Airmen Get a Big Hug From Their New Chief
By Dan Parsons
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force’s new top officer says it will be his duty to to bring back to health a weary service that has been battered equally by war, fiscal woes and internal scandal.
Gen. Mark. A Welsh, who became the 20th Chief of Staff of the Air Force in August, said his primary job off the bat would be “hugging the force.”
On the service's 65th birthday, Welsh delivered to the Air Force Association’s 2012 Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition his first formal address as chief of staff. Harkening back to the days when hot-air balloons were used to direct artillery fire on Confederate positions during the Civil War, he said the Air Force spirit for innovation will endure, regardless of funding.
“Morale is good and operationally, we’re getting everything done that needs to be done,” Welsh said. “But our people are tired. Their families are tired.”
Much of the service’s equipment is as tired as the people who operate it. Recognizing a dire need for modernization, Welsh said the Air Force must “return to the basics” and apply common sense to its future plans. That includes tempering appetites for new platforms and systems, while aiming for quality over quantity, he said.
The Air Force is at a “turning point” where its leaders must determine “what we are going to be when we grow up,” he said. Sequestration represents the absolute worst budget contingency on the horizon, but even if those mandatory budget cuts don’t come to fruition, funding for major programs is guaranteed to dive, he said.
The humble application of common sense could spare the service from procurement bottlenecks, Welsh said.
Welsh boiled the Air Force recipe for success into three ingredients.
“Our Air Force has succeeded over time, I believe, because we have always recruited the best people possible, we have always educated and trained them better than anyone else and we have always given them the best equipment that money can buy,” he said.
Going forward, “that third part might be at risk,” he added. “It may be that we can’t always get the best equipment money can buy, we may have to get equipment that’s just better than anyone else’s.”
The Air Force can survive without the third ingredient, but without either of the other two, it will crash and burn, he said.
On the acquisition front, Welsh said his modernization priorities do not differ from those of his predecessor Gen. Norton Schwartz. They remain the KC-46 air-refueling tanker, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a new long-range-strike bomber, in that order, he said. Welsh said he is willing to make sacrifices elsewhere to support priority programs.
“There are lots of things we need to buy that we can’t afford right now,” he said. “We need a new trainer [aircraft] but we don’t have the resources to pay for it right now.”
Should cuts above and beyond the already mandated $489 billion defense funding reduction over 10 years, Welsh said the fighter fleet would be the first to come under pressure. That is especially true for single-mission aircraft like the A-10 Warthog, which is already scheduled for retirement, in favor of multi-role platforms like the F-22 and F-35. Though he warned against cutting the F-22 Raptor fleet below the current program of record, which stands at a total 181 aircraft.
“That sounds like a lot, but it’s not,” especially in a hypothetical situation where the Air Force is engaged in the Middle East and shouldered with covering a contingency in the Pacific as well.
Welsh said he would hold off funding major investments in cyber warfare without first identifying what, exactly the requirements are in that nebulous arena.
“In cyber, I’m a believer,” he said. “I’m just not sure we know what we’re doing in it, yet. Until we do, I’m concerned it’s a black hole. So I’m going to be going a little slow on the operations side until we know what we’re doing.”
A fighter pilot who admittedly carries a photo of himself in the cockpit of a jet to remind him of his roots, Welsh is readily supportive of unmanned aircraft when their inclusion in a mission in appropriate versus a manned aircraft. Though, he sees the unmanned “environment exploding,” the market may soon be saturated with unmanned aerial vehicles returning from Afghanistan.
Still, “there isn’t enough money in the universe to fund the requirement [for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance] in the Defense Department,” he said.
Moving again from systems to people — which Welsh highlighted at length in his address — he choked up explaining how fervently he would pursue a solution the Air Force’s spate of sexual assaults. There will likely be upwards of 600 reported sexual assaults within the Air Force this year, Welsh said.
“That’s obscene. The idea that we can’t protect the people in our Air Force from predators … that kills me,” Welsh said, pausing to stifle tears. “This is a horrible crime. It sucks the life out of you. … The goal isn’t a declining trend, it’s zero.”
Photo Credit: Air Force