U.S. Air Force: How Big Is Too Big?

March 11, 2021 Topic: U.S. Air Force Region: The Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: U.S. Air ForceMilitary386 SquadronsChinaRussia

U.S. Air Force: How Big Is Too Big?

Can the air force meet mission demands at its current size?

Here's What You Need to Remember: The service has many duties to perform and rival powers are getting more advanced by the day.

The U.S. Air Force still wants a much larger number of bombers, fighters, tankers and drones as part of a continued push to expand the size and mission scope of the service. 

Several years ago, when directed by Congress, the Air Force conducted an extensive study on the question of just what would the service need to successfully execute the National Defense Strategy. The answer at the time was to suggest a 24 percent increase in force size and grow to 386 squadrons

While the exact need may now be more in flux or less certain given the fast-changing threat environment, the basic result or finding of this study is still true, according to senior Air Force leaders who clearly say the service simply cannot meet global combatant commander mission demands. 

“Without a doubt the demand signal requires a larger capacity which requires a larger air force. I am happy to tell you which force elements to get rid of if you could me which missions we no longer need. I’m dying for a commander to say we don’t need more air power,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations, Air Force. 

Guastella further explained that the scope and nature of the mission envelope continues to expand as U.S. assets continue to be at risk. He said this was true globally but also increasingly vital to homeland defense, adding that large gatherings such as sporting events or stadiums, military bases and large cities all need to be defended consistently by active and ready forces. 

“Every day Air Force squadrons are on alert,” he said. 

The pressing nature of these needs might be part of why the Air Force continues to consider adding even greater numbers of F-35 stealth fighters and also contemplate nearly doubling the amount of new B-21 stealth bombers added to the fleet. Many service platforms, while of course upgraded and still viable, are old. The youngest B-52, Mitchell Institute Dean Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula said, is fifty-eight years old. 

“We cannot continue to fly airplanes that are the equivalent of 80 year-olds on the football field,” Guastella said. 

All of this need is expressed within the broader context that Air Power will only continue to grow in importance as the threat of war against a major power adversary persists. Not only are the boundaries of possible warfare becoming more multi-domain with space, cyber and electronic warfare threats, but potential adversaries are now armed with fifth-generation fighters and even hypersonic missiles

“For the wars of our generation, Air Power has been viewed as a supporting service. It has been a land-centered campaign where we provide air lift, close air support, airborne EW, GPS, missile warning and intel from space,” Guastella said. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: "US Air Force Special Operations Squadron Conducts MC-130J Five-Ship Formation Flight" by #PACOM is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0