Chiefs, Part 7: ‘Surviving the Budget Control Act Debacle’

In its 75-year history, 22 Airmen have led the Air Force as Chief of Staff. Each came to the post shaped by the experiences—and sometimes scar tissue—developed over three decades of service. Each inherited an Air Force formed by the decisions of those who came before, who bequeathed to posterity the results of decisions and compromises made over the course of their time in office. Each left his own unique stamp on the institution. As part of Air & Space Forces Magazine’s commemoration of the Air Force’s 75th anniversary, Sept. 18, 2022, we interviewed all of the living former Chiefs of Staff.

Gen. Mark A. Welsh, CSAF No. 20 (2012-2016) 

Gen. Mark A. Welsh never dreamed of becoming Chief of Staff, never saw himself as a visionary. “I’m not really good at looking deep into the future with a clearer understanding of what we should be and how to get from A to B,” he says, underselling his intellect. “I can figure out what is important for us to be. And I’m pretty good at moving people toward that.” But a visionary? That’s someone else. “I would characterize myself more as a realist, more of a rubber meets the road guy than a deep thinker.”  

The rubber hit the road in August 2012. The Budget Control Act of 2011 was now in full force, and its unintended consequences were becoming clear. The measure was the result of a compromise: Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling so long as Democrats agreed to cut spending. But the measure was intended to drive further compromise. The BCA imposed annual statutory limits on both defense and nondefense discretionary spending; it established a committee to work on a future deficit reduction agreement; and it imposed annual, automatic spending cuts if no deficit reduction agreement was reached.  

The threat of automatic cuts had been seen in 2011 as so onerous that no one would ever let things get that far. But by 2012, it was becoming clear that a deal was not in the offing. Automatic cuts were about to wreak havoc on Air Force spending.  

Welsh became Chief with seven weeks to go in fiscal 2012, a year in which the Air Force budget had declined by $4 billion to $162.8 billion. For the next fiscal year, spending would plunge more than 11 percent to $144.3 billion, its lowest total since 2007. Actually, it was even worse. More than 20 percent of that total passed directly through the Air Force to fund other agencies.  

“We were cutting $20 billion a year out of our budget—or trying to figure out how to do that and get it through Congress—and the Air National Guard had just very publicly started a public argument with the United States Air Force about lack of support for the Guard,” Welsh said.  

The Air Force kept running into walls in Congress. Finding cuts was hard enough internally. Finding cuts that could be sold to Congress was harder still. Welsh didn’t want to sacrifice modernization. That had to be a priority. He needed big chunks of money.  

In 2013, Air Combat Command proposed paying a chunk of the bill by retiring National Guard A-10 Warthogs. Getting rid of all those A-10s could save $4 billion in a hurry. But the Warthog was beloved by Soldiers and Marines, who found joy and triumph in the BRRRRTBRRRRT of its nose-mounted cannon, and it was a favorite of the lawmakers whose districts were home to the Guard’s A-10s, including Arizona’s influential Sen. John McCain.  

Welsh understood the reasoning. Only about 20 percent of the Air Force’s close air support (CAS) missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were being flown by A-10s, and as useful as its 30 mm gun can be,  “its only got about 15 seconds of trigger pull with the gun,” Welsh said. “After that, they’re dropping the same precision guided bombs in the same place everybody else is dropping them.”  

The A-10s could carry more weapons than the F-16, but there were fewer of them, and they couldn’t get places quite as fast. “So really, if you’re in a firefight at night somewhere, do you want a B-1 with 36 precision guided munitions or do you want an A-10 with a GAU? They’re all great at what they do, but the A-10 does only one thing.” The other planes were more versatile.  

“All the modeling and simulation that we’d done showed that this would be the least impact of any airplane fleet that you could divest, and it was the only way to divest an entire fleet—back shops, the engines, the whole supply chain—which is where you get the big savings,” Welsh said. “There was logic to it. It’s just that it wasn’t going to happen.”  

Welsh found himself getting beaten up for a plan that he’d never supported, but it didn’t matter. Once a decision was made it was his job to make the case. And the alternative that resulted was hardly his idea either.  

“Senator McCain really got irate about this,” Welsh added. What ended up happening instead is we got told to keep the A-10 and keep bedding down the F 35, but we were still cutting people.” That created a crush. “We needed the people in the A-10 squadrons to transition to F-35 squadrons, but when that didn’t happen, we had to cut manning in every squadron in the Air Force to 80 percent, just to have enough manpower to stand up the new F-35 units.”  

It didn’t matter. Congress wasn’t buying it. The Air Force appeared tone-deaf to a nation focused on the plight of Soldiers and Marines slugging it out in a ground fight.  

In the Spring of 2013, as Welsh was visiting Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, ahead of a budget hearing the next day, one of the senator’s aides interrupted to share a news alert on his phone. Levin tried to wave him off, but the aide persisted, handing him the phone. Levin looked down at the device through his reading glasses, then peered over the rims at the general before him.  

“You should read this,” he said. Welsh learned that a lieutenant colonel, the chief of the Air Force’s  sexual assault prevention and response branch, had been arrested the night before in Arlington, Va. The charge was sexual assault.   

“So Senator Levin looks up over those glasses, and says, ‘Enjoy your hearing tomorrow.’ Ha—not a good day for us,” Welsh noted.  

He can laugh about it now. At the time, it was just another painful smack, one in a series of embarrassments that kept the Air Force institutionally on the defensive.  The officer was later acquitted, but the incident and others made it seem the Air Force had a bigger problem with sexual assault than the rest of the military or society in general. That wasn’t a true representation of the facts, Welsh explained. But what that kind of publicity did was deflating.  

“The impact those things were having on Airmen in general was significant.” Welsh said. “All they heard was bad news about the Air Force. They were frustrated by budget cuts and sequestration from the Budget Control Act, training dollars were going down, they were deploying constantly. They were frustrated. And my biggest concern as Chief was that we can lose everything else, but if we lose Airmen, there’s no Air Force.” 

Welsh saw his job then as rallying the force, reminding Airmen “of who they are, and what they do, and how well they do it, and why they do it—why it matters,” Welsh went on. “I spent a lot of time on the road talking to Airmen, all over the world, just trying to let them know that we did care, that people were paying attention, that we wanted to make them better at their mission, and that we weren’t going to let everything disintegrate and leave them hanging.” 

Every Chief’s career path is different. In Welsh’s case, he’d had very little time on the Air Staff where he would have had more exposure to the politics and knife fighting of the budget process. “I’d never been close to that interaction and activity, and that was a shortfall of mine,” he said. “You know, if I’d been the Vice Chief of Staff before, it would have been a much easier transition.”  

(It is not surprising then to recall that Welsh’s successor, Gen. David L. Goldfein, suffered no such challenge; he fleeted up from the Vice Chief’s job in 2016, with the benefit of a month of prep-time in which he was cut loose to focus on his new role, rather than the duties of the Vice.) 

It dawned on Welsh too late that the real fight needed to be about his Airmen. It wasn’t just that they needed to be reassured. It was that he needed more of them. And while he and Secretary Deborah Lee James were ultimately able to draw that red line, it was late in his tenure. If there’s one thing he would do differently, he said, it would be to fight for people sooner.  

“There is this assumption that there’s all kinds of efficiencies” to be had in any budget, that there is always fat to be cut, Welsh said. “Well, not really. There isn’t nearly as much as you think. When you go to look at where you can take big chunks of money out of the Air Force budget, its infrastructure, it’s modernization, or its people. The biggest chunk of money is people. So it’s the easiest way to save. But every time you give up an Airman you give up mission capability in some way, shape, or form.” 

To try to identify what could be sacrificed from the budget and what could not, Welsh knew he needed the buy-in from his four-star major command generals, the Air Staff, and the combatant commanders. “You’ve got to have those conversations across the senior leadership of the Air Force,” he said. “It can’t just be the Air Staff having this debate.”  

One of the things Welsh is most proud of is how he attacked this problem by building a visual model of the budget, “a wall of money,” he said. Then he “brought all the four-stars in to do our first programming meetings off of that visual.”  

On the wall were color-coded magnetic strips. “Just one-inch-wide magnetic strips, every inch was a million dollars,” Welsh said. They spent two days staring at that wall, “one of the things I learned the most from as the Chief of Staff.”  

The color-coded magnets created a visual understanding of the challenges—the colors of money, the programs, the available resources.“It goes floor to ceiling and across the whole wall,” Welsh said. Everything included in the budget was above a line in the middle. Everything desired but not yet in the budget was below. In order to move something from below the line to the top, something else had to be subtracted.  

This made clear the choices the Air Force faced, choices that were not about what programs were needed or desirable, but about which ones the Air Force needed most. The trade-offs could thus be made across major commands, not just in the usual stovepipes.  

“We all sat there for two days and talked about it,” Welsh recalled. “And John Hyten who was Air Force Space Command at the time, said, ‘Just go to my column and take those two off.’ And it was like a hush in the room. I mean, he actually gave something up. And that broke the dam.”  

Once Hyten got things started, others followed. Hyten, Welsh noted, was nobody’s fool, because that bought him good will from others as the horse trading continued. But his initiative, his willingness to take a chance by offering something up in the open was crucial to progressing through the job at hand.  

“The big point was, this is our budget, all of us,” Welsh said. “And to optimize it, if we want to put something on the board, something’s got to come off. And if it’s not going to be one of your own things, you’ve got to justify why they are all more important than everybody else’s stuff. That was the discussion we had and it was a really honest discussion. We did it for every year I was there.” 

Like other Chiefs, Welsh found it took too long to learn the job well, that progress came too slowly, and that time went too fast. Four years sounds like a long time, but it isn’t long enough to institutionalize change in an organization so large.

“I do think four years as Chief of Staff is not enough,” Welsh said. Should it be five? Eight? Welsh thought for a moment, then answered decisively: “Six.” The extra time could be subject to re-confirmation by Congress, perhaps, or a renomination by the administration. But more time makes more sense, he said, even if the job itself is exhausting. “Physically, four years is enough,” Welsh said. “I was, I was pretty much dying after four years. But the reason I think it is enough is you don’t really get a chance to implement things that stay implemented. … You work so hard to put some things in place that you think are really meaningful for the Air Force” and they whither when the next Chief focuses someplace else. “They don’t intentionally get rid of the other stuff, maybe they just quit focusing on it—and then there is a certain stasis on the Air Staff, which everybody will go back to.” 

Some call it the frozen middle. Welsh cites “the iron majors and lieutenant colonels and civilians—GS 13s and 14s—who are so incredibly capable and dedicated” to the rules and regulations, the systems and processes. “They understand it, they know how to make it work. And so they’re almost too loyal to it.”  

When the change agents depart, the system reverts to its prior function. “It’s very easy just to go back to the process you know and love,” Welsh said. Two more years as Chief might help prevent that.  

In the Tank, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff hash out matters of policy and strategy, Welsh said his interservice partners were honest and direct with each other and generally cooperative and reasonable. He always felt he was heard, even if he didn’t get his way, including during visits to the White House, where he recalls President Barack Obama giving each of the Chiefs or participants around the table a chance to express their views.  

Yet in the wider national discussion, the value of Air and Space Power seems little understood, either taken for granted or not recognized for its true and full value.  

“The reality is that air power is the most valuable integrating and attacking force on the battlefield. It just is, there’s no argument against that,” Welsh said. “You don’t get to the fight without air power. You don’t get the ISR you need to prepare for the fight without air power and space power. They work together, even if they’re different forces now, they still work together. And when required, air power can be the decisive force on the battlefield.”  

Of course, he adds, there are things air power cannot do, like occupy some piece of territory, or set up and support a mayor in a small village. But these capabilities are not mutually exclusive.  

“The idea that nobody’s been attacked from the air since the Korean War …. that’s an astonishing fact,” Welsh said. “It’s because air power and air supremacy provides freedom to attack and freedom to maneuver. It gives you the ability to be the greatest Army, the greatest Marine Corps on the planet.” Without it, those other advantages erode quickly. Investing in air power is therefore an investment in the Total Force. “If you are fighting against the U.S. Air Force, supported by Naval aviation and Marine Corps aviation, you’d have a problem,” Welsh said, because “it is and can be a dominant force.”  

The question the nation must answer is whether that is something it still values. “Can we provide air superiority everywhere these days with the amount of force structure we have? Of course not,” Welsh considered. “But where we choose to have it, we can have it.”