USAF Leaders Rally Troops, Make Case for Relevance of Air Power
By Sandra I. Erwin
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Things are tough now, but the future is bright. That was the message from the top leaders of the U.S. Air Force as they kicked off the service’s annual technology expo Sept. 17.
Addressing a somber, standing-room only crowd of officers, enlisted airmen and contractors at the 2012 Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said the Air Force will continue to be challenged by a budget crunch that is affecting the entire U.S. government. The service also is contending with internal morale problems manifested in an alarming number of suicides among airmen, and is still coping with the aftermath of a sexual assault scandal at the Air Force’s basic-training base in Texas.
Donley said leaders are confident that the Air Force can get through the turbulence and start focusing on the future.
“It’s important that we come back to basics: The central role of airmen in the fight,” said Donley.
Air Force Chief of Staff Mark A. Welsh III echoed that thought during brief remarks at the conference opening ceremony.
Budget and other challenges aside, happy days lie ahead for the U.S. Air Force, Welsh said. Like Donley, he emphasized the idea that the Air Force must get “back to the basics of what we do.” That will “ serve us well in the uncertain times that we face,” said Welsh.
Just sworn in last month, Welsh is taking over an Air Force that confronts both financial but political difficulties. Proposals to cut 10,000 personnel and retire hundreds of old aircraft have been soundly rejected by congressional committees, which have blamed Air Force leaders for saddling the Air National Guard and Reserves with the bulk of the $9 billion in cuts.
Welsh also will be seeking to repair strained relations with Pentagon contractors, following a series of troubled procurement programs and criticism by former Chief Norton Schwartz that industry was not playing team ball when times got tough.
“We need to strengthen bonds with, our industrial partners,” Welsh said. That is important in order to rekindle technological innovation, he said. The Air Force will need advanced new technology for air, space and cyber warfare, he added.
Welsh will be working on mending fences with Congress, too. The fiscal year 2013 budget markups made it clear that Welsh inherited a “trust problem” with Congress and has to prove that he is seeking a fair balance and allocation of resources among active-duty, Guard and Reserve forces.
Weapon manufacturers, meanwhile, will be closely watching for clues on how Welsh will tackle major procurement programs in the coming years. The new aerial refueling tanker, following several tumultuous years, is now in development by The Boeing Co. But analysts have warned that the program will not be completely out of the woods until it begins full rate production. There are concerns in industry that the Air Force has more programs than money to fund them.
Several contractors interviewed at the Air & Space expo also wondered what the future holds for unmanned aviation programs. Welsh will be overseeing a dramatic transition as the majority of new Air Force pilots now fly remotely controlled aircraft from cubicles.
Industry executives also are hoping that over the course of the three-day Air & Space conference, Donley and Welsh can strongly articulate the future role of the Air Force in national security. Over the past decade, the Air Force’s primary roles in war have been transportation, aerial refueling and operation of unmanned surveillance aircraft that are flown remotely from U.S.-based facilities.
Whatever the Air Force does in the future, it will have to do it with less money. The Air Force has seen its overall budget squeezed by 12 percent since 2009. Of concern is rampant growth of its “operations and maintenance” account. O&M spending now consumes $44 billion of the Air Force’s $154 billion budget. By comparison, the budget for weapons procurement is $18 billion, and $17 billion for research and development of new technology. Like the other branches of the military, the Air Force has had a tough time containing O&M expenses in part because of the high cost of repairing and maintaining a diversity of aging aircraft fleets. Unless Welsh manages to convince lawmakers to allow the Air Force to retire old aircraft, this problem only will get worse.
The Air Force, if Congress allows it, wants to jettison nearly 230 fighter, mobility, and surveillance aircraft in fiscal year 2013, with a goal of retiring 286 aircraft over the next five years. From 1950 to 2009, the Air Force saw its arsenal dwindle from 26,000 to about 6,500 aircraft and missiles.
Photo Credit: Yasmin Tadjdeh