JUST IN: Outgoing Air Force Sec'y Says Service Must Bolster International Partnerships
Despite having already cultivated strong partnerships with allied nations around the globe, the Air Force must bolster those relationships and foster new ones, said the service’s secretary May 16.
There is a need to “deepen our alliances and attract new partners,” Heather Wilson told reporters during a meeting in Washington, D.C.
Wilson — who will be leaving her post at the end of the month to become the president of the University of Texas at El Paso — said that a fair amount of work has been done in that area in recent years, but there is room to expand.
“We do a lot now in exercises and training and exchanges in the state partnership program between our Air Guard and countries around the world,” she said. “But I think there's more opportunity there.”
The Air Force is starting to revise and update its strategy toward building alliances and examining what it needs to do 10 years from now to ensure that its partnerships are stronger and that allies can protect themselves, she said.
Wilson noted that alliances often first come together in the air domain.
“There's a common language among airmen and it's amazing to me the number of people around the world ... who are members of air forces who were trained in the United States with America's airmen,” she said.
For example, the Euro-NATO joint jet pilot training program is based at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, she noted. F-35 joint strike fighter partner nations have pilots training at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, and the Singapore air force flies F-15s at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, she added.
“The depth of connection between America's Air Force and not just our close allies, like the Canadians, the Brits, and the Australians and [New Zealand], but emerging allies and partners [is critical],” Wilson said.
Poland, she noted, is one country that wants to deepen its relationship with the United States.
“The relationship between airmen and the strength and the continuity of connections between our air forces is quite strong and we will continue to build upon that,” she said. “It's not just [about] commonality of equipment and interoperability. It is the ability to rapidly form task forces and do things together that none of us could do alone.”
Programs such as the Air Force's light attack effort, known as OA-X, are aimed at building up partnerships, she said. In President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget, the service requested $35 million in research, development, technology and engineering funding to continue its OA-X experiments.
“What we're trying to do by buying three aircraft [to be used] at Nellis [Air Force Base, Nevada] and putting another three at Hulburt [Field, Florida], is creating a place where our allies can come fly with us, check out the equipment, understand what we're doing,” Wilson said.
Over the next year, the Air Force plans to work alongside industry to assess what the global market looks like for turboprop, turbojet and turbofan aircraft, as well as manned and unmanned systems in support of the light attack effort, she said.
“One of the big reasons for us to buy this is to enable our allies to do the same,” Wilson said. “We recognize that not all allies may want the same thing, so we just need to understand that more.”
While a buying decision had originally been expected this year, the service opted to continue experiments for two more years to get a better assessment.
“If we had moved forward on a buying decision this year, we probably would have made a mistake,” Wilson said. “We needed to know more, so we'll continue the experiment this year.” However, there is money in the future years defense program for procuring these types of systems, she added.
The day before Wilson spoke, the Pentagon announced that Undersecretary of the Air Force Matthew P. Donovan will become acting secretary on June 1 after Wilson departs.