Recasting the Air Force

April 1, 2009

Dissatisfied with the recent direction of the Air Force, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the service Chief of Staff, has begun charting a new path. He discussed some of its principal features during a series of public statements over the past few weeks.

It is an impressive body of thought—clear, coherent, and defensible. With his selection as Chief last June, in the wake of a leadership shakeup, General Schwartz became the authoritative voice on Air Force matters, so his statements offer the best preview of likely coming events.

He wants an air arm with broader and more-balanced capabilities, integrated far more tightly into the joint force. Unlike some who swing wildly at service “next-war-itis,” he surveys threats and programs fully, not in isolated pieces.

The general spoke at length to a Feb. 17 meeting of the Defense Writers Group in Washington, D.C., and in a more limited fashion to the National Defense Industrial Association, also in Washington. The Chief laid out some key force-defining principles. Among them:

Balance. General Schwartz noted, “Clearly, there is a need” for USAF to build strength “in the irregular warfare area”—with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as guideposts—even at the expense of conventional forces. One case in point: intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance. Today, USAF can fly 34 UAV orbits over a region, but in 2011, the number will be 50—”a major commitment,” he says. USAF will also offer support, training, and advice to irregular war “partners” overseas. “It’s fundamentally a question of balance,” said the General.

Jointness. General Schwartz vowed to support US ground forces in today’s wars with “whatever is needed, whatever it takes,” adding that, in the past, some airmen had a different view. The remark seemed to align the Chief with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ persistent criticism of the Air Force.

Fighters. For years, USAF has stated a need for 381 F-22 fighters—enough for 10 squadrons (one for each air expeditionary force) plus backup and training jet aircraft. General Schwartz has approved a lower number, said by insiders to be about 240. It seems that General Schwartz used a new metric. “The question is, and has always been, the size of the major combat operations that are contemplated [and] their simultaneity,” said the Chief—not the rotational need. “What was a low-risk number at 381 is a moderate-risk number now,” he claimed.

Budgets. USAF has often warned of a $20-billion-a-year gap between its true needs and its actual budget. General Schwartz indicated that there will be no more such warnings. “If we want something, we’re going to pay for it” with allocated funds, he said. He added, however, that “we will certainly not be timid about making the case for what we think is needed.”

Troops. The push to cut end strength—today, about 330,000—is dead. “We were headed to 316,000” airmen, noted General Schwartz, but “we’re going to end up at about 332,000—maybe a little bit higher.” Even that may be too low; according to the Chief, the Air Force could make a case for 350,000 troops, but “we ain’t going to get there.” To man the most critical areas, USAF will shift airmen from missions of less demand. He expects there will be “some friction associated with that.” The Chief didn’t specify which missions would suffer losses of personnel.

Space. The Air Force needs to review the wisdom of building “bigger and more complex” space systems, said the Chief. It could be that USAF could build a less-formidable type for theater war purposes, while continuing to construct huge and expensive ones for long-lasting strategic purposes. As for space acquisition authorities—which the Pentagon took away from USAF—the General noted, “We certainly believe [that those authorities] should migrate back to the Air Force,” and that he will continue to press for it.

“Theology.” General Schwartz made it clear that he sees no point in interservice quarrels about which branch will, or will not, have control of certain systems or missions. In recent years, USAF resisted Army moves to acquire and operate small airlifters and medium-to-high-altitude UAVs. General Schwartz said he was “not threatened” by the Army’s actions, so long as they contribute to the welfare of the joint force. “This is a versatility issue, not an ownership issue,” said he. “We have to get off of these theological debates.”

These and similar future statements will at some point begin to change the public’s view of the Air Force, and even the service’s self-image.

The remarks are not comprehensive. Even so, however, the Chief’s words, taken together, go some way toward fulfilling the classic definition of doctrine—a clear statement of an organization’s fundamental principles and purposes.

There are some shaky spots in General Schwartz’s plan. As he acknowledges, his reduction in the proposed F-22 force will bring more risk. And that’s assuming the Pentagon goes along with buying any more Raptors, which is no sure thing.

The Chief offers no obvious solution to the dangers of operating an ancient and weakening fleet of aircraft—bombers, fighters, tankers, airlifters, airborne battle management types, and helicopters.

What if the other services’ embrace of larger and larger air fleets gets out of hand? That could lead to inefficiencies and confusion with respect to the control of aircraft in combat operations.

General Schwartz freely acknowledges that his effort to change the service will bring some pain, and that many fail to see the need for such a shift. He rejects this as a reason for inaction.

“In the real world,” he maintains, “truth changes because circumstances and assumptions and so on change. I don’t think it’s a signal of weakness. … On the contrary, I think it’s a sign of a healthy institution that we’re willing to revisit long-held beliefs, no matter how central to our ethos they may be.”