The Evolution of the U.S. Air Force: From Glory to Crisis – Underfunded, Underequipped, and Unprepared for High-Intensity Warfare with Rising Adversaries

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Since its establishment in 1947, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) has undergone significant transformations to address evolving global threats and technological advancements. Originally structured around four major components—Strategic Air Command, Tactical Air Command, Air Defense Command, and Military Air Transport Service—the USAF embodied the quintessential mission to “fly, fight, and win.” However, the advent of space as a critical domain in the early 1950s marked the beginning of an expansion in the service’s operational capabilities, particularly in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and command and control (C2).

The creation of the Space Force in December 2019 signified a pivotal shift in the U.S. military’s approach to space and space-related operations. This move saw the transition of space and related personnel assets from the Air Force to the newly formed service. This realignment, as discussed in the 2022 Index of Military Strength, continues to impact the trajectory of the Air Force amidst the ongoing challenges posed by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The establishment of the Space Force brought about significant changes in the Air Force’s mission areas, particularly air and space superiority, ISR, and C2. These areas, traditionally reliant on air-breathing assets, experienced a reduction in capabilities with the separation of space operations. However, these missions remain within the purview of the Department of the Air Force (DAF), allowing the Air Force to concentrate its efforts on core missions in the air and cyber domains.

In the contemporary security environment, the Air Force focuses on five principal missions:

  • Air superiority, with space superiority now under the Space Force;
  • Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance;
  • Mobility and lift;
  • Global strike; and
  • Command and control.

Notably, the post-9/11 era did not see an expansion of the Air Force. Instead, it faced reductions in size as the acquisitions of new aircraft did not compensate for the retirement of older models. The sequestration measures in 2012 further compelled the Air Force to prioritize quality over size, making strategic decisions regarding capacity, capability, and readiness to meet the demands of the war on terrorism and prepare for future challenges.

By 2016, these decisions left the Air Force with only 55 total force fighter squadrons, comprising both Active and Reserve Component squadrons, with markedly low readiness levels. Only a fraction of these squadrons were prepared for conflict with near-peer adversaries, underscoring the need for a strategic reassessment of force structure and readiness.

Responding to the evolving geopolitical landscape, the 2018 National Defense Strategy underscored the necessity for the U.S. military services, including the Air Force, to prepare for large-scale, high-intensity conflicts with peer adversaries. The Air Force’s subsequent analysis, “The Air Force We Need,” advocated for a 25 percent increase in squadrons, proposing an expansion to 386 squadrons to ensure adequate capacity for such contingencies. This expansion was envisioned to include additional fighter, bomber, tanker, and airlift squadrons, indicating a significant enhancement of the Air Force’s operational capabilities.

Parallel to these structural and strategic adjustments, the Air Force leadership emphasized the importance of increased training and flight time for aircrews to maintain high levels of proficiency, especially for operations against advanced adversaries like Russia. This requirement for enhanced training, coupled with the operational demands of contemporary warfare, necessitated a substantial increase in the DAF’s budget. Consequently, between 2017 and 2021, under the Trump Administration, the DAF saw a 31 percent increase in funding, reflecting a decisive commitment to bolstering the Air Force’s readiness and capabilities for the challenges of the 21st century.

As the U.S. Air Force continues to adapt to the shifting dynamics of global power and the increasing importance of space in military operations, its evolution reflects a broader strategic recalibration within the U.S. military. The focus on quality, technological superiority, and domain-specific readiness underscores the USAF’s ongoing commitment to maintaining its edge in a rapidly changing security environment, ensuring that it remains capable of fulfilling its foundational mission to “fly, fight, and win” across all domains of warfare.

SOURCES: Extracted from U.S. Air Force budget summaries for FY 2013-FY 2023. For example: U.S. Department of the Air Force, United States Air Force FY 2013 Budget Overview, February 2012, p.12, https://Wwwsaffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY13/AFD-120209-052.pdf?ver. 2016-08-24-090344-023 (accessed September 19, 2023): U.S. Department of the Air Force Department of the Air Force FY 2023 Bucket Overview, p. 3, https://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY23/SUPPORT JBOB_28Mar_1125_LoRes.pdf?ver=5nrA8bBfhWoUSrvZO9CeHA%3d%3d (accessed September 19, 20231 and Table 1, “Department of the Air Force Budget Summary,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, FY 2024 Department of the Air Force Budget Overview, p. 2, https://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY24/Budget/FY24%20Budget%20 Overview%20Bookpdf?ver1FXW89XqB_YsI6xlwx41A9(3d%3d (accessed September 19, 2023).

Despite the influx of funds intended to augment the U.S. Air Force’s capacity, capability, and readiness, the Department of the Air Force (DAF) prioritized a significant portion of its budget towards research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E). From fiscal year (FY) 2017 to the FY 2024 budget proposal, the DAF allocated a staggering 226 percent increase in its RDT&E budget, escalating from $19.6 billion to $55.4 billion in 2023 dollars. Conversely, the budget for aircraft procurement witnessed a modest uptick of just 8 percent, growing from $18.9 billion to $20.3 billion. This financial strategy underscores a decisive shift towards investing in future technologies and capabilities, albeit at the expense of immediate enhancements in aircraft numbers and flying hours.

The allocation of resources reflects a broader strategic calculus within the Air Force, focusing on long-term technological superiority over near-term force expansion. This decision aligns with the evolving nature of warfare and the anticipation of future conflicts requiring advanced technologies and capabilities. However, this approach has not been without its challenges, particularly in maintaining operational readiness and capacity.

The trend of reduced flying hours further exacerbates these challenges. In FY 2013, following the budgetary constraints imposed by sequestration, the Air Force budgeted for 1.53 million flying hours across all platforms, supplemented by an additional 0.512 million hours from overseas contingency operations, totaling 2.04 million hours. By contrast, the FY 2022 budget accounted for only 1.12 million hours—a 27 percent reduction from 2013 levels. Moreover, the service fell short of this reduced target by 23,000 hours due to cost fluctuations, indicating a significant decrease in operational readiness and training opportunities for aircrew.

The strategic decisions concerning the Air Force’s fleet size further highlight the service’s predicament. Despite the 2018 “The Air Force We Need” study’s conclusion that the service was 25 percent too small for its designated missions, plans were unveiled in April 2022 to cut 1,468 aircraft from the fleet over the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP). This reduction included the accelerated retirement of 646 F-15C, F-16C, and A-10 fighter aircraft, with plans to procure only 246 new aircraft during the same period. In July 2023, an additional 103 F-15Es were slated for retirement, signaling a reduction of nearly 25 percent of the current fleet of 2,092 fighters over the next five years.

This strategic downsizing of the fleet, juxtaposed with a modest increase in procurement and a significant boost in RDT&E spending, illustrates a complex balancing act. The Air Force is navigating the dual imperatives of preparing for future high-end conflicts through technological advancements and maintaining a capable, ready force in the present. The tension between these objectives is evident in the reduction of operational aircraft and flying hours, raising concerns about the Air Force’s ability to meet its current and future mission requirements amidst evolving global threats.

As the Air Force continues to evolve, the implications of these strategic choices will have profound impacts on its operational readiness, capability, and global posture. The focus on RDT&E and the strategic reduction in fleet size and flying hours reflect a calculated risk to prioritize future capabilities over present readiness. This strategy aligns with the anticipation of a new era of warfare, where technological supremacy and advanced capabilities are expected to define the parameters of military effectiveness and strategic deterrence. However, the challenge remains to balance these long-term investments with the immediate needs of maintaining a robust, ready, and capable force to address current global security challenges.

Precision-Guided Munition Expenditures and Programmed Acquisitions

TOTAL MUNITIONS EXPENDED

TypeFY 2017FY 2018FY 2019FY 2020FY 2021FY 2022FY 2023*
JDAM30664546273544004424242034250
HELLFIRE15362110244910191023132110
SDB-I/II450774912893979852355
APKWSunknownunknownunknownunknownunknownunknown866
JASSM ER/XR3601916108012
LGB2763731066078562548565266
ARRW0000020
LRASM0000000
TOTAL380929462119631150810996924510858

TOTAL MUNITIONS ACQUIRED

TypeFY 2017FY 2018FY 2019FY 2020FY 2021FY 2022FY 2023*
JDAM35106360002500016800191912412840
HELLFIRE3629373438594517117651511295
SDB-I/II731262548253320519835837355
APKWS10621687915642132312801111994911
JASSM ER/XR360360390400525390440
LGB0000000
ARRW0000000
LRASM00001200
TOTAL57777539765389326994184162381810858

*Estimates based on programmed expenditures. ** Estimates based on FY 2024 President’s Budget. SOURCES: • Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, written response to Heritage Foundation request for information, May24,2023. • Table 1, “Department of the Air Force Budget Summary,” in U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of the Air Force FY 2024 Budget Overview, p.2, https://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY24/Budget/FY24%20Budget%20Overview%20Book.pdf?ver.AFXW89XqB_ Ys1Gxlwx41AUd%3d (accessed September 18, 2023). • U.S. Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY)2024 Budget Estimates, Air Force, Justification Book Volume 1 of Procurement of Ammunition, Air Force, March 2023, pp. S and 41, https://Wwwsaffm.hq.af.mil/Portals/84/documents/FY24/Procurement/FY24%20 Air%20Force%20Ammunition%20Procurement.pdf?ver=EP4kq6Ly9fXnB_sF66NVMA%3D%3D (accessed September 18, 2023).

The Evolution and Current State of U.S. Air Force Capacity

Historical Context and Cold War Peak

In 1987, at the zenith of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force boasted an impressive inventory reflective of the era’s high geopolitical tensions. This period was characterized by a massive buildup aimed at ensuring superiority over the Soviet Union, with active-duty numbers at 3,082 fighters, 331 bombers, 576 air refueling, and 331 strategic airlift platforms. The strategic reserves, including the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, augmented these figures to totals of 4,468 fighters, 704 air refueling, and 362 strategic airlift platforms, with the bomber count unchanged. This force structure was geared towards a strategy of deterrence, preparedness for full-scale war with a peer adversary, and ensuring global military dominance.

Post-Cold War Shifts

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the strategic focus shifted from preparing for global confrontation to addressing regional conflicts. This transition led to a significant reduction in force size, aligning with a new military doctrine designed to fight and win two major regional conflicts (MRCs) simultaneously or in close succession. Such a shift was reflective of a broader reevaluation of military needs in a post-Cold War world where the likelihood of large-scale conventional warfare between superpowers seemed to diminish.

Current Capabilities and Future Projections

By the end of FY 2023, the Air Force’s projected Total Aircraft Inventory (TAI) showed a substantial decrease from Cold War levels to 2,092 fighters, 141 bombers, 471 tankers, and 274 strategic airlift platforms. The FY 2024 budget proposal further reduces these numbers, indicating a strategic downsizing and modernization effort in response to changing defense priorities and fiscal realities. This downsizing results in the Air Force operating at approximately 47% of its fighter, 43% of its bomber, 67% of its tanker, and 76% of its strategic airlift capabilities compared to the peak Cold War era.

Challenges in Surge Production and Readiness

The optimistic view that aircraft production lines could surge in response to a crisis faces practical and logistical challenges. Even with significant investment, the timeline for expanding production and delivering new assets ranges from two to three years. This delay is critical, as it impacts the Air Force’s ability to rapidly respond to emergent threats or escalate conflicts with peer adversaries.

Combat-Readiness and the Distinction of Combat-Coded Aircraft

The combat readiness of the Air Force is not solely dependent on the number of aircraft but also on the distinction between combat-coded and non-combat-coded units. Combat-coded aircraft are those designated for wartime missions, excluding those assigned to training, testing, and other non-combat roles. This distinction is crucial for understanding the actual combat capabilities of the Air Force, as non-combat-coded units may lack the necessary hardware, software, and munitions delivery capabilities for effective combat operations. As of FY 2023, of the 5,154 manned and unmanned aircraft in the USAF’s inventory, only 1,432 are active-duty fighters, with 886 being combat-coded.

Logistical and Deployment Challenges

The operational readiness of the Air Force is further impacted by logistical and deployment challenges. The process of deploying squadrons over long distances, coupled with maintenance and manning requirements, effectively reduces the number of combat-capable fighters. This logistical reality underscores the strategic and operational limitations faced by the Air Force in projecting power globally, especially in the rapid deployment scenarios characteristic of modern warfare.

Munitions Capacity and Modern Warfare Challenges

The capacity for sustained combat operations is also critically dependent on munitions stockpiles and the ability to replenish them rapidly. The precision-guided munitions (PGM) inventory, stressed by nearly two decades of continuous combat operations and budgetary constraints, highlights a significant vulnerability. Despite efforts to restock, the capacity to support prolonged peer-level conflict remains uncertain, compounded by the challenges of expanding production quickly enough to meet demand in high-intensity conflicts.

Technological Advancements and Countermeasures

The evolving battlefield includes challenges such as the jamming of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), including GPS, which has become a significant concern. Adversaries like Russia have demonstrated the capability to disrupt GNSS-guided weapon systems, necessitating the development of munitions less susceptible to jamming and capable of retaining accuracy in degraded GNSS environments. The Air Force’s incorporation of advanced technologies, such as laser guidance systems, represents an adaptive strategy to counteract these emerging threats and ensure the effectiveness of its munitions in contested environments.

The U.S. Air Force’s journey from its Cold War peak to its current state reflects a continuous adaptation to the evolving geopolitical landscape and technological advancements. While facing challenges in force size, production capacity, combat readiness, and munitions stockpile sustainability, the Air Force remains a pivotal component of the U.S. military’s ability to project power globally. Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach, balancing strategic foresight, technological innovation, and adaptability to maintain dominance in the air domain.

Evolving Air Superiority: Challenges and Modernization in the U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force, a pivotal component of American military might, is at a crossroads of modernization and readiness, faced with aging fleets, evolving threats, and the imperative of technological advancement to maintain global dominance. The service’s journey toward this objective is marked by strategic programs, budget allocations, and a blend of legacy and cutting-edge technologies. This article delves into the nuanced landscape of air power readiness, modernization efforts, and the strategic pivots shaping the future of air superiority.

F-22 Raptor: A Jewel in Need of Polish

The F-22 Raptor, America’s premier air superiority fighter, is undergoing a critical 10-year program aimed at refurbishing its low-observable coatings and overhauling the flight control systems. Slated to run through 2031, this initiative underscores the challenge of maintaining cutting-edge technology in operational readiness. However, this necessary refurbishment, coupled with the F-22’s low mission capability rate, significantly strains the fighter’s availability against peer competitors. This bottleneck highlights a broader issue: the delicate balance between maintaining technological edge and ensuring fleet readiness.

The F-35A Lightning II: Forging Ahead

In contrast, the Air Force continues to bolster its capabilities with the acquisition of the F-35A Lightning II, a multirole stealth fighter that achieved full operating capability in 2018. The procurement of 48 more jets as per the FY 2024 budget underlines the Air Force’s commitment to this fifth-generation aircraft, renowned for its air-to-ground prowess and air superiority capabilities. The F-35A’s role is pivotal in complementing the F-22, offering versatility and advanced capabilities across a spectrum of scenarios. However, its prioritization in funding, eighth on the Department of the Air Force’s list, reflects a strategic allocation of resources among various critical defense programs, including the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), among others.

Strategic Bomber Fleet: Transitioning to Next-Gen

The bomber fleet’s evolution is another focal point of Air Force modernization. The transition to a two-bomber fleet comprising the B-21 Raider and the B-52 Stratofortress aims to replace the aging B-1 Lancers and B-2 Spirits. The B-21, with its anticipated full operations in the mid-2020s, represents the future of strategic bombing, with plans for at least 100 units at an estimated cost of $639 million per plane. Meanwhile, the B-52’s modernization, including re-engineering and electronic warfare enhancements, ensures its relevance through 2050. This multi-generational fleet underscores the strategic vision for a robust, versatile, and technologically superior bomber force capable of projecting power globally.

Tanker Fleet Modernization: Fueling the Fight

The acquisition of the KC-46A Pegasus is critical for extending the Air Force’s global reach. Despite challenges and delays, particularly with its air refueling system, the Air Force is set to have 95 KC-46s by the end of FY 2023, with a total of 179 expected by the end of FY 2029. This modern tanker fleet, however, will replace less than half of the aging KC-135 Stratotankers, highlighting a significant recapitalization need to maintain operational effectiveness and global responsiveness.

The Air Force We Need: A Vision in Flux

The vision articulated in “The Air Force We Need,” which proposed expanding the squadron count to 386, reflects an ambition to modernize with platforms like the F-35s, B-21s, and KC-46s. However, the acquisition of the fourth-generation F-15EX, aimed at cost-effective replacement for older aircraft, signals a nuanced approach to modernization, blending legacy and next-gen capabilities. The decision reflects fiscal pragmatism and strategic flexibility but has sparked debate over the best path to future readiness and dominance in air power.

As the U.S. Air Force navigates the complexities of modernization, readiness, and strategic foresight, it faces a landscape marked by technological innovation, fiscal constraints, and evolving global threats. The careful balancing of legacy systems with cutting-edge technology, strategic bomber and fighter fleet modernization, and the crucial role of air refueling capabilities highlight the multifaceted approach required to maintain supremacy in the skies. Amidst these challenges, the Air Force’s strategic decisions will shape its ability to project power, deter adversaries, and secure American interests in the 21st century and beyond.

Navigating the Readiness Quagmire: The U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Response

The U.S. Air Force’s readiness, a crucial determinant of its capability to project power and ensure national security, has undergone significant scrutiny and strategic reevaluation in recent years. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), with its emphasis on preparing for peer-level conflicts, catalyzed a profound shift in operational focus and readiness assessment metrics within the service. This shift, underscored by directives from Secretary of Defense James Mattis and evolving service leadership perspectives, illustrates the complexities of maintaining a combat-ready force amid changing geopolitical landscapes and technological advancements.

Mission-Capable Rates and the Mattis Directive

Secretary Mattis’s 2019 directive to elevate mission-capable (MC) rates to 80 percent for key fighter jets was a bold move aimed at bolstering the Air Force’s rapid deployment capabilities against peer adversaries. This target, ambitious in its scope, sought to rectify the readiness challenges exacerbated by relentless deployments and budgetary constraints. However, the Air Force’s struggle to meet this threshold revealed intrinsic difficulties in achieving such high MC rates across the board. The acknowledgment by General David Goldfein, then Air Force Chief of Staff, that the service would not meet the 80 percent MC directive until 2020—and later, the admission that this target was no longer a focal point—underscores the nuanced reality of operational readiness versus statistical benchmarks.

Shifting Focus: Deployability Over MC Rates

The Air Force’s transition from emphasizing MC rates to prioritizing deployability and the readiness of “force elements” signifies a strategic pivot. This approach, which considers the rapid deployment capabilities of units like the B-52 bombers to the Middle East, represents a nuanced understanding of readiness—one that values the ability to respond to contingencies over blanket statistical measures. However, this shift also highlights the challenge of balancing regional response capabilities with the demands of deterring or defeating peer-level threats.

The AFFORGEN Model: A New Paradigm

The introduction of the Air Force Generation (AFFORGEN) model marks the latest in a series of adaptations aimed at redefining readiness. By dividing deployable combat forces into four six-month phases—Ready, Available to Commit, Reset, and Prepare—the AFFORGEN model endeavors to achieve a sustainable balance between current availability, modernization, and risk management. Yet, despite its forward-looking framework, this model has faced criticism for potentially masking deeper readiness challenges rather than addressing them head-on.

Assessing Readiness: Beyond the Surface

The difficulty in assessing the Air Force’s readiness lies in the opacity of open-source indicators and the Department of Defense’s reluctance to disclose detailed readiness statistics. Nonetheless, MC rates, aircrew training, and deployability serve as critical metrics for gauging the health of the force. Each of these areas provides insights into the Air Force’s capability to fulfill its missions, yet they also highlight the ongoing struggles to maintain a fully prepared and modernized force amidst fiscal constraints and evolving threats.

The U.S. Air Force’s journey through the labyrinth of readiness reevaluation reflects a broader challenge within the military: adapting to new strategic imperatives while grappling with legacy issues of force structure and resource allocation. As the service navigates this complex terrain, the efficacy of measures like the AFFORGEN model and the strategic emphasis on deployability over traditional MC rates will be pivotal in shaping its future readiness posture. In an era where technological superiority and rapid response capabilities are paramount, the Air Force’s ability to innovate and adapt its readiness paradigms will be critical in securing America’s airspace dominance and strategic interests.

Mission Capability Rates: A Crucial Metric for Air Force Readiness

The readiness and operational effectiveness of the U.S. Air Force can be significantly measured by mission capability (MC) rates, a critical metric that reflects the percentage of a unit’s aircraft ready to perform designated missions. These rates not only offer a snapshot of current operational capacity but also highlight the intricate balance between available resources and the demands of maintaining a technologically advanced and combat-ready fleet.

The Role of MC Rates in Operational Capacity

MC rates are calculated by assessing the proportion of aircraft within a fleet that are fully mission-capable, juxtaposed against the total number of aircraft. This ratio is pivotal in determining the physical operational capacity of a weapons system, providing a clear indicator of the Air Force’s ability to project power and fulfill its strategic objectives. For mature systems, MC rates are influenced by two primary factors: operations and maintenance (O&M) funding, and the availability of qualified personnel to manage, repair, and operate the aircraft. These elements collectively influence the number of sorties and flight hours available for aircrew training, directly impacting combat readiness.

Historical Context and Current Challenges

Reflecting on past preparedness levels, the Air Force once maintained over 700 F-15C air superiority fighters with an MC rate exceeding 80 percent, indicating a robust capability against peer competitors like the Soviet Union. Today, the scenario is markedly different. The F-22 Raptor, despite being a superior fighter jet, has a fleet of 186 with only 142 designated for operational use. With an MC rate of 57 percent in 2022, merely 81 F-22As are available for combat, highlighting a significant gap in readiness for peer-level engagements.

This challenge extends across the bomber fleet as well. Operational B-1 Lancers and the small number of B-2 Spirits, along with the B-52 Stratofortresses, collectively yield a combat-ready force that, while capable against regional threats, may fall short in a conflict with a peer adversary due to limited MC rates.

The Impact of Funding and Manning on MC Rates

The primary drivers of MC rates—O&M funding and qualified maintenance manning—underscore the intricate relationship between resource allocation and operational readiness. Adequate funding for flying hours and spare parts is essential for enhancing MC rates, offering pilots more opportunities to conduct sorties and refine their combat capabilities. However, the aftermath of sequestration and subsequent fiscal constraints have led to only marginal increases in funding for flying hours, significantly impacting the ability of pilots to achieve and maintain combat mission capability.

Moving Forward: Addressing the Readiness Dilemma

To bridge the readiness gap, a concerted effort to increase O&M funding and bolster maintenance manning is crucial. This approach would facilitate a rise in MC rates, thereby enhancing the overall combat readiness of the Air Force. It involves not only addressing fiscal challenges but also ensuring a steady pipeline of qualified personnel to support the complex demands of maintaining a modern, technologically advanced air fleet.

Moreover, as the Air Force navigates the evolving landscape of aerial warfare and peer-level threats, the importance of investing in next-generation aircraft and systems cannot be overstated. This strategic investment, coupled with a focus on sustaining high MC rates across the fleet, will be pivotal in maintaining air superiority and ensuring the U.S. Air Force remains prepared to meet the challenges of the future.

The readiness and effectiveness of the U.S. Air Force are inextricably linked to the MC rates of its aircraft, highlighting the need for robust funding, qualified personnel, and strategic foresight in defense planning. As the service confronts the dual challenges of technological advancement and geopolitical rivalry, the MC rates serve as a barometer for its ability to project power and defend national interests in an increasingly contested global environment.

Tackling the U.S. Air Force’s Pilot Shortage and Readiness Crisis

The U.S. Air Force is currently grappling with a significant pilot shortage and a notable decline in aircrew training quality, which poses a serious threat to its operational readiness and capability to engage effectively in peer-level conflicts. The detailed data you’ve provided illuminates several critical areas that require immediate attention and strategic action.

The Extent of the Pilot Shortage

The Air Force’s pilot shortage has been a growing concern, with a shortfall reported to be 1,555 pilots at the end of FY 2016, escalating to a Total Force shortfall of 1,650 by 2022. This deficit severely hampers the Air Force’s operational capabilities, particularly in its fighter pilot ranks, which are crucial for maintaining air superiority. Despite efforts to boost pilot training output, unforeseen circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic have further exacerbated the situation, leading to lower than projected graduation rates from flight schools.

Aircrew Training and Readiness

The readiness of pilots, as measured by their ability to complete mission-critical sorties and accumulate sufficient flying hours, is alarmingly below the standards set by decades of Air Force training doctrine. Historical data suggests that a healthy rate of three sorties a week and more than 200 flying hours a year are benchmarks for a sufficiently trained fighter pilot. However, recent figures fall short, with pilots averaging fewer than 1.4 sorties a week and less than 131 hours of flying time per year—a level at which pilot competence and confidence are significantly undermined.

Funding and Resource Allocation

Despite a substantial increase in the defense budget, the allocation for flying hours has not kept pace, indicating a misalignment in resource prioritization. This discrepancy suggests that, even with available funding, the Air Force has struggled to execute the programmed number of flying hours, critical for maintaining pilot proficiency. The decline in funded and actual flying hours over recent years, despite a reported healthy maintenance manning status, calls into question the efficiency of resource utilization within the Air Force.

Strategic Implications and Recommendations

To address these challenges, a multifaceted approach is required. First, the Air Force must reassess its recruitment and retention strategies to address the pilot shortfall directly. Innovative solutions, such as offering competitive incentives, enhancing quality of life for pilots, and streamlining training pipelines, could mitigate this trend.

Second, increasing the allocation of resources towards flying hours and ensuring these resources are effectively utilized will be crucial in reversing the decline in pilot readiness. This effort should include a reassessment of the balance between simulator training and actual flight time, recognizing that while simulators are valuable training tools, they cannot replace the experience gained from real-world flying.

Lastly, the Air Force should consider revising its readiness assessment metrics to more accurately reflect the capabilities required for contemporary and future warfare scenarios. This revision should aim to ensure that training and readiness evaluations are aligned with the strategic demands of great-power competition.

The U.S. Air Force faces a daunting challenge in addressing its pilot shortage and enhancing aircrew training and readiness. However, by adopting a strategic, resource-informed, and data-driven approach, it is possible to rebuild a robust, ready, and capable pilot force. This effort is essential not only for maintaining air superiority but also for ensuring the Air Force can fulfill its critical national security missions in an increasingly complex global security environment.

Airforce Maintenance Manning

Skill LevelAuthorizedAssignedManning Percentage
3-Level (Apprentice)178191685795%
5-Level (Journeyman)366163638799%
7-Level (Craftsman)186321763095%

Source: Headquaters U.S. Air Force, ABX/A5RW

Deployability Challenges in the U.S. Air Force

The deployability of the U.S. Air Force is significantly impacted by the logistical and operational constraints that limit the number of squadrons that can be rapidly deployed. This issue is compounded by the need for long-term inspections, depot-level work on aircraft, and the availability of support equipment, all of which affect the readiness of airframes for deployment.

Traditionally, the Air Force relied on a three-squadron wing configuration to manage deployment and maintenance cycles efficiently. This structure allowed for one squadron to undergo maintenance or inspections while the remaining two were enhanced with additional aircraft and personnel to form two deployable units. This model was effective during the Cold War but has been challenged by post-Cold War downsizing, which saw a reduction in the number of fighter squadrons and altered the traditional deployment strategy.

Active-Duty and Reserve Squadron Manning

The current active-duty fighter squadron manning levels are predicated on a ratio of 1.25 aircrew members per aircraft, resulting in a complement of 30 line pilots and five supervisor pilots for a squadron with 24 assigned aircraft. However, the requirements of combat increase the manning ratio to approximately 1.50 pilots per aircraft, necessitating an additional six pilots to meet the deployment needs of a single squadron.

With the reduction of fighter squadrons in the active force and all operational Guard and Reserve wings comprising a single squadron, the Air Force faces significant hurdles in deploying the requisite number of squadrons to a fight. This has led to a situation where, of the 54 operational fighter squadrons, only 21 active-duty fighter squadron equivalents could be feasibly deployed, falling short of the 600 fighters needed for a single Major Regional Conflict (MRC).

Implications for Guard and Reserve Units

Guard and Reserve units, which play a critical role in the Air Force’s total force capability, encounter unique challenges due to the civilian commitments of their personnel. The planning for deployments, especially to low-threat areas, has historically been done well in advance, allowing for the meticulous coordination of civilian work schedules and military training requirements. However, in scenarios requiring swift action, the model of needing two squadrons to deploy one becomes a significant bottleneck, potentially delaying the Air Force’s operational response.

Strategic Considerations and Solutions

To address these deployability challenges, the Air Force must explore a range of strategic and operational solutions:

  • Enhancing Maintenance and Logistics: Improving the efficiency of maintenance cycles and increasing the availability of spare parts are crucial steps towards ensuring aircraft are ready for deployment. This could involve leveraging predictive maintenance technologies and streamlining logistics chains to reduce downtime for aircraft.
  • Revisiting Force Structure: A comprehensive review of the current force structure, including the viability of the single-squadron wing model in the Guard and Reserve, may identify opportunities to increase deployability without compromising the unique civilian-military balance in these components.
  • Increasing Pilot Recruitment and Retention: Addressing the pilot shortage through targeted recruitment and retention efforts is vital. This may include incentives for service, pathways for quicker advancement, and enhanced training opportunities to ensure a steady flow of qualified pilots into the force.
  • Leveraging Technology and Simulation: High-fidelity simulators and advanced training technologies can supplement real-world flying hours, allowing pilots to maintain and enhance their skills even when aircraft availability is limited.
  • Cross-Component Integration: Enhancing the integration between active-duty, Guard, and Reserve components can foster a more flexible and responsive force. This might involve creating mixed-component squadrons that can leverage the strengths of each component for deployment.

The U.S. Air Force’s deployability and readiness face significant challenges, underscored by maintenance, logistics, and manpower constraints. Addressing these issues requires a multifaceted approach that balances operational needs with strategic foresight. By implementing targeted solutions across maintenance, force structure, pilot management, and training, the Air Force can enhance its readiness and ensure its ability to respond effectively to both regional contingencies and peer-level threats.

Scoring the U.S. Air Force: Capacity and Capability Assessment

The United States Air Force plays a pivotal role in ensuring national security, and its ability to respond to major combat engagements is of paramount importance. In this article, we will delve into the comprehensive analysis of the Air Force’s capacity and capability, as outlined in the 2024 Index of U.S. Military Strength, with a focus on the requirements, current status, and potential challenges the Air Force faces.

Capacity Score: Marginal

When it comes to capacity, the U.S. Air Force’s primary focus is on fighter squadrons. Since World War II, the Air Force has consistently deployed an average of 28 fighter squadrons. With an average of 18 aircraft per squadron, this translates to a requirement of 500 Active Component fighter aircraft to execute one Major Regional Conflict (MRC). Accounting for spares and attrition reserves, the total number of aircraft needed rises to 600, making these aircraft a crucial component of the Air Force’s combat power.

In the 2024 Index, it is asserted that the Air Force should maintain 1,200 active-duty, combat-coded fighter aircraft to meet the baseline requirement for two MRCs. This number aligns with the fighter requirement identified in the 2018 Total Air Force Warfighting Needs (TAFWN) study, which was reaffirmed by the Commander of Air Combat Command. The TAFWN study also provided threshold values for bomber, tanker, and strategic air requirements.

As of 2023, the actual number of active-duty combat-coded fighter aircraft stood at 886, representing 75 percent of the threshold requirement. The number of total force squadrons, essential for a two-MRC scenario, stood at 54, representing 88 percent of the threshold. The situation is similar for bombers and tankers, with 64 percent and 80 percent of required squadrons respectively, and 79 percent and 84 percent of the required platforms respectively. In contrast, the airlift squadrons exceeded the threshold, with 99 percent of required squadrons and 100 percent of required airlifters.


TABLE 1

  • Two-MRC Fighter—Threshold: 1,200 combat-coded active-duty fighters / 62 squadrons.
  • Two-MRC Fighter—Actual 2023 Level: 886 active-duty combat-coded fighters (75 percent) / 54 total force squadrons (88 percent).
  • TAFWN Bomber Squadron—Threshold: 14 combat-coded bomber squadrons / 140 bombers.
  • TAFWN Bomber Squadron—Actual 2023 Level: nine combat-coded bomber squadrons (64 percent) / 111 combat-coded bombers (79 percent).
  • TAFWN Tanker Squadron—Threshold: 54 tanker squadrons / 540 combat-coded tankers.
  • TAFWN Tanker Squadron—Actual 2023 Level: 43 combat-coded tanker squadrons (80 percent) / 454 combat-coded tankers (84 percent).
  • TAFWN Airlift Squadron—Threshold: 54 airlift squadrons / 540 combat-coded airlifters.
  • TAFWN Airlift Squadron—Actual 2023 Level: 53 combat-coded airlift squadrons (99 percent) / 545 combat-coded airlifters (100 percent).

Although the Air Force’s capacity for a two-MRC scenario is currently at 83 percent, it is worth noting that this is a decline from the 86 percent reported in the 2023 Index. Moreover, the disposition of these assets limits the Air Force’s ability to rapidly deploy them to crisis regions. While the available fighter and bomber assets might be sufficient for a single regional conflict, the associated time and casualties would be significantly higher. Additionally, low mission capability rates of fighter aircraft exacerbate the situation, necessitating global sourcing to field the required combat fighter force for a single MRC.

Despite being within the “marginal” range, programmed aircraft retirements are projected to outpace acquisitions over the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), further decreasing capacity.

Capability Score: Marginal

The Air Force’s capability score, similar to capacity, is rated as “marginal.” This assessment is based on multiple factors, including the size of the modernization program, the age of equipment, the health of modernization programs, and the capability of equipment.

The “Size of Modernization Program” is rated as “strong” due to the ongoing production of new F-35 and KC-46 aircraft. However, this positive trend is offset by aircraft retirements, resulting in a marginal score for the “Capability of Equipment.”

The “Age of Equipment” and “Health of Modernization Programs” are both rated as “marginal,” indicating room for improvement in these areas.

Looking ahead, it is expected that the capability score is unlikely to improve over the next three to five years due to the continued retirements of aging aircraft.

While the U.S. Air Force maintains a marginal capacity and capability score, there are clear challenges that need to be addressed. Maintaining and modernizing the fleet of combat-coded fighter aircraft is essential for ensuring the Air Force’s readiness in the face of evolving threats and demands on national security. The assessment provided by the 2024 Index highlights the importance of sustained efforts to enhance the Air Force’s capacity and capability to effectively respond to potential conflicts and maintain its role as a pillar of U.S. military strength.

Air Force Active-Duty Combat-Coded Fighter Squadrons (31 Total)

Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Combat-Coded Fighter Squadrons (24 Total)

U.S. Air Force Readiness: A Critical Analysis

The readiness of the United States Air Force is under scrutiny as it continues to grapple with significant challenges that impact its ability to respond effectively to emerging crises and peer competitors. The 2024 Index of U.S. Military Strength has once again rated the Air Force’s readiness as “very weak,” marking the second consecutive year with this unimpressive assessment.

Pilot Shortage and Sortie Rates

One of the most pressing issues affecting the Air Force’s readiness is the sustained pilot deficit. This deficiency, which persists from the previous year’s evaluation, contributes significantly to the dismal readiness score. In the 2023 Index, the Air Force was already labeled as “very weak” in readiness, and the situation has shown little improvement since.

Despite a marginal improvement in sortie rates in 2022, they remain far from adequate to rebuild the necessary competencies required for engaging in peer-to-peer combat. The shortage of trained pilots is evident when it is realized that only about half of the most capable units can execute “some” of their wartime missions. This alarming statistic underscores the gravity of the readiness crisis within the Air Force.

Mission-Capable Rates and Budget Constraints

Furthermore, mission-capable rates for Air Force assets have not seen substantial improvements since 2021. The 2024 Index highlights the fact that the current budgetary constraints are likely to further reduce operational training sorties, perpetuating the downward spiral of readiness. This situation paints a disheartening picture of a service that appears content with occupying the lowest rungs on the readiness ladder.

The consequences of this readiness crisis are profound. The Air Force is ill-equipped to face a peer competitor in a high-stakes conflict scenario. To excel in such an environment, fighter pilots should ideally receive an average of three or more sorties per week and accumulate 200 hours of flight time per year to develop the skill sets necessary for combat survival. Unfortunately, the current realities fall far short of these benchmarks.

The Elusive Goal of Full-Spectrum Readiness

The FY 2023 Air Force statement reflects this alarming situation, mentioning the word “ready” only four times and never in the context of current readiness levels. This raises concerns about the Air Force’s preparedness to respond swiftly and effectively to emergent crises. The global war on terrorism has seen a significant reduction in deployments, and as such, the Air Force should have made more substantial progress towards achieving full-spectrum readiness.

Overall Assessment

The 2024 Index provides an overall assessment of the U.S. Air Force, characterizing it as “very weak” in readiness, which is the lowest rating on the scale. This rating is determined by a combination of factors, including capacity, capability, and readiness. In this case, the readiness component is the weakest link in the chain.

The shortage of pilots, inadequate flying hours, and a shortage of training sorties all erode the Air Force’s ability to generate the high-quality combat air power required to meet wartime demands. While some readiness challenges can be attributed to the effects of COVID-19, there is a clear indication that the service has made a calculated decision not to invest in acquiring more aircraft or funding the necessary accounts for a significant increase in training and sortie numbers.

Consequences of Weak Readiness

The consequences of this situation are grave. Although there may be a chance of success in a single Major Regional Conflict (MRC), the Air Force would face considerable difficulties in a war with a peer competitor. The prolonged duration of such a conflict and the high attrition rates would be significantly more burdensome than they would have been had the Air Force taken aggressive measures to enhance high-end training and acquire the fifth-generation weapon systems it urgently requires.

In conclusion, the U.S. Air Force’s readiness remains a cause for concern, with the 2024 Index echoing the same dire assessment as the previous year. Addressing the pilot shortage, increasing sortie rates, and prioritizing full-spectrum readiness are essential steps if the Air Force is to effectively meet its mission requirements and confront the challenges posed by peer competitors in the evolving global security landscape.

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The United States Air Force’s Strategic Construction Vision for 2023-2024

The United States Air Force (USAF) has embarked on a significant journey to enhance its infrastructure and operational capabilities through major construction projects, as outlined in its Military Construction (MILCON) programs for fiscal years 2023 and 2024. These initiatives are not just about erecting buildings; they represent a strategic vision to support the Air Force’s mission readiness, technological advancement, and the well-being of its personnel.

Fiscal Year 2024 MILCON Overview

In March 2023, the Air Force released its fiscal year 2024 military construction budget justification book, marking a pivotal moment in its strategic infrastructure planning. This document serves as a roadmap for the Air Force’s intended construction endeavors, detailing the financial allocations and project priorities that will shape the Air Force bases and facilities in the coming years​​.

Infrastructure to Counter Threats

One of the key highlights of the Air Force’s MILCON strategy is the focus on building resilient infrastructure to give the Department of the Air Force a leading edge over near-peer adversaries. This includes not only direct mission facilities but also community facilities such as child development centers and dormitories, which are vital for the morale and effectiveness of Air Force personnel. As of 2023 and leading into 2024, 16 new buildings are either under construction or slated to begin, demonstrating a comprehensive approach to enhancing the Air Force’s operational and community infrastructure​​.

A Record of Execution and Future Plans

The Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center (AFIMSC) has been instrumental in delivering these construction projects. In fiscal year 2023, the AFIMSC awarded 79 large Facility Sustainment, Restoration, and Modernization (FSRM) projects, amounting to just under $1.5 billion. These projects are crucial for recapitalizing Department of the Air Force installations and supporting critical combat capabilities. The AFIMSC’s efforts underscore the Air Force’s commitment to executing its construction programs at a rapid pace, with fiscal year 2022 marking a record-breaking year for execution, a momentum expected to continue into 2023​​.

Collaboration and Challenges

The execution of these ambitious construction projects involves a collaborative effort among various stakeholders, including the Air Force Installation Contracting Center, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Naval Facility Engineering Systems Command, and the UK’s Defense Infrastructure Organization. This collaboration is part of a broader Unity of Effort (UoE) initiative launched in 2021, aimed at aligning planning, programming, and execution of the MILCON portfolio, which consists of 442 active projects in different construction phases through fiscal year 2028​​.

Strategic Investments

A significant portion of the MILCON budget is allocated for investments in the Pacific and European Theaters, highlighting the strategic importance of these regions to the Air Force’s operational readiness and global posture. This investment is part of a concerted effort to ensure that the Air Force’s infrastructure is capable of supporting its mission requirements and operational capabilities in a rapidly evolving global security environment​​.

The USAF’s MILCON projects for 2023 and 2024 are a testament to its forward-looking approach to enhancing its operational capabilities, supporting its personnel, and maintaining a strategic edge in a challenging global security landscape. Through meticulous planning, significant investment, and collaborative execution, the Air Force is poised to achieve a resilient and modernized infrastructure that will serve its mission for years to come.

MILCON MAJOR CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS

Project #ComponentState/CountryInstallationProject TitlePB-24 Request ($K)
MILCON ACTIVE
1ActiveAlaskaJB Elmandorf-RichardsonEXTEND RUNWAY 16/34, INC 3107,500
2ActiveAustraliaDarwinPDI: Squadron Operations Facility26,000
3ActiveAustraliaTindalPOI: Aircraft Maintenance Support Facility17,500
4ActiveAustraliaTindalPOI: Bomber Apron93,000
5ActiveAustraliaTindalPOI: Squadron Operations Facility20,000
6ActiveFloridaMacDill AFBKC-46A ADAL Aircraft Corrosion Control25,000
7ActiveFloridaMacDill AFBKC-46A ADAL Aircraft Maintenance Hangar27,000
8ActiveFloridaMacDill AFBKC-46 ADAL Fuel System Maintenance Dock18,000
9ActiveFloridaMacDill AFBKC-46A ADAL Apron & Hydrant Fueling Pits61,000
10ActiveFloridaPatrick AFBC2C: Consolidated Communications Center15,000
11ActiveFloridaPatrick AFBFinal Denial Barriers, South Gate12,000
12ActiveFloridaPatrick AFBCommercial Vehicle Inspection15,000
13ActiveJapanKadena ABPOI: Helo Rescue Ops Maintenance Hangar Inc 346,000
14ActiveJapanKadena ABPDI: Theater A/C Corrosion Control Ctr, Inc42,000
15ActiveGeorgiaRobbins AFBBattle Management Combined Operations Complex115,000
16ActiveGuamJoint Region MarianasPDI: North Aircraft Parking Ramp, INC109,000
17ActiveLouisianaBarksdale AFBWeapons Generation Facility Inc 3112,000
18ActiveMassachusettsHanscom AFBMIT-Lincoln Lab (West Lab CSL/MIF}, Inc 470,000
19ActiveMassachusettsHanscom AFBChild Development Center37,000
20ActiveMariana IslandsTinianPDI: Fuel Tanks w/Pipeln & Hydrant, Inc 320,000
21ActiveMariana IslandsTinianPDI: Airfield Development Phase 1, Inc 326,000
22ActiveMariana IslandsTinianPOI: Parking Apron, Inc 332,000
23ActiveMississippiColumbusT-7A Ground Based Training System Facility30,000
24ActiveMississippiColumbusT-7A Unit Maintenance Training Facility9,500
25ActiveNorwayRygge ASEDI: DABS-FEV Storage88,000
26ActiveNorwayRygge ASEDI: Munitions Storage Area31,000
27ActiveOklahomaTinker AFBKC-46 3-Bay Depot Maintenance Hangar Inc 378,000
28ActivePhilippinesBasaPDI: Transient Aircraft Parking Apron35,000
29ActiveSouth DakotaEllsworth AFBB-21 Weapons Generation Facility Inc 3160,000 
30ActiveSouth DakotaEllsworth AFBB-21 Phase Hangar160,000 
31ActiveSouth DakotaEllsworth AFBB-21 Fuel System Maintenance Dock75,000 
32ActiveSpainMonron ABEDI: Munitions Storage26,000 
33ActiveTexasJoint Base San AntonioChild Development Center – LAK20,000 
34ActiveUnited KingdomRAF FairfordEDI: RADR Storage Facility47,000 
35ActiveUnited KingdomRAF LakenheathSurety Dormitory50,000 
36ActiveUnited KingdomRAF LakenheathEDI: RADR Storage Facility28,000 
37ActiveUtahHill AFBF-35 T-7A East Campus Infrastructure82,000 
38ActiveWyomingFE Warren AFBGBSD Integrated Command Center, Inc 227,000 
39ActiveWyomingFE Warren AFBGBSD Missile Handling Complex, Inc 228,000 
40ActiveWyomingFE Warren AFBGBSD Integrated Training Center85,000 
ACTIVE TOTAL2,105,500 
MILCON, ANG 
41ANGAlabamaMontgomery Regional AirportF-35: ADAL Sq Ops Bldg 13037,000 
42ANGArizonaMorris Air National Guard BaseMCCA: Aircraft Arresting System (New RWY)11,600 
43ANGColoradoBuckley Air Force BaseAircraft Corrosion Control12,000 
44ANGIndianaFt Wayne International AirportFire Station8,900 
45ANGOregonPortland International AirportSpecial Tactics Complex, Phase 122,000 
46ANGOregonPortland International AirportSpecial Tactics Complex, Phase 218,500 
ANG TOTAL80,000 
MILCON, AFR 
45AFRGuamJRM-Andersen AFBAerial Port Facility27,000 
46AFRTexasNAS JRB Fort WorthLRS Warehouse16,000 
47AFRCaliforniaMarch ARBKC-46 Two Bay Maintenance/Fuel Hangar201,000 
48AFRCaliforniaMarch ARBKC-46 Add/Alter B600 Simulator Facility8,500 
49AFRCaliforniaMarch ARBKC-46 Add/Alter B1244 FuT/Cargo Pallet Staging17,000 
AFR TOTAL269,500 

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Reference

U.S. Air Force Modernization Table Citations

GENERAL SOURCES

PROGRAM SOURCES

B-21:

F-35A

F-15EX Strike Eagle

KC-46 Pegasus

C-130J

MQ-9 Reaper

B-52 Stratofortress

B-1B Lancer

B-2 Spirit

A-10 Thunderbolt II

F-16 Fighting Falcon

F-35 A Lightning

F-15C/D Eagle

F-15E Strike Eagle

F-22 Raptor

KC-10 Extender

KC-135 Stratotanker

KC-46 Pegasus

C-5M Galaxy

C-17 Globemaster III

C-130J Super Hercules

RQ-4 Global Hawk

MQ-9 A/B Reaper

RC-135 Rivet Joint

U-2 Dragon Lady

E-3 Sentry

E-8 JSTARS

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