New or Used: The Air Force's Two Tricky Paths to 386 Operational Squadrons

A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and F-16 Fighting Falcons perform an 'elephant walk' on the runway at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. The A-10s are the 25th Fighter Squadron "Draggins" and the F-16s are the 36th Fighter Squadron "Fiends" from the 51st Fighter Wing. Additional F-16s are the 179th Fighter Squadron "Bulldogs" from the 148th Fighter Wing out of Duluth Air National Guard Base, Minnesota. (US Air Force photo/Travis Edwards)
A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and F-16 Fighting Falcons perform an 'elephant walk' on the runway at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. The A-10s are the 25th Fighter Squadron "Draggins" and the F-16s are the 36th Fighter Squadron "Fiends" from the 51st Fighter Wing. Additional F-16s are the 179th Fighter Squadron "Bulldogs" from the 148th Fighter Wing out of Duluth Air National Guard Base, Minnesota. (US Air Force photo/Travis Edwards)

The U.S. Air Force will soon need to make a decision on whether its plan to grow to 386 operational squadrons should focus on procuring top-of-the-line equipment and aircraft, or stretching the legs of some of its oldest warplanes even longer, experts say.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced in September that the service wants at least 74 additional squadrons over the next decade. What service brass don't yet know is what could fill those squadrons.

Some say the Air Force will have to choose between quantity -- building up strength for additional missions around the globe -- or quality, including investment in better and newer equipment and warfighting capabilities. It's not likely the service will get the resources to pursue both.

"It's quite a big bite of the elephant, so to speak," said John "JV" Venable, a senior research fellow for defense policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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Wilson's Sept. 17 announcement mapped out a 25 percent increase in Air Force operational squadrons, with the bulk of the growth taking place in those that conduct command and control; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and tanker refueling operations.

She broke down the planned plus-up as follows:

  • 5 additional bomber squadrons
  • 7 more fighter squadrons
  • 7 additional space squadrons
  • 14 more tanker squadrons
  • 7 special operations squadrons
  • 9 combat search-and-rescue squadrons
  • 22 squadrons that conduct command and control and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance
  • 2 remotely piloted aircraft squadrons
  • 1 more airlift squadron

Venable, who flew F-16 Fighting Falcons throughout his 25-year Air Force career, estimated that buying new aircraft such KC-46 Pegasus tankers, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and newer C-17 Globemaster IIIs for the squadron build-up could set the Air Force back some $81 billion on plane costs alone.

An additional 14 airlift squadrons using C-17s could cost roughly $4 billion; five bomber squadrons of fifth-generation B-21 Raider bombers would cost roughly $28 billion; and seven additional fighter squadrons of either F-22 Raptors or F-35s would be $14.5 billion, Venable said, citing his own research.

"Tanker aircraft, that was the biggest increase in squadron size, a significant amount of aircraft [that it would take for 14 squadrons] ... comes out to $33.81 billion," he said.

By Venable's estimates, it would require a mix of nearly 500 new fighter, bomber, tanker and airlift aircraft to fill the additional units. That doesn't include the purchase new helicopters for the combat-search-and-rescue mission, nor remotely piloted aircraft for the additional drone squadron the service wants.

And because the Air Force wants to build 386 squadrons in a 10-year stretch, new aircraft would require expedited production. For example, Boeing Co. would need to churn out 20 KC-46 tankers a year, up from the 15 per year the Air Force currently plans to buy, Venable said.

The service says it will need roughly 40,000 airmen and personnel to achieve these goals by the 2030 timeframe. Venable said the personnel that come with these missions would cost an additional $64 billion over the next decade.

The Air Force thus would be spending closer to $15 billion per year on these components of its 386-squadron plan, he said.

New vs. Old

In light of recent Defense Department spending fiascos such as the Joint Strike Fighter, which cost billions more than estimated and faced unanticipated delays, some think the Air Force should focus on extending the life of its current aircraft, rather than buying new inventory.

The Air Force will not be able to afford such a buildup of scale along with the modernization programs it already has in the pipeline for some of its oldest fighters, said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Harrison was first to estimate it would cost roughly $13 billion a year to execute a 74-squadron buildup, tweeting the figure shortly after Wilson's announcement.

If the Air Force wants to increase squadrons quickly, buying new isn't the way to go, Harrison told Military.com. The quickest way to grow the force the service wants would be to stop retiring the planes it already has, he said.

"I'm not advocating for this, but ... as you acquire new aircraft and add to the inventory, don't retire the planes you were supposed to be replacing," said Harrison.

"That doesn't necessarily give you the capabilities that you're looking for," he added, saying the service might have to forego investment in more fifth-generation power as a result.

By holding onto legacy aircraft, the Air Force might be able to achieve increased operational capacity while saving on upfront costs the delays associated with a new acquisition process, Harrison said.

The cost of sustaining older aircraft, or even a service-life extension program "is still going to be much less than the cost of buying brand-new, current-generation aircraft," he said.

Just don't throw hybrid versions or advanced versions of legacy aircraft into the mix.

It has been reported the Air Force is not only considering an advanced "F-15X" fourth-plus generation fighter for its inventory, but is also open to an F-22/F-35 fifth-generation hybrid concept.

"That would just complicate the situation even more," Harrison said.

Venable agreed.

"Why would you ever invest that much money and get a fourth-generation platform when you could up the volume and money into the F-35 pot?" Venable said.

Running the numbers

Focusing on squadron numbers as a measure of capability may not be the right move for the Air Force, Harrison said.

The Navy announced a similar strategy in 2016, calling for a fleet of 355 ships by the 2030s. But counting ships and counting squadrons are two different matters, he said.

"While it's an imperfect metric, you can at least count ships," Harrison said. "A squadron is not a distinct object. It's an organization construct and [each] varies significantly, even within the same type of aircraft."

Still less clear, he said, is what the Air Force will need in terms of logistics and support for its planned buildup.

Harrison estimates that the aircraft increase could be even more than anticipated, once support and backup is factored in.

For example, if it's assumed the squadrons will stay about the same size they are today, with between 10 and 24 aircraft, "you're looking at an increase [in] total inventory of about 1,100 to 1,200" planes when keeping test and backup aircraft in mind, he said.

A squadron typically has 500 to 600 personnel, including not just pilots, but also support members needed to execute the unit's designated mission, he said. Add in all those jobs, and it's easy to reach the 40,000 personnel the Air Force wants to add by the 2030 timeframe.

"It's difficult to say what is achievable here, or what the Air Force's real endstate is," said Brian Laslie, an Air Force historian who has written two books: "The Air Force Way of War" and "Architect of Air Power."

"[But] I also think the senior leaders look at the current administration and see a time to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak," Laslie told Military.com. "Bottom line: there are not enough squadrons across the board to execute all the missions ... [and] for the first time in decades, the time might be right to ask for more in future budgets."

The way forward

Air Force leaders are having ongoing meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill ahead of a full report, due to Congress next spring, about the service's strategy for growth.

So far, they seem to be gaining slow and steady backing.

Following the service's announcement of plans for a plus-up to 386 operational squadrons, members of the Senate's Air Force Caucus signaled their support.

"The Air Force believes this future force will enable them to deter aggression in three regions (Indo-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East), degrade terrorist and Weapons of Mass Destruction threats, defeat aggression by a major power, and deter attacks on the homeland," the caucus said in a letter authored by Sens. John Boozman, R-Arkansas; John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "We are encouraged by the Air Force's clear articulation of its vision to best posture the service to execute our National Defense Strategy."

For Air Force leadership, the impact of the pace of operations on current and future airmen must also be taken into account.

"Every airman can tell you they are overstretched," Wilson said in late September during an address at The National Press Club.

The secretary said the new plan is not intended to influence the fiscal 2020 budget, but instead to offer "more of a long-term view" on how airmen are going to meet future threats.

"I think we've all known this for some time. The Air Force is too small for what the nation is asking it to do. The Air Force has declined significantly in size ... and it's driving the difficulty in retention of aircrew," Wilson said.

There will be much to consider in the months ahead as the Air Force draws up its blueprint for growth, Laslie said.

"I think the Air Force looks at several things with regard to the operations side of the house: contingency operations, training requirements, and other deployments -- F-22s in Poland, for example -- and there is just not enough aircraft and aircrews to do all that is required," Laslie said. "When you couple this with the demands that are placed on existing global plans, there is just not enough to go around."

It's clear, Laslie said, that the Air Force does need to expand in order to respond to current global threats and demands. The question that remains, though, is how best to go about that expansion.

"There is a recognition amongst senior leaders that 'Do more with less' has reached its limit, and the only way to do more ... is with more," he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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