The Vice Chief’s Challenge

March 20, 2019

Gen. Stephen “Seve” Wilson also appeared on the Future Force Faster panel at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., held Feb. 27-March 1. Photo: Mike Tsukamoto/Staff

The Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson, met with Air Force Magazine editors Tobias Naegele and John Tirpak at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., to discuss the restoration of Tyndall AFB, Fla., artificial intelligence, innovation, emerging technology, and critical issues facing the force—from base capacity to the pilot shortage.

Q. The destruction of Tyndall AFB, Fla., by Hurricane Michael last fall gives you an opportunity to rebuild it as a “base of the future.” What’s your plan

A. It presents us with a great opportunity. … We have a five-year plan to get that back to where it needs to be. We think it’s in the neighborhood of $4.5-$5 billion to fix it. … And as we have to rebuild most of that infrastructure, it’ll give us the opportunity to start fresh. … We could put our first 5G network in, designed to the right standards so that any future storms don’t cause impacts like that. … We’ve got to get the right facilities in place and then look at how we scale that across the rest of the Air Force.

Q. A few years ago, the Air Force did a study that found it had more than 30 percent overcapacity in bases. It requested Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) authorities to close or reduce some of them. Where does the Air Force stand now on its base structure

A. I think the word we focus on more is ‘realignment,’ and [whether] we have the infrastructure aligned as it best can be, and optimized for the missions we have.

I was one of those guys who went to the Senate and the House and talked about the 30 percent capacity overage that we thought we had. And, … they challenged me on the numbers. … If we’re going to live in a fixed-budget world … we can’t have … all this infrastructure that we can’t afford and can’t pay for.

Q. Does that mean there’s still some structure you need to shed

A. I think we need to look at all the data. … I can show you that, over time, with the wrong investments, that I’ll have my whole infrastructure ‘red’ in the next 20 years … [meaning] beyond life expectancy, with severe, critical problems. Or, with the right investments, how I can green it up.

Q. When do you think you’ll have a sense of the right path forward

A. I think we’re still a few months away.

Q. You’ve been grappling with a pilot shortage, just as the other services and the airlines have. And you’ve put in measures to try to retain pilots and recruit more. But are there ways to reduce the need for pilots, by shifting to more unmanned systems

A. Probably both. I think our largest fleet today is MQ-9s. …

Q. But they still have a remote pilot.

A. That’s a great point. [Lt. Gen. Steven L.] Kwast and his team at AETC are doing some fabulous work on Pilot Training Next. We’ve ramped up our production … it’s not insignificant to go from about a thousand pilots a year … in ’16 to 1,500 pilots a year in ’20. … That’s a big, big jump in pilots. Some of … their initial work … with Pilot Training Next showed huge potential savings in time on how we do it. Students were able to learn and be as good in 30 percent to 50 percent shorter times. So we’ll see how that plays out.

That scales, not just across pilots, [but] when you marry that to maintainers and maintainer NEXT, you can use augmented reality headsets to be able to speed up the training. Now I’m looking at what I’m doing. It gives me a little visual insight. So the potential with that is huge.

And then we have to work hard on the retention piece: the quality of life for the families. They’ve got to look at our Air Force and what we are doing as an employer of choice, versus [private industry]. Right now, when you ask lots of them why they’re leaving, they’d say, “ops tempo.” It’s not uncommon to find a captain [who’s already completed] six six-month deployments [all] as a captain, right? So, his family looks at that and says, “If I don’t see an end to that, then …” I look back on my time as a captain, I loved my squadron. I loved the folks who were in it. We vacationed together. We visited great places. I didn’t want to go do something else, because I liked the people I was doing it with, I liked the mission I was doing. But I didn’t have an ops tempo that said, “Six months gone, a year at home. Six months gone, a year at home.” We’ve got to get that right balance back.

Q. So how do you solve this problem if your operating tempo doesn’t change

A. We look toward, ‘How do we posture for the future? What is a dynamic force presence?’ So, do I always have to be there? Or can I be there when I need to be there, and we set the conditions and the time, versus cyclical rotations.

As we look toward what great power competition is really going to entail … we are too small for what our nation needs. And the Air Force we need is about 25 percent bigger than the Air Force we have. … That’s part of what we’re trying to tell Congress. Certainly, it may be more people to start with, but it’s also more stuff. … We’re not capitalizing the force on the timeline we need. We need to be able to [buy] 72 [fighter] airplanes a year to drive the age of the force down. All of this is intertwined between the pilots and the equipment.

We’re too small for what our nation needs.

Where the majority of pilots are short [is not in flying jobs but] … on staff. … The risk we’re taking is really on the staffs and the lack of expertise [needed in those jobs] …

Q. Then-Defense Secretary Mattis gave the Air Force a year to get the mission capable rates of the F-16, F-22, and F-35 up to 80 percent. Will you make it, or will you need some waivers

A. Right now, in general, we’re on track across the three systems to do that. Maybe the hardest is the F-22 just because of what they went through at Tyndall. We redistributed the planes and had to get the [low-observable technology] back up … the F-22 is probably the most challenging one of those.

We’re focused on how do we shift the money to get the right weapons system support with the right parts and the right manning. …

We track it by month. Right now we’re on track.

Q. The ‘Air Force We Need’ construct says you want to add seven bomber squadrons to help deal with adversaries at long range. But plans say the Air Force will stick at 175 bombers: About 100 B-21s and the 75 B-52s we already have. So where do you get more squadrons

A. We’re short on bomber squadrons. We do think that in the high-end fight against a peer adversary, that our bombers are going to be really important, because of what bombers bring to the fight with range, capacity … both stand-in and standoff. …

We’re going to have to look at what a standard bomber squadron is. Today, it’s … 12 [aircraft]. You kind of alluded to whether they’re combat-coded. … We still have some work to do, I would say … on the analysis behind the bomber force structure to get to your answer.

B-52s have been an amazing workhorse, but as we bring on the B-21, we’ve said we need a minimum of 100 of those. …

I had to testify to the Senate Armed Services Committee … about the B-21, and I told them—it’s on track, on schedule, on budget. Gen. Timothy Ray [commander at Global Strike Command] wants to make sure they’ve looked through all the different timing and options for the bomber force going forward, so I think there are discussions with the Secretary on that.

Q. What are you doing to infuse a culture of innovation among airmen

A. I’ve used the analogies of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. I need my squadrons every day being Ty Cobb, hitting those singles, looking around the squadron and saying, ‘How do I incrementally make us better every day?’ … Then there’s the Babe Ruth analogy. Babe Ruth was known for two things: home runs and strikeouts. I’m okay with both. I swung and I missed, but I took a big swing, all right? But what are those things that are going to change fundamentally how we do business and the way we think through problems? Our research lab looks at lots of things to [determine]: Where are we leading? Where are we tracking

Q. Tell us about the next Vice Chief Challenge.

A. In the past, we’ve always done ‘bottom-up.’ We say, ‘Airmen, give us your ideas.’ This time, we did it a bit differently. … Let’s also go top-down. I’ll give you one of my hardest problems: How do I really do multi-domain operations, and how do I command and control that across all domains

One of the analogies I use is the ‘Waze’ app on your phone. It’s crowd-sourced with traffic information … it will reroute you, real-time, around an accident.

And it doesn’t optimize it for time, it optimizes it for traffic flow. … You’ve taken a one-minute longer road, but it’s flowing the traffic so everyone doesn’t congest on the shortest [route]. If I can do that on the ground, why can’t I do that in the air? Why isn’t there a Waze-like app that shows me air traffic, that optimizes for conditions like thunderstorms, traffic routings? … Why can’t I do that for space? And if I can do it for those, how can I pull those together and have a common operating picture between air, space, cyber across the board

So that’s the Vice Chief Challenge. I want your ideas. We’ve had over 300.

We’ve now down-selected to 20 … that we think are the best ideas. We’re going to bring in academia, industry, make further down-selects, and at AFA [Air, Space & Cyber Conference] in September, we’re going to showcase our front-line ones.

Q. Why is this such an imperative

A. President Xi [Jinping of China] has said he wants China to be the world leader in AI by 2030. China and Russia are modernizing their forces, investing for the long haul, in mega-projects. And they are driving in a whole-of-government way to meet those marks. So, that’s the ‘why.’ We, the American people, need to be clear-eyed with what’s going on around the world in this great power competition.

Q. So, it’s a ‘Sputnik Moment?’

A. Right. … We went from behind [regarding] Sputnik, from President Kennedy on May 25, 1961, saying we’re gonna go to the moon and back, and we as a nation went all in, right? And it wasn’t the military. It was NASA. It was industry. It was academia. We went all in, and in eight years, we had 36 launches across the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. We built things.

We have to realize, again, we are back in competition. And then I tell people, … the ‘why,’ the ‘what,’ and the ‘who.’ The ‘who’ becomes us—all of us—average ordinary American citizens. … Airmen, who look at it and say, ‘I can make this better. I can make a difference.’ It’s going to take all of us.

Q. But, if the Chinese are producing eight times the STEM graduates of the United States, how do we catch up

A. We do it differently. Our values are different. The way that we empower our people is different. … Their centralized control of everything is different.

What’s going to allow us to win is our innovation and our people, [who] are empowered because of the society that we live in, to go do it.