September 21, 2018

Numbers game: How the Air Force is following the Army and Navy’s bad example

By Susanna V. Blume

On Sept. 17, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson stole a page from the Army and the Navy, announcing that the Air Force needed to grow its number of operational squadrons by 25 percent, from 312 to 386. The Army and the Navy have both mastered the art of using absolute numbers of soldiers and ships, respectively, to describe what the future force should look like.

The strategy is clear: Give Congress and the public a big impressive number, and then argue anything less would put the nation at risk.

Who can blame them? Describing force structure needs with one single, specific, easily bumper-sticker-able number has proven effective in defending budgets on the Pentagon’s bureaucratic playground. However, thinking in these over-simplified and strictly numerical terms is actually bad for the safety of the nation — it allows decision-makers and those who hold them accountable to ignore the equally, if not more important, discussion of the qualitative capability of the joint force.

Let’s review the tape. During the course of the contraction in defense spending beginning in fiscal year 2013, Army leadership held fast to a requirement for 490,000 soldiers in the active component, in spite of clear direction in the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance to reduce the size of U.S. ground forces. Similarly, the Navy’s 2016 Force Structure Assessment established a requirement for 355 ships, which Navy leadership invoked to support its budget request, describing it as “the Navy the nation needs.” Since then, the 355 number has taken on near-mystical importance.

History suggests this focus on numbers worked as a means of grabbing defense dollars: Between the fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2019 defense budget requests, the Army grew by 10 percent, the Navy by eight percent, but the Air Force grew by only six percent.

So it’s hard to blame Secretary Wilson for taking this step, in light of the success the Army and Navy seem to have had with similar approaches.That said, is the Air Force actually too small? As always, the answer depends on what you want the Air Force to be able to do.

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