Billions for readiness, not much then left for more troops, new report...

Billions for readiness, not much then left for more troops, new report warns

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson toured Luke AFB, Arizona, in August. (Photo by Airman 1st Class Jacob Wongwai, 56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

WASHINGTON — The Air Force Secretary wants to increase the number of trained pilots annually through the year 2020. The Marine Corps commandant wants to “plus up” the size of infantry squadrons, again by 2020.

Those and other calls to add strength to the forces follow the readiness script clearly articulated by Defense Secretary James Mattis. But the new mantra is smacking against an old wall — lack of money.

“There was no escaping the trade-off among readiness, modernization, and force structure,” Mark Cancian wrote in Defense360, which is a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, released Thursday.

“Readiness came first so that forces could meet a minimum standard. The next priority was to increase modernization by expanding production of existing systems, upgrading these systems, and enhancing research and development for future systems. Expanding force structure came last in priority, so the increases were smaller than had been expected” he wrote in the report.

That reality came despite significant increases in the Pentagon budget for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 — and despite enthusiasm from civilian and military defense officials to boost the ranks.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson testified before Congress this week that the Air Force plans to train 1,311 pilots in fiscal 2019 — the current fiscal year — and then boost training again to 1,500 by 2022. That compares to 1,160 new pilots in fiscal 2017.

More pilots are critical if Wilson is to see her idea of expanding the number of Air Force squadrons from 312 to 386 become real.

“The Air Force is more ready for major combat operations today than we were two years ago,” Wilson told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee, according to prepared remarks. “That said, we have a long way to go and we’re after it.”

Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said growing squads to 15-strong is a response to help squad leaders deal with the challenges of warfare, which has gotten more technical from such areas as drone and cyber warfare.

“We have to increase these capabilities that we needed, that we didn’t think we had, to fight a future fight,” Neller told defense reporters Wednesday. “That’s command and control, long-range precision strike, air defense, information operations, more intel, unmanned aircraft and increased engineering capability.”

The CSIS report notes that the preference to first spend on readiness and modernization smacks up against current world realities.

“Physical presence is needed to meet these demands and to exercise global leadership; virtual presence is inadequate,” the report said.

The report did say that it is possible the services are buying as much equipment as possible now while the budget is more flush, deferring force strength expansion until later.

However, the report’s bottom line was clear: “all buildups have limits,” it said.

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