Matthew P. Donovan has been the Undersecretary of the Air Force since August 2013, and was Acting Secretary from June to October of this year. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel after a 31-year career, including five years of enlisted service, and later served as a senior civilian on the Air Staff and as Majority Policy Director for the Senate Armed Services Committee. He spoke with Air Force Magazine Editorial Director John A. Tirpak in late October. The conversation has been edited for length.
Q. You’ve said the Air Force will have to do things differently to align with the National Defense Strategy, that some missions will go away to make room for new ones. What should we expect in the 2021 budget?
A. Even before the NDS rolled out in early 2017, I’ve been leading an effort called the Zero-Based Review in the Air Force. The planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process that we have generally only looks at the changes from year to year, because, in a $700 billion-plus budget, we don’t have time every year to go into every line in the budget. But that’s where the bulk of the dollars are. We generally only change 10 percent, up or down.
This is a multiyear process. We’re trying to break allegiances to ongoing programs, because every program that gets into the budget builds a constituency, both inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. And in my experience, it’s very easy to start a program, but very difficult to stop it.
When the NDS came out, we decided the Air Force had sort of been resting on its laurels. The Air Force is the technology force, and we’ve had a lot of efforts aimed at the high-end fight—take that as China and Russia. We have F-35, we had F-22, we have B-21. We felt ‘we’re already aligned’ with the National Defense Strategy.
After the analysis we did to create “The Air Force We Need” blueprint, it turns out that to fight a peer competitor in the late 2020s, 2030, maybe we weren’t as aligned as we needed to be.
We found there are some legacy programs that may be less useful in the high-end fight in the future. You’ve seen that before. We tried taking out the A-10, before the rise of ISIS, but we saw how useful the A-10 was over there, and we sort of saw the light and realized there is a use for a legacy-type program in that fight.
We looked at other things, too. The B-1 was built for the nuclear mission, but … in the Middle East, we were using the B-1 in a way it was never designed for, and we sort of broke them.
So we’re taking a business-case approach, now: measuring what it costs to keep these legacy programs going versus the dollars required to shift to future capabilities.
We’ve gotten dollar boosts to stop the bleeding on readiness declines and help us shift more toward those future requirements. But Secretary [Mark T.] Esper has said—and I agree—that we’ve probably peaked out on our topline with the fiscal 2020 budget, and the best we can hope for is flat, over the next [Future Years Defense Plan]. So any shifts we make are going to have to be within the topline that we have.
That’s challenging for us, especially when we look at the requirement to modernize the nuclear enterprise. It always seems to be just outside the FYDP, but there’s a huge bill coming with that, for the [Defense] Department. You’ve got Columbia-class submarines, you’ve got GBSD [Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent] for us, B-21 bombers, all these things at one time.
Q. Are you ready to reap the harvest of this Zero-Based Review?
A. We are. In our fiscal 2021 budget examinations, we actually found $30 billion dollars for programs that need to be shifted more toward the future “Air Force We Need.” That includes some manpower that wouldn’t necessarily be divested, but repurposed. We plan to take advantage of things like artificial intelligence and machine learning. It’s a pretty significant shift.
Q. “The Air Force We Need” specifies a larger end strength. How rapidly will that happen?
A. Several years ago, we cut a little bit too much in our end strength. That caused some holes in our manning. In our maintainers, we had a 4,000-person shortfall. We’ve since zeroed that out.
It takes about seven years to create a seven-year experienced maintainer. Although, as an aside, we’re finding innovative ways to make a seven-year experienced maintainer in only four or five years, through advanced technologies such as augmented or virtual reality.
That’s the way we’re approaching end strength. Advances in artificial intelligence can give us a lot of help, for example in our ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] enterprise. For every MQ-9 we have airborne, it takes 140 individual people to support it, and most of those are in processing, exploitation and dissemination, PED. In that specialty, a lot of people stare at a screen for hours at a time looking at full-motion video to detect targets.
You may have heard of Project Maven, an artificial intelligence tool, to do full-motion video processing at very high speed and detect differences, as a human would do. If we’re able to produce this capability at scale, we’re talking thousands of people freed up. I’ve heard estimates of about 44,000 in the ISR/PED enterprise; if we could reduce that by 10 percent in a year, that’s … 4,400 people that we can put onto higher priories.
Q. And the ramp to a larger Air Force?
A. We’re continuously looking at it. The deep analysis we did for “The Air Force We Need” … gave us an analysis-based approach to back up our statement that the Air Force is too small to do what the nation asks us to do. People are our most expensive asset, but they are also our most important asset.
Q. There was some discussion at the AFA conference that maybe many airmen could have two or three specialties.
A. Right. In the maintenance career field, you have specialties in avionics, fuels, engines, etc. Our young folks are smart and they’re raring to go, and we’ll load them up using new training methods. Just as an example, if we could send 10 folks rather than 100, to take care of 12 airplanes, then why wouldn’t you do that?
Q. Global Strike Command plans to retire the B-1 and B-2 to make room for the B-21, while retaining the B-52 with new engines. But the Pacific Theater demands more long-range platforms. Should the Air Force retain the older airplanes?
A. It really is budget-driven. Maybe not so much from a dollars perspective as it is from a people perspective. The people that we’ll need to field the B-21 have to come from somewhere.
Think tanks such as AFA’s Mitchell Institute have done studies on the B-21 that say 100 is not enough. They came out with, I think, 174 B-21s. And the Chief [Gen. David L. Goldfein] even said he agrees with that.
Q. “The Air Force We Need” calls for seven more bomber squadrons.
A. Exactly. “The Air Force We Need” described it in terms of squadrons, and … there’s about eight bombers in a squadron, and we’ll need more than that. We’ve always said 100 B-21s is a minimum. You’ll see us put some real numbers to the total [in the fiscal 2021 budget].
Q. In the last few months, a number of Majcom commanders have suggested it may be time for a new roles and missions debate. Secretary Esper has said he’s comfortable opening that up. Is that underway?
A. We’ve had lots of reviews. The Commission on Roles and Missions reported out in the 2010 time frame, and they actually made some really good observations, but not really any conclusions, and they made no recommendations.
Q. They said everyone is doing all these new missions in space and cyber, anyway.
A. Exactly. The Chief has talked a lot about multi-domain operations and multi-domain command and control. Just about everybody in the [Defense] Department agrees that that’s where we need to go. This is the idea of connecting every sensor to every shooter, to get decision-level information more quickly to stay inside the decision loop of any adversary, and present him with simultaneous dilemmas that just overwhelm his capability to respond in any one area. So, I think that’s a good way to describe this de facto roles and missions review.
Q. Air base defense is an Army role. The Air Force is going to be moving forces around to a lot of austere bases, rapidly, but they need protection. Have you discussed this with your Army counterpart?
A. The agile basing concept does pose quite a problem of how you defend those bases. And moving a heavy Patriot battery to every one of those places has resource implications that the Army couldn’t meet.
The Army is spending a lot of time and attention on SHORAD, in other words, Short-Range Air Defense capabilities that are indigenous to their BCTs [Brigade Combat Teams]. And there may be an opportunity for us to partner with them on that. There are also other things that we’re looking at—directed energy—those type of defensive systems that put us on the right side of the cost curve.
If the enemy is going to throw a lot of ballistic missiles at you that cost thousands of dollars, it’s not cost effective for us to come up with a system that costs in the millions of dollars to defend against them.
Q. How about in Space Force? Presumably, all the services will contribute to it. What will the Air Force be handing over to Space Force, or do less of in that domain, freeing airmen to do other things?
A. I think you’ll see a significant portion of our current space forces that would move over. Now, we still have the responsibility—as will all the services—to be component providers to that force, so you’ll see the Air Force retain some portion of space competencies. What that looks like will really be determined by Gen. [John] Raymond and the way he sets the requirements for those component force providers.
Q. USAF acquisition boss Will Roper says he’s confident he can start producing the Digital Century Series in five years. How will that affect the F-35 and F-15EX acquisitions?
A. If you go back to the original Century Series, from the late ’50s into the ’60s, there was about a 15-year period where we built 11 prototype airplanes, and we actually fielded six. About every three to four years, we were rolling out a new airplane.
Since the Reagan years, there’s been a lot of consolidation in the industrial base, but technology has also improved to the point where the digital design and digital engineering can be applied to all sorts of things. Dr. Roper’s absolutely convinced—and I believe him—that we’re able to do that with airplanes now.
Take the T-7, for example, originally the T-X. Boeing was the only competitor to come in with a clean sheet design, but they didn’t have the data to provide to the Air Force that was required as part of the competition, whereas the other entrants had airplanes that had been flying for years. We weren’t convinced they would be able to do that. But they built two prototypes and provided all the flight data to us and ended up winning the competition. It was a digitally designed airplane. So I think that’s a good example of how we can move forward with this.
What we can’t afford to do anymore is another 20-year development program, like we had for the F-22 and F-35. We can’t afford to start a new, for example, sixth-generation fighter that’s going to take 15 years to develop and field, and then another 10 years beyond that to … reach full operational capability. At the rate our adversaries are going, who knows how far behind we would be by doing that?
Much like the original Century Series, Roper’s talking about fielding something quickly, but not committing to a very large buy. Enough so that you’re operationally capable, and that might be 100 units. And then spiral to the next version.
Q. And how will this affect F-35 and F-15EX?
A. We haven’t decided on the total buy of the F-15EX. Congress fenced the funds for us to two, until we deliver an acquisition strategy. So we’re working on that very quickly.
But you can’t design an acquisition strategy unless you know what the total buy is going to be, because you can’t compute APUC [Average Procurement Unit Cost].
We have a requirement for 1,763 F-35s. I don’t see any change in that right now. But, if [Roper] can design and build a next- generation air dominance platform—and it may not even look like a fighter—within five years, then that does give us some options, right?
That’s not to say we won’t have to make hard choices at a later moment in time. As I said, there are big bills coming forward with the nuclear enterprise, and the NDS clearly delineates the priority of the homeland defense first, and then the nuclear mission. Everything else, in my mind, falls below that.