And while many details about Trump’s plans remain unknown — not least of which, whom he might tap to be his Air Force secretary — those experts think his focus on rebuilding what he called a “depleted” military is needed.
In a Sept. 7 speech on his national security plans, Trump blasted the Obama administration and his rival, Hillary Clinton, for the diminished size and advancing age of the Air Force’s fleet.
“The Air Force is the smallest it has been since 1947,” Trump said. “The average Air Force aircraft is 27 years old. We have second-generation B-52 bombers — their fathers flew the same plane.”
Trump said he would adopt the Heritage Foundation’s proposal to boost the Air Force’s fighter aircraft to at least 1,200. The Air Force now has a little more than 1,100 fighters readily available for missions, though all told it has nearly 2,000.
“It needs to be done,” retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, who was the Air Force’s chief of staff during the Gulf War, said on Monday. “The Air Force is too small now, and in particular, the combat flying elements of the Air Force are too small. If he is able to follow through on such a notion, I think that would be grand.”
McPeak also said the Air Force under Trump needs to refocus on improving readiness and training. That means more training flying hours in general, and particularly more Red Flag exercises, he said, which will be especially important for the Air Force to remain sharp if the United States pulls back from the Middle East. But that will require additional funding for the Air Force’s readiness accounts to pay for it, he said.
“The fact that you’re now returning to a more normal situation cannot be allowed to reduce your overall combat readiness,” McPeak said.
John Venable, an Air Force veteran who is a senior research fellow for defense policy at Heritage, said Trump’s administration could choose to supplement the Air Force’s operations and maintenance budget, making it easier to buy spare parts, fuel and other needs to improve readiness and get pilots back in the air.
“Guys are flying once a week at home,” Venable said. “They’re getting spun up to go overseas, but when they get there, they’re flying very mundane missions — heightened moments, certainly, of employment, but by and large, loitering, waiting for employment. And then when they come back home, they’re basically not getting enough flying time to really conduct missions well.”
Now, Venable and McPeak believe the rising tide of defense spending could also lift the Air Force’s manning levels.
The Air Force has declined from its post-9/11 peak of 376,616 airmen in fiscal 2004 to roughly 311,000 in fiscal 2015. That drawdown was most painfully felt in 2014, when a series of voluntary and involuntary force management programs cut roughly 20,000 airmen in two years and left the active-duty Air Force at its lowest end strength since 1948 — the year after it was established as its own service.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James later admitted that she soon realized the sequestration-driven force cuts “just didn’t seem to be adding up anymore,” and were causing significant strain on the force. So leaders refocused on trying to rebuild — especially in crucial areas such as cyber, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, battlefield airmen and maintenance — and the Air Force brought manning up to about 317,000 by the end of fiscal 2016. James also wanted to grow the service even further in 2017, by another 4,000 or so, although the current budget proposal would not have provided funding for that.
Venable believes the active-duty Air Force could potentially get back up to about 350,000 within a few years, which would be its highest level since the 2005-2006 time frame. But it will have to be a methodical growth to bring airmen on board and train them, he said.
This could help the Air Force rebuild its fighter pilot ranks, which are now about 700 pilots short, he said, but the loss of experience that departing pilots take with them will take a long time to recover.
McPeak and Venable said that more maintainers — especially flightline maintainers such as crew chiefs — will also be needed, especially if Trump follows through on his pledge to add more combat aircraft. The Air Force in recent years has been raising alarms about its lack of experienced flightline crew chiefs, especially those needed to take care of fighters and bombers.
The drawdown of recent years “cut into bone,” Venable said, and ultimately resulted in airmen having to wear too many hats, which distracted them from their primary missions. For example, he said, pilots who should have been focusing their efforts on flying were instead pulled away to handle administrative chores in their squadrons.
But diversity initiatives — which have been a major focus of James in recent years — will almost certainly take a backseat in Trump’s Pentagon, they said. This will be a victory for those in the military who have bemoaned so-called “social engineering” programs, which some viewed as a distraction from their core mission of winning wars and defending the nation.
“We have to have forces that are capable of prevailing in combat,” McPeak said. “That’s their purpose. And to the extent that they can be diverse and do that, then diversity is a good thing. But I would never put diversity above the efficiency of our forces. One tends to sort of get that impression a little bit by listening to what the present administration is interested in.”
That could mean revisiting recent Pentagon moves to open up all combat jobs to women, or allowing transgender troops to serve openly, McPeak said. But it will depend on who is appointed.
But McPeak said the issue of gay and lesbian troops in the military is settled, and he would be surprised if Trump’s administration decided to revisit the issue.