The US Air Force faces challenges both increasing operational squadrons by 24% to 386 by 2025-2030, as it competes for funds with the US Army and Navy, which are also attempting to grow and modernize their equipment.

What’s more, balancing its growth ambitions with other immediate demands, such as hiring and training an adequate number of pilots and maintainers, as well as updating its fleet with modern aircraft, including the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, will likely be a management and fiscal challenge, according to a report the Government Accountability Office (GAO) submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee on 10 October.

Nonetheless, USAF Secretary Heather Wilson told the Senate Armed Services Committee in prepared remarks that the service is making headway on some fronts. For example, the USAF believes it can get 204 of its 312 operational squadrons to 80% combat readiness by 2020. The remainder would achieve 80% readiness by 2023, she says.

“It will take the most intense focus and will require that we look at new methods to achieve the results we need,” Wilson says. “Focus areas to achieve those results include supply chain improvements, changes to the way we manage engineering improvements, force structure and fleet management changes, service life extensions, and technology such as sensors that improve data collection to make our maintenance personnel more productive.”

To address the aircrew shortage, the USAF is trying to reduce the operating tempo, revitalize squadrons, and restore support positions so that aircrew can focus on their primary job, she adds. The USAF is also attempting to cut time and costs out of its acquisition system by implementing reforms including streamlining decision processes and insisting that contractors use modern agile software development methods.

Whatever the approach, the GAO’s report emphasizes that several of the USAF’s problems are likely be time-consuming and expensive to fix, such as the service’s persistent pilot shortage.

“In April 2018, we reported that according to Air Force pilot staffing levels and authorizations data for fiscal years 2006 through 2017, the Air Force had fewer fighter pilots than authorizations for 11 of those 12 years. This gap grew from 192 fighter pilots (5% of authorizations) in fiscal year 2006, to 1,005 (27%) in fiscal year 2017,” says the report. “According to Air Force officials, a fighter pilot requires approximately 5 years of training to be qualified to lead flights, at a cost of between about $3 million to $11 million depending on the specific type of aircraft.”