The Air Force must grow its air power substantially by 2030 to meet rapidly evolving threats from China and Russia, senior officials said.
A new internal study found that the service needs to increase the number of operational squadrons by about 25 percent by 2030, from 312 today to 386.
The proposed changes, which have not been worked into Pentagon budget plans, would require Air Force personnel levels to grow by about 40,000 service members on top of current growth projections, officials said. Air Force officials have not yet completed an estimate of what the increase would cost.
If approved, the addition of more than 70 squadrons would bring the Air Force to a size not seen since the height of the Cold War, when there were 401 operational squadrons.
“Over the last 17 years, we have had the luxury of being the dominant power focused on violent extremism,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Friday during a preview of the study. “We have to be clear-eyed about the world in which we live.”
“The Air Force is too small for what the nation is asking us to do,” she said.
Wilson and Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, described a complex array of challenges including extremist movements, cyber threats, a resurgent Russia and, most important, China’s rapidly improving air capacity. Beijing has made massive military investments, improving its long-range bomber capacity and establishing new outposts in the Pacific, and has churned out new weaponry.
That makes it even more important for the United States to maintain its edge in air operations, the officials said.
“The Cold War was a bipolar world,” Wilson said. “This is a much more complex situation.”
To meet that challenge, the Air Force must increase the number of bomber squadrons from nine to 14 and tanker squadrons from 40 to 54, the study found. Operational squadrons include bombers, airlift, cyber, combat search and rescue, and other functions. Squadrons vary in size, but range from about 100 to 1,200 people. A fighter squadron, for example, includes about 24 aircraft.
The study described by Wilson and Goldfein remains a work in progress. A more exhaustive version will be presented to Congress in March, they said.
Wilson said the Air Force had sought to conduct the review in keeping with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s new national defense strategy, to understand what sort of air power the United States would need to meet the large power threats laid out in that document.
Goldfein said the goal was to be able to defend the United States, provide an effective nuclear deterrent, defeat a possible “peer threat” from advanced nations such as China and Russia — all while managing terrorism threats.
Wilson said the study was purposefully done without tying proposed growth to budget considerations, understanding that fiscal constraints would need to be factored in later.
“We also know there will be a debate about what we can afford, and that’s fair,” Wilson said. “But I think we have to be clear about what is needed to protect the vital national interests of this country.”
The study also suggested bringing the number of drone squadrons to 27 from 25 today.