Air Force Vice Chief: In the Absence of Money, We Have to Think
Instead, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, vice chief of staff of the Air Force, said preparation for future conflicts will hinge more on brain power than mega dollar budgets.
The Air Force is in search of fresh ideas about how to cope with its fiscal woes. Just as the United States is about to start cutting back on military spending, the Air Force — like other branches of the service — faces rapidly rising personnel costs, an aging fleet that is becoming increasingly more expensive to maintain.
For blue-suit leaders, the coming years will be the ultimate test of resource management: Stay ready to fight and, despite declining budgets, still be able to invest in next-generation weapon systems in order to keep up with future enemies.
As these challenges threaten to overwhelm the Air Force, perhaps it is time for today's leadership to summon the spirit of that iconic disruptive thinker, Gen. William Lendrum "Billy" Mitchell.
“We will have to reach back into the roots of Billy Mitchell’s thinking in how we can think our way through some of these issues,” Breedlove told a gathering of service officials and defense industry executives July 20. The event was hosted, coincidentally, by theGeneral Billy Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies.
Breedlove’s message: When money runs out, it is time to start thinking.
“Clearly, we will not be able to buy our way through some of these issues in the future,” he said. “We are coming under increased and what seems to be prolonged fiscal pressure that will challenge our ability to remain ahead of the technology curve that has put us in a position of advantage as we have faced competitors in the air in the past.”
The Department of Defense could see, at a minimum, a 7 percent cut in funds over the next 12 years. The last time the military went through a fiscal drawdown, the Air Force had recently been recapitalized. But during the last 30 years, the Air Force retired more than 1,500 aircraft and canceled major acquisition programs, so it could keep up with other rising expenses. “Now we will go into a fiscal period that challenges us at a time when we’re flying the oldest Air Force we have ever flown,” he said.
“If we are to survive this period and come out of it with an Air Force that America’s people will recognize in 10 years, we are going to have to focus on what are those core distinctive Air Force missions,” he said. Those missions will not include “fringe” capabilities, but instead will center on missions that are distinctive to the Air Force.
Breedlove’s remarks suggest that the Air Force is in need of an ideas revolution.
“The evolving thoughts that Billy Mitchell started with this endeavor … have now morphed themselves into our ability to prosecute Al Qaeda and episodic radical Islamic influence around the world,” he said.
Now the Air Force fears that competitors are catching up to the United States as they acquire capabilities in stealth, long-range strike and missile technology. “In our fiscal plan, we need to think about [the Air Force’s] impact to the nation’s deficit and how that competes with the fact that we have near peers who are out there pushing this envelope,” he said.
“We lag in many ways and we’re going to have to catch up,” he said. The Air Force, to its credit, still is the most power global mobility organization, he said. “Nobody can move men and material to the fight like the United States, and then refit, refurbish, rearm in place the way we do.”
To cope with future threats, the Air Force has teamed with the U.S. Navy under an “air-sea battle” project that would push the development of advanced weapons, such as long-range unmanned aircraft and improved precision-guided missiles. Four-star teams of Navy and Air Force planners are discussing strategy. But there are now growing doubts about whether this effort will survive. When the program was created 18 months ago, the fiscal outlook was different, Breedlove noted. Most likely, air-sea battle efforts will focus on existing “affordable” technologies, he said. Any “Battlestar Galactica solutions” should be avoided, he added.
“There are a lot of challenges,” he said. “Others would say there are a lot of opportunities. … We will succeed as we have in the past, but we will just have to be a little more frugal about it as we go along.”
By Fumiko Hedlund and Sandra Erwin