If Air Force officials can get the Trump administration and Congress on board with their desire to reach an end strength of 350,000 airmen by 2024, that growth will be focused on the maintenance, nuclear, cyber and space career fields, a senior official said Wednesday.
USA Today reported Wednesday that Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said the Air Force "just got too small too fast" and is "at a risk level I'm not comfortable with."
The senior Air Force official, speaking on background, said that bringing the active duty end strength up from its current level of 317,000 to 350,000 airmen would provide enough manpower for the Air Force to complete all of its current missions, improve readiness and make some "modest improvements in capability." The higher end strength would also give the Air Force enough airmen to properly train and sustain the force.
Congress has already approved an additional 4,000 airmen in the 2017 defense authorization bill sent to the president. That brings the service up to 321,000 personnel.
Top Air Force leaders such as Goldfein have been in communication with the transition team for president-elect Donald Trump on the service's needs, including more end strength, officials said.
After steep and painful manning cuts in 2014 separated nearly 20,000 airmen, the Air Force grew from about 311,000 to 317,000 in fiscal 2016.
The Air Force official said the service hopes to hit 324,000 by fiscal 2018. And sometime between fiscal 2023 and fiscal 2025, the Air Force wants to have 350,000 airmen.
The last time the Air Force had more than 350,000 airmen was in fiscal 2005, when there were 353,571 active duty airmen.
The Air Force wants to grow smartly and responsibly, he said, and that will entail not only recruiting, but also working to hold on to the trained and experienced airmen it already has, including highly-in-demand pilots.
This will likely mean the continuation of retention programs, such as bonuses and high-year tenure extensions, the Air Force recently put in place, although the focus of these programs could change to different career fields as the service's needs change.
The Air Force also aims to increase its remotely piloted aircraft capability, which has been taxed by combatant commanders' insatiable appetite for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Service officials said boosts in equipment, including more aircraft, will go "hand-in-hand" with the growth in end strength.
"We'll certainly be looking to increase opportunities across the board, from security forces airmen to maintainers; everybody's going to need to grow," the official said. "The Air Force has to have the size it needs to be able to do its part in the joint mission. So all of our mission areas will grow."
Service officials are also concerned that some airmen may now be leaving because the service is stretched thin, with frequent deployments and high operation tempos. An overall boost in end strength could help relieve some of that pressure and allow the service to hold on to more airmen.
It is uncertain how much such an increase in end strength would cost. But the 4,000-airman increase in 2017 came with a price tag of roughly $145 million, which means the 29,000-airman increase required to hit 350,000 could cost more than a billion dollars.
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.