Gen. David Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, believes force readiness goes far beyond mission capable rates and must be viewed and funded holistically. Photo: Mike Tsukamoto/staff
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein spoke with Air Force Magazine Editorial Director John A. Tirpak and Editor in Chief Tobias Naegele on Aug. 2 about how the Air Force will return to its expeditionary roots—the better to serve as the “halt force” in future conflicts—as well as readiness and other issues affecting the service.
Q. We’ve talked a bit about how the Air Force will become more expeditionary. What’s still to come?
A. My intent is to tie a bow on the work we’ve been doing the last three years. We’ve focused on fixing the fighting formation, joint leader development, and multi-domain operations, which has actually got some traction now.
What ties it together is, how do you present forces to a combatant commander?
We’re coming out of an era where we’ve been rotating airmen into a rather mature campaign. We have forward mature basing, infrastructure, and command and control squadrons that we can rotate airmen in and out of.
But that is not the model that will actually work for a Russia or China campaign, for which we are expected to be the ‘halt force.’
This is not parochial, and I’m skirting operational sensitivity here, but if you look at the operational war plans, every one of the combatant commanders expect—by virtue of the fact that we fly into theater—that we will be there in hours and days, not weeks and months. So we’re the component they expect to arrive the quickest and establish ourselves to halt enemy activity, while follow-on forces can then be brought in and built up. But somebody’s got to get in there first to halt the adversary. And that’s us.
Every unit is going to have to figure out how they do five core tasks in support of that. [First], they have to establish a base where it currently doesn’t exist. Then, employ integrated defenses to protect the base. Third, establish command and control connectivity up, down, and sideways, hooking into higher headquarters as well as subordinate units. After that, receive follow-on forces that may not look like your own, because they’re allies and joint forces. And finally, fight your base in a contested environment, where you’re likely to be cut off from a portion of your network and you are taking losses.
If you look at those core tasks and then at our current training and development of commanders, … we’ve got some work to do.
Q. How will things look different to the airman?
A. If we get this right, when they go to Red Flag, they’re going to … roll in and establish those five things. They will deploy with a command and control kit that allows them to connect-in very quickly. They have to build up that base and operate off it very quickly. At each echelon, what an airman should see at home base is a battle rhythm that mirrors what it will look like when they go to an exercise. For some, it will be very different; for others, their battle rhythms today already mirror what they do downrange.
The most important thing I can do as Chief is to produce competence under fire. … My job is to ensure that when airmen face combat for the first time … they quickly get to that moment where the calm comes over them and they realize, ‘I can do this. I’ve been here before.’
Q. How often will they practice deploying to a bare base?
A. I don’t want to generate too many more deployments because I’m pretty sensitive about white space on the calendar. They need more time at home to be able to train better and have reflective time so they can really absorb what they’re learning. Surge has become the ‘new normal’ in many ways with this smaller force. And I want to keep every airman we’ve invested in, because we need them. The technology doesn’t do much without the trained and ready people.
Q. To be the ‘halt force’ you have to be ready to go, all the time. But you’ve had some serious readiness problems in recent years?
A. The good news is we’ve been laser-focused on the pacing units that are required in the opening days of a campaign. And right now … 90 percent of the lead elements for those pacing units are C1 or C2, ready to go.
Q. What were they before?
A. They were less than that, ... but we’ve changed the way we invest our readiness dollars.
In the past, we spread it across all the weapon systems with the approach that all ships eventually rise with the tide. … The problem with that approach is it just took too long to move the needle of readiness.
So we looked at the National Defense Strategy and determined which units will be required upfront in the opening days of a campaign in China or Russia. And we identified those by units and MDS (Mission Design Series) and the core capability they bring. And then we put the bulk of the additional readiness money at them.
The rest of the force, we didn’t decrease their funding, they just didn’t get as much additional funding. And we have moved the readiness needle on those pacing units a significant amount.
And a shout out to Congress, who worked so hard, for recently removing the guillotine of sequester, which is huge for the services.
Important to note, though, Secretary [Heather] Wilson, and now [Acting] Secretary [Matthew] Donovan and I, we’ve been really careful about not getting a ‘sugar high.’ Which means, if you shovel money in there and get these pacing units in great shape, you feel good about yourself, but then realize you’ve done damage to the foundational base that’s got to feed them.
So, I can’t put all the money against an operational squadron. I have to put money against the schoolhouse that produces the crews. We need to keep that balance.
Q. Sounds like tiered readiness; isn’t that something the Air Force used to consider a dirty word?
A. We still think of it as a dirty word, quite frankly. I can’t get into specifics, but if you look at the percentage of the US Air Force needed to be forward in the opening weeks of a China or Russia campaign, it’s upward of 80 percent of the force. We don’t have the luxury of having an Air Force that’s not fully ready to meet our campaign commitments.
Q. After Operation Deliberate Force in the mid-1990s, the Air Force had a reset; a stand-down to restock and rest. Will there be a reset after Inherent Resolve, or is that a thing of the past?
A. I don’t see it, because if you look at the history of our fight in the Middle East since 9/11, our numbers haven’t changed appreciably over the entire time. The other services, they had big swings, right? Big surges. Everybody out of Iraq, then everybody back in. But the air component, we’ve actually been pretty steady. When the Army’s … on the move, they pack up organic fires rather early in the process. And so we become their organic fires and provide them top cover.
So I actually don’t see a reset. … I have not seen a reduction at all in the demand signal for air and space power. And I don’t anticipate one.
Q. Back on readiness. You’re under a mandate from the Secretary of Defense to get up to an 80 percent mission capable rate on the F-16, F-35, and F-22 by the end of September. Will you make it?
A. I think we’ll get there in one, not the others.
But … the MC rate is actually … not a very good measure of aviation readiness.
You’ve got to have trained and ready airmen to get the job done. And that’s pilots, maintainers, crew chiefs, fuelers, air traffic controllers, air battle managers, intelligence specialists, etc.
And then you have to have someplace to go. A tactical aircraft has to go to a range with high-end emitters to replicate the threat. And has to go to depot and get modifications, and you have to have time to train.
So, how have we done?
We were 4,000 maintainers short, we’re now down to zero. We were on a downward spiral of pilot retention, but we’ve leveled off and seeing indications that retention numbers are actually going up.
Q. You’re still 2,000 pilots short?
A. But we haven’t gotten any worse. And we see trends. … It’s not just the bonus take rate, we do surveys that show an inclination to stay longer.
The flying hour program: When we hit rock bottom in terms of our readiness rate, we were at about 16, 16.5 hours per month average, per pilot. We’re now at 20 and growing to 21. That’s better than when I flew. So we’re back in the air.
Ranges: We’ve put $3.6 billion into ranges. That’s not an insignificant chunk of change, into Nevada and the Utah Test and Training Ranges. Depots: We’ve cut time off depot throughput, and we’re getting a better product out the back end. When a combatant commander asked for a squadron of B-52s, in 47 hours—less than two days—they were on the ground half a world away, and in 24 hours they were able to turn and perform combat operations. That’s the level of readiness we’ve been able to achieve.
Q. So why doesn’t all this translate into a better MC rate?
A. It does. But the way MC rates are measured can give a skewed picture of reality. In F-16s, for example, I had to take a significant number of F-16s offline to do a major modification. And during that time, my MC rates are going to go down. But that’s an intentional reduction, to modify that system for future combat.
I don’t see a time where all of the MC rates are going to magically get higher, but by overall investment, we’re going to drive aviation readiness to a higher place.
Q. Was the Secretary asking the wrong question?
A. I understand exactly what he was asking for in terms of these three rates. But that would require targeting investments to achieve an MC rate in only three weapon systems, and I’ve got to manage across an entire fleet.
The conversation I’m having with the Secretary of Defense’s staff is to make sure there’s a clear understanding of how you measure, generate, and sustain readiness, and it requires investment in all those areas.
If I were to just focus on MC rates, I would have to take money out of investment in people or ranges or an investment plan. But do I believe that, over time, MC rates are going to increase? Absolutely.
Q. So, can you get a waiver in the meantime, or is that directive relaxed under the new Secretary?
A. It hasn’t been relaxed. Right now, I want to give Secretary [Mark T.] Esper plenty of decision space, because he’s only been on the job a short period of time. But the discussion is not so much MC rate focused, but an accurate depiction of combat readiness. What matters is, when a combatant commander calls and says, ‘I need a squadron of B-52s.’ What really matters is that I’ve got trained and ready crews, … and we’ve been able to meet those timelines and actually exceed them. That’s what counts.
Q. A year ago, the Air Force released ‘The Air Force We Need,’ which recommended a force of 386 combat squadrons. What’s happened since then?
A. In the 2021 POM (Program Objective Memoranda), you’ll see a close linkage between the analysis that went into the Force We Need and budgets we’ve built.
Our purpose was to start a dialog on this that doesn’t start with ‘the force we can afford.’
Secretary Wilson wanted to change that narrative, which said, ‘regardless of what we can afford, this is the force we need. This is the requirement.’ And we were hopeful we would hear Congress repeating this back to us, and indeed, the chairmen of all four committees, in their opening statements, mentioned that the Air Force is too small for what the nation is asking it to do and needs to grow to 386 squadrons. And the president, in his speech at the Air Force Academy, committed to building 386 operational squadrons.
The third objective would be for it to be written into the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) as a validated requirement based on analytical rigor.
The 386 stands the test of scrutiny. Now, the hard part of this discussion is, how are you going to afford that?
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