Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said April 1 that the Air Force is constantly assessing and adjusting practices to protect Airmen and families from the coronavirus pandemic while also ensuring that all operations continue worldwide.
“We’re not doing business as usual. We are doing business as required,” Goldfein said during an hour-long virtual appearance with Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
At the same time, Goldfein acknowledged that the pandemic is “having an impact on readiness” but that adjustments at all levels have compensated for the unexpected demands needed to keep personnel safe from a virus for which there is no vaccine or immunity.
For example, Goldfein said the Air Force has “significantly changed our operations in the missile fields to keep those up and operating.” Beyond that, exercises have been cancelled, all travel has stopped and commanders are aggressively following federal guidelines for disinfecting facilities, maintaining social distance and in some cases, requiring temperature checks of Airmen before they begin each shift.
But because of the variety of missions and locations where the Air Force operates, Goldfein said he has set “right and left bookends” while giving local commanders discretion to shape the guidance so it can protect personnel and maintain missions.
“Every base has a unique dynamic,” Goldfein said. “A one-size-fits-all approach to all situations is doomed to fail.”
The result, he said, is that, “we’ve changed operations significantly all through this. What I asked the MAJCOM commanders to do so that we were doing this from a senior leadership perspective the right way is, OK, in this environment, let’s identify the mission essential tasks that we have got to put resources. … (But) you all are closer to this than I am.”
Goldfein also said he has told commanders to prepare for a long-term struggle against the coronavirus.
“I look at this virus in the way that it’s projected to go going forward. I don’t see us getting much better for the next couple of months,” he said, adding that he is “reading the science (and) talking to our docs.”
“I hope I’m wrong,” he said. “But it’s my job not to be an eternal optimist, even though that’s my nature. My job is to be the realist.”
The prime example for how the Air Force has adjusted operations while maintaining capability, Goldfein said, is the nuclear deterrent. The Air Force is responsible for two of the three legs of the nuclear force –the ground-based missile system and the fleet of long-range bombers.
“The nation still requires a safe and effective nuclear deterrent. That is ‘job one’ for the Air Force,” he said. “That mission has not slowed down though we have adjusted how we go about it.”
In response to questions from reporters, Goldfein said, “it’s too early” to predict the coronavirus’s impact on the pilot shortage. Though he noted that many commercial pilots are members of the National Guard and that could affect the numbers given that commercial airlines are severely curtailing service.
He also said that he has been in contact with major defense contractors and to date the virus has not had a heavy impact on the supply chain or the Air Force’s ability to get necessary material, parts and munitions.
Goldfein also said that there has been some evidence that adversaries “are trying to take advantage of this situation,” though he offered no detail beyond saying the use of the “information space” is especially prominent.
At the same time, Goldfein said he and other Air Force chiefs from around the world have been in frequent contact to discuss the pandemic, the response and how best to maximize cooperation. The sessions were started by the Italian air chief and have been “a bright spot in terms of international cooperation.”