Brookings Expert: Classified Calculations Behind USAF’s 386-Squadron Plan May Make It a Hard Sell

Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution joined Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute and retired USAF Col. John Venable of the Heritage Foundation on a Tuesday panel about USAF's 386-squadron force plan at AFA's 2018 AIr, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md. Staff photo by Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory.

A lack of transparency about the warfighting scenarios that inspired USAF’s new, 386-squadron force-structure plan that Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson unveiled Monday at AFA’s Air, Space and Cyber conference may make it hard to justify to defense appropriators, Brookings Institution expert Michael O’Hanlon said at the conference Tuesday.

“I don’t know what scenarios drove the calculations — they’re classified,” Michael O’Hanlon, director of foreign policy research and the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the think tank, said during a Mitchell Institute panel on the service’s new force-structure plan. “And if I did know, I could not talk about it here, and some of you do know, and you can’t talk about it here with me, which means we can’t talk about it with the broader nation, which means we can’t easily relate it to broader questions of US foreign policy and budget priorities.”

Though the current era of great-power competition with Russia and China justify the need to boost USAF capabilities, he said, the fact that the scenarios that inspired the plan weren’t available for public analysis mean that it’s impossible to tell whether the squadron increase is an appropriate response or an overestimation. He said this issue is compounded by the fact that “great power war” is rife with unknowns—“far more uncertainties than when you’re talking about Iraq or North Korea.”

The potential foreign-policy motivations behind the proposed number are also worth investigating, he said.

“My suspicion is that some of what we’re trying to do is to be able to, for example, break a Chinese blockade of Taiwan robustly and directly, or if the Chinese were to grab some Senkaku Islands from Japan, to go in and do a direct liberation very quickly and with low casualties,” he told the crowd.

Even though he called these scenarios “worthy aspirations,” he cautioned the need for innovative thinking when brainstorming intervention strategies. USAF’s tentative battle plans for the classified scenarios behind the squadron number might not be the best responses for all situations. Some might not necessarily demand that kind of manpower.

“I think there are certain kinds of scenarios where we actually probably need to be more creative, rather than fall back on a traditional OPCOM [operational command] plan, which might be what’s justifying the 386 number,” he said.

And, even assuming that the threat picture warranted the squadron scale-up, the funds needed to get there might not.

“The only way you reduce the deficit is through a sense of shared sacrifice,” he said, noting “that any increase in the size of the Air Force is going to have to come out of some other defense program, in all likelihood.”

He likened it to the Navy’s 355-ship target, in the sense that “if you are optimistic on certain budgetary assumptions, might actually happen,” though he said he thinks it unlikely.

In short?

“They had to make a lot of assumptions about scenario and about losses which, again, on balance, are probably pretty well-done,” he said. “386 doesn’t sound like a broad number to me, but I don’t really know.”