New Air Force Secretary Emphasizing Readiness, Modernization

By Vivienne Machi
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson

Photo: Air Force

To stay ahead of its adversaries, the Air Force must "move faster" to modernize its aging platforms, increase readiness and invest in emerging technologies, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said June 5. 

Wilson is taking leadership of a service that is one-third smaller than it was during Operation Desert Storm and whose aircraft are 27 years old, on average, she noted at an Air Force Association breakfast meeting in Washington, D.C., one of her earliest public speaking engagements since she was sworn in last month.

When the former Air Force officer returned to the service as secretary, she was surprised by its diminished readiness levels, she said.

If airmen at Royal Air Force Mildenhall base in England — where Wilson was stationed in the late 1980s — had faced similar readiness levels while in the throes of the Cold War, "the general I worked for would have blown a gasket," she said.

The fiscal year 2018 budget request focuses on restoring readiness and acquiring new aircraft, Wilson said.

"We have to start to focus on lethality and making sure we modernize for the long term," she said.

The Donald Trump administration is requesting $183 billion for the Air Force in 2018, a 7 percent increase over the enacted fiscal year 2017 level. About $15 billion would go toward new aircraft, according to budget documents released last month.

The top three modernization priorities for the service are fighters, bombers and tankers, Wilson said.

The Air Force plans to purchase 46 F-35A joint strike fighters and 15 KC-46A Pegasus aerial refueling and transport aircraft. Over $2 billion in research, development, test and evaluation funds would go toward continuing development of the B-21 Raider long-range bomber. An additional $295 million is requested to expand "next-generation air dominance" which will help the service explore and develop emerging capabilities, Air Force officials have said.

The service has included 14 additional F-35s on an unfunded priorities wishlist recently submitted to Congress, Wilson told reporters after the event.

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said that although the service would like to procure 60 joint strike fighters as quickly as possible, "we only have so much money."

"The emphasis for us is to continue to see the price per aircraft continue to come down, and we want to see the sustainment costs continue to come down," he added.

Some airpower advocates have called for restarting the F-22 Raptor fighter production line to enhance U.S. air superiority. But Wilson said the service has "no plans … with respect to the F-22, other than modifications and improvements to the airframes that we have."

The proposed 2018 budget aims to fully fund the entire fleet of 283 A-10 Thunderbolt II "Warthog" attack planes used for close-air support. Wilson said that the Air Force would continue to fly the aircraft "for the foreseeable future."

The service has attempted to retire the Warthog in recent years but faced pushback by Congress.

"When we look out five years, they're still in the Air Force inventory," Wilson noted, adding that previous attempts to retire the platform may have been driven more by budget constraints than by strategy or need.

"We're trying to make a shift to a force structure that is driven by strategy, and the A-10 does a lot of things that other aircraft don't do," she continued.

The service is also exploring new procurement options that could provide capabilities to the warfighter more quickly, Wilson said.

"Our adversaries are moving faster than we are," she said.

The Air Force for months has been working on a way to acquire a commercial-off-the-shelf aircraft to provide light attack and close-air support in a cost-effective manner. The experiment, known as OA-X, is an example of the service learning that "we don't have to do everything the way we have always done it," Wilson said.

Flight tests and a fly-off are expected to take place in New Mexico in August, 10 months after the concept was approved by the Air Force chief of staff, she noted.

The service will be looking to see how the OA-X experiment could inform the procurement process "and whether we can move forward with a different way of getting capability from the lab bench to the flight line and the warfighter faster," she said.

The Air Force will also continue to prioritize space in its future funding, as well as munitions and cyber capabilities, Wilson said.

"We're trying to change our approach to the space domain … elevate it, integrate it and normalize it as a warfighting domain" through acquisitions and operational improvements, she added.

Topics: Budget, Air Power, Joint Strike Fighter, Tactical Aircraft

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