Q&A With the Secretary

Feb. 25, 2019

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. Photo: A1C Dalton Williams

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson took time for an interview with Air Force Magazine editors Tobias Naegele and John Tirpak on Feb. 11 in her Pentagon office, where she offered updates on force structure, the Space Force, accelerating acquisition, and solving the challenges of sexual harassment at the Air Force Academy.

Q. You rolled out “The Air Force We Need” at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber conference last September. Where are you now

A. The report that will go in on the first of March will …provide all the analysis to the Hill in classified form. But there will also be an unclassified summary, and it will lay out in much greater and richer detail what we think we will need to support the National Defense Strategy. … The presumption when we … talked about it in September was not that we would fight the same old way, but that we will need to change the way we fight in the future. … And that’s really driven by the threat. These kinds of things don’t stay static over time. We expect that they will develop. But for the first time, the Air Force will have a baseline that says, “this is the force we need to implement the National Defense Strategy.” And it’s really no surprise to anyone that the force we need is larger than the force we have.

Q. Global Strike Command last year laid out its Bomber Vector, which said it would have to retire the B-1 and B-2 as B-21s come on board. Will that change?

A. No. … We need a minimum of 175 bombers … a mix of B-21s and B-52s. We’re continuing to put money into the modernization of the B-52, re-engining and other kinds of systems. So, we’ll be driving that forward. The things that we said in September are still true, … the stress on the force is in the ability to have long-range strike and the need for more bombers and tankers.

Q. What if the B-21 isn’t ready as quickly as you hope

A. It’s on schedule at the moment, and we had the critical design review. We think that the program is being well-run at this point. So, there’s no change to the schedule.

Q. By now the Air Force had expected to be buying 80-110 F-35s per year, but you’re still buying less than 60. That means you’ll have to keep F-15s and F-16s and maybe perform a service life extension program on them. Will you reach 80 or 100 F-35s in the next couple of years?

A. Well, the reality is that our aircraft are aging. And we have been tasked to reorient ourselves to great power competition. The math … suggests that we need to buy about 72 fighter aircraft a year, in order to restore the lethality of the force and to avoid a decline in the number of fighter squadrons that we have. There’s been some work this year on the mix that’s required on the 4th and 5th generation platforms, and what are we going to do with very old 4th generation aircraft. Does it make sense to extend them, or should they be replaced? And that’ll be one of the things we discuss in the context of the Fiscal 2020 budget.

We need to buy 72 aircraft a year to avoid a decline in the size of the fighter force. We’re actually going down to 54 fighter squadrons. … That is not enough to be able to execute the National Defense Strategy at a reasonable level of confidence.

Q. So, 72 aircraft a year of F-35s? Or could it be a mix of 60 F-35s and 12 of something else

A. It could be, yeah. But the real issue is … we are not replacing aircraft fast enough, and they are aging out. Now, we are also … restoring the readiness of the force. With the increases … Congress approved and actually having a stable budget, … we’re seeing an increase in our readiness. We’re about 15 percent more ready today than we were two years ago, and 90 percent of our operational squadrons are ready with their first force packages. …

Readiness is about people, it’s about equipment and maintenance, and there’s a relationship between those. As an example, two years ago, we were 4,000 maintainers short. [We] put a real emphasis on recruiting and training more maintainers, and as of December, [we were] no maintainers short in the Active force. … [Now] we have a very young force, and they have to be seasoned and moved from being apprentices to journeymen and being masters of their craft. There are a couple of bases that are trying different ways to accelerate the training of maintainers … to help master their craft more quickly.

Q. The Air Force will ask to buy the F-15X in the coming budget. How does that square with the service’s consistent position that it won’t buy any “new old aircraft,” but instead focus only on 5th generation fighters?

A. The Air Force chose to continue with its topline that we were given to buy the F- 35. But in the next stage of the process, we were asked, “If there was more money available for tactical air, what should we do with it?” And we’ve jointly—with OSD staff and Air Force staff—looked at that—particularly the problem of the aging F-15Cs. …

What are all the missions that we’re required to do in the National Defense Strategy? We need to defend the homeland; provide a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent; be able to defeat a near-peer while we deter a rogue state; and counter violent extremism at lower levels of effort. Many of those missions require a 5th generation capability—but … some … might need a mix of 4th and 5th generation aircraft.

So, can we use new 4th generation aircraft for some of our missions, and does it make sense from a cost point of view to do so? Particularly with F-15Cs, where … we’re having some significant structural issues with those aircraft? Do we want to try to extend their life? How long can you do that? Is that cost-effective, and then, if we had a mix of new 4th gen and 5th gen, is that a good plan, rather than try to extend the life of these old airplanes? So, [for F-15X,] that was the question and the analysis.

Q. Let’s talk about the Space Force. Where are we?

A. The president gave us guidance to have Space as an independent service underneath the Air Force, with its own Chief of Staff and undersecretary for Space. That model will keep space integrated; it will probably also be less costly, and we are moving forward with the implementation. …

There’s a lot of planning … a lot of difficult work [on] finances … personnel issues, all those things. … We expect to begin that detailed planning work that’s required within the next 30 days and pull together a small team that will report directly to the Chief and me.

Q. And assuming you get the go-ahead

A. We would expect that [Fiscal 2020] would be an initial stand-up year and then there would be significant growth after that.

Q. Will all the personnel come from the Air Force or will some come from other services

A. Ninety percent of what the United States military does in space is done by the … Air Force. We have about 80 satellites; the Navy has about 13, for some specialty communications.

This planning team that we’re setting up … will also have representatives and links and support from the other services, as well as the [Defense Department] offices, so, that we have a really good, robust planning effort.

Q. You’ve had a goal to accelerate the pace of acquisition. How are you doing

A. We’re doing a lot …[to take] advantage of new authorities given to us by Congress. We’ve stripped about 71 years out of Air Force acquisition over the last nine months, and we’ve set a goal to take out 100 years of Air Force acquisition time. … We’re being very transparent about it; we’re doing reports to the Hill every four months on all of our experiments and prototypes. …

We’re also using Other Transactional Authorities, which is a new authority to move things quickly. We have our first “pitch day” in March. We figured out, with small business innovative research grants … how to significantly reduce the time and complexity of contracting. … We’re going down to days for contracting … so our most innovative companies can supply and engage the Air Force. We have a space enterprise consortium that is working very well, we just passed the one-year mark with them. We have over 270 companies involved in that, and it’s 90 days from solicitation to contract award. So, I’m pleased with some of the results that I’m seeing.

Q. Those Other Transactional Authorities are ideal for nontraditional suppliers. But what are you doing to speed things up with traditional suppliers?

A. We’re not just tailoring the [Section] 804 authorities, but every program is tailored under the 5000 series. So, for example, … [the F-15 EPAWSS electronic warfare system] program manager said he could do his program faster if he broke it into two sub-reviews, one for initial production and another for fielding. This enables the program to reduce hardware lead times by starting hardware procurement early while the software continues through development. … It’s faster, it’s also a lot smarter. …

We’re teeing up our program managers to make smart, commonsense decisions. And that applies to Lockheed Martin just like it would apply to a small subcontractor.

Q. A recent report showed no real reduction in sexual harassment and an increase in unwanted sexual contact at the Air Force Academy. Do you have confidence in the leadership there? What do you think is necessary to change the culture

A. The results were disheartening. And the results were even before this current leadership team was there. But it’s … the incidents of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact and sexual harassment [that] were really disheartening, not only to the Chief and I, but also to the leadership of the academy. The Chief and I have asked the superintendent to do a review of the results and the data and also to look at all of the programs that we’ve put in place, including many of which were put in place after these data were taken … 18 months ago. And so, [we’re] trying to accelerate the data analysis so we get a much better real-time picture of where we are. …

[This] is affecting every university campus across the country, which is why the Naval Academy will host the first National Summit on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response at America’s colleges and universities, and all three services are supporting it. We’re inviting leaders from universities across the country to come and … focus on what works in prevention, what are the real evidence-based best practices to reduce assault and unwanted sexual contact. It’s a national issue, and we think we have an obligation to lead.