Gen. Larry Spencer. U.S. Air Force photo.

Retired Air Force vice chair warns force is too small

A former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force struck what is by now a familiar refrain in a recent column, saying the Air Force is too small.

The column was published Tuesday in Defense News, running at a time when the Air Force and civilian airlines are competing for the best pilots.

“America’s Air Force currently has 312 operational squadrons,” wrote retired Gen. Larry Spencer in the column. “The problem is they need 386.”

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“The Air Force goes to war with squadrons,” Spencer said. “Operational squadrons represent the core fighting unit while service support, sustainment and agile combat support squadrons provide support.”

Recently, Col. John Robinson, commander of the 445th Operations Group, based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, told this news outlet that his group has the personnel it needs.

But he predicted that the problem of having too few pilots will be with us for a while.

“It’s not going to go away any time soon,” he said. “And part of it is that since 9/11, forces have been flown a lot.”

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The Air Force has about 18,000 of the roughly 20,000 pilots it needs. In 2017, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said the problem concerns them.

“With 2,000 pilots short, it’ll break the force,” Wilson said in 2017. “It will break it.”

Spencer wrote that when he entered the Air Force, active-duty strength was 754,000 personnel, and the U.S. had about 96 fighter squadrons. “Fast forward to 1990 when the U.S. fought Operation Desert Storm. At the time, the Air Force had 134 fighter squadrons and they deployed 32 forward,” he wrote.

Today, the Air Force has 54 fighter squadrons, including active duty, Guard and Reserve. “Active-duty end strength is 325,100, a 57 percent decrease from when I first enlisted,” Spencer wrote.

Spencer served as director of mission support at the Air Force Materiel Command based at Wright-Patterson from June 2003 to August 2005.