The Air Force's new secretary, Heather Wilson, wants to grow the force. But before making any long-term decisions on just how many airmen to add, she wants to have a better idea of what threats the United States is going to face in coming years.
After the painful, budget-driven drawdown of 2014, the Air Force grew from about 311,000 airmen to roughly 317,000 in fiscal 2016, and service leaders expect to exceed its goal of reaching 321,000 this year. Last month, the Air Force announced plans to grow to 325,000 in fiscal 2018 as part of next year's budget proposal.
But in comments Monday at an Air Force Association breakfast in Washington — her first extended public remarks since being sworn in as Air Force secretary — Wilson appeared to pump the brakes on the service's hopes to eventually hit 350,000 active-duty airmen by about 2024. Last December, an Air Force official told reporters that growing to 350,000 would provide the Air Force enough manpower to complete all of its current missions, improve readiness, and properly train and sustain the force.
Wilson said Monday that she wants to wait for a review of the United States' national security strategy to be finished before making manning decisions. She did not say when that review might be done.
"I'm a believer that threat drives strategy, strategy drives force posture," Wilson said. "I think any reasonable assessment of the world situation in which we find ourselves, we can't anticipate there will be a decline in need for air and space power. But I want to see the strategy and then have the study council guys say, 'OK, to support this strategy, this is what we really think we need.'"
Wilson said that for the last five or six years, the Air Force has had to deal with a force structure that is driven by tight budgets, instead of a force based on strategy. But she didn't blame her predecessors at the Pentagon for making decisions to steeply cut manpower after the sequester slashed funding.
"There really wasn't much they could do," Wilson said. "They had a much lower budget than they could sustain, and that resulted in a deep cut in personnel, and we're still struggling with that."
Wilson noted that the active-duty end strength has shrunk from about 357,000 in fiscal 2006 to about 321,000 today — a roughly 10 percent decline. Meanwhile, the Air Force has been engaged in combat operations continuously for about 26 years, she said.
"The reality is that we are too small for what the nation expects of us," Wilson 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.