EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein

By National Defense Staff

Air Force photo by Wayne Clark

Gen. David Goldfein was sworn in as the 21st chief of staff of the Air Force on July 1, 2016. On Aug. 6, he will retire after serving for more than four years as the service’s top officer and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Aug. 3, in what was expected to be his final interview before retirement, Goldfein spoke with Hawk Carlisle, president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association, and National Defense magazine Managing Editor Jon Harper about many of the key issues he had to address during his tenure as well as challenges the Air Force will continue to face in the years ahead. The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: In what areas do you think you've been able to move the ball forward, and what's the biggest challenge that you faced that you may not have anticipated going into this?

A: We the team … understand that the character of warfare is changing and the winners in the future are not the ones that buy the technology; they're the ones that adapt fastest to this new changing character of war. And so I'm pretty proud that we, I think in the Air Force, across the joint team, have helped as thought leaders on thinking about this new way of connecting the force that hasn't been connected at the speed that we have to operate in the future. And so I'm pretty proud of that. We've been really focused on moving that ball forward.

And it's not just about technology. It’s about people. It's making sure that you build the joint leaders that can understand this new way of warfare and they have the right skill sets that we've developed over time to get out there and not only lead airmen, but lead our joint teammates and our allies and partners.

I'm obviously very, very proud of some of the work that we've been doing in the squadrons with pushing decision authority back down. …We're not going to need a squadron commander team across the Air Force that feels like they have to ask for permission. We're going to need a squadron team that … as they assess the situation, they are empowered to make decisions and they move out at the speed that the enemy just cannot match.

In all those areas … I'm hoping that we moved the ball forward. I feel like we did.

Q: How do you feel you’re doing with Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) initiatives to better connect the force?

A: I’m feeling pretty good about it. As part of my transition out, I did some out-calls with a number of CEOs … and one of the things they share with me is that they are doing the work now on finding ways to make JADC2 profitable for industry. That's a rather significant sea change, because what that means to me is they've come to the belief that this is not a short-term idea, but this idea has roots in the institution, the organization. And we're going to continue on this path, not just in the Air Force, but across the Joint Force.

And if they want to do business with us, they're going to have to find a way to make it profitable.

That to me is a significant milestone that we talked about in the early days. … The tipping point would be profitability. When industry determined that they could actually do what we were asking and show quarterly earnings in a way to maintain profitability, then this will take off. Until then most companies would be incentivized to sort of step back, wait and see if this really is going to last and [continue to] do things the old way. So I'm really happy that I believe our industry teammates have determined on their own that this is not a flash in the pan. This idea has staying power.

Q: The nuclear enterprise in the Air Force has had some struggles in the past, both in the missile and bomber communities. A lot of effort has been put into addressing that. How do you think they're doing and how is the morale of those folks? How do you assess the nuclear enterprise?

A: Before I took on the job, I checked in with all the former living chiefs … and all of them gave me very similar advice. They said, "Don't take your eye off the ball in the nuclear enterprise. Don't pay lip service to that being job one. It really is job one for the United States Air Force. It's the most destructive weaponry on the planet, chief. You're responsible for two of the three legs [of the nuclear triad] and most of the nuclear command and control. And it's no fail. You've got to get it right."

What we were able to do was to build on [previous] work to really solidify not only the requirement to recapitalize and tell that story in various audiences. Because it isn't cheap, but the alternative is expensive beyond our wildest dreams — that's a major war with a nuclear power. …

My sense is the mood of the nation right now is in favor of the investment required to recapitalize our nuclear enterprise, especially given the fact that Russia — one of our nuclear competitors — has completed their recapitalization recently.

In terms of morale, I would say it has improved.

I think we've made some headway on security forces. … We put a significant amount of resources towards that, not just financially, but also personnel-wise in terms of getting the structure back to where it needs to be.

So I'm feeling pretty good about what we've been able to accomplish. I will tell you though, that I don't think you want me as chief or the next chief to be satisfied because once we become satisfied, we take our eye off the ball and that's something we can never let happen.

Q: Can you give us a little bit of a peak under the tent with the B-21 bomber program? How is it doing?

A: I actually visited [the Northrop Grumman facility in Palmdale, California] twice. I actually got there and took a look and touched the B-21 as it was being assembled. Of all the programs right now that we manage in our acquisition portfolio, I will tell you that — based on company performance and culture and what I've seen in the program — I put the B-21 right now at the top of the heap in terms of confidence that I have in it as chief. … I'm very, very happy with where the B-21 is headed.

Q: How is the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program progressing? Do you have any concerns there as we go forward?

A: I hope that as we build GBSD we will build in new ways of doing business in addition to what we build [for the platform]. Because what we do is provide a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent with that incredibly important leg of the triad. How we do it should evolve and mature because we don't recapitalize very often. If we're not careful we're gonna build a new weapon system to be managed in the exact same old way. … Shame on us if we let that happen. … Shame on us if we don't use robotics and technology and build that into GBSD.

What I want is the requirements to evolve with technology as industry solves challenges. I'd like it to get to a point where we're able to do a little bit of development ops, even in the nuclear business, so that as we achieve technological advances they can be brought into the GBSD without having us go through a two-year-long requirements review process. … We've got to become more agile than that.

Q: How are you looking at the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) concept and capabilities?

A: We have to resist the tendency to want to focus very quickly on a platform solution because that will immediately limit our thinking and narrow our scope and we will produce a suboptimal design. …

When you start looking at the key technologies that we know we have to develop that in some way, shape or form will come together to be able to accomplish the mission of air dominance, I'm not confident sitting here today that that's a single platform. I'm actually very confident it's not. I think it's a series of platforms — manned and unmanned, attributable and unattributable, penetrating, standoff, in the atmosphere, out of the atmosphere. And there will be members of our joint team, allies and partners that will contribute to the network required to achieve air dominance at the time and place of our choosing.

That [focus on joint capabilities] we would traditionally not factor in until way late in the process. … We would eventually at the end maybe start thinking about how we can bring others into the game. That is not how we're thinking about [NGAD]. …

If we get JADC2 right, we get the next-generation air dominance right. Oh, by the way, if we get JADC2 right, we get nuclear command-and-control right. And it's cheaper.

Q: We're in a hyper politicized environment. There is a tendency these days it appears to pull the military into the politicized environment and partisan fray. What are you telling your airmen about keeping the military apolitical and staying out of that fray?

A: I've actually now testified and sworn [to Congress] that I will give my advice, regardless of whether I agree with the administration or not. It's part of my duty. But not one civilian leader that I've ever worked with or for has ever had to raise their right hand and say they will take my advice.

It's an important message. Sometimes when we think of national security, our [military] perspective is limited and our civilian leadership has got to fit our advice on military power into a much broader political and economic framework. …

I can go through a number of things that are central to how America works but actually not in the job jar of the chief of staff of the Air Force. So when I bring in my perspective on the best use of military power, I've got to understand and be a little bit humble and understand that the civilian leaders I'm giving my advice to have to fit that into a much broader framework. … It doesn't necessarily mean they have to take my advice. And I think we have to remember that.

And then the other thing I offer [airmen] is another visual. And that is the State of the Union. I've really enjoyed the times I've been able to attend that historic event. And there was some pageantry that goes on that is really important for us to remember in terms of civ-mil relationships. … We actually key off of the Supreme Court in terms of when we, as Joint Chiefs, ever stand or applaud. You only do that when it's an apolitical situation that we feel like we can without showing political preference. During the rest of that we sit there and we're stone-faced. And it's a representation to America … [that] the uniformed military is apolitical. …

That trust and confidence [in our military] is not a birthright. It's actually a Fabergé egg that can be broken if we're not careful. And if we start delving into politics, if we start allowing the military to get involved in areas that, quite frankly, we're not responsible and accountable for, we could lose that trust and confidence. And shame on us if we do. So I think it's a responsibility of a chief of a service, a joint chief to use every day as a signal teaching moment to ensure that we stay on the tarmac. We don't let ourselves get off of our [apolitical] path.

Q: With the creation of the Space Force as an independent military branch within the Department of the Air Force, you’ve had a chance to start building this new relationship with the Space Force. What do Air Force leaders need to do to ensure the military’s ability to continue to do joint warfighting throughout the entire spectrum of operations including space? How do we keep this relationship moving forward?

A: I've been on my own personal journey on this, as you know. Go back and take a look at my initial opening comments when this [effort to create a new Space Force] had started. I was worried that we were going to do that bureaucratic thing that sometimes the Pentagon does, which is when you set up a new organization, three things happen immediately. First thing you do is build a castle, then you build a moat and you fill the moat with dragons because you've got to defend yourself from all those that are coming after your money. It's just the way bureaucracies operate. And I was really concerned that … to set up a separate service we would lose the integration of joint warfighting. … Find me a mission that space is not integral to that. You will not find one. And I was worried that we would lose that integration in joint warfighting going forward.

And then I went down to Maxwell Air Force Base to speak with the Schriever fellows. And those are young majors and lieutenant colonels. They're there to get essentially a PhD after a year in space operations. And I could tell during the conversation that they weren't buying what I was selling. … I could just tell from the body language they just weren't buying it. So I asked them. I said, … “How many of you think we ought to have a separate service for space?” Every hand went up. …

So as I listened to their reasoning, I started doing my own individual research and I thought, listened, read, watched, visited bases. And at one point it was some of the work I was doing with industry and seeing where commercial space was going both domestically and internationally … which is increased access to launch. It was much cheaper and smaller payloads, which allowed you to put more things into space in a single launch. It changed the profit margin. I had to ask myself the question: “Alright, so who can advance space faster at the pace that the nation needs? A service chief that has everything from leaflets to nukes and everything in between, that has the most diverse warfighting portfolio of the services? Or a service chief singularly focused on space, space operations and space integration?” And I have to admit, I came to my own conclusion that [Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond] could do it a lot faster than I could. And at that point I became a believer and I've gotten behind it ever since. … I'm really happy with where we are right now on that journey.

Q: As Gen. Charles “C.Q.” Brown comes in as the next chief of staff of the Air Force, what advice are you going to pass to him?

A: I don't have to pass him much because he and I have been teammates and close friends for a number of years. It's really satisfying as you depart to be able to hand the service over to someone of his caliber. And he's just a brilliant strategic thinker, one of the finest leaders I think we've ever groomed for a position like this. He probably has the deepest Rolodex of anyone who's coming to the chief job.

He knows every air chief, minister of defense and chief of defense in Europe, Pacific, Africa and Central Commands' [areas of responsibility]. And he has operational credibility as a warfighter in every one of those commands. So there's not a lot that I've got to tell him because he and I have been talking about this change-over for literally months, actually over a year. When I looked at the four-stars to determine who I thought would be a successor and I would recommend to the secretary, it became pretty clear to me that C.Q. Brown was a frontrunner. And I'm just thrilled to be able to hand over the service to such a quality team. And I say team because, Sharene, his wife, is just magnificent. And when the Air Force gets to meet our new chief and first lady of the Air Force, they're going to love them.

Topics: Air Force News

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