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Editorial: By the Numbers

June 1, 2020

Facts matter. Facts in context matter more. They tell a story, deliver meaning, prompt action. The numbers in this issue, by themselves, are reference points. It’s what you do with them that counts.  

Journalists are not typically numbers people. There’s an old joke that blames the plague of math-phobic journalists on universities. The punchline suggests that journalists chose their major because there was no math requirement. The joke ends up on them, of course. Numbers figure in almost any story of substance. Numbers are essential for context, to quantify a problem or concern. How many is frequently just as important and often more so than who, what, when, where, and why.  

The numbers in this issue are reference points. It’s what you do with them that matters.

The annual Almanac edition of Air Force Magazine presents myriad facts and figures that can help tell the Air Force story. The charts reveal trends and turning points and, through examination, insights. More important, they provide the community with factual answers to questions, historic data, and the ammunition to make effective arguments when seeking policy changes or more effective use of taxpayers’ treasure.   

Here are some numbers that seem especially noteworthy at this juncture in Air Force history:  

158: The number of bombers in the Air Force inventory on Sept. 30, 2019. Air Force leaders cite a need for 220 or more bombers to meet the National Security Strategy, yet the Air Force plans to retire 17 B-1Bs next year to help pay for future capabilities. The bomber gap will therefore grow before it shrinks, and the lessons of the past two decades suggest the planned-for number of B-21s intended to close that gap may never be built. Under current plans, the Air Force will enter 2022 with just 141 bombers, or less than a third of its bomber force in 1990. Today’s bombers are better. But so are adversaries’ air defenses. This is a security risk.  

29.18: The average age of USAF fighter jets. The good news is that the average USAF fighter is still more than a decade younger than its bombers, which are now more than 42 years old (41.98 at the end of the last fiscal year). The bad news is that new planes are not joining the fleet fast enough to slow down the aging process. The Air Force needs 72 new fighters a year to put a dent in those advancing years. Yet, the President’s 2021 budget request once again sought just 60 new fighters. It will be up to Congress to add another dozen to the order. 

70.27: The mission capable rate for the Air Force fleet. Air Force leaders may argue whether MC rates are effective measures of readiness, but until there’s something better, this is it. This overall number hides the sore points: Among F-22s, the Air Force’s premier fighter attack jets, the MC rate was just 50.57 percent at the end of 2019; its B-1Bs were so beaten down last fall that the rate fell to just 46.42 percent; some older C-130 variants have rates in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. On the plus side: The overall rate is propped up by the stellar 89 percent MC rate for MQ-9s. MC rates change continuously, so any given rate is just a snapshot in time. Still, when the numbers of available aircraft are few and the MC rates are low, the gaps in our national security strategy are exacerbated. This should be a cause of national concern. 

$38.19 billion, or 5.4 percent: The portion of the Department of the Air Force 2021 budget request that never will be touched by the Air Force or Space Force. This figure dwarfs the $15 billion request to fund a whole new military service and distorts our understanding of how defense funds are invested, but this silent fraud on the American taxpayer persists. The issue is not whether the nation gets value for those billions, but what effect hiding intelligence funding inside the Air Force budget has on the larger debate on national security investment. When intelligence funding is understated and Air Force spending is overstated, the picture is distorted for multiple congressional committees and federal agencies, not to mention the taxpaying public. This benefits no one, but it actually harms the Air Force and Space Force, perpetuating a myth that the Air Force is equally funded to the Army and Navy. It is not. Without the pass-through and Space Force, the Army’s 2021 budget request is 15.8 percent greater than the Air Force’s; the Navy’s request is 4.8 percent greater. There is no rule that these must be equal, but policymakers and legislators owe it to the public to be transparent about their priorities.  

0.5 percent: The net increase in the 2021 budget request for combined Air Force and Space Force funding. That works out to $856 million or just $2,565.18 per Active-duty member. This figure will have to grow substantially in future years if the new Space Force is to become a mature, independent, and effective military service, and not just a piece of a disjointed Air Force. Without large increases, the separation will diminish both services’ capacity and capability to fund a new bureaucracy. 

6.16: The percentage of the USAF officer corps identified as African American. This data takes on new meaning and a sense of urgency in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the public protests that followed, and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright’s pointed commentary on these issues that sparked service-wide discussions about race and fairness in the Air Force (read more, p. 30). By contrast, African Americans make up 16.78 percent of the enlisted force. Among general officers, the number falls to just 4.8 percent, with only 13 of 266 GOs identified as African American. No one set out to make this so. But awareness of disparities is the first step toward a collective commitment to leveling the playing field for future generations. As the Air Force prepares to welcome its first African American chief—indeed, the first African American to lead any U.S. military service—the inescapable truth is that it should not have taken this long. America is better than that.