Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson this year laid out an ambitious plan for growing the Air Force’s operational squadrons by 24 percent as the service prepares for a possible conflict with a major adversary.
In 2019, the Air Force will make the case to lawmakers for why it needs to hit 386 squadrons, which would be a 74-squadron increase.
In her keynote address at the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber Conference in September, Wilson laid out the service’s “Air Force We Need” proposal, in which she described what the service needs to fight a peer adversary and win — while still defending the homeland, providing a credible nuclear deterrent, countering a medium-sized rogue nation, and fighting violent extremists such as the Islamic State.
Such an expansion would also require tens of thousands of additional people. The Air Force said in September that it now has about 670,000 active-duty airmen, Guardsmen, reservists and civilians, and by fiscal 2023, the number of personnel is expected to rise to 685,000. The 74 additional squadrons could also bring another 40,000 airmen and civilians, which would result in a total force of roughly 725,000.
The growth would include seven new fighter squadrons, 22 new command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance squadrons, 14 new tanker squadrons, five new bomber squadrons, and nine new combat search and rescue squadrons.
It would also include seven new special operations squadrons, one new airlift squadron and two new remotely piloted aircraft squadrons.
But many details on what that squadron growth would look like remain to be determined.
Wilson said at the conference that the Air Force is still working on about a half-dozen more studies for Congress that would spell out issues such as what kind of additional planes, and how many, would be needed for the squadron growth.
Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, the Air Force personnel chief, said in September that the Air Force had not yet decided on the “mix” of new airmen needed, including where they would serve. However, he stressed that new squadrons would not cannibalize airmen from existing squadrons.
Of course, this ambitious plan will require more funding for years to come.
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.