As she enters what will likely be her final six months in office, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James is aiming to put the service on a path toward growing to as many as 325,000 airmen.
After a wave of budget driven drawdowns that cut more than 19,000 airmen in 2014, the Air Force this year aims to grow from about 311,000 to 317,000. But that's nowhere near enough, James said in an Aug. 3 interview at the Pentagon.
"I am absolutely certain that we need somewhere on the order of 321,000 to 325,000 active-duty airmen," James said. "It would be fantastic to have more than that. If we could have that many, though, I think it would go an enormous way to helping with some of the strain that we are feeling. The mid-320s would be way, way better than where we are today, and way better than 317,000, where we expect to end the year."
James said the Air Force's maintainers — a community that is currently about 4,000 airmen short — is likely to be a major beneficiary of the desired end strength increase. The remotely piloted aircraft community, cyber airmen and nuclear missile airmen could also see significant boosts under James' plan.
Former Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, toward the end of his tenure earlier this year, suggested the Air Force's staffing needs are far more serious, given the types of missions it is being asked to do, and said full manning would require another 40,000 to 60,000 more airmen.
"Every problem we have in growing, in modernizing, increasing mission capability, is manpower related," Welsh said in a May speech. He later acknowledged tha,t while he didn't think that number was "outrageous," it was unlikely to actually happen.
James said this month that budget realities have a lot to do with tempering the Air Force's staffing expectations. But the service also has to be smart as it builds up, she said.
"We want to keep our standards high, we want to make sure that our training base is ready to receive new people," she said. "More than 317,000 this year could well have overloaded the system. That's not what this is all about, it's doing this in an orderly manner. It is a blend of what I consider to be realism, as well as what I think will go a long way to helping our Air Force regain some readiness health."
James said that she will spend her last few months keeping both the Pentagon and Congress focused on growth in the Air Force as it builds its next five-year plan and the budget proposal it will submit to lawmakers early in 2017.
And breaking through Congress' budgetary gridlock will be a key element, she said.
"I and others will be working very hard over the next six months to try to get our messages across," James said. "We need to have our bills completed on time — that means Oct. 1 or as near on time as possible. It means no long-term [continuing resolution], which would be harmful to the Air Force. It means we need to continue to press the story on the need to lift sequestration."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.