For nearly two decades, the United States Air Force has been engaged in combat operations in multiple theaters around the globe, all the while maintaining a deterrent presence in many other regions. Now, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson is calling on lawmakers to dramatically increase the size of the force to offset the negative effects the high operational tempo has had on the branch. Additionally, Secretary Wilson cited the rapidly developing threats of Russia and China and the need for additional bandwidth.
Wilson’s request, she explained, was informed by an analysis of recent years combat operations and “most current concepts of operations from the Joint Chiefs of staff.” The resulting list represents what the Air Force may need to support America’s global defense effort adequately. The price tag, however, may make the reinforcement effort an unlikely scenario. She laid out the need for a whopping 74 new squadrons manned by an additional 40,000 Airmen, growing the force from 320,000 to 360,000 troops.
The laundry list of requests breaks down as such:
- 22 C2ISR (Command, Control, Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance) squadrons
- 14 tanker squadrons
- 9 combat search and rescue squadrons
- 7 special operations squadrons
- 7 fighter squadrons
- 7 space squadrons
- 5 bomber squadrons
- 2 drone squadrons
- 1 airlift squadron
Many of these requests are reasonable based on the emerging threats from China and Russia. The emphasis on tanker squadrons, for instance, could address concerns about China’s advanced hypersonic anti-ship missile platforms that could prevent U.S. carriers from reaching an operational distance to Chinese shores. It stands to reason that any offensive on the Chinese mainland would have to be precipitated by long-range bombing strikes on these very anti-ship assets, putting America’s carriers back in the fight once the threat has been eliminated. The increased tanker fleet would also help to support the increased refueling loads represented by the other new requests.
There are, however, some questions raised by Wilson’s proposals. For instance, she laid out the need for seven new fighter squadrons, but the only fighter currently in production is the F-35. She already has admitted that F-35s are too expensive to operate and that the Air Force is still debating the current order.
Further, the request lays out the need for seven more “space squadrons,” which would almost certainly be absorbed by the Space Force. It’s possible that resources initially earmarked for space could then be diverted to expanding the drone squadron request, or perhaps toward offsetting the operational costs of the new fighters.
But, all of that may be a flight of fancy as the request is estimated to cost the taxpayer somewhere in the neighborhood of $18.2 billion per year. While America is currently amid a resurgence in defense spending, it seems unlikely that next year’s budget will see an additional $20 billion bump for the Air Force while other pressing matters compete for their portion of the purse.
“We aren’t naive about how long it will take us to build the support and the budget required for the force we need,” Wilson said before explaining that she is obligated to tell “our countrymen what should be done, what must be done.”