It’s the most basic structural unit of the Air Force — it’s “beating heart,” as Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein is fond of saying.

But over the past 17 years, the Air Force’s roughly 3,400 squadrons have evolved to fight wars against relatively small-scale violent extremists such as al Qaida and the Islamic State, in which the Air Force and its coalition partners have ruled the skies.

But service leaders worry how squadrons would fare in a major war with another great power, such as China or Russia, if the Air Force does not make significant changes — most notably to give squadron commanders more authority to make necessary decisions in the heat of combat.

Goldfein, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright signed a June 1 memo that lists 14 proposals comprising the long-awaited Squadron Revitalization Implementation Plan. It was posted online July 16 on the unofficial Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page.

It provides the clearest look yet at how the Air Force will address one of Goldfein’s top priorities. Shortly after becoming chief of staff in 2016, Goldfein declared his intention to overhaul the squadron structure, which he said is “where we succeed or fail as an Air Force.”

“It’s where our culture resides,” Goldfein said at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in September 2016. “We are a service where, five minutes into any conversation, we say ‘I’m a Bulldog’ [or another squadron nickname]. It’s where airmen are developed. It’s where training and innovation occurs.”

Strengthening the squadron unit is a crucial step toward improving the overall health of the Air Force, said retired Gen. Hawk Carlisle, a former Air Combat Command head who helped work on this effort in its early days.

An Air Force F-22 Raptor performs aerial maneuvers over Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, June 30. Squadron revitalization has been a primary focus of Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein. (Alejandro Peña/Air Force)
An Air Force F-22 Raptor performs aerial maneuvers over Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, June 30. Squadron revitalization has been a primary focus of Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein. (Alejandro Peña/Air Force)

“It’s foundational to the Air Force,” Carlisle said in a July 18 interview. “It’s the primary unit by which we deploy, operate in combat, and grow as a family. Even [at] the big squadrons, the squadron commander pretty much knows everybody in each squadron. It’s that camaraderie that primarily grows and exists at the squadron. That is the key to success.”

Some of the revitalization proposals continue the service’s ongoing efforts to slash time-wasting requirements, such as by rewriting or cutting outdated regulations called Air Force Instructions, or cutting irksome and unnecessary training or duties.

But other proposals in the memo are focused on pushing decision-making authority down to the squadron level, in ways that would enable squadrons to operate more independently in the event of a major conflict.

Erosion of responsibility

The first initiative, “realigning decision authorities,” offers a stark assessment of the state of Air Force squadrons.

Years of budget turmoil, significant manning cuts and the 17 years of ongoing fights against terrorist groups have “resulted in an erosion of decision authority at the squadron level,” the memo asserts.

That still works for U.S. Central Command’s current rotational model in the Middle East, the memo said, where bases, infrastructure and command-and-control operations are established and mature, and “very few full squadrons deploy and employ as a fighting formation.”

But if war with a nation like Russia or China were to break out under the current structure, the memo said, things could quickly go south.

“It would likely fail in a peer fight where squadron commanders must prepare to lead their entire squadron with associated support teams, and employ against a peer threat disconnected from higher headquarters in a harsh and contested environment,” the memo said.

The Air Force and other military services have begun to shift their focus from waging war in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria — which have been virtually uncontested environments for the Air Force — to countering threats and aggression from peer and near-peer nations with more advanced militaries, like Russia, China and North Korea. This so-called “re-emergence of great power competition,” as Pentagon officials have referred to this shift, parallels the Air Force’s motivation for pushing decision-making authority downward to squadron levels.

In a June 17 press gaggle with reporters at the Pentagon, Goldfein further detailed his thinking on this shift.

“Over the past 17 years we, like all the services, we made changes and trades to be able to align ourselves to ensure that we can support the fight against violent extremism and keep that campaign momentum,” Goldfein said. “Across every wing in the United States Air Force, some percentage of that wing is gone all the time. And they continue rotating into a very mature fight, that has mature infrastructure, basing, command and control, all that’s been in place for a number of years. And so I’m able to take down to individual airmen, train them up and send them in, and they roll into this very mature infrastructure.”

“I don’t believe that’s going to work in the next conflict,” he continued. “Because I may need to take whole units led by a squadron commander, send them forward into a contested environment, have them cut off from ‘Mom and Dad,’ or higher headquarters, and then ask them to be able to make the kind of decisions and risk calculus that they need to be able to make to continue to maintain campaign momentum in a different kind of fight.”

The Air Force has to prepare its commanders for that scenario by giving them the authority to make decisions on day-to-day matters, according to the memo. To do so, higher-level major commands, numbered Air Forces, and wing commanders will work with Air Force staff to write the new decision authorities into AFIs and other regulations, the memo said, and MAJCOMs will work those changes into exercises and daily training.

Growing leaders

The Air Force also wants to make several changes to better grow and train squadron leaders, starting at the flight level.

Flights, which are subsets of squadrons of varying size, often provide airmen their first experience at leadership.

“The path to exceptional squadron commanders begins by investing in our flight commanders,” the memo said.

Wing commanders have been ordered to set up courses for flight commanders or other leaders to teach them about key skills and develop their leadership abilities, the memo said.

Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base has also been ordered to develop a Squadron Commander Foundational Course to prepare officers, as well as civilians in similar roles, for squadron command. Wing commanders will identify field grade officers with high potential for command to attend this course, which will teach them “foundational tools and skills required to thrive in command.” Graduates will also be offered further opportunities to hone their leadership skills before taking command of a squadron, the memo said.

Goldfein stressed the importance of growing strong squadron commanders, and getting them used to making decisions before the shooting starts.

“The most important thing we’re doing is to develop and place in command inspirational leaders, and task them in peacetime to give them the decision authority to be able to make risk calculation and decisions,” Goldfein said. “We fight like we train, and I need them ready to go forward tomorrow. This whole focus on squadrons is about joint warfighting excellence, first and foremost.”

Squadron leadership will gain authority to administer fitness tests. Here, Staff Sgt. Gabriel Cuevas, 99th Security Forces Squadron, takes part in a combat fitness challenge at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, May 16. (Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum/Air Force))
Squadron leadership will gain authority to administer fitness tests. Here, Staff Sgt. Gabriel Cuevas, 99th Security Forces Squadron, takes part in a combat fitness challenge at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, May 16. (Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum/Air Force))

Fitness and lethality

Another revitalization proposal calls for giving squadron leadership the authority to administer fitness tests.

“Squadrons that set a high standard for both unit and individual fitness are more lethal and ready to win and have higher esprit de corps as the pride of the unit improves commensurate with its level of fitness,” the memo said. “As the one who sets and re-enforces the standard every day with actions, words and deed, the commander must set the example in this critical warfighting imperative.”

This only makes sense, said John Venable, an Air Force veteran and defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation.

“If you can’t have a squadron commander have the authority to administer a physical fitness test for his people, you kind of wonder what authority level they actually do have,” Venable said. “That’s so far out of touch with where we should be that [Goldfein’s] move to bring it back is a move in the right direction.”

Carlisle agreed that giving squadron commanders a stronger hand to run things is the way to go.

“The person that knows best about execution of the mission and taking care of his people is the squadron commander,” Carlisle said. “He’s there every day. He walks into the office, he knows the people by name, he knows the mission, we pick the folks who are expert in the mission. He’s closest to the challenges and closest to what it means to be successful.”

Manning

The revitalization plan also highlights a manning imbalance that has grown in the Air Force over the past quarter-century or so. While the Air Force has cut more than 300,000 airmen since 1991, only a handful of squadrons folded up operations in the process.

In fact, as the Air Force added more cyber, space, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, the overall number of squadrons across the total force actually grew from 3,013 in 2001 to more than 3,400, according to the memo.

While many squadrons have weathered massive reductions in manpower — the smallest today comprises just six airmen, the largest has 1,539, and the rest vary wildly in size between those two extremes — technological advancements have added more missions onto their plates.

Goldfein, Wilson and Wright have ordered the Air Force to take another look at how many people its squadrons have and what is being asked of them, and strike a new balance. That means reconsidering what is the right blend of active, Guard, reserve and civilian manpower for each squadron by updating their “unit manning documents,” and by also updating their “mission designed operational capability statements.”

The Air Force will look for places to consolidate and otherwise reduce the number of squadrons so airmen aren’t stretched as thin and are focused on the highest-priority missions.

This will hopefully lead to more manpower for squadrons, Carlisle said.

Happier at home

The plan calls for improving life for airmen and their families, especially when arriving at their first squadrons, by strengthening the key spouse and civic leader programs. The Air Force is also looking to improve the way certain programs work with squadron command teams. These include programs aimed at preventing suicide, sexual assault and domestic violence, as well as those that support airmen who have suffered physical and psychological injuries from war, as well as their families.

Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who worked with Goldfein on the squadron initiative during her last months running the service, said she is glad to see the plan continues cutting so-called “queep,” or useless duties, training and requirements, and continues pushing decision-making authority down to the squadron level. Air Force leadership should continue down this path, she said.

James noted that the Air Force has moved to give squadron commanders more funding to pay for morale and other programs to benefit their airmen and families.

Carlisle believes the Air Force should give squadron commanders more of a say in which airmen are tapped for deployments, or follow-on assignments. Those decisions are often made at a higher level, he said.

It wouldn’t always work out, he acknowledged. But a squadron commander would know if a particular airman is facing a personal challenge, such as a sick parent or spouse, that would make a deployment particularly difficult, and should be able to suggest sending another airman in his place.

“Squadrons understand life situations,” Carlisle said. “The more of that authority you can push down to the squadron that knows the people [the better]. We ought to give first right, and give a big vote at that squadron level.”