Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett with Airmen from the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing. Recruiting, retention, and caring for people will make the service successful, she said. Photo: Senior Master Sgt. Matthew Branson
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Q&A: Nukes, Space Force, and Change

March 1, 2020

Barbara Barrett’s first interview as Secretary of the Air Force.

Barbara Barrett was sworn in as the 25th Secretary of the Air Force in October 2019, only two months before the official stand-up of the U.S. Space Force as a part of the Department of the Air Force. In her first interview as Secretary, she spoke with Air Force Magazine Editorial Director John A. Tirpak and Editor-in-Chief Tobias Naegele about the challenges ahead for the two services she now leads; the flattening defense budget; and affording nuclear modernization. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q. Let’s talk about the Space Force. How will the chain of authority work among you, Gen. David Goldfein, and Gen. John Raymond?

A. It’s two separate services under one Department, not unlike what you see in the Navy and Marine Corps, but with some differences. In giving testimony, for example, they go in order of the precedence of the services, by the age of the service. 

The Department of the Air Force has two components: the Air Force and the Space Force. One might think they’ll be called the Department of the Air & Space Force, to have better evidence of the parity, but that’s not what happened in the legislation. So they are peers, and that’s also the practicality of it.

We’re blessed that the two people starting this are Generals Goldfein and Raymond, because they are uniquely wise in how they’ve handled it. General Goldfein has been very supportive. I think he was the force behind Space Force’s immediate participation on the Joint Chiefs, instead of delayed participation, which would have been permitted. He’s been very supportive and even deferential beyond his due.

Our mission here is to have this be the textbook demonstration of how you would start something in a way to be led for success. I think we must have managed to clone General Raymond, because he seems to be on both sides of the country at once. He must never sleep, because I see him at 5 a.m. on video teleconferences. He’s a remarkable leader, as is General Goldfein. 

We are truly fortunate to have those two leaders applying that wisdom to setting up this new force.

Q.  The Air Force has long struggled with the “pass-through” budget. It makes the Air Force’s budget look bigger than it really is, but the Air Force doesn’t actually control that money. Most of those funds go to space activities. With the creation of Space Force, would this be a good time to get rid of that budget idiosyncrasy and give that budget money to Space Force to manage?

A. That’s one of the ideas. 

Standing up a new force is evidence that there is a nationally recognized need,and that the world has changed to where there is a new domain that is of paramount importance. There are old constructs that have become chiseled in granite: the 30-30-30-10 division of funds between the services and defense agencies, for example, and the Air Force covers the pass-through.  Some of those constructs are no doubt reflective of a World War II mindset, or even a Civil War mindset. We wouldn’t dream of trying to practice medicine without penicillin, we wouldn’t dream of fighting without space. If we persisted with the same budget that we had “pre-penicillin,” if you will, we would not only be wrong in medicine but wrong in leadership.

So what we are doing is, looking at how do we structure this. Budget is among the most important things, and the pass-through has been a thin disguise, but with a big penalty. We need to be looking at better solutions. Those solutions will all be fashioned buildingwide. 

We need solutions that a former Army Secretary—who’s now Defense Secretary [Mark Esper]—will find equitable. He needs to be persuaded on these. But all the services are beneficiaries of the space capabilities, and if no one else contributes, the space asset will be starved.

Q. Have you discussed the pass-through with Defense Secretary Esper? 

A. Not since 10 o’clock this morning.

Q. Do you think the environment is sympathetic to doing something about this?

A. There are antibodies to any change. And I’m conscious that any change will receive pushback.

Q. You’ve run a lot of organizations and you can see what the antibodies to change are. How long do you think it’s really going to take to get the Space Force to be fully accepted?

A. Users of space come to it right away, with a great deal of respect. Other people, they may be protecting their rice bowls.

When the whole idea of the Space Force came up, it was a subject of ridicule, as most new ideas are. But when people thought about it, as I said in my testimony, most people come around. We all use space, most of us before we have our cup of coffee in the morning. People awaken to an alarm clock that uses GPS. They look at their 

iPhones or their electronics, and they see the weather, they look at the stock market, they look at news, the traffic report … all those things use space. 

It’s ubiquitous, but it’s invisible, so people don’t think about it. But our way of life is entirely dependent on it. We don’t have power unless we use space. Navigation, information, communication, all are dependent on it. And the GPS system that we rely on, worldwide, is run by the Air Force. And now, the Space Force.

By the way, seven staff members sitting in front of computer screens in Colorado Springs are running the world’s GPS system, per shift. So, 40 people in total are running the world’s GPS system. Now, this is probably the best deal in mankind. Nothing works without it. And the amount of traffic that goes through there is immense.

We don’t have to bomb cities to fight a war. You just have to shoot down the space capabilities. My predecessor, Heather Wilson, said we built these capabilities as though we built a glass house before they invented stones. We have capabilities up there that we have to worry about:  jamming, laser, capture, diversion. There are vulnerabilities. That’s not news. It’s not a secret that we depend on these systems and they are vulnerable.

The good thing, though, is that other societies are also increasingly dependent on space. We’re not the only ones. And so, they have skin in the game. A debilitating action against America would almost certainly be debilitating against others. 

We need to fortify the capabilities that we have. We need to replace these aging systems, some of which have outlived their design life, with less vulnerable capabilities—GPS satellites, for instance. And then, we need to build a capability so that we can be something other than a victim. 

We need to make it so that if they take us on, we, too, can do damage in space. Our intent is, we are a peaceful nation. America’s policies are peaceful policies, but we do not intend to be helpless victims. 

We are in need of development of the capabilities that can defend the assets we rely on in space. We take it very seriously. Those who have thought about it, know this is right. At first it was treated with humor—we like humor—but with more humor than it’s due. As people think about it, they understand with sobriety, this is a serious topic, and no less serious than defending our shores, borders, [or]skies. And now we need to be defending the capabilities we need in space. 

So as to the question of “what do people in the rest of the [Pentagon] think,” people eventually come around to realizing the urgency. They all are using space.

Q. Everyone is predicting flat budgets ahead. How do you protect the gains that have been made in readiness,and push for 386 squadrons, when budgets are flat, and when you have an enormous bill coming due for nuclear modernization?

A. Wasn’t it Churchill in World War II who said, “We have run out of money. Now have to think.” 

Flat budgets are a reality. It’s what we project and anticipate in the future. So we have to get optimum use out of every dollar. Even as of this morning—and for that matter—most times I run into the Secretary of Defense, the question is, how can you do things faster, cheaper, better? How do we get better value for the dollar? Taxpayers should be proud of the Secretary of Defense because he is looking out for value for the money.

I don’t think America wants defense on the cheap. I think America wants value for the expenditures. And I think the leadership in [DOD] is here to deliver value, to have the mission in mind, what is the threat, what is the desired outcome, and build a system, within constraints, that gives the best possible value and capabilities for the dollar.

The reality of flat budgets means we need top talent, we need them trained, we need to be recruiting the very best, we need to sharpen up our recruiting system, so it doesn’t take months to get someone on board, or years. The best people will only be patient and tolerant for so long. So we need to improve our systems. 

Q. Is the 386 combat squadron requirement still viable? The Space Force will take some of those, and the numbers will change. But is the general concept still in play? Or will it be something less than that?

A. It’s still in play. What we need are the 386 squadrons. But at the same time, we need to be looking at how a squadron is built. We’re looking at stripping it back to the studs. But the squadron, that’s the building block. Squadrons are how we put together our force.

Q. One of your predecessors, Secretary Deborah James, suggested that Congress or DOD should break out nuclear modernization from the budget, because that’s a once-every-40-years kind of thing, and because leaving it in the Air Force topline would crush funding for conventional programs. Do you think that’s a viable idea?

A. Because nuclear modernization is ‘up’ right now, we really have to think about the best way of doing that. We’ll look at the triad and see if there’s anything we can do faster, cheaper, better; whether there are any improvements we can make. But carving that out of the budget, somebody’s got to cover that. And two-thirds of it is Air Force. We’d need to assess whether others would pick that up. I can’t imagine a rush of volunteers.

Q. Have you had that conversation with the Secretary, and with the Hill?

A. We have had conversations about nuclear modernization, how to get it done, and how to discipline the costs.

Q. Is it understood that such a large expenditure can’t help but affect everything else the Air Force is trying to do?

A. There is complete understanding that nuclear modernization is a huge bill, coming due now, and is no longer deferrable. Creative solutions are welcome, and, unfortunately, missing.

Q. Looking ahead to the next year or so, maybe longer, what would you like to get accomplished in this job?

A. I guess you can’t do everything, so you’ve got to focus on a few things. I’ve got the big three. We already talked about space. That’s going to take getting it right, and you only get one chance to start something right. So, standing up Space Force is of course the unique and timely thing.

My swearing-in was at the [U.S.] Air Force Academy, not here. It was at the Polaris [Hall} building, symbolically about leadership and character-building. Our future depends on the people who are part of our Air Force and Space Force.

Recruitment of top talent, development of that talent, retention of that talent, and caring for them and their families and the communities in which they work, is how these forces will be successful.

And we’ve got to give them the right tools, not ancient tools. Any job can be done with the right tools. 

During my life, I’ve been to a hundred different military installations around the world, and so I thought I knew the Air Force, to some extent. But I have only been overwhelmingly impressed with the caliber of men and women who devote their lives to this mission. This afternoon I’ll be at a dignified transfer. That gives evidence of the level of commitment these men and women have, their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice … uniformed, civilian, [the] Total Force.