Washington Watch

Sept. 1, 2008

The New Team’s Charter

Restoring the Air Force’s credibility in nuclear and acquisition endeavors and finding some way to stop the decline of the service’s aircraft fleet are the top priorities for Michael B. Donley and Gen. Norton A. Schwartz. The two were nominated to be the new Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff of the Air Force, respectively.

They would be stepping into the jobs vacated by Michael W. Wynne and Gen. T. Michael Moseley, who on June 5 resigned under pressure exerted by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. Gates claimed he sacked Wynne and Moseley for lapses in the Air Force’s handling of nuclear weapons, although Wynne subsequently asserted that policy disputes with Gates had also been a major reason for the ouster.

Testifying July 22 before the Senate Armed Services Committee at their confirmation hearing, Donley and Schwartz both noted that they take their new posts under difficult circumstances, and have their work cut out for them.

“I believe the most urgent tasks for the new leadership are to steady this great institution, restore its inner confidence and your confidence in the leadership team, and rebuild our external credibility,” Donley told the SASC.

He added that, since the time of his appointment as Acting Secretary, he had been busy developing a get-well plan to deal with what some perceived as the Air Force’s laxness in handling nuclear weapons and related materials. He pledged to have, by the end of September, a new “roadmap” for the nuclear enterprise, one that will incorporate recommendations from a separate and parallel Pentagon-sponsored review headed by former Defense and Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger.

Donley also pledged full support to Pentagon acquisition, technology, and logistics chief John J. Young Jr.’s effort to, as quickly as possible, recompete the KC-X tanker contract and apply the relevant “lessons learned” within the Air Force to avoid the problems that caused the Government Accountability Office to set aside the service’s award of the project to Northrop Grumman.

Donley declared it essential to “strengthen confidence in the Air Force and DOD’s capability to manage these large, complex competitions and successfully withstand contractor protests,” especially since more big programs, such as the 2018 bomber project, are coming up in the near future.

He doesn’t think the Air Force’s acquisition system is “fatally flawed,” and advised against radical changes for their own sake.

“My experience in this area is that we do not throw the whole thing overboard and start over,” he asserted. He later said that there are no “silver bullets” in fixing programs that get over budget and behind schedule, except to focus on “basic blocking and tackling” of going by the rules and making sure everything is done correctly.

Schwartz said he believes the Air Force “is still fundamentally a healthy organization,” and assured the SASC that “we will be ready if called upon.” He promised that Air Force leaders will be “good stewards” of the resources placed in their hands and put “protection of our nation and support of our joint warfighters” as his top priorities.

Donley is a career defense technocrat with experience on the professional staff of the SASC, and he even served briefly as Acting Secretary of the Air Force in 1993. Schwartz is a career special operations pilot, with extensive experience in joint assignments. He would be the first Chief of Staff who has not piloted fighters or bombers.

Donley said that even before he became Acting Secretary, the Air Force had put in motion “over 100 individual actions” to correct deficiencies in the nuclear mission which were highlighted in two incidents: the unintentional movement of live nuclear missiles from Minot AFB, N.D., to Barksdale AFB, La., and the mis-shipment of nuclear missile components to Taiwan. The two incidents, he said, “are evidence of some deeper systemic issues” that he promised to address. Donley’s review will encompass training, procurement, personnel, leadership, doctrine, and sustainment of the nuclear enterprise, and he promised to reveal any punishment for those involved in the Taiwan incident by the end of August.

Tackling the Fighter Shortage

Although Moseley was fired, in part, for pushing the Air Force’s long-held requirement of 381 F-22s versus the Administration’s wish to quit the program at 183 airplanes, Schwartz quickly stated his preference to keep the program going.

“I believe that 183 is not the ceiling on the low end, but that 381 is too high on the high end. So, yes, I think we should preserve production at least for the near term,” Schwartz said in response to queries from SASC chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Levin wanted to know if buying more F-35s would be “the best way” to solve USAF’s impending fighter shortfalls.

Buying the F-35 would be the major way of addressing those deficits, Schwartz said, adding that the “key strategy” for success is to increase the Air Force’s planned annual buy of F-35s from 48 “to as high as 110 per year.”

However, he said the F-22 is “an essential part of the force mix.” While some still see it as simply an air-to-air platform, Schwartz noted, “it has important capability for destruction of enemy air defenses in an era when surface-to-air missile threats are available from the commercial market and are increasingly lethal.” He acknowledged that various studies have pegged the appropriate F-22 inventory as somewhere between 183 and 381, and pledged that, if confirmed, he would “delve deeply into that analysis” and return with his “best recommendation” on how to proceed.

The longest-lead producers of F-22 components will run out of work this fall, and the production line will begin to shut down at that point. Gates has said the next Administration should decide the fate of the F-22, and has left F-22 funding for 2009 available for either continued production or shutdown costs.

Donley, however, said it is his priority to get “bridge funding” to keep the F-22 line going so that the next Administration will have enough time to come to a reasoned choice on further production of the fighter.

“If we delay a decision on the future of F-22 too far into next year or even late next year, and we have not provided for this bridge funding, then it’ll be almost a cold start for many of the [second tier] suppliers,” Donley said in response to questions from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

“That would be a more expensive option for restarting the line. … So I’m focused for the next few months on getting the bridge funding in place,” Donley said.

In answers to questions for the record, provided to the SASC before the hearing, Schwartz said the Pentagon’s budget guidance for the future years defense program beginning in Fiscal Year 2010 “authorized an approximately $5 billion boost for our recapitalization efforts, and that will certainly help.” He noted that the extra money “will be used in part to increase the F-35’s annual production rate.” Without such a funding boost, Schwartz noted that the average age of USAF aircraft, now at 24 years, will increase to 27 years by 2020. The service’s goal, though, is to “reduce that average age to 15 years by 2030.” To hold at just the current age, Schwartz said, USAF would have to buy 165 aircraft per year, but the Fiscal 2009 budget provides only for 115 aircraft per year, and most of those are unmanned aerial vehicles. Donley said that ratio probably would continue for the foreseeable future.

This War, and the Next

The Air Force shouldn’t be compelled to choose between conducting the current wars in Southwest Asia or preparing for future conflict, but must be allowed to do both, Schwartz argued.

Asked by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) to comment on how the Air Force should focus its resources, Schwartz maintained, “Fundamentally, I do not believe it is an either/or condition. … The United States Air Force, like the other services, needs to be a full-spectrum capability.” Schwartz said, “At the moment, … our focus, obviously, is in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we have provided the kinds of capabilities on which the ground forces … depend: lift, resupply, strike, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, even evacuation of the wounded.” He noted that USAF people are involved in provincial reconstruction, ground convoys, and running detention facilities.

“The bottom line, Senator, is that we as an Air Force can provide both the kind of concentrated effort required by the joint team in Central Command today and posture ourselves for future potential adversaries at the same time.”

Recapitalization is a huge challenge, Donley said, and needed in several different mission areas—not just fighters, but tankers, tactical airlift, and search and rescue.

“We need more resources to get it all done,” Donley said, but quickly added, “I have been in this town for 30 years, and we always live in a resource-constrained environment, where we have to make these trade-offs, and we are not always able to choose and implement the most effective acquisition profile for every program at the same time.”

Donley said he would investigate “trade-offs” between mission areas such as strike and ISR, since he believes there could be synergy between the two. He also advised the SASC that USAF will not be able to look at any one program in isolation, but in the way it fits with all other aspects of the force. Schwartz concurred that this approach should be taken.

“We’re developing comprehensive capabilities—systems of systems—not just one airframe at a time,” Donley said.

“We have a smaller Air Force than we had in the past, and in most cases it’s more capable,” Donley said in response to Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who had pointed out that both China and Russia have launched programs to develop their own versions of an F-22-like fighter.

“But I share your concern to keep an eye on potential threats that might develop around the world. Technology continues to move abroad both in Russia and China in ways that we need to be attentive to,” Donley said.

Schwartz said that the F-35 and 2018 bomber are both necessary. The F-35 is needed to maintain broad pressure on an enemy, while the bomber is required if close-in bases aren’t available for fighters.

Schwartz told Sen. John R. Thune (R-S.D.) that the Air Force still plans for the new bomber to be ready for duty in 2018, “and if that is physically achievable, we will do so.”

When it was pointed out by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) that Russia is considering using Cuba as a staging area for bombers, Schwartz said such a move would be very dangerous.

“I certainly would offer best military advice that we should engage the Russians not to pursue that approach,” Schwartz asserted. “And if they did, I think we should stand strong and indicate that that is something that crosses a threshold, crosses a red line, for the United States of America.”