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Air Force Wants 350K Airmen by 2024

Basic trainees march to the parade grounds for their graduation from Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Photo by Cecilio Ricardo/Courtesy U.S. Air Force
Basic trainees march to the parade grounds for their graduation from Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Photo by Cecilio Ricardo/Courtesy U.S. Air Force

The Air Force is putting forth its wishlist to expand its active-duty force to 350,000 airmen over the next seven years, two senior service officials have disclosed to Military.com

"I'm convinced that the Air Force we need is going to be about 350,000 airmen," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in a statement that first appeared in USA Today.

"We got too small, too fast. We're too big an Air Force with too many programs for the budget that we have, and way too small an Air Force for what the nation is asking its Air Force to do," Goldfein said.

The Air Force is doubling down on its quest to expand the force after years of cutbacks. The push for the increase comes as President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to rebuild and increase the size of the military.

"This is what we think we need as an Air Force," one official later said on Wednesday during a phone call.

The officials said without the "balanced increase," leadership will have to look at eliminating some mission sets.

"This will not be overnight growth," he said. "If we don't have a way to get ourselves additional resources you're going to look for alternate ways to do this -- shedding of missions, becoming more efficient. Certainly in the posture we're in today, with the task that we have to do and the toll it takes on our airmen, it's a long-term unsustainable glide slope," the official said.

While the officials said the service needs to grow across the entire force, it will focus on particular mission sets, specifically cyber, maintenance, nuclear and space enterprises; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance "play a role in each of those."

The Air Force in recent years has pinpointed these fields as high-priority missions among new and emerging threats; this year, however, the service also found itself behind the eight ball when it disclosed a growing fighter pilot shortage beyond 700 fighter pilots.

The officials could not put a price tag on the increase across the force, but said it would likely be "in the billions."

The U.S. Air Force is already poised to add 4,000 more airmen to its ranks next year -- but no extra warplanes to its arsenal -- under a compromise version of the defense authorization bill negotiated earlier this month. The current growth will cost roughly $145 million, according to Air Force Times.

The move would boost the Air Force's authorized end-strength for the active component to 321,000 airmen, according to a summary document on the negotiated fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.

The latest numbers surpass the 324,000 the service already plans to build by the end of fiscal 2018.

Officials said the Reserve and Guard components remain relatively steady, but aren't ruling out changes in the future.

"You've heard our chief, the secretary focus on the need to grow the size of the Air Force [but] the specifics are still being flushed out now," one official said when asked if the latest numbers have been brought forth to Trump's Pentagon transition team.

Budgetary incentives -- such as retainment programs and bonuses -- for some of the careers are also in flux, they said.

In June, then-chief Gen. Mark Welsh argued that the service's "pace of this support is wearing people out," and in order for the Air Force to sustain its missions, "to get to 100 percent manning, or close to … my guess is 40,000 to 60,000 more people" are needed, he said during a speech at an Air Force Association event in the Washington, D.C.-area.

"People are a limiting factor right now," Welsh said at the time, "and adding more burden to them in any way, shape or form is a bad idea."

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Welsh later expanded on the idea in an interview with Defense News,"If you look at just bedding down the F-35 over the next 15-20 years, it's going to take 30,000 airmen.

"If we want to expand RPA wings, it's going to take 5-10,000 people to expand that mission area. If we want to take all the mission areas in the Air Force that are currently manned at 85 percent and plus them up to 100 percent, it's going to be more airmen.

"So I don't think the number is outrageous," Welsh said.

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