WASHINGTON (AFNS) — Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III discussed the State of the Air Force during a press conference at the Pentagon March 7.
James acknowledged a lot has happened since the last State of the Air Force address in August 2015.
“In October, Russia launched its first airstrikes in Syria. In November, (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) terrorists attacked Paris again, as well as Lebanon, Mali, and here at home in San Bernadino. In January, China landed an aircraft on a newly built runway in the South China Sea … and then a few weeks ago, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon,” she said.
James added in Afghanistan, the Taliban, al-Qaida, ISIL and other anti-government groups, continue to conduct attacks, undermine security, and create challenges to the people and government of Afghanistan.
“Your Air Force has been extremely busy and extremely effective,” James said. “In the past year, coalition forces upped the ante against (ISIL), flying more than 55,000 sorties in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.”
However, the service’s persistent effort takes a toll on aircraft, readiness and Airmen. James said the service’s Airmen are high demand, low density, using one career field to highlight the strain on the force.
“In the maintenance arena, because we have aging platforms … the maintenance needs are going up,” James said. “We have thousands of maintainers in the force, but we actually need more maintainers going forward.”
Welsh agreed, adding maintenance professionals are working hard and retention could be a challenge.
“With six fleets of airplanes now over 50 years old, 21 or so fleets over 25 years old, it just gets tougher to keep them flying and we see that all over the Air Force,” he said.
James said after 20 years of downsizing, the Air Force has focused on infusing resources into both the recruiting force and the technical training bases.
“When you’re recruiting more and you’re retaining more … that is how you grow. That’s the approach that we’re taking,” James said. “We hope to reach the 317,000 number on the active duty side by the end of this fiscal year.”
Welsh also spoke about remotely piloted aircraft training and crews, saying he expects the Air Force will train about 334 RPA pilots in fiscal year 2016, up from about 180 in past years.
Modernizing aircraft, James said, will provide warfighters with enhanced capabilities.
One example of the service’s effort to modernize is the B-21. James said in the case of the 21st century bomber the Air Force is leaning forward and trying to be more transparent.
“We’ve given the bomber a designation, shown you an artist’s rendering, given a detailed explanation of the acquisition approach, and told you how we’ll hold down costs,” James said.
James also announced that Airmen and families can now go online and submit their idea for naming the B-21.
As part of her remarks the secretary also shared the list of seven sub-contractors who will be working with Northrop Grumman in building the first bomber of the 21st century. The list includes: BAE Systems, GKN Aerospace, Janicki Industries, Orbital ATK, Pratt and Whitney, Rockwell Collins, and Spirit Aerosystems.