The increase reflects a shift in focus away from counterterrorism and toward possible conflict with China or Russia.
The U.S. Air Force has determined it will need a nearly 25 percent boost in combat squadrons in order to support a major war with another great power such as China or Russia, signaling the largest potential increase in air power for the United States since the end of the Cold War.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the service wants to grow to 386 operational squadrons by around 2025-2030, compared with the 312 it has today. The rise would support Defense Secretary James Mattis’s shift in focus from the fight against terrorism in the Middle East to potential conflicts with near-peer competitors.
Wilson laid out the new road map during a keynote address at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, on Monday. Foreign Policy obtained exclusive details about the makeup of the 74 additional combat squadrons.
Russia and China have spent the last several decades studying U.S. military strategy and investing in ways that would take away its advantage, according to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. The new force structure is designed to counter new defensive and offensive capabilities that Russia and China are developing, such as long-range aircraft and nuclear weapons, he said.
“This is about how do we stay out in front of them based on the best assessment that the Joint Staff and the intelligence [agencies have] put together on where we think our adversaries are headed,” Goldfein said.
Under the plan, the Air Force would add tens of thousands of airmen and a range of sophisticated aircraft and other capabilities that will likely cost U.S. taxpayers tens of billions of dollars over the next decade, if not more.