October 13, 2011:
The U.S. Air Force has always been the most popular American military service. It was the one that most young men and women were always trying to join. Once they got in, the air force was the service most people wanted to stay in. But for the last six years, the air force has been trying to lose ten percent of its personnel. That's because the air force needs more gear (including expensive new aircraft) and fewer people. The lower need for people is the result of fewer aircraft in service, and more automation, and now less money was well.
Despite years of effort, the air force still has two percent more people than it's supposed to have. So the air force is cutting the number of cadets at the Air Force Academy by ten percent. That only reduces strength by about 400 personnel, but it's part of a larger effort. The academy cuts also save more money than just cutting airmen, and the air force still has plenty of officers from ROTC (college based programs) and OCS (Officers Candidate School for enlisted airmen). The air force, unlike the other services, obtains more officers from OCS than ROTC, mainly because it will accept OCS candidates directly from civilian life.
The air force has also had to deal with an uncharacteristic lack of money in the last decade. Since September 11, 2001, the army has had dibs on most of the defense budget, because soldiers were doing most of the fighting. The terrorist enemy didn't have an air force, and the recent arrival of GPS guided bombs greatly reduced the number of air force bombers needed. So the air force felt sort of left out.
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, 330,000, 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 (66,000) 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.
For most of the last decade, the air force plan was to shed personnel so they could buy more new F-22s and F-35s. This is changing. Now the strategy is more towards non-flying technology, more UAVs and more things that haven't been invented yet. All this stuff is more automated, meaning fewer people are required.
All this change, not just the lower number of troops needed, mainly reflects the larger amount of technology, and knowledge, now used in warfare. Consider, for example, the differences between a World War II bomber, and a modern one. The principal World War II bomber was the B-17, which weighed 29 tons, had a crew of ten, and could carry three tons of bombs to targets 1,500 kilometers away. In current dollars, each B-17 cost about $2.2 million. But that was because over 12,000 of them were built. If bought in much smaller quantities, as is typical in peacetime, each B-17 would cost over $10 million. Now compare that to a modern bomber of comparable size (or at least weight), the F-15E. With a max weight of 36 tons, an F-15E can carry up to seven tons of bombs three or four times as far as the B-17, and has a crew of only two. But this $100 million dollar aircraft is much more than ten times as lethal as the B-17. That's because of guided bombs. A B-17 carried a dozen 227 kg (500 pound) bombs, but it took over 300 of these unguided bombs to guarantee a hit on a target below. The smart bombs of the F-15E guarantee a hit with two bombs (actually, it's 1.something, because there are occasional system failures with smart bombs). The smart bombs also glide 40 kilometers or more, allowing the F-15E to avoid most anti-aircraft fire. The F-15E was likely to get shot down than a B-17, and was more durable and reliable.
Thus the big difference between these two aircraft is knowledge, as manifested in more, and better, technology. This has been a trend that has been ongoing for over a century, and continues. More technology requires fewer people, to achieve the same results, or results that were impossible in the past. The air force is not the only component of the armed services that is undergoing these simultaneous personnel shrinkages, and increased capabilities, but is probably feeling it the most. This trend is now rapidly moving towards the use of highly automated, unmanned combat aircraft.