The Air Force last summer unveiled — with great fanfare — its plan to expand the number of operational squadrons by nearly one-quarter.
But the proposed fiscal 2020 budget released Tuesday shows no progress toward fulfilling the “Air Force We Need” proposal, which calls for adding 74 new operational squadrons by 2030. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said last September that growing to 386 squadrons is necessary to prepare for a potential conflict with a peer adversary, as well as defend the homeland, maintain a nuclear deterrent, counter a medium-sized rogue nation, and defeat violent extremists such as the Islamic State.
Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, said at a briefing at the Pentagon Tuesday that the Air Force’s current 312 squadrons “continue to be in very high demand, employing unrivaled air, space and cyber power from over 179 locations across the globe.”
The 2020 budget doesn’t directly fund additional squadrons to build toward Wilson’s goal, Pletcher said. But it does “set the conditions for success by fielding, faster and smarter, the technology and innovation that will allow us to achieve a strategic advantage over near-peer competitors.”
When asked if the lack of funding for new squadrons is a sign that the 74-squadron goal might be dead, Pletcher said, “Not at all.”
The 2020 budget was being built at the same time the Air Force We Need study was being conducted, Pletcher said, so the budget reflects a 312-squadron force.
Pletcher said the discussion on the 386-squadron proposal will continue over the next few years, and Air Force owes Congress more details on it. He declined to predict whether the fiscal 2021 budget proposal would include funding for more squadrons.
“It is clearly a priority for our secretary, but the FY20 budget was built off the 312 number," Pletcher said.
Wilson’s proposal, which was unveiled at the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber conference, would add seven new fighter squadrons to the 55 already in the Air Force. It would also add nine new combat search-and-rescue squadrons, 14 tanker squadrons, five bomber squadrons, seven space squadrons, and seven special operations squadrons, among others.
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.