By being at the constant forefront of strategic and tactical developments, the United States Air Force managed to hold its own in the constant battle for budget shares, as well as prestige at the Pentagon table.

The official United States Air Force Song was composed and accepted in 1939, nearly a decade before the USAF became an independent military service. The first verse of the song goes like this:

Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Climbing high into the sun;
Here they come zooming to meet
our thunder,
At ‘em now, Give ’em the gun!
Down we dive, spouting our flame
from under,
Off with one helluva roar!
We live in fame or go down in flame.Hey!
Nothing’ll stop the U.S. Air Force!

While technology has changed since then, the service’s esprit de corps remains unchanged as the US Air Force marks its 75th anniversary during yet another transitional phase of its existence.

75 Years of Innovation

USAF’s roots reach back to the Aeronautical Division of the US Army Signal Corps, an organisation that stood up in 1907 as the world’s first heavier-than-air military aviation arm. As the force grew and military aviation’s potential was increasingly recognised, the unit was re-flagged numerous times within the US Army, finally becoming the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) in 1941. During much of this time, the aviation community fought the headwind of traditionalist army officers who dominated the senior ranks, sometimes seeing airpower as little more than an adjunct to artillery.

The postwar reorganisation of the US defence establishment recognised the significant contribution which tactical, strategic and logistical airpower had made to the war effort of all belligerents, and perhaps most significantly to the US war effort. The National Security Act of 1947 became effective on 18 September 1947, a date which is still observed as the official “birthday” of the US Air Force as an independent and co-equal military service. Almost immediately institutional rivalry within the defence establishment intensified, especially with the US Navy which traditionally laid claim to be the nation’s primary power projection tool. By being at the constant forefront of strategic and tactical developments, USAF managed to hold its own in the constant battle for budget shares, as well as prestige at the Pentagon table.

The past seven-plus decades have seen tremendous technological development, from early jet-powered combat aircraft to development of stealth fighters, digital cockpits and sophisticated unmanned aerial systems. Two arms of the US strategic triad, nuclear bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, have been consistently managed by the Air Force. Military satellites and other space systems have also been disproportionately found in USAF’s portfolio; reconnaissance and surveillance satellites as well as space-based navigation and communications systems alone have revolutionised warfare.

Air power has contributed significantly to shaping the face of military operations over the past decades. The 1948 Berlin airlift permitted the West to withstand Soviet pressure without resorting to arms. Over the next decades, airlift of military forces repeatedly convinced aggressors to stand down, or enabled the US and its allies to master the tyranny of distance. USAF fighter and bomber sorties were essential elements of all wars and military engagements, ranging from Korea in the 1950s to the most recent counterinsurgencies in the Middle East.

USAF’s first three-quarters century also reflects significant social change. Segregation in the US military ended in 1948 under President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981. The first African American cadets entered the Air Force Academy in 1959. Daniel James, who joined the USAAF in 1943, became the first African American four-star general in 1975. In 1976, women earned the right to attend the Air Force Academy and to apply for pilot training; in 1993 combat aviation was also opened to women. While these developments paralleled those in the other services and in American society generally, the prominent achievements of minority and female Air Force personnel also served to inspire young people in the civilian community.

As a result, the demographics of today’s USAF reflect significant gains for equal opportunity. Women represent 22.8 percent of active duty officers and 20.9 per cent of enlisted personnel in 2022, a significant change from 1950 (2.7 and 1.1 per cent, respectively) or even 1990 (13.3 and 14 percent). Racial and ethnic minorities are largely represented in the Air Force proportionately with their percentage of the population at large, although African-American and Hispanic personnel remain seriously under-represented in the officers’ corps.

The Air Force at 75 – A Snapshot

USAF’s operational forces are currently organised into ten major commands (MAJCOMs) as well as numerous field operating agencies and direct reporting units. Each MAJCOM is assigned either a functional responsibility (for instance, Air Combat Command is responsible for maintaining and providing tactical warfighting units, air-battle management and cyber operations, while the Globl Strike Command is in charge of all strategic forces including Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and long-range bombers) or a geographic area of responsibility (Pacific Air Forces, US Air Forces in Europe/Africa).

Subordinate to the MAJCOMs are a total of 26 numbered air forces (roughly the functional equivalent to an Army division or corps) and command centres, 144 air wings (including air base wings and training wings), and 312 operational squadrons. The total manned aircraft inventory stands at circa 5,500 (including aircraft flown by the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard or ANG). By mission type, this breaks down to:

  • Bomber: 158
  • Fighter/Attack: circa 2,094
  • Special Operations: circa 154
  • ISR/BM/C3: 491
  • Tanker: 526
  • Transport: 668
  • Helicopter: 198
  • Trainer: 1,179

(These FY 2021 figures will have changed incrementally in some categories.)

While the majority of forces are stationed in the United States, USAF maintains a sizable overseas presence, either at US-controlled installations or through basing or transit rights at partner-service installations. Fiscal Year 2022 (FY2022) active duty USAF personnel strength is 336,700. Air Force Reserve and ANG add 98,600 and 108,300 reservists, respectively. US Space Force active duty currently stands at 8,400.

Challenging Crossroads

USAF remains a power player in Washington politics, but suffered a recent blow with the extraction of space assets (including thousands of active duty and reserve personnel) to form the new, independent US Space Force (USSF) in 2019 – the first new service since USAF’s creation in 1947. As a minor consolation, the Space Force remains under the purview of the civilian-led Department of the Air Force, mirroring the USMC’s position under the Department of the Navy. To date, USAF leadership is touting the Air and Space partnership between the two services, with a focus on continued efforts to assure dominance across the entire aerospace and electromagnetic spectrum. Like all the services, USAF is struggling to secure sufficient funding to simultaneously maintain readiness while paying for modernisation and acquisition programmes. This has led to concerns over a potential multi-year capabilities gap before new, advanced weapon systems become operational in significant numbers.

According to an analysis by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), funding for USAF weapon sustainment programmes has fallen below Fiscal Year 2020 (FY2020) levels. The budget request for FY2023 only funds 85 per cent of USAF’s stated requirement for weapon system sustainment investments, even without factoring in recently increased inflation, the AEI’s Mackenzie Eaglen wrote in May 2022. Flight training hours have also declined by roughly 25 percent over the past five years (as reflected in the FY2023 budget request).
Force structure is also impacted. In order to free up funding for vital modernisation programmes, USAF plans to divest 1,500 legacy aircraft through 2028, while acquiring only one-third that number of new airframes over the same time period.

Fleet Modernisation

Procurement requests for new combat aircraft including the F-35 and the new F-15EX fall 35 and 44 per cent below previous years’ planning. Combat enablers are also effected, with USAF suggesting retirement of nearly half the E-3 AWACS fleet in FY2023, four years before the first E-7 replacement aircraft join the fleet. Lieutenant General Joseph Guastella, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, testified before Congress that the retirement would have little impact on operational readiness because the targeted airframes are only marginally functional. “The aircraft is exhausted,” Guastella told the House Armed Services Committee on 17 May 2022. “It is been deployed continuously – much of the Air Force’s fleet is in that condition. It’s not maintainable out there in the field, and it has significant capability gaps.”

In fact, the average age of all USAF airframes is now 29 years, with the bomber and ISR/BM/C3 categories well above this average; only the special operations aircraft average less than 20 years of service. Age alone is not a determinant of readiness or even capability. Many airframes have been thoroughly overhauled or put through Service Life Extension Programs (SLEP), sometimes including installation of new engines and wings. Even without SLEP, many older aircraft have received upgraded sensors and avionics, enhancing survivability and the capacity to interoperate with newer aircraft.

However, upgrades cannot counteract the fact that older airframes are more maintenance-intensive and have, in aggregate, lower operational readiness rates. An inordinate percentage of the fleet is due, nearly due, or overdue for replacement due to “decades of neglect,” according to retired Lt. General David Deptula. The former USAF deputy chief of staff for intelligence stated that over a period of three decades, Pentagon leadership deferred modernisation in favour of “near-term priorities,” providing the Air Force with less funding than the Army or Navy. Without adequate modernisation funding, USAF’s ability to execute the national defence strategy could be limited, Deptula stated in a November 2021 interview with Air Force magazine. Recent statements by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall indicate that he largely concurs. “Given the threats that we face, the idea that we can do a major war and a major contingency simultaneously is a stretch,” he said on 1 June, 2022 during a Hudson Institute forum.

A Combat Force for Tomorrow

During a different event a month earlier, Kendall clearly stated that he is prioritising capabilities over volume, cancelling the unofficial goal – formulated by USAF leadership in 2018 – to increase the number of operational squadrons by 25 per cent for a total of 386. This is part of the effort to shift the department away from the two-decade long focus on counterinsurgency, back to the capabilities needed for the so-called “high-end” fight. “I’m not focussed on counting end-strength or squadrons or airplanes [but] on the capability to carry out the operations we might have to support [toward] … defeating aggression,” Kendall said. His goal is the ability to either deter or quickly defeat aggression to prevent development of a protracted conflict during the Brookings Institution event in May. The current situation in Europe notwithstanding, USAF’s greater concern is the systematically strengthening Chinese military and the need to potentially wage a war thousands of miles away from major US bases. Fielding more capable new technology – including so-called 6th Generation aircraft – as quickly as possible is seen as the key to prevailing in the anticipated scenarios of a Pacific war.

One operational imperative is developing and fielding the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) “family of systems.” NGAD will be centred around a manned air-superiority fighter which will be supported by numerous smaller unmanned platforms serving as reconnaissance scouts, armed escorts configured for air-to-air and air-to-ground operations, and/or electronic warfare platforms. This concept of teaming manned and (much lower cost but sophisticated) unmanned aircraft employing – in Kendall’s words – “a distributed, tailorable mix of sensors, weapons, and other mission equipment operating as a team or formation” is being touted as the key to future battlefield superiority.
The same concept is envisioned for the next generation strategic bomber, the B-21 RAIDER, which is expected to enter service circa 2026. The manned B-21 is to be augmented by an unmanned bomber with comparable range and speed. This “B-21 long-range strike family of systems” could be accompanied by additional, smaller unmanned escorts to enhance survivability and targeting.

System Approaches

Turning these concepts into reality will require significant advances along the technology and materials spectrum, including very-low-observable coatings as well as improved thermal and electronic shielding for airframes; artificial intelligence capable of autonomous operations at all mission levels; long-range sensors and weapons; and an interference-proof communications and connectivity architecture to maintain the operational integrity of the combined force. More efficient engines will be required to increase unrefuelled range and permit operations along the Pacific area of operations. New payloads – including air-launched hypersonic missiles and stealth-enabled cruise missiles – are also being designed to overcome the tyranny of distance and to evade sophisticated enemy air defence systems. Open architecture is expected to be a vital attribute of all new major systems, simplifying back-fitting and upgrades with new mission systems in order to keep airframes at state-of-the-art capability for the duration of their service life.

USAF is displaying significant confidence in the rate o technology development. While details of the developmental combat systems and weapons remain largely classified, the Pentagon revealed in 2020 that an unspecified demonstrator aircraft had already flown in support of the NGAD program, while that program was still at the conceptual stage. On 1 June 2022, Kendall announced that NGAD had entered the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase, with a potential entry into service possible by 2030. The B-21 program enjoys a lead over NGAD, with first flight of the operational prototype expected in 2023, and a possible IOC in 2026. Fielding of both new aircraft families (and their respective enablers) in operationally significant numbers is expected to take place during the 2030s.

Sidney E. Dean