The US Air Force (USAF) currently has some 54 fighter squadrons. During Operation Desert Shield in 1990 there were 188. There are a little over 317,000 active duty airmen today, a considerable decrease from 511,000 in 1990. There are also 4,000 fewer maintenance service people and 3,000 fewer aircraft. These deficits have become more glaring as America’s military campaigns abroad intensify.
Despite being an important factor in the Iraq War and campaigns in Somalia, Kosovo, Serbia, Afghanistan, Libya and, throughout the Middle East in the fight against Daesh, the USAF continues to experience shrinkage. The service responded to an expanded need for personnel by developing a 35,000-person Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency (ISR) program over the last decade, while concurrently cutting 50,000 from the branch. In substance this amounted to a cut of some 85,000 people to USAF missions, where their loss is keenly felt.
By the end of 2016, the USAF will be short 700 fighter pilots. The number is expected to creep up to a thousand in a few years. Reduced flying times, lengthy deployments and extended separation from family and loved ones make matters worse.
This lack of manpower has resulted in deferred maintenance to aging aircraft, ballistic missiles and satellites. To help compensate for these losses, the USAF has cut much of its budget. This initiative, called, "Every Dollar Counts," has become central to the USAF. By retiring older aircraft, combining staff offices, creating a cost-conscious culture, and removing layers from the service’s command structure, millions of dollars in expenditures have been eliminated. The belt-tightening moves, however, have not relieved the pressure felt by airmen, and many USAF duty groups have officially been categorized as "stressed."
USAF Air Secretary Deborah Lee James said recently, "I am absolutely certain that we need somewhere on the order of 321,000 to 325,000 active-duty Airmen." The service is currently on a path to reaching an active duty strength of 317,000. James’ proposed staffing increase would delegate long-term resources to important mission areas by increasing maintenance crews for combat support.