Air Force preps for mega overhaul with an eye toward China

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has been working on the plan — called “Reoptimizing for Great Power Competition” — since September. The people who spoke to POLITICO — a Space Force official, three congressional aides and two Air Force advisers — were granted anonymity to discuss plans not yet made public. All have been briefed on the project.

“It will be a really big deal,” said one of the advisers who is regularly briefed on Pentagon modernization plans familiar with the effort.

The Air Force is expected to announce its plans on Feb. 12 at the Air & Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium in Colorado. Many of the particulars remain in flux as complicated basing issues are worked out and tensions between civilians and uniformed officers running some of the commands are addressed, according to the two advisers.

Kendall himself mentioned planning for a reorganization in September when he told the AFA’s annual conference that he was working on a “sweeping” review of Air Force readiness that would “reoptimize” the service to be prepared for war. He said at the time that the plan should be ready by January.

Two Air Force spokespeople acknowledged that changes are in the works, but declined to offer details. The shakeup is necessary due to “significant and dangerous shifts in the strategic environment,” leading the service to launch “a major effort to reoptimize the Department of the Air Force,” according to a statement provided by the officials.

Space Force Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, commander of Space Systems Command, previewed some of the changes coming during a Dec. 13 speech at a conference. The Air Force, he said, “is going to get rid of the major commands structure,” under Kendall’s plan.

“Think about how fundamental that is to the way we fight today and the way we’ve always thought about the Air Force,” he said. “And we’re going to step away from what we know as the majcom structure. That’s going to be a huge change.”

Within hours,
Guetlein backtracked
, saying no final decision had been made.

However, his broad outlines track with what the congressional staffers and Air Force advisers described to POLITICO, though what is being dubbed the “Reoptimization” plan will continue to be refined over the next several weeks.

Kendall’s plans would cut to the heart of how the Air Force has structured itself for decades in order to make the service leaner, while consolidating more analysis and planning at the top under a reporting structure that goes straight to the civilian secretary.

The idea is for the Air Force to beef up civilian planning and budget analysis that is normally done by the Pentagon staff. The change would better refine what the Air Force wants to buy and how it can afford it. Much of that work will be done by civilians, creating “some significant tension between the civilians and the blue suits” within the Air Force, according to one of the people familiar with the planning.

“It’s actually much more complicated than the creation of the Space Force,” the person added.

Majcoms and air wings

The Air Force’s operational structure is built on nine major commands run by three- and four-star generals, and organizes Air Force missions by either function or region. For example, Air Mobility Command oversees airlift and refueling, while Pacific Air Forces provide units for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Working versions of the plan call for some meshing of some of those responsibilities, although details are not finalized.

For example, Kendall’s plans call for the establishment of an Integrated Capabilities Development Command, and an Airman Development Command would oversee all of the schools and education initiatives, replacing Air Education and Training Command. The Air Force is rebranding the command to educate the airmen over their career, while Air Combat Command will focus more on readiness, one congressional aide said. The names of the new commands could still change.

It will be the first time the service altered the major command structure since December 2019, when Air Force Space Command was redesignated as the interim headquarters for Space Force.

At the airfield level, air wings right now are organized by aircraft type, but that could change according to some versions of the plan that have circulated. Instead of a wing made up of fighter jets and another made up of bombers, they would be mixed, so that a single wing could have fighters, bombers and tankers, according to two of the congressional staffers and one of the advisers. The details were thin, all three said.

An Air Force spokesperson said the air wing idea has not been discussed among “senior leaders.”

The idea would represent a throwback to a model used in the 1990s, when the Air Force remade the 366th Fighter Wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, into a “composite wing.”

A composite wing flies aircraft capable of taking out enemy air defenses, participate in air-to-air combat, and refuel — all under one command structure instead of several. Crews for the different aircraft would regularly train together, making coordination easier and less time-consuming, the thinking goes.

The composite wing eventually reverted into an all-fighter air wing due to funding issues. In today’s Air Force, the only time that different aircraft types come together is for various exercises.

“This didn’t work the last time the Air Force did it, why would now be any different?” one congressional aide said.

Any new wing would likely combine planners who focus on different aircraft types in the same unit to ensure they are drawing up requirements with the big picture in mind, two of the congressional aides said.

“This is a good thing — a bomber planner will now sit across the table from a fighter planner, and they can see where requirements overlap,” the first congressional aide said.

Hill reaction

Overall, Kendall’s move will take months — if not years — to get through Congress and put into action.

The reception on Capitol Hill, and among the Air Force community, is uncertain.

It’s not the first time in recent years that a service has overhauled itself with an eye toward China. In 2020, then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger unveiled his Force Design 2030 concept, a radical restructuring that saw the service get rid of all of its tanks and traditional towed artillery in favor of truck-mounted rockets, drones and precision munitions. The goal was to make the Corps lighter and faster — and more capable of island-hopping in the Pacific.

The plan was roundly rejected by a
group of retired Marine generals still revered in the Corps
, and some in Congress bristled at the ideas. Berger came under withering criticism in op-ed pages and in meetings with the services’ graybeards. Despite the heat, Congress each year blessed his reforms in annual budget votes, finally vindicating his approach and remaking the Corps.

“It certainly is something Kendall has thought about for a long time, so I think that perhaps now is the right time to make that kind of change, especially not knowing exactly how long it will be in the seat,” said a person who advises the Air Force and who is familiar with the planning efforts.

The first Air Force adviser familiar with the plans agreed, adding, “there’s been nothing of this kind of scope” seen in the Air Force in decades.

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