The U.S. Air Force is now downsizing again, aiming to cut strength by 3,700 (1,633 enlisted and 2,074 officers). This downsizing will be accomplished by encouraging early retirement, or allowing those selected for the cut, to leave before their current contract is up. Until last year, the air force was in the process of cutting strength to 318,000. Each active duty airman costs the air force over $100,000 a year, thus the reduction of 40,000 troops resulted in savings of nearly half a billion dollars a year. The money saved was going towards purchasing more technology. More new airplanes.
A change of leadership reversed that plan, and over the past year, the air force has been increasing strength. The current cuts are partly the result of the recession, which has led to a lot more, high quality, people. The air force took all it could get, and then decided to cut some of the less qualified people it already had.
Earlier this year, the air force announced that it was going to rebuild its strength, after four years of downsizing (in an effort that shed 40,000 airmen). Last year, in the wake of a major leadership shakeup in the United States Air Force (the top military and civilian leaders were fired, and the new military leader is not a fighter pilot), the U.S. Secretary of Defense ordered that the air force halt its downsizing program. Many in the air force agreed with this change.
That downsizing had been going on since 2005. The air force was reorganizing, while also shrinking, and that included cutting several thousand junior officers, who are usually immune to such cuts. The air force planned to cut their strength by 5,400 personnel last year. But for most of this year, that was changed to an effort to increase strength to 350,000, or more. But current strength is 328,000, and headed back to 325,000.
The air force has long been accused (by members of the other services) of operating more like a corporation than a military operation. That's a little harsh, because the air force is the most tech minded of the services, and has always taken the lead in adapting commercial innovations to military use. But sometimes this thinking collides with the fact that the air force is a combat outfit. Especially during the Iraq and Afghanistan operation, more air force personnel found themselves under fire. Not pilots, but over 20,000 non-pilots that volunteered to help the army by doing support jobs in the combat zone. The air force was persuaded to create a Combat Action Medal for airmen who saw battle action on the ground while serving with the army. In two years, over 2,000 of these have been awarded.
The U.S. Air Force has fewer people on active duty today, 325,000, than at any other time in its history. However, if you add in reservists (181,000), strength is a bit higher than it was when the air force was formed (from the U.S. Army Air Force) in 1948. The air force also has slightly more officers on active duty today (63,000) than it did in 1948, but that's a reflection of the growing importance of technology. Air Force personnel today have much more education than they did sixty years ago, and that is reflected in higher pay and, on average, higher rank.
One reason for halting the downsizing, was poor morale because of a personnel policy that was sending some types of air force troops overseas again and again, while many other hardly went at all. There were many complaints from the officers and airmen spending all that time overseas (many since 1991, to patrol the Iraq "no-fly" zone). But air force brass had been ignoring the complaints, believing that there were so many people trying to get in, or stay in, the air force, that they could just tell the troops to suck it up. The new air force management is taking this in a different direction. That means that the old air force plan, of shedding personnel so they could buy more new F-22s and F-35s, has been dropped. Now the future is more non-flying technology, more UAVs and more things that haven't been invented yet.