U.S. Air Force

An Assessment of U.S. Military Power

U.S. Air Force

Oct 18, 2022 Over an hour read

U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs fire flares while breaking away after aerial refueling from a KC-135 Stratotanker out of Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, August 15, 2019. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Keifer Bowes

John Venable

The mission of the U.S. Air Force has expanded significantly since 1947 when the USAF became a separate service. 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 capabilities 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). With the birth of the Space Force in December 2019,1 the Air Force began to move its space and space-related personnel assets to the new service. The impact of that change, coupled with the lingering effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic that were highlighted in the 2022 Index of Military Strength, continue to hamper the trajectory of the Air Force.

The creation of the Space Force affected three Air Force 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 has reduced the service’s inherent capabilities, they remain within the Department of the Air Force (DAF) and should allow the Air Force to focus the weight of its efforts on 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 2022 should have found the Air Force all but fully recovered from the effects of COVID-19. Readiness levels as measured by operational sortie rates and flying hours should have been well above the historic lows reached during the pandemic; instead, they have grown only marginally. The service’s ability (or willingness) to fund and then generate sorties and flying hours for training has now spiraled well below the hollow-force days of the Carter Administration with equally dismal readiness levels. Training pipeline capacity for basic military training, officer accessions, and pilot training are back up to pre-pandemic levels, but a vibrant job market and steadily increasing civilian wages have stymied recruiting, and while the Air Force met its recruiting goals in 2021, it will struggle to meet accession requirements for fiscal year (FY) 2022.2 Moreover, in spite of more than 30 years of reductions in force size that left the Air Force 25 percent below the capacity level required for a fight with a peer competitor,3 the service has conveyed its intentions to reduce the fighter force by almost 20 percent over the next five years.4

On its face, that might not seem to be particularly worrisome, but the force structure required for a fight with China would significantly exceed the demands of a single major regional contingency (MRC). It would also require capability and readiness levels that significantly exceed what the Air Force possesses as it enters FY 2023. The Air Force did not have the funding required to increase capacity or develop any one of those critical areas, and it continues to defer their development under the overused mantra of “taking more risk.” Understanding the depth of the hole this service is in begins with a bit of history.


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.5 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 prevail in a major regional contingency (MRC) against a near-peer threat.

The Air Force was forced to make strategic trades in capacity, capability, 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.6

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.7 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,8 which equates to an additional 182 fighter, 50 bomber, 210 air refueling, and 15 airlift platforms.9 During the same period, the service’s most senior leaders emphasized the need for more time in the air for aircrews. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, for example, “noted that even when air crews go abroad and fly combat missions, such as those against violent extremists such as the Islamic State, they’re not practicing skills that would be required for a high-end fight against an advanced adversary such as Russia.”10 Taken together, all of these demands required a bigger budget.

In a series of speeches in 2018, Secretary 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.11 To meet that requirement, the Trump Administration increased DAF funding by 31 percent from 2017 to 2021.12

Considering the shortfall in aircraft, one might assume that the Air Force increased its procurement budget and accelerated acquisition of fifth-generation offensive platforms (F-35A) and next-generation tanker aircraft (KC-46A) during that period by a substantial margin. However, funding for aircraft procurement remained relatively flat, growing from $22.4 billion in 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. While the President’s budget for FY 2023 increased procurement to $29.3 billion,13 it had not been approved as this edition of the Index was being prepared. If it is not approved, the service will be forced to operate on continuing resolutions. Moreover, even if the budget is fully funded, the impact of inflation has meant that procurement has been flat from FY 2017 to FY 2023, even as the service’s budget has grown by 21 percent over the same period.

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 $49.2 billion in FY 2023. It now exceeds procurement by almost 70 percent.14 In spite of TAFWN’s finding that the Air Force was 25 percent too small for its mission sets, the Air Force announced last year that it would retire 421 F-22, F-15C, F-16C, and A-10 fighters by the end of FY 2026 while acquiring just 304.15 However, earlier this year, it was revealed that the Air Force plans to cut 1,468 aircraft from its fleet over the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) and that this will include the accelerated retirement of 646 fighters and procurement of just 246 over that period.16 If enacted, this would equate to a net reduction of 19 percent of the total fighter fleet.


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 and Air Force 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 2022, the Air Force will have a total aircraft inventory (TAI) of 2,099 fighters, 140 bombers, 483 tankers, and 274 strategic airlift platforms. With the rollout of the President’s budget for FY 2023, the service announced its plan to reduce 167 total fighters from its inventory, reducing its TAI to 1,932 fighters, 140 bombers, 483 tankers, and 274 strategic airlift aircraft by the end of FY 2023.17 At that point, the Air Force will have a total force that equates to 43 percent of the fighter, 42 percent of the bomber, 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,18 but even if Congress were to throw an unlimited amount of funding at production lines, it would take from two to three years for those additional assets to arrive.19

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. Even if those jets were 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 5,564 manned and unmanned aircraft projected to be in the USAF’s inventory at the end of FY 2022, 1,487 are active-duty fighters, and 940 of those are combat-coded aircraft.20 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, other factors 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.21 That effectively reduces the total number of active-duty, combat-coded fighters to 626 jets.

The strategic reserve has 661 fighters, 519 of which 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.22 In terms of capacity, this means that 626 active-duty and 259 strategic reserve fighters, for a total of 885 combat-coded fighters, could be deployed into combat, leaving virtually nothing in reserve. However, recent squadron deployments in response to a request from the Commander of U.S. European Command following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were fulfilled with 12 jets—packages that were referred to as “squadrons.” This may have reflected the “lead force package” (LFP) concept within the 2020 Air Force posture statement: “More than 90% of our pacing squadrons are ready to ‘fight tonight’ with their lead force packages—the first Airmen to deploy at the beginning of a conflict.”23 However, it is more likely a combination of LFPs and severe readiness challenges within the fighter force.

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 6,473 munitions in FY 2023.

However, even though the munitions stockpile may have returned to a level that is capable of supporting a surge in expenditures associated with a conflict similar to the global war on terrorism—loosely encompassing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq—it probably would not support a peer-level fight that lasted 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 7.)

Advances in the jamming of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) like GPS have been significant over the past 20 years, and the number, types, and effectiveness of jammers are growing.24 In the days leading up to its invasion of Ukraine and throughout its combat operations, Russia has used its systems to jam signals in the region to hamper the employment of Ukrainian and Allied GNSS guided weapons systems against its troops and equipment, and the areas covered by the effects of those systems can be considerable.25 The employment of such systems in a war with a peer adversary could significantly diminish the accuracy of weapons like JDAMs and SDBs that rely on reliable GPS guidance to hit their targets.


Although there has been significant research toward making munitions less susceptible to the effects of GPS jammers, there is little evidence that such munitions would retain their accuracy during a full-up conflict with a peer adversary. Attacking targets in that environment using GPS guidance alone might require many more munitions and sorties than would otherwise be necessary, and this probably would deplete the inventory of GPS guided munitions much faster and with markedly less effect than is likely accounted for in current war plans.

The only weapons in the U.S. inventory that can fully counter GPS/electronic jammers and reliably hit their targets are those that can track physical targets with laser, optical, or infrared seeker heads. The Air Force has not acquired PaveWay or Maverick missiles for several years, and most GPS guided munitions do not have seeker heads or a secondary capability to track and guide on a target in a degraded GPS environment.

To cover this gap, the Air Force has added a laser guidance capability to its already effective GBU-53 smaller diameter bomb (SDB I). Known as the SDB II, the weapon “uses Link 16 and ultra-high frequency datalinks, along with infrared guidance, to provide course corrections” and hit “both fixed and moving targets.”26 Funding in the FY 2023 budget will also support the acquisition of 4,200 JDAM guidance kits with laser sensors that will give this munition a seeker to acquire/track targets.27 Unfortunately, the service has not yet acquired the SDB II or the advanced JDAM guidance kits in numbers required for conflict with a peer competitor.


The risk assumed in 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 both the incorporation of advanced technologies and 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 29.4 years, and in some fleets, such as the B-52 bomber, the average is more than 60 years. In addition, KC-135s comprise 75 percent of the Air Force’s 483 tankers and are more than 61 years old on average. By the end of FY 2023, 95 brand-new KC-46s will make up 20 percent of the tanker inventory, but they will not be capable of refueling aircraft during combat operations—the jet’s primary mission—until FY 2024.28 By that time, the Air Force will have taken possession of some 103 KC-46s. The Air Force estimates that the fix for problems in the KC-46’s refueling boom and remote vision system (RVS) should be ready by the spring of 2024. Assuming the boom and RVS redesign goes as planned, retrofitting jets that the service has already accepted will take several years, and the operational impact of that process will be significant: 103 strategic air refueling assets will be unusable in real-world operations in 2024. That number will grow to 110 jets in 2025, equating to 23 percent of the fleet that will be unable to fulfill operational taskings reliably.29

The average age of the F-15C fleet is 37.8 years,30 significantly exceeding the programmed service life of a fleet that comprises more than half of USAF air superiority platforms.31 The planes in the F-16C and F-16D fleets are 31 and 31.9 years old, respectively, on average.32 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 fly through 2050.33 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 8.)


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 divest 100 MQ-9 Block-1 aircraft and accept delivery of 12 MQ-9 Block-5s in FY 2023 for a total of 276 Reapers.34 The service divested the last of its fleet of EQ-4s and Block 30 RQ-4s in FY 2021 and FY 2022, respectively. The RQ-4 Block 40 fleet remains in service, and the RQ-4 Block 30 mission will be carried on by the 40-year-old U-2,35 which is scheduled to be divested by the end of the current FYDP.36

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 43 years ago. The Air Force will divest eight of its remaining E-8s in FY 2023, leaving it with just three operational platforms.37

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), 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 both to fight and to support joint and coalition partners in high-end engagements.38

With respect to air combat, the Air Force will retire 67 more F-15C/Ds in FY 2023, leaving just 119 in its inventory.39 Concerns about what platform will fill this role when the F-15C is retired are fully justified. Just 186 of 750 planned F-22A stealth air superiority fighters were acquired to replace the F-15C,40 and the service has announced its intent to retire 33 Block 20 F-22s in FY 2023. If those jets are retired,41 the fleet will be reduced to just 153 jets.42

The service’s already low ability to fulfill operational requirements for air superiority fighters will be further strained by a 10-year program, intended to refurbish the low-observable coatings on the F-22’s engine inlets and inspect and overhaul the aircraft’s flight control system, that will run through 2031.43 That program, coupled with the F-22’s low mission capability rate, will significantly hobble the availability of this system in a fight with a peer competitor.

The Air Force’s number-one acquisition priority remains the F-35A, the next-generation fighter that is scheduled to replace all legacy multirole and close air support aircraft. The jet’s full operating capability (FOC) was delivered in early 2018.44 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.45 In spite of the jet’s dominant performance in the air, relatively high mission-capable rates, and acquisition and sustainment costs that are at or below those for the F-15EX,46 the Air Force has reduced the number of F-35As that it will acquire to just 33 jets in FY 2023 and 29 in FY 2024.47

In terms of funding, the second 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 $639 million per plane in FY 2019 dollars.48

With the budget agreement 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.49 The B-21 Raider and B-52s “will form a two-bomber fleet that will incrementally replace the aging fleet of B-1 Lancer and the B-2 Spirit bombers,” and the B-21 is “slated to hit full operations in the mid-2020s.”50 The Air Force retired 17 B-1s in 2021 and continues to execute a SLEP on the remaining fleet of 44 to restore the bomber’s engines to their original specifications. 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.51 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-21.52

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 2050.53

Acquisition of the KC-46A air refueling tanker is another critical enabler for the service. As previously noted, 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 95 KC-46s by the end of FY 202354 and will acquire another 84 tankers for a total of 179 by the end of FY 2029. The KC-46 will replace less than half of the current tanker fleet and will leave the Air Force with more than 200 aging KC-135s (already averaging 61 years old) that still need to be recapitalized.55

When the Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF) and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) rolled out “The Air Force We Need” in 2018 to expand the number of squadrons from 312 to 386, one of their goals 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.56 Curiously, the Air Force is now acquiring the fourth-generation F-15EX, based primarily on the ill-conceived notion that it will be cheaper to acquire and operate than the F-35A.57 The FY 2023 budget funds 24 F-15EXs and signals an intent to cap the purchase at just 80 jets. With the latest cuts in the fighter force, the service has reversed course on its stated intent to use them to replace Air National Guard F-15Cs; instead, approximately half of the F-15EX fleet will be fielded in active-duty units. Although the service will offset some of its fighter fleet retirements with this new hardware, the F-15EX is a step backwards and will not be survivable in anything more than low-threat environments by the time this weapons system reaches initial operating capability (IOC).


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 2019.58 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 the statistic 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 a portion of any fleet was within a short period of time59 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 2019.60 The bombers, from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, had two days from notification to deployment, and while the ability to 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 taking on a peer adversary.

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.”61 A short time later, however, the service abandoned even the illusion that it was working to achieve that goal.

The FY 2022 Air Force posture statement offered no more clarity or assurances of readiness; instead, it moved to change the paradigm of readiness into a three-phase force-generation model designed to “articulate readiness impacts and capacity limits.”62 In FY 2023, it morphed again into what is now known as the Air Force Generation (AFFORGEN), dividing the deployable combat Air Force into four six-month phases of readiness known as “Ready, Available to Commit, Reset, and Prepare.” In theory, the model “builds high-end and sustainable readiness toward future missions by balancing elements of current availability, modernization and risk,”63 but from the outset, it represents little more than an attempt to change the dialog surrounding what are perhaps the lowest levels of readiness in Air Force history.


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.”64 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. Multiplying MC rates by the actual number of aircraft within a particular fleet yields the physical operational capacity of a weapons system. Several factors drive MC rates. The two most common to mature systems are operations and maintenance (O&M) funding and qualified manning to generate, fix, and fly those jets. Collectively, they dictate the number of sorties and flight hours that units have available for aircrew training.

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. Conversely, 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, which leaves just 142 operational jets. In 2021, the F-22A had an MC rate of 51 percent, which means that just 72 F-22As could be committed to combat at any given time.65 Although the F-22A is an incredibly capable fighter and 72 F-22s would be a formidable capability against a regional threat, that number would be grossly insufficient for a peer fight.


Similarly, there are 33 operational B-1s in the Lancer fleet.66 With an MC rate of 41 percent in FY 2021 (down from 52 percent in FY 2020), 13 are available for combat at any given time during the year. The B-2 fleet’s small size and 59 percent MC rate mean that, on average, just 12 are combat capable. If the B-52’s 58-plane operational fleet and 59 percent mission-capable rate are added, a total of 63 Air Force bombers were capable of executing combat missions on any given day in 2021.67 For a summary of the mission-capable rates for combat-coded (operational) aircraft of the five fighter weapons systems, see Table 10.


Maintenance manning remains healthy across the board. (See Table 11.) If funding for flying hours and spare parts were robust, MC rates would rise, giving pilots more sorties and the capability to sharpen their combat mission-capable skills. Unfortunately, funding for flying hours has increased marginally in the years immediately following sequestration, and the number of available sorties falls well short of the minimum number required for pilots to be considered combat mission capable.

Unlike maintenance manning, the pilot shortage continues to plague the service. 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. Of that total, the Air Force was short 1,211 fighter pilots: 873 Active and 338 from the Active Reserve Component (ARC).68 Even with the temporary surge in retention caused by COVID-19, the Total Force shortfall is 1,650: 650 Active and 1,000 ARC.69

The Air Force graduated 1,200 pilots in FY 2018, 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. Another 1,381 graduated in FY 2021, and the Air Force estimated that the number would be similar for FY 2022.

Those projected numbers rely on a very high annual graduation rate of approximately 94 percent of the candidates that enter flight school during any given year. According to the Air Force, the graduation rates for the past four years were 98 percent in 2018, 94 percent in 2019, 85 percent in 2020 (COVID-19), and 95.5 percent in 2021. The vast majority of those who washed out from flight school in 2021 were eliminated for health, discipline, or other reasons not specifically related to performance; only 0.27 percent were eliminated based on performance.70

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.71 In the words of General Bill Creech, “Higher sortie rates mean increased proficiency for our combat aircrews,”72 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.73



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 1.4 sorties a week and 131 hours of flying time per year.74 Those numbers increased only marginally in 2021 to 1.5 sorties a week and 133.3 hours of flight time per year, not much above the all-time lows experienced the preceding year. That equates to roughly two-thirds the number of sorties required to meet the minimum sortie threshold to qualify pilots as combat mission capable throughout the Combat Air Force (CAF).

Those numbers are so low in a high-performance fighter that pilot competence levels drop to the point where even excellent pilots begin to question their execution of very basic tasks and where the execution of complex mission tasks can become overwhelming.75 In a speech delivered on September 21, 2022, General Mark Kelly stated that the average fighter pilot received just 6.8 hours of flying time per month for a total of 81.6 hours of flying time in 2021.76 No matter which data point is selected, the numbers reflect an Air Force that would struggle in a fight with a regional competitor and founder in a war with a peer adversary.

The last time that fighter pilots received an average of 150 hours of flying time and more than 2 sorties a week for an entire year was when the service was beginning to recover from sequestration in 2015. In spite of a budget that has increased by more than 75 percent in the years since, the number of flying hours the Air Force funds has remained abysmal. The number of funded flying hours dropped from 1.33 million in FY 2020 to 1.24 million in FY 2021 to 1.15 million in FY 2022,77 and they will fall again in FY 2023 to 1.13 million hours78—a level below which the Air Force was flying the year sequestration took effect.79 Every reduction in funding for hours has been accompanied by a note stating that the hours were budgeted to “the maximum executable level,” but that is, at best, misleading as the only constraint beyond funding is maintenance manning, which has been healthy since 2019. (See Table 9.)

The current generation of fighter pilots, those who have been actively flying for the last seven years, has never experienced a healthy rate of operational flying. It will take several years of flying three or more sorties a week to regain the level of competence required to dominate a peer competitor, but the Air Force is not moving to make that happen. Readiness, as measured by any acceptable means, is incredibly low and it is no surprise that Air Force Chief of Staff, General C. Q. Brown is trying to shift the focus away from readiness or even redefine it using criteria that has yet to released, or perhaps even formulated.80 Either way, the effort will undoubtedly further erode the combat capability of the Air Force, pilot competency, and flying safety.


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 could then be 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.81

Normal, active duty fighter squadron manning levels are based on a ratio of 1.25 aircrew members for every aircraft,82 which means that a unit with 24 assigned aircraft should have 30 line pilots and five supervisor pilots who are combat mission ready.83 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.84 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 Figure 3.) Using the notion that it takes three squadrons to get two active-duty squadrons 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 would 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 needed to meet an emergency deployment.85 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.86 Nevertheless, it was common for Guard units to pull pilots from other units to fulfill manning requirements for “rainbow” fighter squadrons,87 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.88

The average Guard and Reserve fighter squadron has one-third fewer jets than similar active-duty units have. By rainbowing units with similar aircraft, the Guard and Reserve 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. However, 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 aircrews that are “closer” to the minimum Combat Mission Capable sortie requirements to respond somewhat 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 to replace 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 2023 Index looks for 1,200 active-duty, combat-coded fighter aircraft to meet the baseline requirement for two MRCs.89 That number of fighters lines up well with the fighter requirement from the 2018 TAFWN, which the Commander of Air Combat Command recently reaffirmed is the actual capacity requirement for today’s Air Force.90 The bomber, tanker, and strategic air requirements 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 2022 Level: 940 active-duty combat-coded fighters (78 percent) / 55 total force squadrons (88 percent).
  • TAFWN Bomber Squadron—Threshold: 14 combat-coded bomber squadrons / 140 bombers.
  • TAFWN Bomber Squadron—Actual 2022 Level: nine combat-coded bomber squadrons (64 percent) / 111 combat-coded bombers (79 percent).
  • TAFWN Tanker Squadron—Threshold: 54 tanker squadrons / 540 combat-coded tankers.
  • TAFWN Tanker Squadron—Actual 2022 Level: 43 combat-coded tanker squadrons (80 percent) / 454 combat-coded tankers (84 percent).
  • TAFWN Airlift Squadron—Threshold: 54 airlift squadrons / 540 combat-coded airlifters.
  • TAFWN Airlift Squadron—Actual 2022 Level: 48 combat-coded airlift squadrons (89 percent) / 532 combat-coded airlifters (99 percent).

Based on a pure count of combat-coded squadrons and platforms that have achieved 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 they are coupled with the low mission capability rates of those aircraft (see Table 10), 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.” However, 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 2022 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: Very Weak

The Air Force scores “very weak” for readiness in the 2023 Index, a grade lower than it received in the 2022 Index and the lowest of the five-grade scale. The USAF’s sustained pilot deficit certainly contributes to this assessment, but the incredibly low sortie rates and flying hours would prevent any Air Force combat-coded fighter squadron from being able to execute all or even most of its wartime mission. At best, half of the cadre of pilots within the most capable units will be able to execute some of the unit’s wartime missions. The Air Force’s mission-capable rates have increased only slightly from 2021, and the intent of the current CSAF to sustain or further reduce operational training sorties reflects a service that would struggle to respond to a regional contingency much less hold the readiness levels, competence, and confidence levels required to square off against a peer competitor.91 Readiness continues to trend downward.

The FY 2023 Air Force statement mentions the word “ready” just four times, and never in the context of current readiness levels.92 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: Very Weak

This is a result of the lowest of the USAF’s three scores: a capacity score of “marginal,” capability score of “marginal,” and readiness score of “very weak.” Like a three legged stool, success or failure is determined by the weakest leg. 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 some readiness issues can be written off to the effects of COVID-19, the service is making a calculated decision not to acquire more aircraft or fund the accounts required for any significant increase in training and numbers of sorties.

Although there is a chance that it might win a single MRC in any theater, there is little doubt that 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—United States Space Force, https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/1790 (accessed July 4, 2022).

[2] John Vandiver, “Air Force Faces Uphill Climb to Hit Recruiting Targets, General Says During Tour of European Bases,” Stars and Stripes, March 25, 2022, https://www.stripes.com/branches/air_force/2022-03-25/air-force-recruiting-enlisted-shortage-5472462.html (accessed July 21, 2022).

[3] 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 4, 2022).

[4] Greg Hadley, “Air Force Leaders Explain 5-Year Divestment Plan and Smaller F-15EX Fleet,” Air Force Magazine, April 27, 2022, https://www.airforcemag.com/air-force-leaders-five-year-divestment-plan-why-f-15ex-fleet-will-be-smaller/ (accessed July 4, 2022).

[5] 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 4, 2022).

[6] 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.

[7] 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 4, 2022).

[8] U.S. Air Force, “The Air Force We Need: 386 Operational Squadrons.”

[9] 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 4, 2022); Jeremiah Gertler, “Air Force B-21 Raider Long-Range Strike Bomber,” Congressional Research Service Report for Members and Committees of Congress No. R44463, updated September 22, 2021, p. 4, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/R44463.pdf (accessed July 4, 2022); Exhibit P-40, “Budget Line Item Justification: PB 2020 Air Force, Appropriation / Budget Activity / Budget Sub Activity: 3010F: Aircraft Procurement, Air Force / BA 02: Airlift Aircraft / BSA 2: Tactical Airlift, P-1 Line Item Number / Title: KC046A / KC-46A MDAP,” in 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 4, 2022); and Fact Sheet, “C-17 Globemaster III,” U.S. Air Force, https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/1529726/c-17-globemaster-iii/ (accessed July 4, 2022).

[10] 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 4, 2022).

[11] 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.

[12] 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 4, 2022), 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 4, 2022).

[13] Table 1, “Department of the Air Force Budget Summary,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2023 Budget Overview, p. 2, https://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY23/SUPPORT_/BOB_28Mar_1125_LoRes.pdf?ver=5nrA8bBfhWoUSrvZ09CeHA%3d%3d (accessed July 4, 2022).

[14] 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.

[15] John A. Tirpak, “Air Force Wants to Cut 421 Old Fighters, Buy 304 New Ones,” Air Force Magazine, May 14, 2021, https://www.airforcemag.com/air-force-wants-to-cut-421-old-fighters-buy-304-new-ones/ (accessed July 4, 2022).

[16] Hadley, “Air Force Leaders Explain 5-Year Divestment Plan and Smaller F-15EX Fleet.”

[17] Appendix, “Total Aircraft Inventory (TAI),” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2023 Budget Overview, p. 43.

[18] In the words of then-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 4, 2022).

[19] 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 that are made in only one location, which means that the fighters on the flightline when the next war begins 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.

[20] 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 2023 Budget Overview, and International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2022: The Annual Assessment of Global Military Capabilities and Defence Economics (London: Routledge, 2022), pp. 56–59. Where the two publications were in conflict for TAI, the USAF 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.

[21] 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.

[22] Ibid.

[23] 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, 116th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 4, https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/images/posturestatement/FY20_POSTURE_STATEMENT_OMB_Cleared_12MAR_1310L.pdf (accessed July 4, 2022).

[24] Jim Edwards, “The Russians Are Screwing with the GPS System to Send Bogus Navigation Data to Thousands of Ships,” Business Insider, April 14, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/gnss-hacking-spoofing-jamming-russians-screwing-with-gps-2019-4 (accessed July 4, 2022).

[25] Todd Harrison, Kaitlyn Johnson, Makena Young, Nicholas Wood, and Alyssa Goessler, Space Threat Assessment 2022, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Aerospace Security Project, April 2022, p. 26, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/220404_Harrison_SpaceThreatAssessment2022.pdf?K4A9o_D9NmYG2Gv98PxNigLxS4oYpHRa (accessed July 4, 2022).

[26] John Hoehn, “Precision-Guided Munitions: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service Report for Members and Committees of Congress No. R45996, updated June 11, 2021, p. 11, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45996 (accessed July 4, 2022).

[27] Exhibit P-40, “Budget Line Item Justification: PB 2023 Air Force, Appropriation / Budget Activity / Budget Sub Activity: 3011F: Procurement of Ammunition, Air Force / BA 01: Ammunition / BSA 13: Bombs, P-1 Line Item Number / Title: 353620 / Joint Direct Attack Munition,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 Budget Estimates, Air Force, Justification Book Volume 1 of 1, Procurement of Ammunition, Air Force, April 2022, p. 42, https://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY23/PROCUREMENT_/FY23%20Air%20Force%20Ammunition%20Procurement.pdf?ver=daiYoNAYPd8hiS55nNJIDQ%3d%3d (accessed July 4, 2022).

[28] 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 4, 2022).

[29] John Venable, “U.S. Air Force Should Adjust Tanker Acquisition Strategy to Support Strategic Competition with China,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3693, March 14, 2022, p. 6, https://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/BG3693.pdf.

[30] Table, “Equipment: Aircraft Total Active Inventory (TAI) (As of Sept. 30, 2021),” in “Air Force & Space Force Almanac 2022,” Air Force Magazine, Vol. 105, No. 6 and 7 (June/July 2022), https://www.airforcemag.com/app/uploads/2022/07/Almanac2022_Fullissue-1.pdf (accessed July 4, 2022).

[31] Ibid. Thirteen months were added because of the difference between the aircraft data capture dates for the 2022 USAF Almanac and publication of this edition of the Index.

[32] Ibid. Thirteen months were added because of the difference between the aircraft data capture dates for the 2022 USAF Almanac and publication of this edition of the Index.

[33] 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 4, 2022).

[34] Appendix, “Total Aircraft Inventory (TAI),” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2023 Budget Overview, p. 43.

[35] Table, “Aircraft Total Active Inventory (TAI) (As of Sept. 30, 2021),” in “Air Force & Space Force Almanac 2022.” Thirteen months were added because of the difference between the aircraft data capture dates for the 2022 USAF Almanac and publication of this edition of the Index.

[36] Headquarters U.S. Air Force, A8, written response to Heritage Foundation request for information, July 11, 2022.

[37] Headquarters U.S. Air Force, A8XC/A5RW, written response to Heritage Foundation request for information, May 11, 2022.

[38] Originally known as the Airborne Battle Management System.

[39] Appendix, “Total Aircraft Inventory (TAI),” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2023 Budget Overview, p. 43.

[40] 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 July 4, 2022), 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 4, 2022).

[41] Congress has signaled its intent to prohibit the retirement of these jets at least temporarily. Kimberly Johnson, “Congress Pushes Back on Air Force Retirement Plans for Older F-22 Raptors,” Flying, June 30, 2022, https://www.flyingmag.com/congress-pushes-back-on-air-force-retirement-plans-for-older-f-22-raptors/ (accessed September 7, 2022).

[42] Headquarters U.S. Air Force, A8XC/A5RW, written response to Heritage Foundation request for information on Air Force PGM expenditures and programmed replenishments, May 11, 2022.

[43] 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 4, 2022).

[44] 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 May 29, 2022).

[45] 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 4, 2022).

[46] Exhibit P-40, “Budget Line Item Justification: PB 2023 Air Force, Appropriation / Budget Activity / Budget Sub Activity: 3010F: Aircraft Procurement, Air Force / BA 01: Combat Aircraft / BSA 3: Tactical Forces, P-1 Line Item Number / Title: ATA000 / F-35,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 Budget Estimates, Air Force, Justification Book Volume 1 of 2, Aircraft Procurement, Air Force, Vol 1, April 2022, p. 7, https://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY23/PROCUREMENT_/FY23%20Air%20Force%20Aircraft%20Procurement%20Vol%20I.pdf?ver=G7mDgA6gGUT-vbPL4Xs1jA%3d%3d (accessed July 4, 2022), and Exhibit P-40, “Budget Line Item Justification: PB 2023 Air Force, Appropriation / Budget Activity / Budget Sub Activity: 3010F: Aircraft Procurement, Air Force / BA 01: Combat Aircraft / BSA 3: Tactical Forces, P-1 Line Item Number / Title: F015EX / F-15EX," in ibid., p. 25.

[47] Exhibit P-40, “Budget Line Item Justification: PB 2023 Air Force, Appropriation / Budget Activity / Budget Sub Activity: 3010F: Aircraft Procurement, Air Force / BA 01: Combat Aircraft / BSA 3: Tactical Forces, P-1 Line Item Number / Title: ATA000 / F-35,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 Budget Estimates, Air Force, Justification Book Volume 1 of 2, Aircraft Procurement, Air Force, Vol -1, p. 1-7.

[48] Anthony Capaccio, “Under-Wraps B-21 Bomber Is Seen Costing $203 Billion into 2050s,” Bloomberg, November 17, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-11-17/under-wraps-b-21-bomber-is-seen-costing-203-billion-into-2050s (accessed July 4, 2022).

[49] Small group discussion with the Honorable Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force, February 9, 2018.

[50] Kimberly Johnson, “Report: Air Force Set to Roll Out B-21 Stealth Bomber This Year,” Flying, February 10, 2022, https://www.flyingmag.com/report-air-force-set-to-roll-out-b-21-stealth-bomber-this-year/?nowprocket=1 (accessed July 4, 2022).

[51] 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 4, 2022).

[52] 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 4, 2022).

[53] Tara Copp, “B-52 Engine Replacement Could Keep Bomber Flying Through Its 100th Birthday,” Defense One, updated June 30, 2021, https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2021/06/engine-replacement-could-keep-venerable-b-52-flying-through-its-100th-birthday/182687/ (accessed July 4, 2022).

[54] Headquarters U.S. Air Force written response to Heritage Foundation request for information on Air Force PGM expenditures and programmed replenishments, May 11, 2022.

[55] GlobalSecurity.org, “Bridge Tanker,” last modified September 18, 2021, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/kc-y.htm (accessed July 21, 2022).

[56] 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 4, 2022).

[57] The baseline F-15EX will cost $90.2 million to acquire, and that cost does not include the $2.5 million targeting and $10.9 million IRST pods the jet will need to match the basic combat capability of the F-35A for $91.6 million that comes complete with every system it needs to fly in and around high threat environments. In 2021, CAPE produced a slide that showed the operational cost per tail per year for the F-15EX was $7.7 million, compared to $7.0 million for the F-35A. See John Venable, “Air Force’s Math on the F-15EX and F-35 Doesn’t Add Up,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, April 19, 2022, https://www.heritage.org/defense/commentary/air-forces-math-the-f-15ex-and-f-35-doesnt-add; Exhibit P-40, “Budget Line Item Justification: PB 2023 Air Force, Appropriation / Budget Activity / Budget Sub Activity: 3010F: Aircraft Procurement, Air Force / BA 01: Combat Aircraft / BSA 3: Tactical Forces, P-1 Line Item Number / Title: ATA000 / F-35,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 Budget Estimates, Air Force, Justification Book Volume 1 of 2, Aircraft Procurement, Air Force, Vol 1, p. 1-7; Exhibit P-40, “Budget Line Item Justification: PB 2023 Air Force, Appropriation / Budget Activity / Budget Sub Activity: 3010F: Aircraft Procurement, Air Force / BA 01: Combat Aircraft / BSA 3: Tactical Forces, P-1 Line Item Number / Title: F015EX / F-15EX,” in ibid., p. 25 ; news release, “Egypt—Sniper Advanced Targeting Pods (ATPs),” U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Security Cooperation Agency, December 29, 2020, https://www.dsca.mil/sites/default/files/mas/press_release-egypt-20-65_cn.pdf (accessed July 4, 2022); and Thomas Newdick, “Legion Infrared Search and Track Pods Can Now Carry Their Own Datalinks for More Lethal Targeting,” The War Zone, June 8, 2021, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/40980/legion-infrared-search-and-track-pods-can-now-carry-their-own-datalinks-for-more-lethal-targeting (accessed July 4, 2022).

[58] 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 4, 2022).

[59] 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 4, 2022).

[60] 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 4, 2022).

[61] Wilson and Goldfein, “USAF Posture Statement, Fiscal Year 2020,” p. 4.

[62] 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, 117th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 12, https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/documents/2021SAF/05_May/FY22_DAF_Posture_Statement.pdf (accessed July 4, 2022).

[63] Air Force News Service, “New Force Generation Model Builds High-End Readiness, Sustainability for Joint Force,” Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, August 5, 2021, https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2720333/new-force-generation-model-builds-high-end-readiness-sustainability-for-joint-f/ (accessed July 4, 2022).

[64] 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 4, 2022).

[65] 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 11, 2022.

[66] See Dyess Air Force Base, “7th Operations Group,” https://www.dyess.af.mil/Units/7th-Bomb-Wing/7th-Operations-Group/ (accessed July 7, 2021).

[67] 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 11, 2022.

[68] 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 4, 2022).

[69] 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 11, 2022.

[70] Ibid.

[71] John Venable, “Independent Capability Assessment of U.S. Air Force Reveals Readiness Level Below Carter Administration Hollow Force,” p. 4.

[72] 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 4, 2022).

[73] 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.

[74] 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.

[75] Venable, “A Plan for Keeping the U.S. Air Force’s Best Pilots in Service.”

[76] General Mark Kelly, “Air Force Fighter Enterprise,” Air & Space Forces Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference, National Harbor, Maryland, September 21, 2022.

[77] Oriana Pawlyk, “Cuts to Flight Hours Necessary as Aircraft Sustainment Costs Surge, Air Force General Says,” Military.com, June 23, 2021, https://www.military.com/daily-news/2021/06/23/cuts-flight-hours-necessary-aircraft-sustainment-costs-surge-air-force-general-says.html (accessed July 4, 2022).

[78] Table 2, “U.S. Air Force Budget Summary,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2023 Budget Overview, p. 4.

[79] The flying hour budget for FY 2013 was $7.1 billion in then-year dollars. The flying hour budget for FY 2023 is $5.87 billion. Extracted from U.S. Air Force budget summaries for the years 2013 and 2023. U.S. Department of the Air Force, United States Air Force Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Overview, February 2012, p. 12, https://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY13/AFD-120209-052.pdf?ver=2016-08-24-090344-023, and “U.S. Air Force Budget Highlights,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2023 Budget Overview, p. 3, https://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY23/SUPPORT_/BOB_28Mar_1125_LoRes.pdf?ver=5nrA8bBfhWoUSrvZ09CeHA%3d%3d (accessed August 29, 2022).

[80] General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., and General David H. Berger, “Redefine Readiness or Lose,” War on the Rocks, March 15, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/03/redefine-readiness-or-lose/ (accessed August 29, 2022).

[81] Author’s experience through 26 years of Air Force operations coupled with senior leader engagements from 2018–2019.

[82] 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 4, 2022).

[83] 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.

[84] Based on a squadron with 24 Primary Assigned Aircraft. Units with 18 PAA require four additional pilots.

[85] 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 needed 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.

[86] “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 4, 2022).

[87] 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.

[88] Interview with senior Air National Guard leader, November 20, 2019.

[89] 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.

[90] Kelly, “Air Force Fighter Enterprise.”

[91] See Venable, “Independent Capability Assessment of U.S. Air Force Reveals Readiness Level Below Carter Administration Hollow Force.”

[92] The FY 2023 Air Force Posture Statement does not discuss current posture; it makes declarative allusions as to what it should or must be ready to do. For example: “[T]o provide effective integrated deterrence, the Department of the Air Force must be fully ready to expeditiously transition to a wartime posture. We must be ready to mobilize against a peer competitor who has spent decades researching and developing the means to attack the systems and infrastructure we depend on to go to war through cyber and non-cyber means.” The Honorable Frank Kendall, Secretary of the Air Force; General John W. Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, United States Space Force; and General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Chief of Staff, United States Air Force, “Department of the Air Force Posture Statement, Fiscal Year 2023,” Department of the Air Force Presentation to the Committees and Subcommittees of the United States Senate and the House of Representatives, 117th Cong., 2nd Sess., p. 5, https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/documents/2022SAF/FY23_DAF_Posture_Statement.pdf (accessed July 4, 2022). “These investments ensure today’s space capabilities are ready to support day-to-day campaigning in the near-term as the Space Force’s modernization efforts pave the way to deliver new architectures that are resilient by design.” Ibid., p. 9. “To ensure this capability remains ready, the Air Force is modernizing with the Sentinel system, our Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).” Ibid., p. 12.

U.S. Air Force Modernization Table Citations

General Sources

Program Sources



F-15EX Strike Eagle

KC-46 Pegasus


MQ-9 Reaper

Air Force Platform Summaries

B-52 Stratofortress

B-1B Lancer

B-2 Spirit

A-10 Thunderbolt II

F-16 Fighting Falcon

F-35 A Lightning

F-15C Eagle

F-15E Strike Eagle

F-22 Raptor

KC-10 Extender

KC-135 Stratotanker

KC-46 Pegasus

C-5M Galaxy

C-17 Globemaster III

C-130J Super Hercules

RQ-4 Global Hawk

MQ-9 A/B Reaper

RC-135 Rivet Joint

U-2 Dragon Lady

E-3 Sentry