Force, “The Air Force We Need: 386 Operational Squadrons,” September 17, 2018, https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1635070/the-air-force-we-need-386-operational-squadrons/ (accessed July 5, 2021).
  7. “The Air Force We Need” calls for one additional airlift squadron and five additional bomber, seven additional fighter, and 14 additional tanker squadrons. While the number of aircraft in any one of those categories varies from unit to unit, there are approximately 30 fighters, 10 bombers, 15 tankers, and 15 strategic airlift aircraft in each squadron. Mathematically, “The Air Force We Need” calls for 182 more fighters, 50 more bombers, 210 more refuelers, and 15 more airlift aircraft than the Air Force currently has in its inventory. Airframe purchases alone would cost approximately $80 billion. That rough estimate is based on the need for 182 more F-35s (seven squadrons, 26 fighters per squadron, $80 million each); 50 more B-21 bombers (five squadrons, 10 bombers per squadron, $564 million each); 210 more KC-46s (14 squadrons, 15 tankers per squadron, $169 million each); and 15 additional C-17s (one squadron, 15 aircraft per squadron, no longer in production but an average of $262 million each in FY 2020 dollars). See, respectively, U.S. Air Force, “The Air Force We Need: 386 Operational Squadrons”; Marcus Weisgerber, “Price Drop: Lockheed Pitches $80M F-35A to Pentagon,” Defense One, May 7, 2019, https://www.defenseone.com/business/2019/05/price-drop-lockheed-pitches-80m-f-35a-pentagon/156825/ (accessed July 5, 2021); Jeremiah Gertler, “Air Force B-21 Raider Long-Range Strike Bomber,” Congressional Research Service Report for Members and Committees of Congress No. R44463, updated November 13, 2019, p. 4, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/R44463.pdf (accessed July 5, 2021); U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 Budget Estimates, Air Force, Justification Book Volume 1 of 2: Aircraft Procurement, Air Force Vol-1, March 2019, p. 25, https://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY20/PROCUREMENT/FY20_PB_3010_Aircraft_Vol-1.pdf?ver=2019-03-18-152821-713 (accessed July 5, 2021); and Fact Sheet, “C-17 Globemaster III,” U.S. Air Force, May 14, 2018, https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/1529726/c-17-globemaster-iii/ (accessed July 5, 2021).
  8. Stephen Losey, “Pilots Are Flying 17 Hours per Month, but It’s Still Not Enough, Air Force Secretary Says,” Air Force Times, March 1, 2018, https://www.airforcetimes.com/news/your-air-force/2018/03/01/secaf-air-force-pilots-are-flying-17-hours-per-month-but-its-still-not-enough/ (accessed July 5, 2021).
  9. Author’s conversation with General Goldfein and Secretary Heather Wilson at Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference, National Harbor, Maryland, September 17, 2018.
  10. Extracted from U.S. Air Force budget summaries for the years 2017 through 2021. For example: Table 1, “Air Force Budget Highlights Summary,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, United States Air Force Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Overview, May 2017, p. 15, http://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=m3vZOmfR368%3d&portalid=84 (accessed July 5, 2021), and Table 1, “Department of the Air Force Budget Summary,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2021 Budget Overview, p. 2, https://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY21/SUPPORT_/FY21%20Budget%20Overview_1.pdf?ver=2020-02-10-152806-743 (accessed July 5, 2021).
  11. These numbers are estimates based on the requirements presented by the Air Force within the President’s budget for FY 2022. For consistency, the calculations include procurement and RDT&E figures for the Space Force, as they were not separated in all previous fiscal years’ budgets.
  12. Technological advances in aircraft materials and structure greatly extended the service life of USAF equipment. As a result, the service could maintain force structure while buying fewer aircraft.” See Colonel James C. Ruehrmund Jr. and Christopher J. Bowie, Arsenal of Airpower: USAF Aircraft Inventory 1950–2016, Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, February 2018, p. 6, https://03236830-405f-4141-9f5c-3491199c4d86.filesusr.com/ugd/a2dd91_5ddbf04fd26e4f72aef6cfd5ee87913f.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  13. Appendix, “Department of the Air Force Total Aircraft Inventory (TAI),” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2022 Budget Overview, p. 50, https://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY22/SUPPORT_/FY22%20Budget%20Overview%20Book.pdf?ver=SMbMqD0tqIJNwq2Z0Q4yzA%3d%3d (accessed July 7, 2021).
  14. In the words of Lieutenant General Mark Kelly, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Headquarters U.S. Air Force: “At the end of the day, if a peer fight kicks up, we’re going to have no time and all the money.” Abraham Mahshie, “‘Every Day Is a Shell Game’: Air Force Budget Prioritizes Technology over Warfighting, General Says,” Washington Examiner, February 13, 2020, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/defense-national-security/every-day-is-a-shell-game-air-force-budget-prioritizes-technology-over-warfighting-general-says (accessed July 7, 2021).
  15. Author’s conversation with Lockheed Martin Representative who estimated that it would take two years of herculean efforts and funding to reduce the F-35A production timeline (funding to employable fighter) from two-to-three years to one-to-two years. This is driven primarily by “sole source” parts that are produced in other countries where unions and labor laws severely constrain increases in production. “Sole-source” parts are parts made in only one location. That means the fighters that are on the flightline when the next war kicks off are the ones the U.S. will have for the first year of the war in addition to a very limited number of attrition replacements that come off what is already in the production line.
  16. The numbers of total aircraft inventory (TAI) and combat-coded aircraft for the active-duty Air Force were derived through review of U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2022 Budget Overview, and International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2021: The Annual Assessment of Global Military Capabilities and Defence Economics (London: Routledge, 2021), pp. 56–59. Where the two publications were in conflict for TAI, the SAF/FMB numbers were generally adopted. Neither document specifies the number of active-duty combat-coded aircraft. That number was derived by tallying the total number of fighters by type and dividing that number by the total number of active-duty squadrons flying those types of aircraft. The numbers and types of aircraft associated with Weapons Instructor Course Squadrons, Adversary Tactics, Test, OT&E, and other units are not standard/determinable and could not be assessed. The associated error is minimized by totaling all like fighter aircraft (F-16, F-15C, etc.); dividing them by the total number of squadrons flying those aircraft; and spreading the error equally across all combat-coded fighter and training units. The total number of fighters associated with non–Fighter Training Unit (FTU) squadrons was counted as combat-coded.
  17. John Venable, “Rebuilding America’s Military: The United States Air Force,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 225, March 26, 2020, pp. 42–43, https://www.heritage.org/defense/report/rebuilding-americas-military-the-united-states-air-force.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Theresa Hitchens, “AMC Approves ‘Limited’ KC-46 Tanker Refueling,” Breaking Defense, February 24, 2021, https://breakingdefense.com/2021/02/amc-approves-limited-kc-46-tanker-refueling/ (accessed July 7, 2021).
  20. Table, “Aircraft Total Active Inventory (TAI) (As of Sept. 30, 2020),” in “Air Force & Space Force Almanac 2021,” Air Force Magazine, Vol. 104, No. 6 (July 2021), p. 73, https://www.airforcemag.com/app/uploads/2021/06/Almanac2021_Fullissue-1.pdf (accessed July 19, 2021)). Thirteen months were added because of the difference between the aircraft data capture dates for the 2021 USAF Almanac and publication of this edition of the Index.
  21. Ibid. Thirteen months were added because of the difference between the aircraft data capture dates for the 2020 USAF Almanac and publication of this edition of the Index.
  22. Ibid. Thirteen months were added because of the difference between the aircraft data capture dates for the 2020 USAF Almanac and publication of this edition of the Index.
  23. Micah Garbarino, “F-16 Service Life Extension Program a ‘Great Deal’ for Department of Defense, Taxpayers,” Air Force Materiel Command, May 3, 2018, http://www.afmc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1512449/f-16-service-life-extension-program-a-great-deal-for-department-of-defense-taxp/ (accessed July 7, 2021).
  24. Appendix, “Department of the Air Force Total Aircraft Inventory (TAI),” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2022 Budget Overview, p. 50.
  25. Table, “Aircraft Total Active Inventory (TAI) (As of Sept. 30, 2020),” in “Air Force & Space Force Almanac 2021,” p. 73. Thirteen months were added because of the difference between the aircraft data capture dates for the 2021 USAF Almanac and publication of this edition of the Index.
  26. Rachel S. Cohen, “Budget Elicits Confusion over Fate of U-2,” Air Force Magazine, February 11, 2020, https://www.airforcemag.com/budget-elicits-confusion-over-fate-of-u2/ (accessed July 7, 2021).
  27. John A. Tirpak, “Air Force Asks to Retire 201 Aircraft in 2022 and Will Buy 91 New Ones,” Air Force Magazine, May 28, 2021, https://www.airforcemag.com/air-force-fiscal-2022-retire-buy/ (accessed July 7, 2021).
  28. Originally known as the Airborne Battle Management System.
  29. Headquarters U.S. Air Force, A8XC/A5RW, written response to Heritage Foundation request for information on Air Force PGM expenditures and programmed replenishments, June 10, 2018.
  30. Appendix, “Department of the Air Force Total Aircraft Inventory (TAI),” U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2022 Budget Overview, p. 50.
  31. Jeremiah Gertler, “Air Force F-22 Fighter Program,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress No. RL31673, July 11, 2013, p. 7, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL31673.pdf (accessed August 5, 2020), and Rebecca Grant and Loren Thompson, “Losing Air Dominance? The Air Force and Its Future Roles,” presentation at Air Force Association Air & Space Conference, Washington, D.C., September 16, 2008, p. 3, https://secure.afa.org/Mitchell/presentations/091608LosingAirDominance_tnx.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  32. James Drew, “F-22 Raptor Retrofit to Take Longer, but Availability Hits 63%,” FlightGlobal, July 6, 2015, http://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/f-22-raptor-retrofit-to-take-longer-but-availability-hits-414341/ (accessed July 7, 2021).
  33. Alex R. Lloyd, “F-22 Raptor Gets Major Upgrades,” Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, corrected January 28, 2021, https://www.wpafb.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2484112/f-22-raptor-gets-major-upgrades/ (accessed July 7, 2021).
  34. Kris Osborn, “Air Force: F-35 3F Software Drop Challenges Resolved,” Defense Systems, May 17, 2017, https://defensesystems.com/articles/2017/05/17/f35.aspx (accessed July 7, 2021).
  35. See Col. Michael W. Pietrucha, “The Comanche and the Albatross: About Our Neck Was Hung,” Air & Space Power Journal, Vol. 28, No. 3 (May–June 2014), pp. 133–156, https://www.airuniversity.af.mil/Portals/10/ASPJ/journals/Volume-28_Issue-3/F-Pietrucha.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  36. Venable, “Independent Capability Assessment of U.S. Air Force Reveals Readiness Level Below Carter Administration Hollow Force,” p. 2, and Dave Majumdar, “Can the F-35 Win a Dogfight?” War Is Boring, December 17, 2013, https://warisboring.com/can-the-f-35-win-a-dogfight/ (accessed July 7, 2021).
  37. Headquarters U.S. Air Force, A8XC/A5RW, written response to Heritage Foundation request for information on Air Force PGM expenditures and programmed replenishments, July 10, 2019.
  38. Lieutenant General Arnold W. Bunch, Jr., Military Deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition); Lieutenant General Jerry D. Harris, Deputy Chief of Staff (Strategic Plans and Requirements); and Major General Scott A. Vander Hamm, Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff (Operations), statement on “Air Force Bomber/Tanker/Airlift Acquisition Programs” before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, May 25, 2017, p. 10, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20170525/106013/HHRG-115-AS28-Wstate-BunchA-20170525.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  39. Ibid., p. 4, and Lieutenant General James M. “Mike” Holmes, Deputy Chief of Staff (Strategic Plans and Requirements), and Lieutenant General Arnold W. Bunch, Jr., Military Deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition), statement on “Air Force Bomber/Tanker/Airlift Acquisition Programs” before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, March 1, 2016, p. 4, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS28/20160301/104353/HHRG-114-AS28-Wstate-BunchA-20160301.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  40. Small group discussion with the Honorable Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force, February 9, 2018.
  41. Holmes and Bunch, statement on “Air Force Bomber/Tanker/Airlift Acquisition Programs,” March 1, 2016, pp. 2–3.
  42. The B-1 fleet will be reduced from 61 to 44 through programmed retirements in the FY 2021 budget. See Appendix, “Department of the Air Force Total Aircraft Inventory (TAI),” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2021 Budget Overview, p. 42.
  43. Cal Biesecker, “Canceled Defensive System for B-2 Suffered from Coding Challenges, Roper Says,” Defense Daily, February 28, 2020, https://www.defensedaily.com/canceled-defensive-system-b-2-suffered-coding-challenges-roper-says/budget/ (accessed July 7, 2021).
  44. Valarie Insinna, “The Air Force Is Massively Scaling Back a Major Upgrade for the B-2 Stealth Bomber,” Defense News, February 12, 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/federal-budget/2020/02/12/the-air-force-is-massively-scaling-back-a-major-upgrade-for-the-b-2-stealth-bomber/ (accessed July 7, 2021).
  45. Edwin Castro, “USAF B-52 Gets a Series of Huge Upgrades, New Weapon, Radar and More,” Blasting News, updated September 16, 2019, https://us.blastingnews.com/world/2019/09/usaf-b-52-gets-a-series-of-huge-upgrades-new-weapon-radar-and-more-002982887.html (accessed July 7, 2021).
  46. Dave Majumdar, “Why the Air Force Won’t Buy the F-15X or ‘New’ F-22 Raptor,” RealClearDefense, September 18, 2018, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/09/18/why_the_air_force_wont_buy_the_f-15x_or_new_f-22_raptor_113808.html (accessed July 7, 2021).
  47. The baseline F-15EX will cost $87.7 million to acquire, and that cost does not include the operational equipment it needs to employ in a low-threat to medium-threat environment. That excluded equipment includes the $12.5 million electronic countermeasures package (Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability system or EPAWSS) and the $900,000 targeting pod. Every F-15EX will cost a total of $100.2 million to acquire, while the FY 2022 cost of the F-35A is $77.9 million. Sustainment costs are measured in cost per flying hour (CPFH). The estimated CPFH for the F-15EX is $27,000 and is based on more than 30 years of flying the F-15E, but that cost does not include EPAWS or targeting pod maintenance. The F-35A’s CPFH was $30,137 in 2018 and includes all operational systems (internal targeting pod and ECM); that price is still falling and is projected to be below $27,000 by 2025. See notes for Exhibit P-40, “Budget Line Item Justification: PB 2021 Air Force,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 Budget Estimates, Air Force, Justification Book Volume 1 of 2, Aircraft Procurement, Air Force, Vol-1, February 2020, p. 1-2, https://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY21/PROCUREMENT_/FY21%20Air%20Force%20Aircraft%20Procurement%20Vol%20I_1.pdf?ver=2020-02-10-145310-973 (accessed July 7, 2021); Courtney Albon, “EPAWSS Cost Estimate Grows by $2 Billion as USAF Moves to Buy 144 Systems for F-15EX,” Inside Defense, July 2, 2020, https://insidedefense.com/daily-news/epawss-cost-estimate-grows-2-billion-usaf-moves-buy-144-systems-f-15ex (accessed July 7, 2021); and Joe Gould, “US Air Force Defends F-15X Buy to Skeptical Inhofe, Reed,” Defense News, April 4, 2019, https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2019/04/04/usaf-defends-f-15x-buy-to-skeptical-inhofe-reed/ (accessed July 7, 2021). Lockheed also won an $8.9 million contract to provide 10 Sniper targeting pods to the Royal Jordanian Air Force by the end of 2016. GlobalSecurity.org, “AN/AAQ-33 Sniper XR / ATP–Advanced Targeting Pod, Advanced Targeting Pod-Sensor Enhancement ATP-SE,” https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/munitions/atp.htm (accessed July 7, 2021).
  48. Aaron Mehta, “Mattis Orders Fighter Jet Readiness to Jump to 80 Percent—in One Year,” Defense News, October 9, 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/air/2018/10/09/mattis-orders-fighter-jet-readiness-to-jump-to-80-percent-in-one-year/ (accessed July 7, 2021).
  49. Brian W. Everstine, “Breaking down USAF’s 70-Percent Overall Mission Capable Rate,” Air Force Magazine, May 19, 2020, https://www.airforcemag.com/breaking-down-usafs-70-percent-overall-mission-capable-rate/ (accessed July 7, 2021).
  50. Kyle Mizokami, “Why the U.S. Just Deployed B-52s to the Middle East,” Popular Mechanics, May 8, 2019, https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/aviation/a27409504/b-52-middle-east/ (accessed July 7, 2021).
  51. The Honorable Dr. Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force, and General David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff, United States Air Force, “USAF Posture Statement, Fiscal Year 2020,” Department of the Air Force Presentation to the Committees and Subcommittees of the United States Senate and the House of Representatives, 1st Session, 116th Congress, p. 4, https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/images/posturestatement/FY20_POSTURE_STATEMENT_OMB_Cleared_12MAR_1310L.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  52. The Honorable Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force, and General David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff, United States Air Force, “United States Air Force Posture Statement, Fiscal Year 2021,” United States Air Force Presentation to the Armed Services Committee of the United States Senate, 2nd Session, 116th Congress, p. 7, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Barrett--Goldfein_03-03-20.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  53. The Honorable John P. Roth, Acting Secretary of the Air Force; General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Chief of Staff, United States Air Force; and General John W. Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, United States Space Force, “Department of the Air Force Posture Statement, Fiscal Year 2022,” Department of the Air Force Presentation to the Committees and Subcommittees of the United States Senate and the House of Representatives, 1st Sess., 117th Congress, p. 12, https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/documents/2021SAF/05_May/FY22_DAF_Posture_Statement.pdf (accessed July 7 2021).
  54. The Honorable Heather A. Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force, and General David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, statement on “Air Force Budget Posture” before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, June 6, 2017, p. 3, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Wilson-Goldfein_06-06-17.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  55. Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, written response to Heritage Foundation request for information on Air Force manning levels, May 14, 2021.
  56. See Dyess Air Force Base, “7th Operations Group,” https://www.dyess.af.mil/Units/7th-Bomb-Wing/7th-Operations-Group/ (assessed July 7, 2021).
  57. Lieutenant General Gina M. Grosso, Deputy Chief of Staff, Manpower, Personnel and Services, United States Air Force, statement on “Military Pilot Shortage” before the Subcommittee on Personnel, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, March 29, 2017, p. 2, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/AS/AS02/20170329/105795/HHRG-115-AS02-Wstate-GrossoG-20170329.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  58. Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, written response to Heritage Foundation request for information on Air Force manning levels, May 14, 2021.
  59. Data provided by Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, written response to Heritage Foundation request for undergraduate pilot “graduation rates” for each of the respective years, July 24, 2020. The numbers reported were actually the percent of production goals the Air Force had established for each of those respective years. As an example, in 2016, the Air Force produced 96 percent of its pilot production goal for that year.
  60. Colonel Randy Oakland, Air Education and Training Command, 19th Air Force/A3, written response to Heritage Foundation request for information on Air Force pilot graduation rates, July 27, 2021.
  61. Venable, “Independent Capability Assessment of U.S. Air Force Reveals Readiness Level Below Carter Administration Hollow Force,” p. 4.
  62. James C. Slife, Creech Blue: Gen Bill Creech and the Reformation of the Tactical Air Forces, 1978–1984 (Maxwell Air Force Base: Air University Press, October 2004), p. 92, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/AUPress/Books/B_0095_SLIFE_CREECH_BLUE.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  63. John Venable, “A Plan for Keeping the U.S. Air Force’s Best Pilots in Service,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, November 14, 2017, https://www.heritage.org/defense/commentary/plan-keeping-the-us-air-forces-best-pilots-service.
  64. Telephone conversation with senior Air Force leader, April 24, 2020.
  65. Slife, Creech Blue, pp. 92–95.
  66. U.S. General Accounting Office, Air Force Maintenance: Two Level Maintenance Program Assessment, GAO/NSAID-96-86, March 1996, p. 1, https://www.gao.gov/assets/230/222350.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  67. Averages for sorties and hours are based on weighted fighter manning levels for each of the five major weapons systems provided in Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, written response to Heritage Foundation request for information on Air Force manning levels, July 24, 2020. The numbers were weighted based on aircraft numbers as explained in note 16, supra, as well as standard aircrew ratios established in Figure A8.1, “Air Force Single Flying Hour Model F-16C Example,” in U.S. Air Force, “Flying Operations: Flying Hour Program Management,” Air Force Instruction 11-102, August 30, 2011, p. 17.
  68. Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, written response to Heritage Foundation request for information on Air Force sortie rates, July 25, 2020.
  69. Venable, “Independent Capability Assessment of U.S. Air Force Reveals Readiness Level Below Carter Administration Hollow Force,” p. 4.
  70. Ibid.
  71. Table 2, “Department of the Air Force Budget Summary,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2022 Budget Overview, p. 12.
  72. Author’s experience through 26 years of Air Force operations, coupled with senior leader engagements from 2018–2019.
  73. Albert A. Robbert, Anthony D. Rosello, Clarence R. Anderegg, John A. Ausink, James H. Bigelow, William W. Taylor, and James Pita, Reducing Air Force Fighter Pilot Shortages (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015), p. 33, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1100/RR1113/RAND_RR1113.pdf (accessed July 7, 2021).
  74. Even though active-duty fighter squadrons have an average of 30 aircraft per squadron, that number includes maintenance, spare, and attrition reserve platforms. Manning is based on Primary Assigned Aircraft (PAA), which is 24 aircraft for active-duty fighter squadrons.
  75. Based on a squadron with 24 Primary Assigned Aircraft. For units with 18 PAA, four additional pilots are required.
  76. The very premise of these units is that they are manned with citizen soldiers whose main source of income is full-time civilian jobs and who are committed to travel and temporary duty locations that make them unavailable for days or weeks at a time. Those units would likely require several days to assemble the manpower required to deploy, and once an assessment of their real mission currency was made, they would need some period of intense training before a responsible senior leader could employ them in a fight with a peer competitor.
  77. “Deployments most suited to the ARC are those in which there is long lead time (six months or more), and in which the operation is of short duration (six days or less), requiring a small force package (12 aircraft or less), and in which the scheduling is flexible.” John T. Correll, “Future Total Force,” Air Force Magazine, Vol. 82, No. 7 (July 1999), p. 32, https://www.airforcemag.com/PDF/MagazineArchive/Documents/1999/July%201999/0799total.pdf (accessed July 5, 2021).
  78. The author commanded the 349th Expeditionary Combat Group at Al Udeid, Qatar, from 2004–2005. During that time, he flew with seven different Air National Guard F-16 squadrons. Every one of those units had some level of rainbow manning, and each performed admirably.
  79. Interview with senior Air National Guard leader, November 20, 2019.
  80. The number of fighters needed for a two-MRC strategy is based on a Heritage Foundation study of airpower requirements and actual fighter deployments for all major combat operations and conflicts from 1950 through 2021.
  81. See Venable, “Independent Capability Assessment of U.S. Air Force Reveals Readiness Level Below Carter Administration Hollow Force.”

U.S. Air Force Modernization Table Citations

General Sources

Program Sources

B-2 Spirit:

B-1B Lancer:

A-10 Thunderbolt II:


F-16 Falcon:


F-15EX Strike Eagle:

KC-46 Pegasus:


MQ-9 Reaper: