As the Air Force marks its 70th birthday, it’s facing a series of challenges unlike any other in its history.
It continues to fight two active wars. Meanwhile, tensions with Russia and North Korea are heightening, forcing the service to focus more of its attention on Europe and Asia.
At the same time, it’s about as small as it was when it became an independent service in 1947.
The ongoing problems of sequestration and budget cuts, pilot shortages and other manning shortfalls are making it tougher for the service to meet its multiple missions around the world.
If the budget problems continue in fiscal 2018, that’s going to create a new set of problems, said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.
“We are a service that is too small for what’s being asked of us,” Wilson said in an Aug. 31 editorial board meeting with Air Force Times. “We have readiness issues at home already, and if we were to have to continue next year, either on a continuing resolution that [keeps Air Force funding] flat from last year or, even worse, under a sequester … it would be devastating, and [it would take] years to recover from it.”
A long-term budget impasse, coupled with ongoing pilot retention and readiness issues, would probably cost the entire Air Force the equivalent of four months of flying time, she said.
Pilots who are either flying missions supporting combat operations or gearing up for combat, would continue to fly, but virtually all other flights — including the intense training to prepare for air-to-air combat against a near-peer adversary — would be grounded.
That would be disastrous and possibly cost airmen their lives, she said.
“The threats around the world are not abating, and our readiness, particularly for what we call the high-end fight, would diminish significantly,” Wilson said. “It’s really not a question of whether we’ll go [when called]. It’s a question [of] how many people come back.”
A budget shortfall would handcuff the Air Force’s effort to rebuild its manning levels. Besides trying to stem the loss of pilots, the Air Force is also rebuilding its ranks of maintenance, ISR, cyber and nuclear airmen.
“We put together a pretty good budget proposal that will increase our [active duty] end strength to 324,000,” Wilson said. “If the budget doesn’t come through, we’ll have a problem.”
In the meantime, Wilson said, the Air Force is trying to figure out better ways to manage its manning levels at the individual unit level. One problem, for example, is that when a squadron needs two more F-22 maintainers, it has to request a manning study, she said. But the Air Force is so far behind, that process is likely to take a year and a half.
The Air Force may move to a system similar to that of the other services, where units can request changes to manning levels within a 30- or 60-day window.
“We’ve got to come up with a better way of assessing manpower needs. Everybody else has a much more fixed [way to determine] this is what a battalion of Rangers needs, and this is what a carrier task force” needs, Wilson said.
High operations tempo
The relentless operations tempos and deployment needs have increased the strain on airmen and their families, Wilson said. For example, pilots flying tankers — which have been in heavy demand due to operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan — are operating on a 1:1 dwell-deploy ratio, meaning someone who is deployed for six months usually gets only six months at home before being deployed again.
When those pilots come home, she said, they’re kept busy with training and don’t get much time to actually relax.
“Even when they’re home, they’re not really home,” Wilson said.
To try to ease the deployment burden on pilots, Wilson said the Air Force is trying to increase the number of new pilots it trains each year, from about 1,200 to 1,400. And to convince more pilots to remain in uniform, the Air Force is increasing retention bonuses and other financial incentives, doing away with unnecessary training and bureaucratic requirements that eat up time, and bringing on about 1,000 people to support squadrons so pilots don’t have to take on administrative tasks.
Beginning Oct. 1, airmen will, in almost all cases, deploy in groups of at least three, Wilson said. This will ensure that young airmen who have never deployed have someone to train with who can show them the ropes, Wilson said.
What’s more, she said, it’s a bad idea to have airmen deploy on their own and then return home with no one to talk to who went through the same experiences.
“They come back and they kind of decompress on their own,” Wilson said. “It’s not a good practice. From 1 October on, we won’t do that anymore.”
The Air Force is inching toward receiving its newest tanker, the KC-46A Pegasus, from Boeing, though the manufacturer has encountered problems along the way. Wilson said the Air Force has kept its requirements firm, and Boeing must fulfill the contract, adding that she thinks Boeing is “highly motivated to do everything they can to meet the dates.”
“We should know, and Boeing probably should know, pretty soon whether they’re on track or not,” she said.
The Air Force also recently awarded a contract to Boeing to provide two airplanes — which had been built for a Russian airline that went bankrupt — to be the next Air Force One aircraft.
President Trump earlier this year blasted the projected cost for the Air Force One replacement, and ordered the Air Force to get the cost down.
Wilson said the Air Force will eventually release a total cost number for the acquisition, but has agreed not to release the cost of the air frames now for competition reasons.
“We got a good price,” she said. “We have that obligation no matter what the program is, and every dollar that we spend was earned by somebody, and we need to make sure that we get good value for money on everything that we buy.”
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.