WASHINGTON, D.C. — To roll with unprecedented strategic and fiscal challenges, the best path forward for the Air Force is to become smaller to protect a high-quality, ready force, top Air Force officials said.
Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III briefed Pentagon reporters, addressing budget constraints, progress in the year just passed and the development of future capabilities.
“Like the other services, the Air Force will work with our defense and national leadership to fine-tune our plans and programs as we confront both a dynamic security environment and the nation’s fiscal challenges,” Donley said.
“We’ll adjust and compromise as necessary,” he added, “but we will need broad consensus with the Congress on the way forward to avoid a hollow military. This must be our priority.”
The Air Force secretary said the service would continue to balance competing defense needs with the size of its force structure, readiness and modernization.
“To avoid the perils of a hollow Air Force,” the secretary said, “we believe the best path forward is to become smaller in order to protect a high-quality and ready force that will improve in capability over time.”
Donley also described progress and accomplishments for the Air Force in 2012, including confronting the problem of sexual assaults and unprofessional relationships at basic military training and convicting offenders.
“We’re strengthening our sexual assault prevention efforts,” Donley said, citing recent initiatives that implement health and welfare inspections and establish a special victims’ counsel program throughout the Air Force. The inspections are designed to reinforce expectations for the work environment, correct deficiencies and deter disruptive conditions, Air Force officials said.
Last year in space launch operations, the Air Force completed nine national security space launch campaigns in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, bringing the total number of consecutive EELV program launches to 55 and total consecutive national security space missions to 90, Donley said.
The Air Force implemented a new EELV acquisition strategy to efficiently purchase up to 36 existing rocket stages, called “cores” and is making it easier for commercial space companies, starting as early as fiscal 2015, to compete to produce up to 14 new core stages and in the process become new entrants in contributing to rigorous national security space operations.
“This, for the first time, gives new entrants a clear path to compete for national security space missions,” Donley said.
The Air Force’s procurement strategy is driving down satellite costs, he said, resulting in savings of more than one billion dollars on the advanced extremely high frequency satellites. This system is a joint service satellite communications system that will provide survivable global, secure, protected and jam-resistant communications for high-priority military ground, sea and air assets.
The Air Force also is projecting savings of more than $500 million for the Space Based Infrared Systems program, which the officials say will provide critical missile defense and warning capability well into the 21st century.
Donley also reported on a vexing issue with the F-22 Raptor fighter jet. “We’ve resolved as best we know how the previously unexplained hypoxia incidents in the F-22 and put this critical aircraft on the path from return to flight to full operational capability,” he said.
Also in 2012, Donley told reporters, the next-generation F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter “continues to mature and with the completion of our operational utility evaluation, the OUE, training at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. will begin this month.” The OUE is a critical step in beginning joint strike fighter pilot and maintenance training for the service.
Welsh, who became Air Force chief of staff in 2012, said Donley’s tough budget decisions, reflected in the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, translate into an active duty Air Force of about 329,000 airmen, about the same size it was when the Air Force became a separate service in 1947. In the past 10 years, the Air Force has retired about 1,900 airplanes and dropped about 30,000 active-duty billets, he said.
“None of those things is inherently bad, by the way,” the general added. “They are simply reflective of today’s fiscal and strategic environment.”
For the Air Force, Welsh said, the future depends on “figuring out how to integrate data, how to better integrate information, how to move it quicker, how to connect platforms and sensors together.”
“That’s not as expensive as new weapons systems, … and it benefits us in the way we do the job today,” he added. “So, we have people all around the Air Force focused on that problem right now.”
Donley said the Air Force has been through many ups and downs over the years and the way through the challenges is to support the service’s active, Air National Guard, Reserve and civilian members and their families in their work.
“I am confident that by making prudent choices — difficult decisions among force structure, readiness and modernization — we can and will stay the world’s finest air force,” he said.