Watch, Read: Acting SECAF Fireside Chat with AFA’s President

Watch the video or read the transcript of Acting Air Force Secretary John P. Roth and retired Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright, AFA President, participating in a fireside chat during AFA’s 2021 virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium.

AFA President retired Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright: “It’s my special privilege to introduce the Honorable John Roth, our acting Secretary of the Air Force. He’s responsible for organizing, training, and equipping the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force, and for the welfare of 697,000 Active-duty, Guard, Reserve, and civilian Airman, Guardians and their families. So sir, a sincere and heartfelt welcome to you, a great friend of our Air Force Association. It has been an honor to be with you today, and to support our Airmen and Guardians. And now, if we could serve a couple of opening remarks and then we’ll go to a couple of questions.”

Acting Secretary of the Air Force John P. Roth: “Well, again, thank you, Orville, for having me this morning and thanks, thank you to the AFA for all the things you do to support our Department of the Air Force, both on the Air and Space side. We look forward to partnering with you and all your members as well as we go forward. There’s a lot of important issues for the nation, and for us as an Air Force as well, that we need to deal with. So I look forward to our discussion this morning, and I look forward to our ongoing relationship going forward.”

Wright: “Thank you, sir. And you know, you’re one of the few people who have direct access to our new Secretary of Defense. Sir, could you share with our audience what Secretary [Lloyd] Austin’s current focus is for the Department of Defense?”

Roth: “Secretary Austin and, I think we’re, you know, obviously very fortunate to have a secretary like Secretary Austin who has a long history and a long association with the Defense Department, so I think, you know, we’re very grateful to have him on board as secretary. And along with him, Deputy Secretary (Kathleen) Hicks, as well, as we go forward. So we look forward to partnering with our friends in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s as we deal with some of these issues. And so he’s made it very clear that his, his priorities are first and foremost we need to focus on defending the nation and protecting American interests. Those are sort of the core values of what we are about as a department, and we need to make sure we’re not distracted. 

“Secondly, in order to achieve that, we need to take care of our people. It’s all about our people, I mean, the total force in terms of DOD is about 2 million plus. For us in the Air Force along with our active, reserve component, our civilians were about 700,000 people. So taking care of our people is an important imperative. And last but not least is teamwork, and he means teamwork in its broadest sense. Teamwork, both internally within the Defense Department, in the nature of the jointness, working with our Army and Navy partners as well, but also teamwork in the interagency, teamwork with our allies and partners, teamwork with our industry partners, and that type of thing. So those are his three major pillars.”

Wright: “Well thanks, sir, and building on your terrific description of our Secretary of Defense’s focus, could we drill down a bit on your own secretary of the Air Force focus inside our Department of the Air Force?”

Roth: “Well, I think what’s important is, you know, we are in the midst of a transition from one administration to the other, that’s a natural outgrowth of our American political system. We’ve done this before. And so I think it’s important, it’s important for me personally, and I think it’s important for the enterprise, that, that we manage this transition in as smooth and as transparent a process as we possibly can. I think it ought to be transparent to our, to our Airmen and Guardians, it ought to be transparent to our partners, it ought to be transparent to our competitors. We are here to defend a nation, and that’s not going to change, regardless of which administration. And so I view my, my role here is to ensure we as the Air Force, that we continue the momentum that we have built up on both the air on the space side. We can’t afford to take a pause. We can’t afford to take a pause, strategic or otherwise and wait for all the various nominations to take place and all the kinds of things that go along with that. 

“So my job is to ensure we maintain that momentum, and we continue our initiatives in the case of, on the air side, Chief Brown has been very articulate in terms of, you know, his emphasis on acceleration and accelerating or we lose. And on the Space Force, you know, Space Force has now in year two, they’ve had a terrific year, in terms of standing up last year, and now we need to get on with the integration and other kinds of things. So, again, my job more than anything else, is to ensure that I support the two chiefs, and that we maintain the kinds of momentum that I think are necessary to defend the nation.”

Wright: “Thanks, sir, perfect. Could you then, based on your priorities, talk a bit about force modernization and posture. Programs of priority, Air Force and Space Force, and how you view, and especially for our audience and our industry partners, your overall take on, again, force modernization and posture.”

Roth: “Well, I think it’s very clear, we need to be, we need to be very clear eyed and focused on, on, on, on addressing the competitors that we have out there, both China and to some lesser extent, Russia, and make sure, we need to modernize, let me just start with that. We need to modernize across a wide range of capabilities, and we need to focus on, in particular, how do I execute the national defense strategy and looking to 2030 and beyond, what capabilities do I need in the future. And so, we need to be focused on that, both on the air and space side, and to some extent, we’re going to have to make some, some decisions internally in terms of the balance between legacy kinds of requirements and looking to the future. And I think what the strength of the national defense strategy has been is the focus on China. OK, they are investing in a wide range of capabilities that should be of concern to us. And what I have, what I am taken with is, in this town there’s been a fair amount of bipartisan support and bipartisan rhetoric, to say yes indeed, China is a problem. So that hasn’t changed. Just within the last couple of weeks, you’ve seen a number of political leaders articulate the need to take a hard look at what China means to us. So we as an Air Force need to need to stay ahead of that curve. And so again, both on the air side, in terms of aircraft, in terms of command and control capabilities, in terms of IT capabilities, in terms of space capabilities, we need to make sure we maintain that momentum.”

Wright: “Well, thanks, sir, you know, a broader part of our audience is our Airmen and our Guardians and their families. So building on some of your comments about Secretary Austin’s focus areas on taking care of people, could you talk just a bit about how the department of the Air Force is aligned with those priorities, including the importance of role models?”

Roth: “Yes, I mean, none of all the things we’ve just talked about, in terms of momentum and the modernization and all, takes place without our people. I mean, the people are the core, OK, and so what we need to focus on is ensuring that we maintain the kind of, three core values that we’ve always talked about in terms of our people. The core values of excellence, the core value of integrity, and the core value of service. and we need to stay focused on that. I know, you know, my friends and the people that work for me always chuckle, I always go back to first principles, and back to core values. When in doubt, go back to those core values. And so we need to ensure that we have a force, and that we have an enterprise, where people can come in and work to their maximum potential, and not live in fear, or not have, have to look over their shoulder in terms of their concerns and these types of things. So at the end of the day, in terms of defending the nation and representing our interests across the globe, is it comes down to readiness, the readiness of the force, and anything that undermines that readiness, or anything that that is destructive or corrosive to that readiness, we need to take on in an open and honest way. The vast majority of our force, take their oath seriously and are there and ready to serve. And we recognize that, and we should honor that. But we also need to be clear-eyed where there are challenges, we need to be open and honest about the challenges, and we need to address those. So I think that’s in large part what the, Secretary Austin had in mind and we in the Air Force will do our part in ensuring that we move forward and take care of our people as best we can.”

Wright: “Yes sir. Well sir, can you talk a little bit about, really how those values ensured our Air Force, in support of our nation, has fought through the COVID attack? There’s a lot going on, obviously, in the news around COVID, and I think there’s a great story to tell about how well the Air Force and our Space Force have fought through the attack.”

Roth: “I agree 100%, OK, I think we the Air Force have dealt with this in an extraordinary way. COVID, the COVID crisis is clearly the existential challenge for the nation today, and obviously for the globe as well. We need to get this behind us, OK? There’s a lot in terms of our economy, in terms of our society, in terms of our schools, all these kinds of things, so we need to get the COVID crisis behind us. So we the Air Force are ready to do our part, and have been doing our part all along, OK? And I’m very proud of the force. So, in terms of internally within the force is, we’ve, we’ve made adjustments, and, and continued to be able to do our jobs and maintain our readiness. So we’re flying the flying hours, we’re taking part in missions, we have B-1s flying and on missions, we have B-52s flying or supporting our deployed troops in CENTCOM, the education and training community has done a fabulous job in maintaining the throughput through basic military training and all. Since this time last year, we have, we have sent over 27,000 people through basic military training and the like. So we’ve made the kinds of adjustments, we’ve implemented the kinds of protocols to try to adjust as best. We’re trying to maintain production and our acquisition community as best we can, working with our industrial partners and all. So to your point, I think the Air Force has done an absolutely outstanding job internally in terms of coping with the COVID crisis and, and making sure that we continue to be ready to do the nation’s business. 

“Then on a larger scale in terms of our responsibility to the nation, we’re ready to help, and have been all along. As I think many of your, your, your viewers are aware of, we’ve sent out medical teams to help out in local hospitals, particularly in California and Texas and other areas. And we’ve, we’ve leaned forward and are working with the administration now to help populate and man some of these vaccination teams, working with FEMA and other partners. We have two teams in place and we have another four or five teams ready to go to help with the vaccination process. And the vaccination process is key to all it is, I need to take this opportunity to foot stomp. I’m lucky enough, I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve had the shots, OK, and I strongly encourage. Virtually our entire leadership team has taken the vaccinations. We need to get that done, and I certainly encourage, certainly our force, our Airmen and our Guardian, everybody needs to step up. We already have over 270,000 vaccinations that we have already put into people’s arms within the Air Force, and we’ve had a relatively low declination rate, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% or so. And they’re starting to come around as well. So vaccinations are key, continue to honor the COVID protocols is a key, and we as a nation will get this behind us. And we the Air Force stand ready to do our part.”

Wright: “Yes sir. In fact, we recently heard from one of the commands, they’re using sort of a 30-day period, and I think as these our young Airmen and Guardians are watching their friends get the shot, waiting 30 days, they’ve got a significant take rate at about the 30-day point when they’re asked again to take the shot. Hey sir, it’d be a great opportunity, given your experience, to talk about digitizing the battlespace, digital manufacturing. You’ve been in so many sessions over the years, and you’re right in the middle when we talk about going from acquisition to lethality, and there’s always money involved. So could you talk about digitizing the battlespace, digital manufacturing a bit? I think there’s a terrific opportunity there when we talk about, bring real value if you will, to accelerate change or lose.”

Roth: “Yes, oh no, absolutely. Well, we are evolving into a digital force and we need to keep that. And of course my kids get a big kick out of the fact that I would be pushing a digital force analysis and all, since they know I’m all thumbs and I’ve got an analog kind of a head. But having said that, we need, both on the Air and Space side, it is all about digitizing the force. You alluded to the digital acquisition process in terms of digital engineering, in terms of building open architectures, in terms of agile software and all those kinds of things. The space chief has been very, very articulate about he is going to build a Space Force that is a digital Space Force, you know, full stop. And in terms of, you know, digitizing the battlespace, JADC2, ABMS, all those kinds of initiatives are all, at their core, about getting, getting the entire battle environment digitized, OK? The key is speed of data, having situational awareness, getting data from sensor to shooter as quickly as you can, being as agile as you can—you don’t know who the shooter might be. And so you need to have that kind of situational awareness and you need to be able to be agile enough to move data at the speed of relevance. [Defense] Secretary [James] Mattis when he was here always talked about the speed of relevance and I find that to be a terrific phrase. So it’s all about acceleration. Chief Brown has talked about acceleration. We’re all about speed. And so digitization is, is the core capability to core competency that all of us need for the battle, for the battlespace of the future.”

Wright: “Yes sir. Well sir, I’d be great for us to give you the opportunity to really talk about whatever you want to talk about for this, this audience today. But I would start maybe with a couple of ideas around our combat air forces, and, and the future. And certainly, we have terrific programs that are relatively new, the KC 46 rolling out and becoming more operationally capable every day. The F-35. Talking to the pilots that fly it, they think it’s the best airplane ever, best combat aircraft ever. The B-21 is out there. Obviously all those combat air forces capabilities, tied to mobility air forces, and tied to space. It’s one team, one fight. So I would just kind of leave it open to you, we, we’d love to hear whatever you have to share across kind of a menu of opportunities to talk about.”

Roth: “Sure. Love to. Again, we talked about at the beginning of our conversation, that modernizing Air and Space Force is a key, key to going forward and dealing with the threats that we perceive today, and the threats that we see in 2030 and beyond. So all of those programs you talk about are, are vital to our capabilities going forward. The key is we need to perform, OK. Now as, you know, wearing my old financial manager hat now, and now that I’ve suited up as Secretary as well. When all is said and done, these are all important programs, but they all need to continue to make the progress you have, I think there’s a good news story across the board, but that doesn’t happen automatically. And so we as management, and with our industry partners as well, at the end of the day, we need to show that we can perform. We talk a lot now about speed. Our acquisition executive, Will Roper, always, always very articulate about trying to speed up the acquisition process and all, and I think that’s absolutely correct. I’m all in. OK, but in doing so, we need to show that we can actually produce, and we can actually perform. And as we get all the talking heads in town talk about we’re entering an era here of more competition for resources, a somewhat tighter budget climate, that’s probably correct given the kind of deficits we have and all the money that we’re throwing at the COVID problem and the like. And so, really, at the end of the day, those programs that perform will probably be winners and will, will probably succeed. Those programs that don’t will likely suffer and perhaps won’t succeed as well as we get into sort of the competition going forward. But we need the capability. It’s all about capabilities. The two chiefs are very articulate in talking about the fact it’s all about the capabilities we need. We can talk about the platforms, they’re fun to talk about, they’re exciting to talk about, and these kinds of things. But we need the kinds of capabilities in order to make sure that we can prevail, that we first of all can deter, but that we can, you know, if necessary, that we also prevail, and that we prevail in the 2030 and beyond kind of a timeframe.” 

“I actually had an opportunity here earlier this week to fly in the KC-46. And so I, I share that. Terrific airplane, OK? It was a lot of fun, you know, finally getting me out from behind my desk and into an actual air airplane. God forbid the Secretary the Air Force actually got the fly in an airplane, OK? So anyway, so I enjoyed it immensely. But you know, it obviously has, has some issues there, we still need to work on the on the remote visual system and get it right. I actually got a demonstration of it and all, but we’ll get there, OK? We’re working on fixes to it as well. I agree with, you know, with the F-35 is a, is the core airplane that we need going forward here in the foreseeable future. And, of course, there’s a wide range of things we need in the space. There’s virtually nothing we do on the ground that doesn’t depend in some manner, shape, or form in a capability that we get from space. And so we need to continue to invest in space. We had the advantage for about, over, well over 50 years of a very benign report environment in space. Those days are gone, OK? Between China and Russia now, they’re putting capabilities into space that have never been in space before, and most importantly, they’re putting anti-satellite kinds of capabilities into play here that we have to pay attention to and stay ahead of the power curve on. So all of that takes resources, all of that takes management, and all of that takes attention. And so we just need to be very laser-focused on performance and getting it done and making sure we make every dollar go as far as it can.”

Wright: “Yes sir. You know, sir, we’ve had discussions recently about improving, essentially communications, from warfighting requirements, and the capabilities that you said we need, and industries understanding, comprehension, if you will, of what those requirements are. So, I know you’ve been leading that for many years in fact, but how would you sort of update the audience, those warfighters who are out there thinking about the capabilities that they need, and certainly there are terrific program managers and engineers across the industry who’d like to build those capabilities and stay ahead of the Chinese, if you will. So, any thoughts on that would, I think, the audience would appreciate.”

Roth: “I actually think that, that’s a good point. So, I think, you know, to some extent, we don’t know what we don’t know. What we’re looking for, for a lot of help from industry and other partners that perhaps have not been traditional partners in what we do, is the kind of creativity and innovation that is inherent in our, in our in our economy and in our technology base and this type of thing. And so I think for the last three or four years, we’ve had a concerted effort to reach out beyond sort of the same old suspects kind of thing and looking for, for our national capabilities, and inviting them in. I mean, we’ve gotten the message that over the years that we’re not a particularly kind and useful customer, and that were hard to get to. And we’re trying to break that paradigm. And so, as I think as many of you are aware, we’ve had these pitch days and we’ve had other kinds of reach out kinds of initiatives. AFWERX has been very active and kind of, you know, creating the creative and innovative kind of environment, and we’ve now stood up a SpaceWERX as well. And so, the idea is, we would like to bring people in to, frankly, provide us things we haven’t thought of, OK? New paradigms, new ways of tackling the same sort of problems and these kinds of things. So that’s really, I think, the key going forward as we look to the future, is that we’re, to bring in the kinds of things that perhaps we haven’t thought of, given for, you know, maybe some of our past tunnel vision and in terms of always thinking about the kinds of platforms we have today. And there’s maybe, you know, a young engineer or a young, young technologist out there who’s, who’s, you know, sitting out there who can bring us, you know the ‘Aha’ moment, OK, going forward. And we look forward to working with people. And so hopefully we’re learning, and where we’re not a good customer, we’d like to hear from people and get the feedback, and, and I think we’re open to changing. And I think we’ve changed the environment and we’ve changed our paradigm to a great extent. So that’s what I would ask, is people come to us and, and where they find barriers, talk to us and see what we can do about reducing these barriers and moving forward. That’s the key. I think the strength of America, the strength of our nation vis-a-vis any competitor is basically our innovative creative entrepreneurial spirit. And we the Air Force, we the Department of Air Force, both on the Air and Space side, would like to tap into that, to tap into that creativity. And if we can, then I think we as a nation can, can rest easy, we’re in good hands.”

Wright: “Well sir, terrific, terrific perspective and guidance. We’re getting close to the end here of a much appreciated time. For the next five minutes or so, your perspective really on any one of a number of societal issues that might creep into our combat readiness. You talked about that earlier on, and how to sort of encourage, if you will, and reiterate the goodness of our force, the importance of combat readiness, as we fully understand, we’re part of the fabric of society, today’s society.”

Roth: “Yeah, I mean that’s, I mean that’s really the point, is, is we are a reflection of our society. I mean, that’s where we draw from, that’s where our force comes from, that’s where we recruit from. We’re an all-volunteer force. And so we, clearly, we want to be an employer of choice, we want people to want to, to want to come to us. And so we need to pay attention. People issues are never easy. People issues take work, they take attention. And so we need to work at, work at it, on a daily basis, on a weekly basis, on a monthly basis, we need to keep working these kinds of issues. At the end of the day, first of all, as I said here a few moments ago, you know, we understand that for the vast majority of our force is in fact, understands their oath and they’re ready to do the nation’s business. And we’re appreciative, from where I sit, you know, I’m appreciative, and I honor their service and anything I can do to help them. But that said, we are, as you indicated, a reflection of society, and some of the stresses and strains that are that are out there in society. And I think we would be well served to address those in an open candid way, OK? At the end of the day, it’s all about dignity and respect, and having a force that can maximize its potential. And where we have issues, and where there are situations that undermine that, OK, and are corrosive to that, then we need to be honest with ourselves, OK, and deal with this. Ignoring them is not going to make the problem easier. And so when there are issues that involving harassment, or assault, or hate speech, or anything of that nature where people are discriminated against and all, we ought to look at that and deal with it and talk about it, and that’s one of the purposes of, of the stand down that Secretary Austin has asked us to do. A one-day event’s not going to solve all our problems, and so nobody would ever claim. But it’s important to have the dialogue, it’s important to talk to each other, it’s important for leadership to listen. I’m a big fan of, sort of, you listen. Virtually every time you listen and you listen seriously, you’ll learn something. We’re looking for feedback, OK? There is no one person that has all the answers to this. If we did, we would have done this a long time ago. So we need to keep working issues, that’s all I would ask the community: let’s work together, OK? The strength of a nation, we have existed well over 200 years, we’re a highly diverse nation, we’re a highly diverse force. That’s a strength, in my humble view. That is the strength of the American way. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges that we need to address. So I just encourage people have, to be open minded about it, to be candid with each other, be candid in a way of dignity and respect. And if we do that, I think that we’ll be well served.”

Wright: “Yes sir. Sir, as we close out, your Air Force Association has some 97,000 members across, across every state and around the world, many volunteer leaders at the chapter level, and certainly with, interacting with their community partners and with elected officials. In our mission as your Air Force Association, to educate the public, and advocate for dominant Air and Space Forces, we’d appreciate your thoughts and your perspective for how we best might articulate that message and educate the public in the nation’s need for dominant Air and Space Forces.”

Roth: “Well, first of all, I appreciate everything that AFA does already, and has always done over the many years and all. So, you know, I think we have a story to tell, we the Department of Air Force. We now have an Air Force and a Space Force, it’s an exciting time. It’s an exciting time to be part of the Air Force. We’ve talked here a little bit this morning very briefly about some of the technologies that we’re pursuing and trying to work our way to being a digital force, both on the Air and Space side. And so anything we can do as a partnership to tell that story, and, you know, inform, particularly the influencers, both here within Washington, but on a broader scale as well, is to work as a partnership, and to articulate what we bring to the table. We think we have a good story, and as we move to this joint all domain kind of a warfare, we think a centerpiece of that, of that story is in fact the Department of the Air Force and the kinds of capabilities we have. And so I would just say, in an in a very open, you know, fact-based, analytical way, is to tell people the story we have. Tell people where we’re trying to go, and work together as we go through all the various, you know, we’re going to go through some challenges here as we put together the next couple of budgets and those kinds of things, but I think we have a good story to tell and we’re happy to work with AFA and other partners to tell that story.”

Wright: “Well, for sure, sir, and you’ve heard me say this before, we’re on your wing. And there are, again, thousands of volunteer leaders, committed volunteer leaders, working full time. They’re ardent in their advocacy for their Airman and their Guardians. And so we appreciate the opportunity. Sir, we’re winding up here. By the way, later today we have Spark Tank, talking about innovations. And it’s to your point, to validate your point, really incredible young men and women thinking way outside the container on opportunities to defend this nation. So again, sir, thank you so much for joining us this morning. It’s an honor to be here with you. And we, I promise you, your AFA will continue to be with you and every member of our Department of the Air Force: Airmen, Guardians, and their families, in every possible way. Thanks, sir.”

Roth: “Well, thank you for having me.”