The Air Force's manning levels have been on a rollercoaster over the past few years. The number of active-duty airmen plunged from 333,370 in 2011 to roughly 311,000 today — partly due to a massive, budget-driven drawdown that cut more than 19,000 airmen in 2014. The Air Force is now as small as it's been since 1948, the year after it was created.
Across the service — from the flightlines to the Pentagon offices of Secretary Deborah Lee James and outgoing Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh — there is a broad agreement that the Air Force has no choice but to grow. The service hopes to reach 317,000 airmen by the end of fiscal 2016. And James is willing to use her authority to grow the force even further in coming years to fill key jobs such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, cyber, maintenance and battlefield airmen.
But last month, Welsh went even further. The Air Force's rapidly growing mission requirements mean that it can't possibly get to full manning with just a few thousand more airmen, he said in a speech May 26. It would need something on the order of 40,000 to 60,000 more airmen.
In a June 13 interview with Military Times, Welsh acknowledged the chances of that kind of a personnel increase any time soon are limited, but expanded on why the Air Force needs a manpower surge.
Q: You said you want 40,000 to 60,000 more airmen in the Air Force, after going down nearly 20,000 during the drawdown. What’s behind this?
A:We had been talking about undermanning in different career fields, [and] adding capability when we weren’t allowed to divest older capability [aircraft such as the A-10]. We were talking about expanding space, cyber, [remotely piloted aircraft] capability, and someone asked me, "Well, how many airmen would it take to be able to do all of that?" And I said, "I don’t know, 40,000 to 60,000 would be a guess."
If you just look at bedding down the F-35, over the next 15 to 20 years it’s going to take 30,000 airmen. If we’re not allowed to divest the airmen who are doing other things today ... to put against the F-35 fleet, you start with 30,000 more that are required. If we want to expand RPA wings, it’s going to take 5,000 to 10,000 people to expand those mission areas. If you want to take all the areas that are currently manned at 85 percent and plus them up to 100 percent, it’s going to be more airmen.
So I don’t think the number is outrageous. Now, are we going to get 40 to 60,000 more airmen? No, we don’t expect that. But the question i was asked was, how much it would take.
We’re trying to get to 317,000 by the end of this year, 321,000 by the end of 2019, and we’d love to go to 324,000 eventually because we think that shows how many airmen we need to do the job. It will still be a highly stressed air force, it will still be busy, but we can get the job done.
Q: If those extra bodies don’t come, does it impact the fight against ISIS?
A: It will not, because the airmen who do that job will just work harder, deploy more and get the job done. It will affect retention over time, it will affect stress on the force, and from my perspective that’s not healthy. And so manpower plus-ups help us create a liveable and durable battle rhythm over time.
Q: If you got 40,000 troops tomorrow, where do you find those?
A: Well, you wouldn’t need them tomorrow, you’d need them over time. But if we had additional manpower tomorrow, we’d try and get our maintenance manning up. We’d man our intelligence and our special operations career fields fully. We would add it into the RPA community early in this process ... to build a better battle rhythm. We need a new RPA wing. That’s all going to take manpower. Not just RPA crews, by the way, it’s also going to take the operational support people who actually run installations and manage facilities and do those things to support the mission.
So we would do that first. Make sure that the nuclear force was 100% manned in every mission area.
If you’re looking for priority, it’d probably be nukes first, RPAs second, intel and [special operations] next, and go from there.