The US Department of the Air Force (DAF) plans a sweeping reorganization of the Air Force and Space Force for “great power competition” with China, a “reoptimizing” drive of at least 24 organizational changes to be implemented over the next year, senior US officials said.
The service’s budget request for fiscal years 2024 and 2025 does not include any funds for the re-optimization and budget reprogramming authorities will allocate funds as required, US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall was quoted as saying in a Breaking Defense report.
The bulk of the reorganization will target the US Air Force, with 15 significant changes ranging from a different approach to nuclear weapons management to new warrant officer programs.
Considerable changes will involve how the Air Force deploys its airmen by adjusting how its wings are structured while others will target education and training, with plans to expand the Air Education Training Command and rename it Airman Development Command.
Moreover, the Breaking Defense report says that the US Air Force is looking to embark on more large-scale exercises to simulate the conditions of a fight with a peer adversary such as China.
Under the reorganization, the US Air Force’s secretariat civilian leadership will set up three new offices: an Integrated Capabilities Office, an Office of Competitive Activities and an Office for Program Analysis and Evaluation.
Chief of Space Operations General Chance Saltzman, meanwhile, elaborated on the Space Force’s planned changes including a revamp of service readiness standards to reflect that space is now a contested domain rather than a “benign environment.”
In its current form, the US Air Force may not be up to great power competition with near-peer adversaries like China due in part to an outdated mindset, institutional complacency, a prolonged focus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency and generalized neglect.
In a March 2019 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) study, Mark Gunzinger and other writers state that after the Cold War, the US Department of Defense (DOD) shifted its force planning priorities from deterring a Soviet invasion of Western Europe toward conducting two major regional conflicts that closely resembled the 1991 Operation Desert Storm against Iraq.
Gunzinger and others mention that US planning at the time assumed US forces could deploy to secure theater bases close to a regional aggressor and quickly achieve air superiority in strike and other capabilities. However, they point out that while those assumptions were reasonable in the 1990s, DOD planning has lagged behind the evolving threat environment.
They say that China and Russia have developed anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) multi-domain complexes to support their revisionist national objectives, which include passive and active air and missile defenses, early warning and target-tracking sensors, increasingly advanced combat aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and hypersonic weapons.
In a December 2023 article for The National Interest (TNI), John Venable notes that the US Air Force would struggle to repeat its 1991 Operation Desert Storm success against a near-peer adversary like China for multiple reasons.
In terms of manpower, Venable states that the active-duty US Air Force missed its 2023 fiscal year recruiting goals by 11% while its Air Reserve component fell short by 30%.
He notes that those numbers would have been worse if the US Air Force had not changed its policies regarding drug use, body composition, age and other factors, which imply lowered standards for recruits.
He also argues that the drive for efficiency in the 1990s and racial diversity in the 2020s have made a mockery of the flight school screening process. He adds that lax promotion policies mean even poor performers graduate and advance.
Venable also alleges post-Cold War atrophy, noting that at the height of the Cold War, the US Air Force had 4,468 fighter and 331 bomber aircraft, with eight out of ten mission-capable.
However, he asserts the US Air Force currently has just 1,932 fighter and 140 bomber aircraft, with only six out of ten fit to fly combat missions, Venable claims that in a conflict with China, the US Air Force could only generate 32% of the fighter and bomber capacity it could in 1987.
He also notes falling flight hours for US pilots. Venerable claims that at the height of the Cold War, the average US fighter pilot flew more than 160 sorties/200 hours a year, but in 2022, US fighter pilots averaged just 74 sorties/129 hours a year. Venable also claims they averaged less than two of the three mission simulator sorties they are supposedly required to receive monthly.
Despite those challenges, the US Air Force has initiated operational and techno-centric improvements to restore its earlier edge.
In a January 2023 CSBA study, Thomas Mahnken and others state that the US Air Force has embraced Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) with a focus on enhancing battlespace connectivity and advanced command and control (C2), implementing the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) to replace legacy systems and evolve into a comprehensive C2 program that leverages digital networks and technologies for modern warfare.
Mahnken and others say that the ABMS aims to integrate sensors, manage data, ensure secure processing and facilitate connectivity, with demonstrations showing capabilities like defeating cruise missiles and enabling joint and partner nation information-sharing.
They also note that the US Air Force is adopting the Agile Combat Employment (ACE) strategy to disperse operations across more resilient and versatile airbases, working with smaller, unmanned systems like the XQ-58 Valkyrie to adapt to threats from adversaries and enhance operational flexibility and survivability in contested environments.
Still, Raphael Cohen and other writers mention the danger of strategic myopia in a 2023 RAND report, noting that a renewed focus on China does not mean an exclusive focus on the Indo-Pacific and that a resurgent Russia does not mean a sole focus on Europe.
Cohen and others maintain that the US should keep a global view to counter increasing Chinese and Russian influence in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, recognizing the connection between counterterrorism and great power competition to prevent proxy wars with its near-peer adversaries in those secondary fronts.