The Air Force is entering what leaders say could be its most transformational period in a generation, as the service looks to position itself as a global powerhouse for decades to come.

If their vision comes true, the Air Force would enter the 2030s as a smaller but more flexible force that is better positioned to win America’s wars, with sharper leaders and savvier airmen.

Just give it time.

“You’re going to see more change in the next four to six years than I’ve seen in my entire over-30-year career,” Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass told Air Force Times Aug. 28.

Facing its first period of relative stability since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks kicked off more than 20 years of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, the Air Force is seizing the opportunity to overhaul everything from how it trains and promotes its members, to the jobs they hold and how they deploy overseas.

Those updates come amid a historic downturn in recruiting, which saw the Air Force miss its annual goal across all three components for the first time since 1999, and growing concerns that China’s bid to outpace America as a global superpower could lead to war.

“We want China to succeed, but to succeed by working within the rules that benefit all nations, including China,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in a Sept. 11 keynote address at the Air and Space Forces Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference outside Washington.

“If our power projection capability and capacity are not adequate to deter Chinese aggression, against Taiwan or elsewhere, war could occur,” he said. “If it does, and we cannot prevail, the results could cast a long shadow.”

Restructuring the force

Understanding the big picture starts with numbers.

After plunging to around 311,000 active duty troops in 2015, the Air Force has rebuilt its workforce to hover around 325,000 members — far below its Cold War peak of around 608,000 airmen in 1986.

Service leaders say that’s enough to handle today’s largely peacetime mission. But fighting another country whose military capabilities rival that of the U.S. will require something better.

“We are … asked to do a mission [that] we are not able to, based on our workforce,” Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller, the Air Force’s personnel chief, told Air Force Times Sept. 8.

But neither Miller nor Bass said they buy the argument that the Air Force doesn’t have enough people. Instead, they said, the service needs to use its manpower differently.

“I’m not convinced that we don’t have enough airmen,” Bass said. “We need to make sure that we’re focused on what the Air Force needs to look like and [if] we have the programs in place to … win our nation’s wars.”

Last year, the Air Force began an intensive effort to undo its top-heavy enlisted corps that it believes lacks enough experience in middle management and has too few lower-level troops for daily grunt work.

Ideally, the Air Force says, the project will create a robust corps of midlevel enlisted to manage a larger pool of younger airmen. If the plan works, half of the enlisted Air Force will occupy the ranks of E-4 or below.

In its first year, the effort has shrunk the number of master sergeant and technical sergeant jobs by 0.5% each, and 0.6% of staff sergeant jobs — shedding several hundred of those billets in total, according to figures provided to Air Force Times. Conversely, the E-4 corps grew by 2.2%, or about 1,300 senior airmen.

Master Sgt. Deana Heitzman, an Air Force spokesperson, said that because of higher than expected retention, the service ended up with more noncommissioned officers — staff sergeants and technical sergeants — than planned in 2023, despite plummeting promotion rates to those grades.

The service still needs to cut 0.2% of its senior airman jobs; 1.4% of its staff sergeant jobs; and 1.5% of its technical sergeant jobs, to meet its goals in fiscal 2025.

“The Air Force has continued to make progress towards the desired grade structure and restoring noncommissioned officer experience,” Heitzman said Aug. 30. “The Air Force continues to advance toward the FY25 target.”

On the officer side, tailoring the promotion system to be more responsive to the needs of each career field has helped higher-caliber airmen stand out from their peers and started to even out manning across fields, Miller argued.

How airmen are judged for promotions is changing, too. The Air Force has begun emphasizing interpersonal skills and technical expertise and stopped considering how long someone has been in the service, among other tweaks to the software they use and when they file job reviews each year.

Leaders want to know: “Can you communicate? Can you set a strategic plan? Can you make sure that your airmen are ready?” Miller said.

“Previously, it was whatever you wanted to say,” she said of performance reviews. “‘You did great at the chili cookoff,’ or whatever. It did not matter.”

Now it should be easier for supervisors to see if an airman is lacking a particular skill, or missing crucial job experience.

“We can have a much more robust conversation based on what we value,” Miller said.

Time will tell whether well-rounded airmen begin moving up the ladder more often.

But the transition has not been easy. Some enlisted airmen have taken to social media to grumble about failing to meet a higher bar for promotion, despite studying for the battery of tests on which midlevel troops are judged and compiling what they believe are impressive resumes and performance reviews.

Some said they’ll consider separating from the Air Force instead of being stuck at lower ranks. Others encouraged their wingmen to stick it out and focus on personal goals, whether they earn another stripe or not.

One Reddit user argued that low promotion rates demoralize airmen who are passed over despite a “promote now” or “must promote” recommendation from their supervisors.

“You end up with dudes with ‘promote now’ and years of solid service being told ‘you still are not good enough,’” user FlyingThrowAway2009 wrote in August 2022. “It is straight up insulting.”

Bass urged airmen to consider the broader needs of the service and their field instead of making rank.

“More experience is a good thing,” Bass said. “I think that we will see the fruits of our labor as time goes on.”

The next generation

The military’s recent recruiting slump further complicates that process. Billets that move to the lowest enlisted ranks can sit empty without a steady flow of airmen through boot camp and technical school.

About 39,000 new enlistees joined the Air Force in fiscal 2023. More than 3,800 of them came in under a program that offers thousands of dollars in bonus pay for entering the service’s most in-need fields, like special warfare and cyber operations, Heitzman said.

Recruiters will try to improve on that performance as they drive toward a loftier goal of 25,900 active duty recruits in fiscal 2024.

It’s unclear how the service’s failure to bring nearly 48,000 enlisted airmen into the active duty Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve this year will affect operations at home and abroad.

Missing the goal this year is likely to stress communities that are already chronically undermanned and may hinder some of the Air Force’s broader force management initiatives.

Bass indicated it will place further burden on noncommissioned officers to pick up the slack of a smaller cadre of newcomers — something else to juggle amid the other effects of enlisted force restructuring.

“We are … looking for what impacts we’re going to have and how to lessen that impact at the most tactical level,” Bass said. “What it’s going to mean is that our NCO corps shoulders the challenges.”

Air Force Recruiting Service leaders warned in April that lagging recruitment would exacerbate a shortfall of 1,800 maintainers, 700 security forces, 300 munitions specialists, 100 fuel experts and more.

“Airmen will almost certainly be asked to work longer hours, cover more shifts and make sacrifices in their personal lives to meet the mission demands essential to our national security,” Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, who retired in June as the service’s recruiting chief, wrote to the force. “The nation is depending on us.”

Get in, stay in

Once Americans join the Air Force, it’s up to the military keep them.

The Air Force retained about 93% of its officers and 90% of enlisted airmen in fiscal 2023, Heitzman said. Those numbers are on par with retention rates over the past several years.

That’s a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy personnel outlook, leaders said: When people join the Air Force, they tend to stay.

The service is trying to ward off any sharp dips in those numbers by offering bonuses to stay in uniform and multiple programs to improve airmen’s quality of life.

Around 900 airmen have opted to reenlist since April under the latest enlisted retention bonus program, Heitzman said.

More than 870 aviators have signed new contracts to extend their time in service under a pair of programs created to keep pilots in uniform. Nearly 7 in 10 officers who are in their last year of the time they promised the Air Force after finishing flight school have opted to stay longer.

Gen. David Allvin, the Air Force’s current vice chief of staff who is nominated to lead the service, told lawmakers Sept. 12 the service has issued waivers to allow enlisted airmen to remain in uniform past their “high year of tenure,” or the year they must retire if they are not promoted to the next rank.

The Air Force has also asked outside researchers to identify other ways to retain airmen. Service leaders acknowledge that tackling tough problems, like ensuring that troops have sufficient pay, health care, child care and food, are part of that solution.

Katherine Kuzminski, a military personnel expert at the Center for a New American Security, raised the possibility that a now-resolved funding snafu, which caused the Air Force to pause airmen’s moves to new bases and bonus pay programs, could have a chilling effect on retention.

The service must offer airmen and their families stability through “effective forecasting and the predictable and consistent application of policy and process,” especially in stressful situations like moving, she said in an email.

Keeping people in uniform is one step toward making the military’s workload more bearable. Another is ensuring that people are effectively distributed across those jobs, whether at the national or local level.

Speaking to reporters Sept. 12, Air Force Reserve boss Lt. Gen. John Healy recalled a recent town hall where airmen complained about their growing list of duties.

That typically happens in units that have a glut of people in certain roles but too few in others, he said. But it’s a problem he can’t control.

“I was like, ‘You’re 113% manned right now. You have overages in the spots that you don’t need them,’” Healy said. “‘What do you want me to do? Balance the units.’”

‘Break the AFSC structure’

Now the service must make the most of the people it has.

Leaders see the mid- to late-2020s as a crossroads at which the Air Force needs to embrace the digital age or lose its future wars. On top of bolstering the NCO corps and training airmen to think strategically, that means taking a critical look at what tomorrow’s jobs entail.

Air Force officials are considering what the overall pool of jobs should look like, and how to distribute troops among them. Those talks come as the service plans to retire hundreds of its stalwart airframes, some without direct replacements, and repurpose airmen into new missions.

Other aircraft that are replacing older models, like the C-130J Super Hercules airlifters and EC-37B Compass Call, require fewer crew members onboard. What to do with those troops?

Bass argues the Air Force could stand to lose some specialties. She believes there are too many Air Force Specialty Codes overall, and too few in areas like information warfare and cyber operations.

The service should look decades into the future to decide what skills will be most important and start building those career fields now, she said.

Asked what success would look like, Bass said it’s too early to tell.

“The working groups that we have set up right now that incorporate some of our futurists, and the people who are thinking deeply about the mission sets and the weapon systems that we have, are all doing some of that homework,” she said.

Bass has also asked the Air Force’s career field managers to consider what their jobs might look like in 10 years — or if they’re still needed at all.

Miller suggested airmen could see the types of careers being offered begin to change in the next two to three years.

Assignments could become less specialized, she said, or require airmen to hold different certifications. The goal is to shrink the Air Force’s overseas footprint by packaging a smaller number of airmen with a greater set of skills into a deployed unit.

That’s part of a larger push to turn the Air Force into an organization that prioritizes support to combatant commanders around the world over staffing home bases.

“I don’t know where we’re going to end,” Miller said. “It may be that we completely break the AFSC structure.”

Airmen will also start to see new career opportunities within specialties as well.

The Air Force will test the possibility of splitting career fields into two tracks: one to build commanders of operational squadrons and one to build subject matter experts. The experiment will begin with cyber operations officers, or the “17D” field, Miller said.

It’s unclear how widely airmen will embrace the idea. In 2018, the service tried a similar approach with mobility pilots that offered airmen the chance to spend their career in the cockpit or to transition into leadership roles. Just two people applied for the “flying-only” track.

The Air Force hasn’t considered bringing back that program, Allvin told Congress in September.

Whether the service’s ambitious slate of reforms lead to the outcomes it wants remains to be seen. But officials say they’re already starting to see airmen more fully embrace the call to service — to deter enemies and fight when needed.

“I think we have a better sense of why we wear this uniform, and what we have to do to make sure that every single airman is prepared appropriately … to defend our nation,” Bass said. “The strategic IQ has absolutely increased … and that’s probably what I will be most proud of as the chief master sergeant of the Air Force.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.