The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the nomination of the new Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. David Goldfein, today by voice vote. He is almost certain to get full Senate approval soon. This will round out the rare and noteworthy turnover of the entire slate of Joint Chiefs over the past year, including the National Guard.
Here are some suggestions for the next Chief’s Top 5 priorities:
- The Air Force is a leading service in the Pentagon’s “Third Offset” strategy to combat declining US military technological supremacy.
While few in Washington noticed, the Air Force has been on the cutting edge of innovative thinking for deterring and winning wars of the future—most notably through its new operating concept released last fall. While Pentagon leaders are pushing a new plan to modify existing things and to pursue new game-changing technologies, the Air Force has focused heavily on thinking through how it could use the tools at its disposal more effectively.
In a war in 2035, for example, an Air Force Joint Strike Fighter could use its radar-enabled offensive cyber weapons to win without firing any missiles; an F-15 might be reassigned from an attack mission to launch micro-satellites to preserve communications; an F-22 or bomber might find itself redirected from suppressing enemy air defenses to striking enemy cyber operations centers.
Gone are the luxurious days when the Air Force expects to take 20 years to build a new fighter jet. Newly recruited and trained leaders will also have extensive experience in air warfare, space control and cyber operations. Pilots of the future will have a far broader set of proficiencies and responsibilities than in the past. Congress and the next administration need to hear this good news story much more often and in more detail than they have to date.
- America’s Air Force has restored relations among its Active-Guard-Reserve components dramatically for the better and seeks a true and lasting partner in Congress.
Congress has been mistrustful and overbearing when it comes to oversight of the Air Force in particular—more so than any other service. Much of this is self-inflicted, a result of Air Force missteps dating back over a decade, beginning with the last base closure round, combat air forces redux, Gates’ non-disclosure agreements and the controversial 2010 defense budget request, as well as perceived flip-flopping on analytical decisions ranging from the U-2 retirement to A-10 divestiture.
But Congress bears equal blame in letting the relationship deteriorate, and along with it the health of America’s Air Force. Now, it seems there is virtually nothing that can be done by uniformed Air Force leaders to restore their image and topline on Capitol Hill. Congress must be honest about its biases when it comes to air power and recognize that within the tri-service modernization bow wave staring down the Pentagon, the Air Force will arguably confront the deepest hole from which it must dig out. It can only do that with a friendlier relationship with Pentagon civilian appointees and politicians on the Hill.
- The Air Force’s role in the nuclear triad is indispensable, and its budget challenges in recapitalizing two legs are deeper than the Navy’s.
While Navy and sea power advocates on Capitol Hill have been highly successful in highlighting the Navy’s budget squeeze in buying the next generation of nuclear submarines, the Air Force has no such proponents. While the Navy receives incredible long-term contracting authorities and a special fund poised to force the Air Force and Army to help pay for the Ohio Replacement Program, the Air Force is slapped with extraordinary micromanagement and reporting requirements on the B-21, despite its undeniable value as a uniquely flexible nuclear signaling tool. Similarly, the Long Range Standoff Air-Launched (LRSO) cruise missile already faces worsening congressional pressure. Even if the Air Force purchases only 100 B-21s, the collective B-21/LRSO/GBSD cost will dwarf that of the Navy’s Ohio Replacement submarines.
In recent years, of the three military departments, the Air Force was buying the fewest total amounts of new aircraft, purchasing the fewest types of aircraft, and retiring the most airplanes. From 2010 to 2015, the Navy bought roughly 1,130 new aircraft while the Air Force purchased just 824. Of these planes, the Navy acquired more than twice the number of new fighters as the Air Force.
Across its fleets, the Air Force’s supply is simply outmatched compared to global demand. In addition to shortfalls in programs of record, the Air Force has numerous un-programmed modernization needs: B-21 purchases above 100 aircraft; the new T-X trainer replacement, a follow-on to the aged A-10, modifications to the satellite architecture for resilience and flexibility, upgrades to keep legacy fighters relevant, and more. But there is little awareness among policymakers that today’s Air Force is struggling, and that tomorrow’s is entirely at risk.
- Despite the centrality of the B-21 bomber to future high-end warfighting, policymakers haven’t joined together to support the new bomber as they have for the Navy’s shipbuilding plan, Army soldiers, or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Congress has favored the F-35 program in recent years, but the Marine Corps F-35B has done disproportionately well, while the Navy’s F-35C fighter shortfall is far less pressing than that of the Air Force’s A variant, given the dozens of new F/A-18E/Fs and EA-18Gs Congress has purchased for carrier air wings.
Yet the F-35 doesn’t fly until the bomber clears the skies with SEAD and penetrating strikes first. Whereas new ships and more soldiers are favored sources to spend any additional defense dollars when they become available, the Air Force is often not afforded that same preferential treatment. Nor is the B-21 bomber considered a well-liked or even necessary program by many in Washington, as evidenced by onerous reporting requirements in this year’s defense authorization bill and continuous reductions to its funding.
The next chief must keep advocating for maximal operational secrecy of the B-21 and begin discussing fleet size while laying the groundwork for the potential that the service will need to boost the number of planes required.
Repeated attempts to chip away at the B-21’s mantle of secrecy will lead to unwarranted outside interference that could unintentionally spell doom for the program. The next chief must support uniformed leadership and Rapid Capabilities Office’s (RCO) Randy Walden as they articulate the case for operational secrecy (and non-disclosure of the EMD contract award) using clear historical examples.
The truncation of the B-2 Spirit buy was an unfortunate outcome, but the threat environment of the 1990s and 2000s let Washington off the hook too easily. A similar fate for the B-21 would be devastating to American power projection and high-end warfighting capabilities. Additionally, the worsening global outlook necessitates an evidence-based and unchanging case for more than 100 B-21 bombers.
- Through its satellite architecture — a truly national asset enabling global capabilities for all Americans — the Air Force undergirds the entire joint force and enables tens of trillions of dollars of the global economy.
Navy leaders have run circles around airmen by arguing that its new boomers qualify as “national assets” warranting a special defense-wide fund to foot the bill. The Air Force not only dropped the ball by responding lethargically and too late, but has yet to articulate a convincing countervailing argument. The small, but critical, nuclear role of the B-21 will never convince Congress to allow the bomber its own fund.
Instead, the Air Force should argue against the existing special fund by educating Congress and the public on the services provided by the Air Force satellite constellation to not only the joint force, but the American people as a whole. The promise of public-private partnerships between the Air Force and commercial space industry promises further breakthroughs in how we live our daily lives. The breadth and depth of capabilities offered by the Air Force satellite constellation should make for jaw-dropping presentations. Lawmakers and American citizens must further understand that a new era of militarized space is dawning on us. This uninterrupted and secure access is not a birthright; nor is it free. But the Air Force makes it look just too easy and therefore everyone, including Congress, takes this essential capability for granted.
Over the past decade, the Air Force has fallen out of favor with policymakers in the executive and legislative branches for many reasons. As the Air Force’s credibility has declined, so too has its topline. The next chief must seek out and build up champions of the service’s unique capabilities and contributions to the American way of war and way of life at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Doing so will require focus on these five priorities to begin the service’s long but essential need to rebuild smartly.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.