Eighty-Six Combat Wings

Dec. 1, 2006

The United States Air Force is embarked on a new and fundamentally different approach to shaping its force structure. For the first time in its nearly 60-year history, USAF has adopted a comprehensive roadmap that sets out the preferred size, number, and composition of all of its operational forces.

The move promises to bring notable change in several areas—from fighters to spyplanes, from bombers to airlifters.

Hints of the new setup first appeared in the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which analyzed service needs over the next 20 years. In the final report, released in February, the Pentagon announced it would, from that point forward, “organize the Air Force around 86 combat wings.” It gave no details.

Now, Air Force officials have begun to fill some of the blank spaces left in the statement. They have unveiled a new unit of measurement—the “combat wing equivalent.” They have set a target year—2012—for achieving their goals. Moreover, they are specifying various force categories and numbers.

Under current conceptual plans, the proposed 86-wing Air Force would feature three major types of forces:

Strike. The future force would field 28 strike wing equivalents, units containing forces that attack targets. Most of these units—19—would be fighter-attack wings. They would be complemented by six wings of long-range bombers and three wings of long-range ballistic missiles.

Mobility. A total of 34 mobility wings would provide strategic and tactical airlift and aerial refueling capability to the joint force. The mobility force would encompass USAF’s fleets of long-range C-17 and C-5 airlifters, theater-range C-130 transports, and both KC-135 and KC-10 aerial refuelers.

ISR. USAF would operate 24 wings of intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance assets and supporting forces. The category is huge. It comprises not only manned aircraft such as the U-2 and unmanned systems such as the Global Hawk but also command and control aircraft, space assets, air operations centers, and battlefield airmen units.

Achieving the plan’s goals won’t be easy. The service must execute buildups in some areas and expensive modernization in others. At present, say Air Force officials, planned long-range funding is insufficient for the task.

Force Structure, Defined

USAF officials say that, by using the new combat-wing concept, the service can more realistically determine the proper size of its forces, identify strengths and weaknesses, and help regional commanders grasp the kinds of capabilities provided by Air Force units. The Air Force intends to use the combat-wing construct to guide investment and boost resources in the specific areas where they are needed most.

The Defense Department’s dictionary of military terms describes “force structure” as being one of four pillars of military power (the others being readiness, sustainability, and modernization.) “Force structure” itself is defined as being the specific number of units of a certain size and composition. The classic examples are Army combat brigades, Navy battle fleet warships, and Air Force fighter wings. These have been considered the basic building blocks of military power; they translate into ground divisions, carrier battle groups, and air and space expeditionary forces.

Within the Air Force, a wing is an organization composed normally of one primary mission group along with all maintenance, supply, and other support organizations necessary to keep the operations group in action on a sustained basis. Specifically, the new combat wing equivalent is defined as being “equal to the number of combat assets (aircraft, missiles, etc.), divided by the normal number of assets per squadron, divided by the normal number of squadrons per wing.”

For decades, USAF unofficially used the term “fighter wing equivalents” as shorthand for expressing its contemporary size and level of capability. During the last decade of the Cold War, for example, USAF fielded more than 36 fighter wing equivalents. After the Cold War ended, a drawdown imposed deep cuts, and the Air Force was left with only 20 FWEs. The comparison of the high and low figures for fighter forces seemed to offer an adequate picture of the effect of servicewide cuts.

Today, claim Air Force officials, that old way no longer provides a clear, accurate picture of the value of a given force structure. For one thing, counting fighter wings says nothing about the combat power inherent in other parts of the Air Force. For another, it does not account for intangible but significant factors such as stealth, precision, and extended range.

The New Yardstick

As a result, the Air Force now has abandoned use of the traditional fighter-wing-equivalent metric, alone, as a means for expressing the size of its forces. It has been retired in favor of a new yardstick based on total wing equivalents, which is said to give decision-makers a better portrait of overall Air Force capabilities.

This new CWE metric recognizes that the service’s overall combat power greatly exceeds that provided by its fighter wings alone. The so-called combat-wing-equivalent standard takes into account not only fighter and attack aircraft but also long-range bombers, strategic missiles, mobility forces, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance units, command and control systems, and even battlefield airmen formations and sophisticated air operation centers.

Moreover, the new combat wing equivalent approach endeavors to factor in the “quality” aspect of Air Force formations. Officials do not merely count the number of aircraft on hand and group them into units of roughly equal size, as in the past. Under the new approach, USAF attributes a higher level of combat utility to certain types of aircraft—stealthy ones, for example—and thus lowers the number of such aircraft needed to make up a notional wing.

“Clearly, an active duty space wing, an Air National Guard fighter wing, and a Reserve airlift wing have vastly different resources and organizations,” reads an Air Force document explaining the concept. The 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C., has four squadrons with some 95 advanced F-15E fighters. Some Guard units are far smaller, with older aircraft, and as such are not comparable. So-called “flagged” wings vary widely in size and capability and thus are no good as standard units of account.

The term “86 combat wings” therefore expresses in a more comprehensive way the kind of power that the Air Force can make available for use in wartime. Service officials maintain it is the force needed to carry out the national security strategy. In that sense, the 86-combat-wing construct resembles the Army’s concept of 70 brigade combat teams and the Navy’s concept of a 313-ship battle fleet of carriers, submarines, major surface combatants, and fleet support ships.

Computation of force structure is an inexact science. However, it used to be clearer than it has been in recent years. As recently as 2001, the Pentagon reported that the Air Force had 20.2 fighter wing equivalents in active, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve service. This fighter force structure was subdivided into categories: four air superiority wings, three attack and close air support wings, and 13.2 multirole wings.

DOD did not similarly use the term “wing” to express the size of the Air Force’s heavy bomber, airlift, ISR, and strategic missile forces. However, it did report that USAF’s combat-coded force included 154 heavy bomber aircraft, 1,194 mobility aircraft, 550 strategic missiles, and 117 ISR-type aircraft.

Since then, DOD has rarely provided detailed force structure information. This is no small thing. Measurements of force structure determine whether the nation has enough armed power to carry out its defense strategy.

Three Requirements

The latest QDR laid down a new force-sizing standard for the armed forces. It said that the armed forces must be sufficiently large and robust for three tasks: defending the American homeland, defeating threats posed by irregular warriors such as terrorists and insurgents, and winning two simultaneous major conventional overseas campaigns. According to Air Force officials, that requires 86 combat wings of specific types.

USAF’s force structure has undergone a more or less continuous decline for a decade and a half. According to an Air Force booklet, “86 Combat Wings,” the service in 1990 fielded a total of 139 combat wings—strike, mobility, and ISR. The number had plummeted to 94 by the end of the Clinton Administration, but the decline did not stop there. Under President George W. Bush, the number of wings has fallen by another 14 percent. The Air Force says that much of this occurred in the strike category—fighters and bombers. Today, the Air Force fields only 81 combat wing equivalents of all types.

At present, however, the Air Force is in danger of shrinking even further. The most recent six-year program (covering the period of Fiscal Years 2006-11) is inadequate even to maintain the current force levels. According to an Air Force briefing, it sustains only 78 of the new combat wing equivalents, three fewer than are fielded today.

Under that program, the Air Force would hold onto its existing force structure in two of the three general areas—ISR and mobility forces. It is in the area of strike that further shrinkage would occur, with strike wings declining from 29 to 26. All three lost wings would be fighter-attack types.

The QDR, however, proposes a significantly different outcome—86 wings. As a result, the Air Force has come up with a new proposal—as yet unfunded—that would add a net of five combat wing equivalents to today’s 81-wing Air Force. The service would still lose those three fighter wings, taking that part of the force from 22 down to 19 wings. However, that loss would be offset by the addition of eight other wings.

The largest increase would come in the field of ISR. In that area, the Air Force would add six wings’ worth of capability. Five of these would be based on UAVs such as Global Hawk and Predator. The sixth new ISR wing would come in the form of 1,000 additional battlefield airmen, who help find targets and help attackers zero in on their locations.

Two Bomber Wings

What about the other two new CWEs? They could be long-range bomber formations. Today, USAF has four CWEs of such heavyweight B-1Bs, B-2s, and B-52s. The fifth and sixth wings would come from production of a next generation heavy bomber, which is expected to enter development within a few months. It is strange, however, that the Air Force included these two wings in its “2012” force. The first of these new bombers will not arrive until 2018 at the earliest, concedes Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Stanley E. Clarke, deputy director of strategic planning on the Air Staff.

As always, lack of money could undermine this new “2012 plan.” Starting with the 2008 budget request due out early next year, the Air Force will seek additional funding to build forces capable of discharging its requirements, but there is no assurance of long-term success.

In determining the size of a fighter wing equivalent, Air Force planners use as a baseline the typical active duty wing, composed of three squadrons of 24 mission-ready aircraft each, or 72 combat-coded fighters. This formula still works reasonably well for legacy fighters—F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s. However, the system breaks down when it is applied to newer, fifth generation fighters such as the advanced F-22 and F-35.

“It is important to note that we expect a squadron and wing in the future to consist of fewer aircraft with greatly increased capability,” Clarke said. An F-22 squadron, say, may contain 18 Raptors, but that squadron would be at least as potent as a more-traditional squadron of 24 F-15Cs. “You’re looking to measure a degree of capability,” said Clarke. “An F-22 is more capable than an F-15, and, therefore, counting that by tail numbers just doesn’t make sense.”

There is nothing really new about the phenomenon of fewer units producing greater capability. In World War II, it took, on average, 1,000 B-17 sorties to destroy a single target, and the Army Air Forces, as a result, fielded thousands of bombers. Today, a single bomber equipped with precision weapons can destroy up to 80 targets with a single sortie, and the Air Force, consequently, fields roughly 100 bombers.

Officials emphasize that, although combat wing equivalents contain both qualitative and quantitative elements and measure both personnel and hardware, they are not arbitrary computations. They count forces in ways typical of the way the Air Force already manages its assets.

Measuring ISR combat wings is “interesting and complex,” Clarke said. Today, a standard U-2 squadron would contain 24 primary mission aircraft. Meanwhile, an RQ-4 Global Hawk squadron would have 18 aircraft. “Over time, we expect to get more capability out of fewer platforms, due to the RQ-4’s longer loiter time and increased reliability,” said Clarke. Planned improvements to Global Hawk sensors will expand the gap even further, he said.

What Is What

Even definitions of categories can be tricky. “It’s not clean-cut anymore,” said Clarke. “Predators fitted with Hellfires raise a very interesting question—are they strike or ISR [systems]?” In general, he went on, the Air Force labels as a strike system anything that can “put a warhead on a forehead.” Meanwhile, “strike” systems such as F-16s, when they are flying over Iraq, are probably doing more ISR work than strike work. The Air Force has “augmented them with targeting pods and TARS [Theater Airborne Reconnaissance System] pods” that have created “somewhat of a surveillance and reconnaissance force” that also has the ability to strike.

If cost were no object, said Clarke, “we could probably put 15 [additional] wings of ISR down and still not meet all of what the combatant commanders would like to have. … We’d love to be able to give them that, but that’s kind of wishful thinking.”

Even harder to calculate are units of battlefield airmen and modern air operation centers. They are centered on personnel and capabilities rather than iron. “If you look at the battlefield airmen [wings] and AOCs, you’re roughly talking about a thousand personnel in each one of those as a wing equivalent,” Clarke explained.

The Air Force plans to retire 10 percent of its older aircraft (and 25 percent of its older fighters) over the next few years. Meanwhile, the remaining systems will become ever more capable through provision of advanced weapons, precision targeting, networking, and stealth technologies.

Clarke said that the 86 CWE will account for about two-thirds of the active duty, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve force structure in the Total Force. Excluded from the wings will be combat training aircraft, attrition reserve equipment, test and evaluation units, and any other obvious noncombat forces.

Of the notional 86 CWEs in the future force, six would be available for each of the 10 rotating AEFs. The remaining 26 wings would be those that “deploy in place”—space systems, intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic mobility forces, and so forth.

There is a limit to how far force structure reductions can go. The Air Force is convinced that it is near that point. “If you kept drawing us down, we really weren’t going to be able to get where we needed to be, to meet all of the combatant commander requirements,” Clarke said.

There is obviously a mismatch between forces and requirements. Some members of certain career fields still deploy too often and over excessive periods.

There are parallels to the 1990s, when the Pentagon became busier than ever, fighting one low-level contingency after another, while drawing down from Cold War force levels and nearly halting procurement during the decade-long “peace dividend.”

This shortsighted fiscal savings sparked a decline in military readiness, caused widespread troop burnout, and produced a huge modernization backlog that still afflicts the armed forces. Mission capable rates fell year after year, and airmen were worn down by repeated and open-ended deployments.

The Air Force is now explicitly acknowledging that the imbalance between force structure and requirements continues. Finding the money to close the gap will be a struggle, but now that the Air Force has identified a baseline number, it has a “stake in the ground” to aim for. “This is what we want to plan for,” Clarke said.