Just how many fighter jets does the Air Force need? It depends on whom you ask.
The service is looking to grow its fighter fleet to stay competitive against near-peer threats such as Russia and China. To do so, it believes it needs to increase its number of fighter squadrons from 55 to 60.
"We have the same level of tasking today as we did during Desert Storm, and we have 55 squadrons rather than 130 [we had then]," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Tuesday during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
During the hearing, Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein outlined their priorities for the fiscal 2018 budget request along with the Air Force's "unfunded" list, a wish list for additional funding sent to lawmakers each year that could boost readiness and modernization efforts.
This year, the Air Force is asking for an additional $10.7 billion in its wish list. Most notably, the service is asking for 14 more F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, which would bump the 46 aircraft in the FY18 budget request to 60 total.
The service for years has warned of program delays, shortened flight hours, capability gaps and sidelined procurement programs, among other shortfalls in the wake of sequestration and other budget constraints.
Citing the national military strategy, committee chairman Sen. John McCain asked where the service stands on its pilot and jet inventories. Goldfein replied it needs many more of each to be war-ready.
"It's continual to say that it's going to take us approximately eight years to be able to get the full-spectrum readiness with stable budgets," Goldfein said in reference to the total force.
What Will It Take?
In his own white paper published earlier this year, McCain said the service "may require closer to 60 combat squadrons, totaling around 1,500 combat-coded fighter aircraft," which is in line with Goldfein's testimony.
But the real number is actually more like 1,350, an Air Force spokeswoman said.
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"We have 1,145 combat-coded fighters now," Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek told Military.com on Tuesday. "The question was, how many do you need? And you can answer that in various ways."
Stefanek said moving to 60 squadrons is the goal for the Air Force, which equates to moving from the current 1,145 to a minimum of 1,350 combat-coded jets. "We all know we have a finite amount of money so, even though we need a minimum of 1,350, our budgets don't support that" in the short term, she said. "That's why it's hard to talk to."
To be clear, 1,145 jets isn't the total inventory of fighter aircraft the service owns today. "The current Total Aircraft Inventory is 1,970 fighters," Air Force officials said in an email.
Stefanek explained that if someone were to go out to every flightline the Air Force operates and count each individual jet, they'd total 1,970. Congress directed the service through the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2016 to maintain at least 1,900 fighter jets past 2021.
Roughly 825 jets are part of "test, training, weapons school, developmental test, backup inventory -- all the other fighters that are in the inventory that are not combat-coded, where you have money and manpower ready to go against a war plan," she said.
The Air Force will never move its training assets to make them combat-coded, explained John "JV" Venable, a senior research fellow for defense policy at The Heritage Foundation. Venable flew F-16 Fighting Falcons throughout his 25-year Air Force career.
"You can't kill the system which generates the golden eggs for you -- the pilots that go and fill the lines," Venable told Military.com on Wednesday. "You'll always have to have it in place.
"Develop the pipeline that will allow us to generate the personnel that will come in to replace pilots and maintainers," that the Air Force will lose to attrition over the years, he said. "It's not expanding it in anyway, it's just making it healthy and sustainable."
Fix the Force First
Before he became president, Donald Trump told audiences in September, "We will build an Air Force of at least 1,200 fighter aircraft," confusing those who knew the Air Force already had more than that.
"That number … didn't match," Stefanek said, but added, "Well yeah, we have 1,900 fighters. They're not ready … to go, people not ready and trained to go to fight -- that's the difference."
The Air Force's spending plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 totals $183 billion, a 7 percent increase from the current year, with hikes planned for all accounts except military construction.
In the 2018 fiscal budget, the service plans to buy a total of 46 F-35As, the service's variant of the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made fifth-generation stealth fighter, designed for taking off and landing on conventional runways.
Should the service get its wish, those extra 14 fighters in the unfunded list could increase the fiscal 2018 buy to 60, coming closer to the planned purchase of 1,763 jets total.
Because the Air Force plans to keep much of its legacy fleet -- such as F-16s, F-15 Eagles (although the C/D models are still up for debate), and F-22 Raptors -- flying for years to come, it's going to take a mix of fourth-generation and fifth-generation fighters to fill the service's desired squadron boost.
Venable said critics have to look beyond moving numbers around on a piece of paper or new aircraft "buy rates" and look instead to the people who fly.
"We need fighter squadrons ready to deploy and [that] are fully combat capable, and that's the challenge that was kind of the elephant in the room yesterday," Venable said, referring to Tuesday's SASC hearing.
"The Air Force really is a hollow force. And it's hollow because of the things [Goldfein] mentioned: training, personnel and equipment. Our fighter force is operating at a sortie-per-aircraft rate, so our ability to fly an airplane a number of times per any given month -- that rate is below what it was during the Carter administration."
Venable said Goldfein and Air Force leadership have the right picture in mind in terms of "plus-ing up" the fighter and maintainer force first in order to sustain current operations.
Goldfein said the service projects it will be 1,300 fighter pilots short by the end of fiscal 2017.
The Air Force will have to "peanut butter spread" the amount of money it has been given even as it acquires new aircraft such as the F-35, Venable said.
"General Goldfein needs more money," he said, adding all the military branches have the same concern.
The Heritage Foundation this year released a report on the national military index, recommending the budget for Air Force operation and maintenance (O&M) funding should "increase by 4 percent in 2018, and a total of 20 percent over the next five years."
"We bring readiness back to [a healthy] level," with that funding, Venable said.
"The Budget Control Act needs to be repealed. Democrats and Republicans alike have to come and realize where we are -- that wake-up call has got to come from Congress," he said.
"Because you can't get a service chief to come forward and tell the world he's not ready to go to war," Venable said.