The Air Force has reinvigorated the service’s nuclear mission, incorporated unmanned aerial capabilities and made progress in acquisition, the service’s chief of staff told reporters July 24.
Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, who finishes a four-year term in office shortly, said he believes the Air Force will continue to thrive despite fiscal challenges.
President Barack Obama has nominated Gen. Mark Welsh to replace Schwartz. If the Senate approves the new chief, Schwartz will retire next month.
Going forward, Schwartz said, the Air Force will get smaller. “We’re putting together the (fiscal 2014) program as we speak,” he said during his final briefing in the Pentagon press studio. “Clearly, we have indications from the Congress on what they believe is executable.” Congress took the service to task for cuts that impacted primarily on the Air National Guard.
But even as the Air Force gets smaller, the pressure to maintain the quality of the team will remain. “There are still going to be hard decisions,” the general said. “We will do our best to ensure that those decisions are properly vetted, that the rationale for them is well understood, and while … not everyone may agree with them, … they have a greater chance of surviving contact (with Congress).”
It is obvious today that everybody in the Air Force is needed, Schwartz said – not only pilots, but also all members of the service. “While we should be proud of who we are, what we do, and how we ‘grew up’ in this great institution,” the service needs everyone to contribute, he said.
“It’s about active duty. It’s about Guard. It’s about Reserve. It’s about all the dimensions – air, space and cyber – that allow us to have the best Air Force on the planet.”
This is a different Air Force from the one of four years ago, Schwartz said. In 2008, the Air Force was providing air support for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as worldwide operations. Unmanned aircraft were not as significant in the service’s arsenal. There were problems with the service’s nuclear mission, illustrated by mistakes in transporting and accounting for materials in 2008. Then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates asked for the resignation of Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and nominated Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Schwartz for the positions.
Fixing the nuclear stewardship issue was the most important task for the new leadership team. Gates said that nuclear deterrence was going to become more critical, not less — in part because of the rising threat of nuclear proliferation. A second important task facing the Air Force was getting its modernization program back on track.
The modernization program has improved, Schwartz said, but the whole process throughout the Defense Department is plagued by a shortage of qualified contracting personnel. The specialties needed to push contracts through are unique and important skills, he said, and it is going to take time “to build back that bench of folks who can run major programs, who can tell the difference between a good deal and … good advertising, and … understand what it takes to manage the tradeoffs between cost, schedule and capability.”
The new KC-46 tanker program has been a success, the general said, but there have been disappointments as well. For example, he said, the light air attack strike aircraft for Afghanistan’s air force has not gone well.
“I think the lesson here is that it’s … just like the Washington Nationals, instead of playing Atlanta, playing somebody else, and perhaps relaxing,” he said. “In this business, there can be no relaxing.”
The Air Force is changing in basic ways, Schwartz told reporters. “We’re training … more (remotely piloted aircraft) aviators than we are bomber and fighter pilots,” he said. “Ultimately, it is conceivable that the majority of aviators in our Air Force will be remotely piloted aircraft operators.”
Still, the general said, he believes there will always be a mix. “Manned aviation will be a part of the chemistry here, because at least for the near term, the remotely piloted aircraft capability is not for contested air space,” he said. “It is a benign-airspace capability.”
The Air Force’s people, Schwartz told reporters, give him the most confidence for the future of the service.
“They are talented, they are dedicated, and they will handle today’s challenges and tomorrow’s contingencies in the manner that has earned America’s and the joint team’s trust over the years,” he said.