President Trump's fiscal 2018 budget proposal, released Tuesday, calls for growing the active-duty Air Force to 325,100 airmen to try to fix serious shortfalls in critical jobs, which are jeopardizing the service's readiness.
The administration's first full budget proposal singled out shortfalls in the Air Force's ranks of pilots and skilled maintainers as particularly in need of correcting.
The budget also calls for reducing the Air Force's deploy-to-dwell ratio — meaning airmen would typically spend longer periods at home before being deployed again — to try to improve training efforts at airmen's home stations. In fiscal 2015, the Air Force maintained an overall deploy-dwell ratio of 1:5, meaning that airmen who deployed for four months would typically have 20 months at home. But airmen in some career fields — such as fighter and remotely piloted aircraft maintenance, intelligence, and in-flight refuelers — deployed far more frequently; some with a deploy-dwell ratio of 1:2 or higher. The budget overview stated that Combat Air Forces must be able to maintain a 1:4 deploy-to-dwell ratio to meet its full-spectrum readiness goal of 80 percent.
Throughout the overview of the FY18 budget, there is an acknowledgement of the strain that years of heavy deployments and budget cuts have placed on the Air Force and its airmen.
"Continuous combat operations and deployments have produced shortfalls in operational readiness and challenged the Air Force's personnel, equipment and infrastructure," the budget stated. "For example, the Air Force has faced chronic manpower shortages in critical skill positions. Significant budget constraints have caused the Air Force to limit readiness improvements and recovery efforts. Full-spectrum training to ensure the force is ready for current and emerging threats has been severely curtailed by near-constant deployments for both combat and non-combat missions."
The Air Force grew from about 311,000 to 317,000 in fiscal 2016, and service leaders set a goal of reaching 321,000 in fiscal 2017, which they expect to exceed. Last year, then Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said she was "absolutely certain" the Air Force needed to reach about 325,000. After Trump's election, top Air Force officials said they hoped to grow even further, potentially hitting 350,000 active-duty airmen by 2024.
The Air Force has consistently said it needs to rebuild its maintenance, nuclear, cyber and space career fields. And in the past year, Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein and other top leaders have intensely focused on slowing pilot attrition and adding more pilots.
The budget noted that the Air Force last year significantly increased the number of maintainers it is putting through its training pipeline, and will continue to grow maintainers in the coming years.
Earlier this year, Lt. Gen. John Cooper, deputy chief of staff for logistics, engineering and force protection, told Air Force Times that Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas had already expanded its maintenance training pipeline from 6,500 students annually to 7,000, and was expecting to further grow to 8,000. To accommodate those extra airmen, Sheppard is looking at ways to train more efficiently, add a second shift of classes, and add instructors.
The Air Force will similarly grow its pipeline of pilots in training, and increase financial bonuses it offers them.
In a briefing at the Pentagon Tuesday, Maj. Gen. James Martin, the Air Force's deputy assistant secretary for budget, said the pilot and maintenance shortfalls are two of the biggest issues facing the service, and fixing them will help improve deployment ratios for airmen in those fields.
"If we get after some of that, that's going to increase deploy-to-dwell [ratios] and give our folks time to train," Martin said. "They'll deploy, but it'll also give them time to rest."
Martin said the Air Force hopes to increase its annual pilot production from 1,200 to 1,400 per year. And, as the Air Force brings in more maintainers, it will not only lessen the burden on them, but also will result in more planes being repaired and available to fly, he said.
The Air Force also plans to bring on more support staff for squadrons, which would relieve pilots of administrative duties and give them more time to train, as well as giving maintainers more freedom to be out on the flightline, Martin said.
"All those things will help in that effort," Martin said.
Air Force leaders hope to reduce deployment rates for other career critical fields, such as RPA airmen, Martin said.
Overall, he said the Air Force's total end strength — active, Guard and Reserve — would grow by about 5,800 to 502,000. That includes a 4,100 active-duty increase, and a 1,700 increase in Guard and Reserve airmen.
"The Air Force's number one priority remains people," Martin said. "Growing end strength is crucial for readiness recovery, and readiness depends on the contributions of the total force, active, Guard and Reserve."
The budget would provide personnel to support two new F-16 flying training units, to help the Air Force produce more new pilots, he said. And it would provide money for the Air Force to increase annual pilot retention bonuses from $25,000 to $35,000, he said.
The Air Force will continue to offer bonuses and other incentives to hold on to vital, skilled airmen in career fields such as maintenance, nuclear, cyber and RPA, Martin said. And it will continue to offer high-year tenure extensions to retain needed airmen.
The budget would also add 200 recruiters and other personnel to "rightsize the training pipeline," Martin said, as the Air Force seeks to bring on about 29,000 enlisted recruits.
Finally, the budget will add more than 200 commander support staff personnel to take on additional duties and allow airmen to focus on their core missions, Martin said.
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.