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Potential House Armed Services chairman casts doubts on USAF expansion

The likely next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith, said despite the US Air Force’s recently announced ambition to grow its number of operational aircraft squadrons by 24% by 2030, the service would be forced sooner or later to deal with budget realities.

Smith said early this month that he is skeptical of the long-term sustainability of recent increases in military spending across the services, in particular the cost of new nuclear weapons. Should the Democratic Party win control of the House of Representatives in November, which most political polls show them on track to do, Smith would likely become the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and his budgetary doubts would come into direct conflict with the USAF’s expansion plans.

When asked if he would support the USAF’s expansion plans Smith did not directly respond to the question, but cast doubt on the idea.

“It’s reasonable that the Air Force is doing studies about its future, but they are only concepts and at some point the Air Force will have to deal with budgetary realities as well,” he says.

Secretary of the USAF Heather Wilson wants to increase the service’s number of operational squadrons by 24% to 386 by 2025 to 2030, she said at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference on 17 September. Depending on its mission, a squadron can have between 12 to 24 aircraft, meaning the USAF aims to grow by between 888 and 1,776 aircraft.

“The Defense Strategy tells us that we need to be able to defend the homeland, provide a nuclear deterrent, win against a major power, while countering a rogue nation, all while managing violent extremists with lower levels of effort,” she says, noting that the number of aircraft in service have fallen from 401 operational squadrons at the end of the Cold War.

Wilson says she believes the USAF needs five more bomber squadrons, seven more space squadrons, 14 more air tanker squadrons, seven more special operations squadrons, nine more combat search and rescue squadrons, 22 more squadrons of command and control intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, seven fighter squadrons, two remotely piloted aircraft squadrons, and one more airman squadron.

Not all sections of the service will increase, however, as missile squadrons and cyber squadrons will not grow.

Wilson also did not discuss how support squadrons would be impacted, such as training squadrons, which would be needed to teach new pilots. At current levels the USAF is suffering from a shortage of pilots, so presumably additional training squadrons would be needed to prepare thousands of new pilots.

Moreover, the USAF is tasked by President Donald Trump to launch a sixth military service, the Space Force. The USAF reportedly estimates the proposed Space Force would cost $12.9 billion over its first five years.

Wilson appeared to acknowledge budgetary constraints during her speech, but did not address how she would overcome skepticism from Congress. The USAF plans to continue to study the issue over the next six months and will deliver a final report to Congress in March.

“We are not naive about how long it will take us to build the support and budget required for the force we need. It is a choice,” Wilson says. “But we have an obligation to our countrymen to tell them what should be done to face the world as it is.”

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