If the past 20 years of war have shown us anything, it’s that American airpower is indispensable. In every fight – from counterinsurgency to conventional war and homeland defense – it provides our nation a vital edge.
As we enter a new era defined by the potential for great power conflict, several truths are abundantly clear.
We cannot return to the days of sequestration. Two years of stable budgets have proven again that predictable funding makes our forces better and more lethal. The Air Force has steadily improved its readiness and combat capability while speeding up the way we buy weapons, fix aircraft and develop technology.
These improvements are critical as we contemplate what deterrence looks like against a rising power in China and a resurgent and meddlesome Russia.
The Air Force has steadily improved its readiness and combat capability while speeding up the way we buy weapons, fix aircraft and develop technology.
Based on rigorous analysis of the current and future threat, the Air Force needs 386 operational squadrons, up from the current 312. The Air Force has been continuously engaged in combat across the globe since 2001 and is simply too small for what the nation asks it to do.
In recent years, our airmen have been heavily engaged fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In Afghanistan, we continue to support our Afghan partners.
This is in addition to all the other essential work we do to improve our capabilities in space, provide deterrence for two-thirds of the nuclear triad, operate a global surveillance network and defend the homeland from attack.
The shift to great power competition requires an even stronger commitment. The bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission said it best: “Regardless of where the next conflict occurs or which adversary it features, the Air Force will be at the forefront.”
The question before us is pretty simple: Do we want an Air Force that helps the United States to remain a global power?
While we grow, we must also change how we fight and the way we do business.
In addition to developing technologies and buying weapons faster and smarter, we will need to hone our ability to fight what we call “multi-domain” operations. That means coordinating the ability to defend and attack on land, sea, air, space and cyberspace simultaneously.
Future foes will seek to attack us in all of these realms. And so we have begun the difficult but essential work of figuring out how to rapidly combine warfighting effects in every domain of conflict – something that will be impossible for enemies to defend against.
To get this done, we are building a force that is more ready and more lethal. With stable budgeting in recent years, we have made notable progress – including boosting the readiness of our highest-priority, first-to-fight “pacing” squadrons to 90 percent.
Challenges remain, for sure. We have hired more than 4,000 mechanics to close a critical gap and now we must grow their expertise. In order to address a challenging pilot shortage, we have dramatically increased pilot production and should hit our goal of training 1,500 pilots per year beginning in 2021.
The flip side of the coin is making sure the machines they fly can be affordably and efficiently maintained. We are doing that, using big data for “predictive maintenance” and cutting unnecessary maintenance.
To modernize our logistics, we set up the Rapid Sustainment Office last year to improve readiness and cut costs. It is working – we have cut costs and are making more weapons available daily.
These successes don’t make the task ahead any easier. But we now know that fielding the force for the daunting task ahead is possible. We have the roadmap. We need to follow it.
Gen. David Goldfein is the Air Force chief of staff.