The Way It’s Going To Be

Nov. 1, 2008

The Air Force has been making a powerful, though often unrecognized, contribution in today’s wars, but recent missteps in acquisition and nuclear affairs have hurt the service’s credibility and stature. Aggressive steps are being taken to earn back the confidence of the nation and the other services, top USAF officials declared in September.

In remarks at AFA’s Air & Space Conference in Washington, D.C., the Secretary of the Air Force, Michael B. Donley, and USAF Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, pledged energetic moves to get the service’s nuclear and acquisition enterprises on track.

The two announced a flurry of reviews and corrective actions meant to respond to recent problems. They also moved to erase any lingering doubts about the Air Force’s commitment to unmanned systems by announcing broad changes aimed at giving the missions of the robot aircraft status equal to those of their manned counterparts.

As seen through night-vision goggles, a B-2 stealth bomber prepares to refuel from a KC-135 tanker. (DOD photo by USAF SSgt. Jeremy M. Wilson)

Donley said the nation’s defense strategy is shifting more toward irregular warfare, and this will require change in budget priorities. Schwartz pointed out that the Air Force’s unique and broad capabilities offer dissuasion and deterrence beyond that offered by a nuclear arsenal alone.

With reporters, Schwartz acknowledged that restoring the Air Force’s reputation for nuclear and acquisitions excellence won’t happen swiftly. “It will take us … a couple of successes to get back to straight and level,” he observed.

Schwartz said that the June ouster of Michael W. Wynne and now retired Gen. T. Michael Moseley probably would not unduly hurt service morale nor obscure the Air Force’s wartime successes.

He added that whenever the question is asked, “What are we doing to support the joint fight, … there is never a shortage of impressive answers.” Schwartz and Donley each quoted imposing statistics describing the vast number of USAF aircraft sorties flown to support ground forces with precision firepower, to bring supplies by air, to evacuate the wounded, and to provide intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capability to all branches of the military, while flying air defense missions at home.

They highlighted the role played by ground-based airmen, integrated with their Army and Marine Corps brethren, directing air support, and performing other tasks that directly aid in the fight.

Even so, said Schwartz, “we must be careful to listen to those who depend on us. The Air Force is taking a hard look at what we do, how we do it, and why. We must do this to restore and regain our stature as professionals and uncompromising joint warfighters.”

The sudden removal of top Air Force leaders in June has left the service struggling with the issue of accountability in the past few months, Schwartz said.

“We are going through some rough air in the realm of nuclear deterrence right now, and rightly so,” Schwartz observed. “Stated simply, over time, we lost our way.” He was referring to the lower status and funding that USAF’s nuclear mission has received since the Cold War ended.

“We have to … recommit ourselves to the exacting discipline of nuclear surety,” Schwartz said.

(Within a week, Schwartz and Donley released the names of six Air Force general officers receiving formal reprimands in the mistaken transfer of nuclear fuses to Taiwan in 2006. See “Air Force World: Generals Disciplined Over Taiwan Incident,” p. 18.)

Schwartz said he will create a mentoring program, composed of recognized experts in the nuclear mission—some of whom may be retired—to give those now entering the field “insight, wisdom, and best practices for these critical skill sets.”

He promised that the Air Force will “take a hard look” at the recommendations of the various blue-ribbon panels and reviews of the nuclear enterprise and decide how large organizational portfolios should be, and “ask … how many different missions can a commander give full attention?”

An MQ-9 Reaper UAV rolls out of its hangar at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. A Reaper on Aug. 16 dropped a 500-pound laser guided bomb, the aircraft’s first use of weapons in Iraq. (USAF photo by TSgt. Erik Gudmundson)

However, “the key message is this: The Air Force will reinvigorate the nuclear enterprise and restore America’s confidence in our commitment to performing these vital missions.” Schwartz added, “It’s a ‘back to basics’ approach.”

Donley, in his keynote speech, said that some steps are already being taken. The Nuclear Weapons Center’s role in weapons sustainment will be expanded, and the nuclear enterprise will have “a more centralized inspection process,” which will enhance standardization. This will improve the ability “to track unit compliance and effectiveness over time.”

Fair and Open Competition

More work will have to be done on how to improve focus on the nuclear capabilities of the bomber force, Donley noted, especially since the bomber force is “relatively small” and will remain so for the near future.

Schwartz said he wants to focus greater attention on the Air Force’s relationship with industry, which has suffered in the acrimonious legal and political dispute over the now-terminated KC-X aerial tanker competition, the CSAR-X helicopter project, and long-delayed satellite procurements.

Acquisition professionals on both sides work hard, he said, but “when the work is done, we have only modest success to show in terms of getting across the goal line.” Even then, it doesn’t seem certain that USAF has succeeded in getting “what we really need to provide” to combatant commanders, Schwartz observed.

“The unfortunate deterioration” of the Air Force’s relationship with industry stems from “hyperbole, insensitivity, and a lack of proper communication,” he asserted, noting that the failed KC-X contest suffered from excessive “emotion.”

He promised that competitions in the future will be “fair and open” but aimed at getting “needed performance, not excessive performance.” He later said the Air Force has a tendency to “chase” the next level of technology to the detriment of fielding sufficient gear in a timely fashion.

Schwartz noted, “We must collectively get back to the basics of military requirements driving procurement programs, including the long-term reliability of industrial partners. I see this as a matter of trust. … The health of Department of Defense acquisition is at stake.”

Donley said the “immediate concern” in USAF acquisition is to manage programs so they can “withstand the protests that seem to be becoming a more prevalent part of the procurement process.”

He said all is not gloom: The Pentagon has had successes with the quick development and fielding of UAVs, mine-resistant vehicles, and the ROVER system, but “in most areas, I share the concern of many that recapitalization of our Air Force is not adequately funded and will take too long.”

Gen. Bruce Carlson, head of Air Force Materiel Command, said in a panel discussion with other four-star generals that more personnel are needed to fully staff the acquisition workforce. Funding cuts over 15 years have “decimated” the career field, he said, adding, “We’re seeing some of the ramifications.”

Donley said he supported Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ decision to hand the tanker program off to the incoming Administration, saying, “All of us need to reflect on what we have just been through,” and that a “cooling off period” is needed. However, going forward, “we’re going to need a new approach.” He said USAF will work with the Government Accountability Office, which adjudicates protests, to see how the service can better document its decision-making and “withstand contractor protests.” Two further “deeper looks” at Air Force acquisition are under way, Donley said, one internal and one by a federal agency.

Airmen at Minot AFB, N.D., review nuclear cruise missile serial numbers on a B-52’s rotary launcher. Gen. Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff, says airmen must recommit themselves to “the exacting discipline of nuclear surety.” (USAF photo)

Schwartz also took retired generals to task for muddying the public debate on vital programs, exhorting them to keep out of the process. Though they have a right to “make a living” working for the defense industry, retirees shouldn’t tout their opinions as proceeding solely from their previous active service.

“What I think we need to avoid is to have Americans believe their military leadership can be bought,” Schwartz said at the press conference.

Replacement of the KC-135 tanker can’t be allowed to languish, Schwartz insisted, saying the nation should be alarmed at the prospect of a potential fleetwide grounding of the type.

“Our worldwide presence and operations would stop,” he said flatly. “Without tankers, … we’re not global. We’d be a formidable self-defense force,” unable to project power or “hold the bad guys at risk in their own backyards.”

The nation “cannot wait for the moment of crisis to wake up and realize the urgency of tanker recapitalization.”

Gates chided the Air Force earlier this year for being slow to respond to field commander demands for the intelligence products provided by unmanned aerial vehicles. In response, the Air Force will put greater emphasis than ever before on UAVs and the people who operate them.

A Dedicated Cadre for UAVs

Unmanned systems “have surpassed all expectations” of what they can deliver, in both ISR and strike, Schwartz said, and they must now take their rightful place alongside manned systems as one of the key capabilities offered by the Air Force.

He said the service is “dedicated to increasing equipment, training, and operational capacity [in UAVs] as quickly as possible to help win the fight,” and will lead in developing more effective ways to use them.

The Air Force has beaten Quadrennial Defense Review requirements by two years in fielding 27 UAV combat air patrols over Iraq and Afghanistan, Donley said, and fielded more than 4,000 ROVER systems, which allow ground and air forces to see a common picture of the battlefield and simplify the direction of close air support.

Schwartz announced the creation of an unmanned aircraft systems career field. In the near-term, to produce more operators quickly, 100 new graduates from pilot training will go directly into UAVs, and this will continue “as long as the need exists.” Until now, the Air Force has drawn on experienced pilots as UAV operators.

He wants to increase the number of UAV pilots from 450 today to 1,100 in five years.

“Ultimately, our intent is to form a dedicated cadre of professional [UAV] operators,” who will in time be able to operate several UAVs at once. They will have a distinct training pipeline, which will be launched immediately, using active duty volunteers as well as “some from the retired ranks who possess appropriate skills.”

The Air Force will also work with the Federal Aviation Administration on getting UAVs certified for flight in civil airspace, Schwartz said.

“There can be little doubt about the relevance and potential” of UAVs, he continued, and there will be “full institutional integration of these capabilities” in the Air Force. The UAV will be embraced in Air Force culture, and he pledged that the career field will not be ” ‘a leper colony’ or an agency of expedience.” The UAV operator will enjoy status equal to the pilot of manned aircraft, or an air battle manager, he pledged.

A Minuteman III ICBM carrying three unarmed test warheads launches from its silo at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. (USAF photo by Joe Davila)

The ratio of unmanned to manned aircraft bought every year is rising, Donley noted. Right now, UAVs provide just two percent of the inventory, he said. In the coming years, the number procured each year will be “anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of new tails.”

He added that a lot of work must be done to institutionalize the UAV in the Air Force, to make it applicable to wars beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, and not create a “one-war wonder.”

Gates’ decision to halt the drawdown of the Air Force at 330,000 active dutypersonnel, rather than letting it reach its planned 316,000, will give the service “headspace to rebalance our skill sets” in shorthanded fields, Donley explained. Some of the billets retained will be applied to emerging missions, such as cyber operations. Others will be targeted at staffing up the nuclear mission and increasing the ranks of maintainers, who are struggling to keep aging airframes flying. The ISR field will claim some of the recovered slots, while other “stressed career fields” will absorb the rest, Donley said.

National strategy is changing, shifting more toward irregular warfare, Donley said. Since the end of the Cold War, national strategy has called for a force able to fight two major theater wars almost at once, and that strategy was “the primary driver” of budgets.

Now, there is “a realization that near-term operational requirements at the low end of the conflict spectrum seem not only more likely, but more persistent.” He said the upcoming QDR will hash out what this means for the Air Force, but he hinted that “the demand curve continues to shift toward joint enabling capabilities.”


Donley said he has ordered a series of “midterm studies” to explore how the Air Force will fit in with a changing national strategy. On the list of topics are irregular warfare, cyber-war, UAV roadmaps, and space management and organization.

While there’s been “considerable progress” in IW, with evolved mission planning, a new IW Center of Excellence in 2006, and a new service doctrine last year, Donley said “to be truly effective in today’s strategic context, the Air Force must continue to elevate its progress to the strategic level.” He later told reporters that he meant USAF must figure out how best to position itself for IW, “not just in a continuing tactical sense, but at the … higher doctrinal level—what is the role of airpower in this construct?” That’s a subject of hot debate, and “I’d like to see a broader strategic consensus in the Air Force about our role at the lower end of the conflict spectrum,” Donley said.

There is a broad review of USAF space under way. Donley said the review will have three facets: First will be “critical issues” about how USAF is organized for space today, and what’s not working. Second will be a discussion of what USAF already does well in space, and third will be about how USAF can strengthen its space management and organization. Donley said these topics are ripe for QDR discussion and the transition.

The Air Force has had to manage replacement of war losses, flying hours funding, wartime demands for ISR platforms, etc., through supplemental budgets over the last seven years, but the use of supplementals can’t go on forever, Donley said. He said USAF has begun a “planning effort to merge a portion of our enduring wartime costs into our baseline budget.”

He later told reporters that UAVs are “a good example” of a supplemental-funded capability that has to move to the baseline budget, but it won’t happen before the Fiscal 2011 budget cycle. They are “a big chunk of the capability [funded by supplementals] that needs to move back into the institutional Air Force.”

A package of options on issues such as continued production of the F-22 and C-17 is being developed for the next Administration. Donley guessed the incoming leadership will evaluate the programs in a broader context. “The F-22/F-35 relationship is a good example,” he said. With regard to the F-22, Donley said his whole focus is to “make sure we have some kind of a [production] bridge in place,” so the new leadership can make a choice.

Schwartz said that he and Donley “are going to pin down what we think [is] the right number” of F-22s and C-17s to buy. However, he believes there’s “a legitimate argument” to keep both aircraft in production until other, roughly comparable aircraft are also in production and there can be a “handoff,” Schwartz said.

He also said “it’s pretty clear to me” that there is a need for an aircraft like the C-27J. “The battlefield has changed. It’s not main base to main base anymore,” but resupply has become more “distributed” directly to field operating locations. He said that the Air Force’s stated need for 24 C-27s is “appropriate.”

US Air Force Special Operations Command combat controllers and pararescuemen scramble out of a UH-1 Huey during a training mission at Eglin AFB, Fla. (USAF photo by SrA. Ali Flisek)

Donley offered no ambiguity about the need for the next bomber. He told reporters that the 2018 bomber is a “vital program for the country, in my view, and we will certainly make a fact-based but strong argument for [it] … as we move into the spring and summer of [2009].”

Although USAF faces a lot of studies and issues requiring quick decisions, Schwartz said he and Donley are not seeking to remake the Air Force. “We basically … are talking about emphasis [and] focus,” said the Chief of Staff. “This is is not major surgery.”