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Springer Journal: More on Your Air Force...

Posted March 23, 2006

— Last month in this column I wrote about your United States Air Force at war. I wrote about what the Air Force is doing in the global war on terror with an emphasis on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This month I want to put a "face" on that Air Force, and tell you some of who and what make up our nation's dominant force in air and space.

While the Air Force is considerably smaller than it was a decade or two ago, it is still a very large enterprise. There are roughly 675,000 men and women in the total strength figures. This includes about 350,000 members on active duty ... 106,000 in the Air National Guard ... over 76,000 in the Air Force Reserve ... and over 142,000 civilians. Let me put one of those numbers in perspective. In the early to mid-1980's, I was the commander of the Air Force Military Personnel Center. I recall that we then had over 600,000 active duty members compared to the 350,000 on active duty today. As the Cold War came to a close, there was a significant draw down in our armed forces. And there is more to come.

The Air Force is presently planning to reduce the active component by another 40,000 members in the next few years. And the reductions will start at the top with general officers, colonels, senior enlisted members and on down to the newest recruits. Why is this happening? There are really two reasons in my mind. One is cost. Every 10,000 members you remove from active duty, you can save about one billion dollars each year. These savings come from the many costs associated with pay, training, housing, medical, administration, retirement, etc.

There is another important reason why reductions can be made. There are tremendous efficiencies available today through technology. One F-15E Strike Eagle, such as those at Seymour Johnson AFB, can carry more "kill capability" on one aircraft with two crewmembers than we could put on a couple of squadrons of F-4 fighter jets in Vietnam. The reason: technology. Today's precision guided bombs permit one weapon to be assigned to one target and the kill probability is in the 90 plus percent range. In years past we put dozens of aircraft with multiple weapons each on any specific target to get a high probability of killing that target. We were also exposing many more crew members to enemy defenses as we flew these dozens of missions.

There are also considerable savings which accrue from systems with much greater reliability and fewer maintenance manhours required to keep the aircraft flying. The C-17 transport plane is an excellent example. The C-17's started flying operationally in the early 1990's. Already they have flown over one million hours. With this new technology we replaced maintenance intensive C-141 transports requiring six person aircrews with the C-17 and a three person aircrew. Manpower savings and greater reliability of the aircraft systems significantly offset the costs of these newer planes.

The problem is we have too many older aircraft still flying. In the nearly 60 year history of the Air Force the inventory has never been so "old." Let me highlight just a few examples. The B-52 bombers flying today over Afghanistan and Iraq were designed in the 1940's. The KC-135 aerial refueling airplanes were designed in the 1950's and are the military counterpart to the first commercial jetliner, the Boeing 707. Needless to say the airlines phased these 707's out decades ago. Even our F-15's are three decades old and need replacement. Although most of the Air Force inventory is dated, many of these aircraft have been updated with improved engines and avionics. But the airframes ... the structures ...are tired.

What is on the horizon? The C-17 production line is still open and at least 180 aircraft will be built. There is a requirement, but no current funding, for more. A replacement for the KC-135 aerial refueler has hit several management and political snags over the past few years, but we now see the motivation to proceed. However, it will be years before they are designed, produced and available for service.

The F-22 fighter is coming into the inventory and the first squadron is now flying at Langley AFB, VA. In fact they are flying combat air patrol over key cities in America today in support of Operation Noble Eagle. The F-22 is a phenomenal fighter and will continue to provide air superiority around the globe for decades to come. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is also under development and will be produced in several versions. In addition to the Air Force production, there will be variants for the Navy and the Marine aviators.

Your Air Force of the future will also be equipped with hundreds of UAV's. These unmanned aerial vehicles are already heavily engaged in intelligence and surveillance missions in Southwest Asia. While there are some UAV's with a weapon carrying capability, there will be many more in the years ahead. This technology permits long loiter time over a target without exposing aircrew members to hostile fire, and permits a real time response to any existing threat. The potential for UAV's is incredibly exciting to this old pilot.

And now about the "who" of your Air Force. Of those 350,000 members on active duty, one out of every five is female. The average officer is 35 years old and while all of these officers have a college degree, about 50 percent have one or more advanced degrees. Over 40 percent received their commissions through the Air Force ROTC programs from our colleges and universities. About one out of five is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and another 20 percent completed Officer Training School. There are also those officers who received direct commissions such as doctors, dentists, and chaplains.

Our enlisted force averages 29 years of age with almost 40 percent below age 26. They too are very well educated. Virtually all of the 276,000 enlisted members on active duty have a minimum of a High School or a GED education. One out of six has an Associate degree and about five percent have a Bachelor's or higher degree. Each year many of the enlisted members become officers through the Officer Training School commissioning system as noted above.

The total Air Force (active, Guard, Reserve and civilian) is nearly 675,000 strong. They fly and maintain over 6,000 aircraft, sit watch over our missile force, maintain a strong presence in space, and joystick UAV's from thousands of miles away. About four out of five are based in the continental United States and the rest are stationed abroad. And they have a budget of slightly over one billion dollars. Since those are your and my tax dollars, I thought you may want to know a bit more about who and what make up your Air Force.


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