Cover: Is the USAF Flying Force Large Enough?

Is the USAF Flying Force Large Enough?

Assessing Capacity Demands in Four Alternative Futures

Published Aug 28, 2018

by Alan J. Vick, Paul Dreyer, John Speed Meyers


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Research Questions

  1. What types of force demands have been placed on the USAF since the end of World War II?
  2. What is the capacity of the 2017 USAF force to meet similar force demands, such as those of a new cold war with Russia or China, or continued global counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations?
  3. What impact do steady-state demands, prolonged military operations, and other contingencies have on U.S. Air Force force structure?
  4. How does relaxing or increasing constraints on deploy-to-dwell ratios or maximum deployment durations affect the Air Force's capacity to meet force demands?

The U.S. military has mostly operated at a high operational tempo since the end of the Cold War, and there appears to be no significant reduction in demand on the horizon. However, the U.S. military has few analytical tools for identifying the force requirements associated with ongoing operations, and there are no systematic efforts within the Department of Defense to collect data on the nature of operational demands over time. This report is intended to help address this imbalance.

Drawing on a dataset of U.S. military operations since 1946, the authors quantify historical demands placed on the U.S. Air Force (USAF). They then use this historical evidence to estimate demands on the USAF flying force in four possible futures: two futures in which the United States enters a new cold war with Russia or China; one in which United States renews peace enforcement commitments like those between 1990 and 2000; and one in which U.S. military operations are dominated by global counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, as they have been since 2001.

The authors find that the current USAF force experiences capacity shortfalls in all four futures, and that no class of aircraft performs well across all four futures. The analysis suggests that prolonged operations are particularly stressing to the force, which is significant given that the average length of operations has been increasing since the end of the Cold War. The authors also find that the identified shortfalls cannot easily be corrected through changes to deploy-to-dwell policies and policies that set a maximum deployment length. Drawing on these findings, the authors provide recommendations for USAF and Department of Defense leaders and force planners.

Key Findings

Shortfalls in the USAF's capacity to meet potential future force demands.

  • In each of the four possible futures examined, the 2017 USAF force was unable to meet the demands for all types of aircraft. For example, in the two cold war futures, the USAF can meet the projected demand for fighter aircraft but not for bomber or airlift aircraft.
  • No class of aircraft performed well in all four of the examined futures. Fighter aircraft came closest, and C3ISR/BM (command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance/battle management) platforms had the biggest shortfalls, reflecting their small fleets and high demand.
  • Operations that last more than a year place great demands on force structure. In analytical excursions in which contingencies were limited to no more than one year in duration, there were large improvements in the percentage of contingency demands met.
  • Aircraft availability shortfalls cannot easily be corrected through changes to deploy-to-dwell policies and policies that set a maximum deployment length.


  • Supplement Department of Defense and service force planning processes with historically based simulations of alternative futures.
  • Develop metrics that more clearly illustrate the force structure consequences for the USAF of prolonged operations.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was commissioned by the Director, Strategy, Concepts and Assessments, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force (USAF) and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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