Air Force Chief: Time to Stop Talking and Start Making Strategy, Budget Choices

By Sandra I. Erwin

The topic has been discussed ad nauseam: How should the nation’s armed forces be sized and shaped for a post-war future of shrinking budgets?

Washington is happy to keep the debate going, but the military would like policy makers to make up their minds and stop playing political football with the Pentagon’s budget.

“Most of us in the business are tired of talking about this,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh. “Let's just figure out where we are going, and get moving,” he said June 17 at a breakfast meeting organized by the Air Force Association.

As the Obama administration and Congress remain at loggerheads over next year’s spending levels for the entire federal government, the Pentagon is headed into its third year of fiscal uncertainty.

And it is scrambling to comply with mandatory spending cuts that Congress approved in August 2011 but the Defense Department ignored until December 2012.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a “strategic choices and management review” that will influence the Pentagon’s 2014 budget request, but is not likely to result in any sweeping recommendations on how to retool the military in the long term.

For now, the Air Force and the other services are stuck in strategic paralysis. “Hopefully [we’ll know] what the joint force should look like in the future,” Welsh said.

The longer decisions are postponed, the more difficult it will be for the military to figure out how to resize and invest for the future, Welsh said. “It'll take a while to turn the ship.”

The budget stalemate of the past three years has been especially damaging to military combat readiness, he said. Congress has blocked Air Force proposals to shut down unneeded bases and retire aging airplanes. To comply with the automatic sequester cuts in 2013, theAir Force has grounded combat squadrons and furloughed civilian employees. The consequences of not being able to train are going to become more pronounced in the next year or two, as more pilots see their skills erode, said Welsh. “If you're going to do a no-fly zone anywhere, you probably want your air force ready to go,” he said, alluding to the possibility that U.S. forces might be ordered to set up a no-fly zone over Syria to help rebels who are trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

“The big impact [on force readiness] will be next year and the year after if we don't fix this soon,” Welsh said. These training cuts also are putting the Air Force in a deeper financial hope, he said, as the cost to retrain a squadron is two-and-a-half times higher than to keep it trained.

Air Force leaders have kicked off their own management review, called “Air Force 2023” that is looking at how the service would adapt to 10 years of sequester cuts. That means making budgetary tradeoffs, Welsh said. “If you turn up the modernization dial, you get smaller,” he said. “If you shift [more missions] to the reserves, you can keep capacity.” These are complex decisions, he said, because even though reservists and Air National Guard forces cost less than active-duty troops, they impose other expenses such as bases and infrastructure. “Anyone who claims to know the answer to these cost [issues] doesn't know what they're talking about,” said Welsh.

“We have a lot of money,” he said. But not every program will survive. “We are looking at everything,” said Welsh.

Outside experts predict that perpetual indecision about funding levels and future missions will stir up more turf battles among the services. In the current environment, the military services are in competition with each other, rather than working as a team to accomplish national security goals, said an industry insider in an off-the-record discussion. That is partly because “We, as a nation, are unable to bring into focus just what are the threats in response to which we are to build a force structure,” he said. “The Air Force continues to spend an irrational amount of its 'portion' of the defense pie on 5th and 6th generation high technology, manned airborne weapons the utility of which in this century is highly doubtful. Meanwhile, it has an urgent need to replenish its inventory after two decades and after two wars,” he said. “It cannot accomplish any of those objectives if, literally, it does not 'know what it is doing.’ … The default posture for the Air Force is to continue to do almost precisely what it has been doing for the last 20 years.”

In his speech to the Air Force Association, Welsh did suggest that he is ready to fight those turf battles if need be. “We hear comments all the time from people [who point out that] 70 percent of the world is covered by water,” said Welsh, citing a statistic oft mentioned by Navy and Marine Corps leaders. “That’s interesting … but 100 percent [of the planet] is covered by air and space, and now cyber,” he said. “That's important to us. … Only the Air Force can provide air superiority, space superiority, only the Air Force can hold any target on Earth at risk,” said Welsh. “The other services bring other things, but they don't bring this.”

Mark Gunzinger, a retired Air Force colonel and now senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the Pentagon no longer has the luxury of indulging in institutional inertia as generals and admirals seek to preserve their programs.

The Defense Department’s strategic reviews that Congress mandates every four years mostly have preserved the status quo. There is a “reluctance to address controversial roles and missions issues, Gunzinger said last week during a presentation on Capitol Hill.

This year, the Pentagon will conduct yet another Quadrennial Defense Review that is expected to produce guidance for how the military should size and shape its future forces. “Much of this debate has been focused on the ‘how many wars’ question,” he said, such as whether the United States ought to be prepared to fight two major regional contingencies.

Gunzinger said a fresh thinking is needed this time. “Almost 60 years ago, Samuel P. Huntington warned that services lacking compelling strategic concepts risk losing their purpose and may end up wallowing about amid a variety of conflicting and confusing goals,” he said. A novel approach to the QDR, he said, “would provide the services with opportunities to assess where they have excessive overlap in forces and capabilities [and make decisions that] will shape the U.S. military for the future, rather than for the past.”

The Air Force, for example, “could create a new strategic concept that explains how it intends to … strike the full range of fixed, mobile, hardened, or deeply buried targets in the increasingly contested airspace of the Western Pacific,” Gunzinger wrote in aCSBA study. “Together, the Navy and Air Force might flesh out how they could act as a global swing force capable of rapidly deploying across overseas theaters of operation.”

Topics: Aviation, C4ISR, Cybersecurity, Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership

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