Europe Needs More Airmen and Fighter Squadrons, but Carefully

A USAF F-35A assigned to Hill AFB, Utah, prepares to be refueled by a 459th Air Refueling Wing KC-135 Stratotanker during a flight to Graf Ignatievo AB, Bulgaria, April 28, 2017. The commander of US Air Forces in Europe said he wants more fighter squadrons in Europe. The F-35A will be key to that growth. Air Force photo by SSgt. Kate Thornton.

Le Bourget, France—The commander of US Air Forces in Europe would like to see “more growth and more fighter squadrons,” as USAF increases end strength, brings on new equipment, and improves the training and readiness of its existing units.

“We’ll be very, very deliberate,” about adding forces, because equipment and personnel don’t come cheap, Gen. Tod Wolters said at a Paris Air Show briefing this week.

USAFE will help “strike the right balance … to put as many ready fighter squadrons as possible in the Air Force,” Wolters said. Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has repeatedly stressed that he wants to enhance the readiness and capability of USAF’s 55 combat-coded fighter squadrons, a unit inventory that is down from 134 squadrons at the time of the 1991 Gulf War.

Increasing the F-35 buy rate is an essential step towards bolstering the Air Force’s old and thin fighter fleet.

“We want to get to 60 [F-35s purchased per year] as quickly as possible,” said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, USAF’s top uniformed acquisition official, in the same briefing. The service is working now to enlarge its too-small maintainer force and increase its fighter pilot cadre so that it can safely absorb 60 F-35s per year if the buy rate increases.

In its Fiscal 2018 budget request, the Air Force requested 46 F-35A aircraft, but it has made clear that this number is only being advanced because of financial limitations. The real requirement is for 60 F-35s per year, which USAF considers to be an unfunded priority.

“It’s a full-court press, and we need to be successful … to keep those fighter pilots and keep those maintainers, and we’re driving to 60,” Bunch said.