Slife: Before a New Force-Sizing Construct, Air Force Needs to Work On CCAs, Common Terms

Five years after the Air Force released an analysis stating it needed 386 operational squadrons to meet its obligations under the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the service has no definitive force-sizing construct.

But before it can set one, it must figure out how it will present forces to theater commanders, Lt. Gen. James C. Slife said Feb. 21. The answer to that question will depend on how the service integrates Collaborative Combat Aircraft into its combat units—but USAF is “close” to that solution, he said during a webinar hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.  

Slife, the deputy chief of staff for operations, said “unequivocally … there is an understanding that we need a force-sizing construct,” but the prerequisite to that “is a force-presentation construct.”

Here the Air Force is stymied because its definitions of what constitutes a squadron or providing a certain capability differ from those of the other services and theater commanders, Slife said. For example, the Air Force defines a squadron as 24 aircraft, but the Joint team counts a squadron as 12 airplanes. And when an AWACS capability is requested, it may be for only one aircraft, rather than a detachment of several.

“So when I talk about a force presentation construct, what is the thing that the Air Force presents to the Joint force? Is it a wing? Is it a squadron? Is it fighter squadrons? … What is the unit of measure that we that we need to adopt?” he said.

Once there’s a shared understanding of what’s to be presented, “then we can have a conversation about … how many of those things do we need and what does the force generation process imply,” Slife explained. He acknowledged that the Navy and Army already have clearly-defined ways of presenting units of capability to theater commanders.

“It’s a matter of prioritization and being transparent with the Joint force so they understand this is what we have available,” he added. The Air Force needs to “unemotionally lay out our capacity” to the combatant commanders and the rest of the Joint force.

Theater commanders also need to understand that if they need more Air Force capability, “we’re going to have to buy more Air Force, because this is all the Air Force we have.” He said he would like to see Combatant Commanders “not argue with the Air Force, but … argue for the Air Force,” in this respect.

Slife said his marching orders from Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. include leading the service “towards a force presentation construct; … the predicate to being able to talk about what our capacity, our force-sizing construct needs to be.”

Asked about the “Force We Need” level of 386 operational squadrons set in 2018—but subsequently never codified by doctrine or in budget requests—Slife called it a “starting point.”

“I’m not sure that that is the end of the conversation,” he added.

Until the presentation model is figured out, “I think it’s probably preliminary to talk about a sizing construct that goes along with that,” Slife said, allowing that 386 operational squadrons is “probably not wildly off the mark, but we won’t know until we get a little more fidelity on the on the force presentation model.”

Slife said the Air Force is also wrestling with what squadrons will look like when Collaborative Combat Aircraft enter the mix. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has notionally described a single fighter controlling up to five CCAs, but it all depends on the capability of the escort aircraft, Slife said.

“It depends on what types of CCAs we’re talking about. There may be more than one type for different roles. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be a homogenous fleet, and so, depending on the mission, it may be different.” The ratio of crewed fighters to CCAs may vary “for an air superiority mission” relative to “a SEAD [Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) mission,” he said.

“We have to … work through a lot of our conceptual work on this before we can say for sure,” he said. He expects CCAs to be “transformative in many ways” but it will take “more exercises and more [war] games … to try out that concept, see what works, what doesn’t work, where they have greatest utility and bring those capabilities … into relevant formations based on what we learned from our experimentation.”

A working hypothesis based on that analysis will be finished “sooner rather than later,” Slife predicted. But USAF is not yet ready to “put a thumbtack in that and start programming against a conceptual idea of what that squadron of the future would look like.”

Those “rigorous” wargames and analyses are needed “to find out whether … we need to adjust our hypothesis to react to what we’re finding in our in our experimentation work,” regarding the ratio of crewed to uncrewed aircraft, he said.

However, “we’ve got to make sure our thinking keeps up with the pace of technology,” which is moving rapidly in CCAs, he said.  

 In November 2022, Kendall told a defense conference the most recent National Defense Strategy does not set a force-sizing construct and that he does not anticipate “major changes” in the number of squadrons “anytime soon.” He said, however, that he does expect changes in “equipment and modernization.” For the Air Force, the NDS means “transforming … to what we’re going to need for the future.”

While he declined to discuss numbers, Kendall told the defense symposium that “we are doing some divestitures” to free up resources and hinted that USAF will actually get smaller in the near term. However, he said that five to 10 years “down the road … it’s possible to imagine a larger force structure.” It will depend on external factors, including how foreign militaries size themselves and the threat they pose to the U.S.

Slife said in assessing the right size and equipment for the Air Force, “it’s not just…the constant tension between mission and resources, but risk,” which he said is “often overlooked.” There’s a certain degree of risk with focusing on the current situation and having capability to deal with here-and-now threats, and also risk in focusing on the future to the decrement of current capability, he said. The Air Force is constantly seeking to balance those three concerns.