As Cuts Loom, 386 Combat Squadrons—in the USAF and USSF—is Still the Goal

The Air Force’s 2018-set goal of building toward 386 combat squadrons is still its objective, but how long it will take to get there is anyone’s guess, senior service leaders told reporters Sept. 15.

The benchmark of 386 squadrons—a 25 percent increase over the current size of the Air Force—“remains our aspiration,” Air Force Secretary Barbara A. Barrett said in a press conference at AFA’s virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

“Our mission is to achieve those capabilities. And 386 squadrons, at that time, when that question was asked [by Congress], that was the right answer. We still are looking to build to that capability,” Barrett said. The Senate, in its version of the National Defense Authorization bill, said it wants the Air Force to structure now for 386 combat squadrons, even though it doesn’t yet have the people or equipment to flesh them out.

Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said he’s working to achieve “as much capability of 386 as we can. We have to do that in collaboration with the Congress, because it wasn’t about how much you can afford, it’s how much do you require. So here’s the requirement.”

Brown said there will be meetings in a few weeks to hash out what capabilities the Air Force will keep and which to let go of as he gathers resources to apply to “higher priorities” spelled out in the National Defense Strategy, which also dates to early 2018.  

He said it may be possible to achieve the same capability as 386 squadrons represented in 2018 with increased capability among perhaps fewer units.

“We actually move ourselves closer to 386 not only in number but also in capability,” he said.  

The issue is one “I probably need to work … with Congress” and in the budget topline handed over by the Defense Department, Brown said. There will be feedback with Congress on “where we are and where we still need to go. So, it’ll be constant dialogue.” However, he said he could not predict when that size or capability will be achieved.  

Barrett also noted that the 386 figure “was … established prior to the existence of a Space Force. Now, with the separation … that has some impact on the count.”

Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond noted that Space Force is still in the midst of its organization, and he’s working to flatten the organization and eliminate “two layers” of command, which could free up people for other activities.