Air Force secretary warns: 'We are too small for what the nation is asking us to do'
WASHINGTON — Outgoing Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told a House congressional panel Tuesday that the service’s number of squadrons needs to grow another 25 percent to meet increasing demands around the world.
Wilson, who was appointed Tuesday to become the next president of the University of Texas at El Paso, warned the House Armed Services Committee that U.S. Air Force squadrons are not on pace to meet great-power threats of Russia and China.
Wilson said the Air Force has to increase to 386 squadrons to meet mission demands. By comparison, the Air Force had 401 squadrons at the start of the Gulf War in 1990.
“We are too small for what the nation is asking us to do,” Wilson told the lawmakers. “Today, we have 312 operational squadrons. The Air Force we need has 386 operational squadrons. …It is not unreasonable given the threats that we face that we need to build a larger and more capable Air Force.”
The comments were part of a hearing to defend the budget requests for the Army and Air Force. The Army is requesting $182.3 billion for its fiscal year 2020 budget, while the Air Force is requesting $156.3 billion.
It’s part of an overall Trump administration request for fiscal year 2020 of about $750 billion for the national security budget that includes the Pentagon and other agencies such as the Energy Department. Of that, the Pentagon is seeking a $718.3 billion for the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed skepticism at Wilson’s statements that the Air Force must see 25 percent growth to meet the challenges from near-peer competitors.
Smith said, for example, Trump officials last year signaled a national security budget below $733 billion would present an “unacceptable level of risk.” But now that the Trump administration is pitching a $750 billion national security budget for 2020, the threshold for this same level of risk is higher, the congressman noted.
“That’s a hell of a lot of money, certainly a lot more than a lot of our adversaries spend,” Smith said. “You cannot eliminate risk.”
Wilson said the service recognizes the American taxpayer might not be able to afford an aggressive leap in Air Force funding.
“We fully recognize that there are tradeoffs that are made and that the country may not be able to afford the Air Force that we need in order to execute the National Defense Strategy at moderate levels of risk,” she said. “That gap… represents risk and that risk is that we will not be able to accomplish the objectives that the combatant commanders have set out in their plans.”
Wilson’s warning comes on the same day the University of Texas at El Paso board of regents formally appointed her to the role of president. She became the sole finalist for the job last month.
Some lawmakers and other military officials lauded and chided Wilson for the move during Tuesday’s hearing.
“She is choosing to be a Texan and all of you could take a hint with that good judgement,” joked Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, ranking Republican on the committee.
Army Secretary Mark Esper, Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s chief of staff, and Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force’s chief of staff, also testified.
On Tuesday, Esper and Milley reiterated comments made before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week. They said more than half of the Army’s brigade combat teams have achieved top levels of preparedness to fight a major ground war and could reach full readiness goals by 2022.
“We have a ways to go, a lot of work to do,” Milley told lawmakers. “And we appreciate your continued support.”