The retiring Air Force chief of staff says the service needs as many as 60,000 more airmen to accomplish today's missions.
Mark Welsh participated in June 24 retirement ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, though his last official day on active duty is Friday. He recently sat down with Defense News' Aaron Mehta for an interview at the Pentagon.
The Air Force's active-duty component is budgeted to remain flat at 317,000 airmen from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1, according to budget documents. Welsh said the service plans to increase in size to 321,000 by fiscal 2019 and eventually hold steady around 324,000 -- but needs anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 more to meet mission requirements.
"We've been talking about under-manning in different career fields," he said, according to a video of the interview. "We've been talking about adding new capability when we weren't being allowed to divest old capability. We've been talking about expanding space, cyber, [remotely piloted aircraft] capability and someone asked me, 'Well, how many airmen would it take to be able to do all that?' and I said, 'I don't know -- 40,000 to 60,000 would be a guess.'
"If you look at just bedding down the F-35 over the next 15-20 years, it's going to take 30,000 airmen," Welsh added. "If we're not allowed to divest the airmen who are doing other things today for our Air Force to put against the F-35 fleet, you start with 30,000 more that are required. 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," he said. "Now, are we going to get 40-60,000 airmen? No, we don't expect that. But the question I was asked was how many would it take." And even with 324,000 airmen, the Air Force will still be a "highly stressed" force, he said.
While the limited headcount won't affect U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Afghanistan, or ISIS, "it will affect retention over time," Welsh said. "It will affect stress on the force. And from my perspective, that's not healthy."