Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein took time out in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis for an interview with Air Force Magazine Pentagon Editor Brian W. Everstine. His comments here are edited for space.
Q: How is it to lead an Air Force while social distancing and working remotely?
A: We’re learning a ton in terms of how to keep operations going and how to continue to communicate. It’s interesting just to try to be the example and set the standard. I’m teleworking two days from the Air House, and I’ll tell you, those are some of my busiest days … nonstop VTC-ing . We’re finding we can keep operations going across the Air Force, and we’re just finding new ways of doing it.
Q: The Majcoms earlier this month filed reports on mission essential tasks that need to be met in this COVID-19 environment. What did you learn?
A: The first thing we did was identify the key missions where we know we will get no relief, nor should we expect relief. When it comes to defending the homeland and doing those other critical missions, the Air Force performs. … We have continued operations in space, continued operations in cyber, we have a robust medical response, we’ve got nuclear operations, … we’ve got our ongoing ISR operations. … Then the ask was ‘OK, how do you build the breadth and the depth to be able to sustain operations even if there’s an outbreak?’ And so, we’ve adjusted operations in the nuclear missile fields, we’ve adjusted operations in our command and control headquarters, we’ve made adjustments in how we maintain space operations. … So, now, we’re operating in what we call the new abnormal, operating with the virus.
Q: How does that impact Airmen standing alert and trying to stay ready?
A: Let me cover two things that are ongoing: Air mobility and nuclear missile operations. Obviously, all of it at an unclassified level.
As the nation and the world continues to hunker down, more and more we move to the air. And so when it comes to Air mobility, and the leadership of Gen. Maryanne Miller, who’s just brilliant at this kind of operation, we’re putting the crews essentially in a bubble, right? The cockpits are clean. They fly a mission, they leave that cockpit … we put them in a bubble where they’re not in contact with anybody else, [other than] those they’ve already been in close proximity with in the cockpit. So, it’s close, close proximity. And then they go into a room and they stay in that room with whatever’s required, delivered to them, and then they go back into that cockpit to do the mission. So global mobility continues unabated.
So, nuclear missile operations: A typical nuclear crew would go on about eight alerts a month, and for some period of two to three days. We’ve increased the timeline, they’re in the field upward of 14 days at a time. And we’re on blue/silver teams. So one team is on, one team is off. And we rotate in and out. … We’re adhering to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) protocols at the same time, and operations continue unabated
Q: What about Basic Military Training? How can you sustain that?
A: [With] Basic Military Training, we’re putting through about half of what we normally put through … at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland [Texas]. When young men and women arrive, we watch them for 14 days with restricted operations and movement. After 14 days—and ensuring that they have no symptoms and they’re clean from the virus—they go into training. …
Gen. Brad Webb has really been a marvel for thinking creatively on how to do this. They’re just standing up a tent city, to be able to further account for isolation and protocols. … We can actually sustain this for a significant time. … Hard to tell what the recovery looks like to get the numbers back. … I think what we’ll actually return to, I predict, is not a return to normal, but a return to a new abnormal. … This is going to have some longer-term implications.
Q: And outside of BMT are you seeing similar implications for things like PME or Air University or Weapons School?
A: We are using this as an opportunity to truly look at the way we do business, and accelerate some things that we were working on before, especially virtual training. Now’s the opportunity to really accelerate those. So, what can you do if you no longer have the capacity or capability to go sit in a classroom together? How do you continue to train virtually and through some distance learning? And what we’re finding is that there’s a lot of things you can train to without having to be side-by-side, face-to-face. I would say we’re starting to look at simulation differently. You know, whether we can actually do simulation, to include flying simulation, where the simulators are in one place in and the instructors are in another. And I predict we’re not going to go back to the old way of doing business completely, we’re going to take some of the things that we’re learning, and that’ll be the new way of doing business going forward.
Q: And what about changes for Air University, officer training, things like that?
A: I was just talking to the Air University commander and he was saying his staff is talking to the Air Force Academy. Learn what they went through when they transitioned very quickly—they transitioned to distance learning in 10 days for three classes of cadets. … Air University and others are sort of looking at what the Academy has learned and adjusting accordingly. We’re already talking about the next school year. And just how much—again living in the new abnormal—how much of this can we return to in terms of classroom and face-to-face? How much should we return to that? How much of this can we do through distance learning? … This is a new challenge that provides some huge new opportunities.
Q: Are there other areas that you can see these current changes, such as new ways to do acquisition?
A: Absolutely. You know, [Will] Roper, he is just such an inspirational leader. I mean, I think so many of us, not just in the Department of Defense but also in industry, are just feeding on his energy and his ideas. … He saw and was looking at new ways to engage with industry months before the COVID virus hit. And so, we were doing our pitch days. Using the authorities Congress gave us to write contracts quickly, incentivizing small business and venture capitalists to put resources against defense acquisition and new ideas. And what’s been fun to watch is, so much of what he put in place is today exactly what the entire Department of Defense is leaning on and relies on to keep business moving forward and especially those that are cash-strapped, where we can write a contract very quickly, and keep them moving so that we emerge on the back end with a healthy industrial base—which we know is a critical, strategic part of how this department defends the homeland.
Q: Will the increase in remote work be something that will remain after this all ends? How can you address issues such as working with classified information remotely?
A: One of the things that we started early in our approach to this is, I put a note out to all commanders in the Air Force. … Whiteman is not going to look like Clovis. It’s not going to look like Hill in the middle of Salt Lake City. It’s not going to look like Ramstein. It’s not going to look like Kunsan. Every one of our bases is unique in that there are different missions, different populations, different communities, different health care in the community in terms of capacity and capability, right? So, a one-size-fits-all approach to leading through this crisis is doomed to fail. So, our approach has been to provide broad mission command guidance to local installation commanders, get them the resources they need, ensure they have the decision authority they need, and then expect them to move out and really handle their base in the way that that is best suited for that population in that community.
Q: What about flying hours? If there’s a shortfall, how do you overcome it?
A: If you go forward to Kunsan, if you’re going forward to Bagram, you will find we’re flying ops at no degradation, because these are our fight-tonight forces. … If you look at Air Mobility Command, not only are they flying pretty much at the same rate, but it’s going to go up as we move more and more by air. And then you’ll go to Air Training Command and you’d find that they’re flying right at the 50 percent level.
One of the areas that we watch really hard is our depots, because our civilian workforce in the depots are just magicians. They keep 58-year-old airplanes flying, I mean, it’s just magic what they do. But they also tend to be an older population, so therefore at greater risk. So General Bunch [Gen. Arnold Bunch Jr., head of Air Materiel Command] is working hard to make sure that we adjust our depot operations because that impacts number of aircraft available, it impacts the mods that we’re doing, and that translates directly into our flying hour program.
I think where we are closer to fight tonight, we’re flying just as we did before COVID. And where we get farther away from that is where you get closer to that 50 percent. How do we get it back? You know, the good news is … we have been through times where we’ve had to ground fleets for some period of time because of a maintenance action, and then have to reconstitute that fleet. And so we actually have some good templates. We know how to do this.
Q: The last time we saw a major reduction of flying hours during sequestration. What did you learn?
A: What’s interesting about sequestration is how long it took us to recover from that one major year of across-the-board cuts. It’s just amazing to me. I still find areas where if something goes badly, and I asked the team to dig into it, we go back to, ‘Well, this is a decision that was made back during sequestration.’ … So are there some things that we can learn from that. … I would say that there are probably more current examples.
Q: What has been the impact of the stop-movement order, of not being able to bring units back from downrange or Airmen not being able to PCS?
A: Right now it’s manageable, but it’s not without some level of pain for Airmen and families who had a plan and had to pack, all planned and ready to go. So we’re managing it Majcom by Majcom, base by base, and, quite frankly, Airman by Airman.
Q: To the downrange side of things, is this preventing units that were set to return home from returning home? How long can that continue?
A: We’re working that unit by unit. There still are rotations that are going on, especially when you talk about the CENTCOM AOR. So we’re working that with the CENTCOM commander, really, unit by unit, based on his overall mission.
Q: Some bases and units have made big public shows of force recently. For example, a B-52 Elephant Walk at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. Why?
A: I think it’s really important for people around the globe to know that this Air Force is up and operating, and this would be a dangerous time to even consider taking us on. We can generate airplanes, we can generate air power, we can generate space power. The United States Air Force is fully capable, and that’s what an Elephant Walk demonstrates. But it also allows us to upgrade our procedures, because we don’t put aside social distancing, we don’t put aside CDC protocols.
There are 1,000 fingerprints on every aircraft that takes off, right? It’s not just the crew in the cockpit. This is air traffic controllers, weapons loaders, weapons builders, refuelers, tire and battery. And so every one of those operations has got to be modified and adjusted. And so we learn. How do you do air traffic control in a COVID environment? How do you build weapons in a COVID environment? How do you refuel aircraft and operate a fuel truck? These are all things that we’re modifying real time. It’s a great exercise to ensure … we can continue to produce air power despite the COVID challenges. J