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​USAF Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen "Seve" Wilson addresses an AFA industry breakfast on Nov. 14 in Arlington, Va. AFA photo.

The Air Force’s “The Force We Need” goal of reaching 386 squadrons, which was rolled out with much fanfare in September, is not necessarily a hard number based on exhaustive analysis, but a snapshot in time of requirements to meet the new National Defense Strategy, service Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen “Seve” Wilson reported Wednesday. It does not, for example, account for “new operating concepts,” and could change, Wilson said.

Addressing an AFA industry breakfast in Arlington, Va., Wilson said the 386 figure is “based on war plans, programs,” and anticipated budgets, and was provided because, “We were asked by Congress … to tell us the amount of forces you need.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September, said the 386 number, which overall represents about a 25 percent increase in USAF force structure, is a long-term goal of where the service thinks it needs to be by about 2030. It was meant to serve as a talking point with Congress to illustrate the gap between the forces demanded by the national strategy versus what the Air Force actually has, she said.

Gen. Wilson said USAF is “working on … operational concepts,” which may allow the Air Force to “fight differently” and that these could affect the 386 figure. He didn’t elaborate on what those concepts might be, but he said this is particularly applicable to the numbers of fighter squadrons. The Air Force told Congress last spring that it believes the NDS requires a force of 70 fighter squadrons versus the 55 it fields today, but the “Force We Need” charts specified fighter squadron growth to only 62 squadrons, or about half as many additional squadrons as USAF called for just a few months earlier. 

“We will continue to refine all our numbers across all our major platforms and weapon systems,” Gen. Wilson asserted Wednesday. The 386 figure is a “strategy-driven force” and “the best number we have” at the moment. He also noted that achieving anything like the 386 squadrons level is “not going to happen in one to five years,” suggesting further “refinements” are likely inevitable.

The Air Force has been focused on getting “204 ‘pacing squadrons’” to an adequate level of readiness, Wilson said, adding that this “blunt force” is the core of USAF’s combat power. Meanwhile, “The Secretary of Defense has asked us to get the readiness of the F-16, the F-22, and the F-35 above 80 percent by the end of this year.” The service is focused on sustainment and maintenance efforts “to do exactly that.” He noted that by Dec. 1, the service will have “closed the gap” of 4,000 maintainers to “zero.” The “key to the plan” is to “get the money in place” for parts, maintenance, and “the sorties we need” to achieve the goal, he said. “That’s what we’re working on today. … We’ll have to shift resources from other areas to get to that,” but he declined to say what areas will be reduced to find the money. Though the three named aircraft are the top priority for now, Wilson said the getting the 204 pacing squadrons up to snuff is the next priority.

The National Defense Strategy recognized the “change in the world order,” said Wilson. The US military was probably too focused in the post-Cold War era and on “violent extremists,” he added, saying it failed to properly acknowledge the rise of great power competition. The NDS flips that approach to focus on the big threats, he said.

USAF is working to take advantage of flexibility provided by Congress to speed up its acquisition process, which Wilson said has been “too hard, too complex, too bureaucratic, too regulated, too risk averse, too stovepiped, too analog for a digital world.” New USAF leaders are working to take unnecessary steps out of the acquisition process, he said, and so far have taken “62 years’” worth of time out of major programs, toward a goal of taking out 100 years of unnecessary program time. He also noted that the Air Force has saved “$13 billion … with a ‘B’... out of the last three programs” that were contracted in the end of the fiscal year: the T-X trainer, UH-1N replacement helicopter, and GPS satellite contract. He also noted that the Pentagon has “delegated back to the Air Force” management of all the programs that had been taken from its purview for perceived problems.

Wilson said no one should expect the hurricane damage at Tyndall AFB, Fla., to be resolved in days or weeks. “it will take months to years” for Tyndall to come back to its previous level of capability, Wilson asserted. USAF’s immediate goal is to give families displaced by the storm “near-term options” about where they can live and work. He promised that in December, the Air Force will be able to “flesh out what Tyndall of the future is going to look like.”