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September 24, 2018

Air Force Expansion Is Only a Beginning

We’d still have less than half the number of fighter squadrons than at the end of the Cold War.

At the 2018 Air Space Cyber Exposition held by the Air Force Association in National Harbor, Maryland, some big news broke. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson called for the addition of 74 more squadrons, according to the Air Force Times. The purpose is to be more prepared for war with “a major power” (read Russia or Communist China).

Of these new squadrons, five would be for bombers (most likely the forthcoming B-21 Raider), seven would be for fighters (F-35s being the most likely option), one would be for transport planes (like the C-17 Globemaster III), two would be for drones like the MQ-9 Reaper that got justice for Malala, 14 would be for tankers (probably the new KC-46), seven would be space squadrons (likely head over to the new Space Force), nine would be for combat search-and-rescue (flying HH-60 Pave Hawks and C-130s), and seven would be special-operations squadrons. There are also plans to add 22 squadrons for command, control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

How to view this? A good start. But only a start. Even if this expansion takes place, there would only be 62 fighter squadrons. We’ve seen a constant decline in the force structure of the Air Force since the end of the Cold War. In 1989, there were far more units, as this order of battle notes. We had 24 squadrons of bombers and 131 fighter squadrons between the active Air Force, the Air Force Reserve, and the Air National Guard back then.

So, after this buildup, we’d still have less than half the number of fighter squadrons than what we had at the end of the Cold War. Of course, thanks to precision-guided weapons, today’s fighters can hit more targets, but there is a problem — each plane needs to be more than in two places at once. That’s going to be problematic, to say the least, against Russia and China.

The fact is, numbers matter, and not just in the sense of matching the enemy plane-for-plane. With the exception of squadrons forward-deployed to places like South Korea and Europe, most of the squadrons rotate to operating theaters like Afghanistan and Iraq. More squadrons means that the units do not have to deploy as often.

That has two effects. First, with more time away from the front, it will improve readiness in the form of maintenance — keeping the fighters in top shape. The second advantage is that the units can train more as well, and their fighting edge will be sharper — either for a major war or for their next deployment.

A third effect could be to allow the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard to truly be what they were in the Cold War: A backup to the active force in the case of a major war, a reserve to throw into battle to help hold the line — or to tip the fight in our favor. But that’s not what it is today. Presently, these units are in a regular deployment rotation — one that is on a longer scale than the active-duty units, but still counted on to fill certain roles on a regular basis. As a result, our ability to deter aggression has been compromised.

Now, there is still that fighter squadron gap between 131 and 62. How would we get the planes to fill out those 69 additional squadrons? The answer comes in restarting production of two planes — the F-22 Raptor and the A-10 Thunderbolt. That should be done while continuing to build F-15E Strike Eagles (currently built for export customers). Similarly, the bomber force can be helped with getting the B-21 on the line, but also by re-starting B-1 Lancer production. As a side benefit to bolstering our force structure, this will also kick our economic recovery into high gear.

We did not get to the current state of our military overnight. While Secretary of Defense James Mattis has made a very good start in turning that around, readiness is not just about getting what we have in shape to fight — it’s about having enough forces so you can fight and deter other bad actors elsewhere.

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