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The basic fighting unit of the US Air Force is the squadron. Squad-rons are configured to deploy and employ in support of crisis action requirements. They are not designed to conduct independent operations but rather to interact with other units to provide the synergy needed to conduct sustained and effective operations. As such, an individual squadron should not deploy by itself; it should deploy along with the appropriate support and command elements (a “group slice”). Afield, it would look more like a group.

The squadron ususally consists of two or more flights. The squadron commander gives orders to the flight commanders rather than to the commanders of the individual planes. The squadron is the smallest air force unit that has both tactical and administrative duties. Each squadron includes ground personnel whose duties are to administer and furnish the ground services.

The composition of a squadron is determined by the type of airplane it operates and the nature of its mission. All squadrons have headquarters, mess, supply, technical, and maintenance personnel. Local conditions and the mission determine the number of planes to be grouped in one squadron for maximum efficiency, and the number of men, the equipment, and the supplies required to keep the planes flying. A squadron may contain a dozen or more planes.

In 1992, the Air Force decided to reconfigure its fighter force into smaller squadrons. This decision occurred at a time when the Secretary of Defense was attempting to reduce defense operating and infrastructure costs.

To achieve directed force structure reductions, the Air Force has reduced the number of F-15 and F-16 aircraft in its inventory. Between fiscal years 1991 and 1997, the Air Force reduced its F-15 aircraft from 342 to 252. Over this same period, the Air Force reduced its F-16 aircraft from 570 to 444. In 1991, F-15 and F-16 aircraft were configured in 42 squadrons. By fiscal year 1997, these aircraft were configured in 37 squadrons.

Until 1992, the Air Force predominantly organized its active fighter aircraft in wings of three squadrons, with 24 combat aircraft in each squadron. However, in 1992, the Air Force Chief of Staff directed that the squadrons be reduced to 18 aircraft. By 1997, most fighter squadrons were reduced to this smaller size, leaving only 54 aircraft in most wings.

The primary benefit of using smaller-sized squadrons was increased operational deployment flexibility. With fewer fighters in the Air Force inventory, reducing squadrons to 18 aircraft increases the number of squadrons above the number there would have been had the aircraft been organized in traditional squadrons of 24 aircraft. These additional squadrons were needed to respond to conflicts that reflect the new security environment, characterized by multiple contingency operations and the possibility of two nearly simultaneous military regional conflicts.

The primary use of squadron organizations in a regional conflict operation is to manage the daily flight shifts. Squadron structures become almost invisible because all aircraft are controlled by the theater's air component commander. Thus, from the CINC's perspective, the number of squadrons in which aircraft are organized is largely immaterial.

Another benefit of smaller squadrons was "span of control"--the ability to manage personnel and the collective tasks for which they are responsible. The decentralization of flight line aircraft maintenance from the wing to the squadron was part of an Air Force reorganization called "Objective Wing." This change gave the squadron commander responsibility for managing some maintenance assets for the first time. Previously flight line maintenance and associated personnel were controlled by the wing. When this function was shifted to the squadron in 1991-92, a typical 24-aircraft squadron would have increased from about 85 to over 300 people. This fourfold growth would have weakened the commander's ability to effectively manage people and missions. The reduced number of squadron aircraft helped to offset this effect because a smaller squadron reduces the number of squadron personnel. The Air Force's standard for span of control for maintenance squadrons commanders is 700 people, about twice the number of personnel being supervised by flight squadron commanders.

Subsequently as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) F-15C squadrons were reinstated to 24 primary assigned aircraft (PAA). This was intended to reduce stress on the F-15C squadrons as they dealt with an increasing operations tempo with reduced manning. Annual operating cost for 72 F-15s are about $12 million less if they are organized into squadrons of 24 aircraft instead of squadrons of 18. The annual savings are primarily due to reduced military personnel requirements, in such areas as command, staff, administrative and maintenance. The savings cost associated with reduced military personnel requirements accounts for about 70 percent of the total savings, of which over 90 percent is enlisted pay. Also, larger squadrons allow maintenance specialty shops to be used more efficiently, requiring little or no change in staffing. Within the wing structure, larger squadrons provide a benefit since young pilots no longer have to perform additional duties. This allows the new pilots time to study, learn and practice thus maturing into the weapon system.

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