Chiefs, Part 8: The ‘Joint’ Chief

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. David L. Goldfein, CSAF No. 21 (2016-2020) 

By September 2015, everyone knew that year’s “AFA”—the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md.—would be Gen. Mark A. Welsh III’s last as Air Force Chief of Staff. He’d been in the job since 2012, and his four-year tour would be up the following summer. 

On the eve of the conference, news outlets speculated about two ground-breaking options for his relief: Gen. Lori J. Robinson, then commander of Pacific Air Forces, and Gen. Darren W. McDew, who had only recently taken charge of U.S. Transportation Command. Absent from that conjecture: Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. 

Junior to both Robinson and McDew, Goldfein had survived a missile strike that downed his F-16 over Serbia, leaving him stranded in hostile territory until he could be rescued. “Intercepting an enemy missile with my airplane was not my best mission,” he said. Surviving and then thriving as his career advanced belied the notion that the Air Force suffered from a zero-defect mentality. In the wake of losing his airplane, Goldfein had not only survived, but thrived. 

Beginning as a young captain in Desert Storm, I had not missed a single fight in my career,” Goldfein said. That included two years as the Air and Space Component Commander for Central Command from 2011 to 2013. Even so, Goldfein didn’t see himself as a serious candidate for Chief until Welsh let him know he was a serious contender, a wake-up call that forced him to start thinking seriously about how he would approach the role if he was indeed the choice. 

“That was really when I started thinking seriously about, OK, what are my gifts?” he said. “I think every leader brings certain gifts and strengths to the table and certainly an equal number of weaknesses. So what are my strengths? And as I thought about it, it became clear to me that what I knew, perhaps as well as anybody else in the Air Force, was the business of joint warfighting.” 

Goldfein had flown in every Air Force combat operation since Desert Storm and in the prior seven years had stepped through a series of preparatory jobs: Deputy Director of Programs on the Air Staff, Director of Operations at Air Combat Command, Commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, and Director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. Now he awoke to a possibility he hadn’t really seen coming. 

Once selected, Goldfein went to Welsh with a plea: “I need some time with a small transition team to really put some serious thought into where I want to focus so I can hit the ground running on Day One,” Goldfein said. “You know, that’s tough conversation. What I was really asking him was, ‘Hey, Chief, I want you to work like a dog until the end without a Vice.’”

Welsh agreed, cutting Goldfein loose with a small team to develop his plan. That team included then-Brig. Gen. Alexus G. “Grinch” Grynkewich (now the three-star commander of 9th Air Force and the Combined Forces Air Component Commander at U.S. Central Command). He wanted focus—“big, audacious, and achievable” ideas to shape the coming four years. 

“Where I focused was joint warfighting excellence: How do I take the service from where it is to a point where I can hand it off as a more capable joint teammate?” he said. For the next four years, everything he could control—and there were, of course, plenty of issues he could not control—had to “make us better joint warfighters.” 

Three areas would get his particular focus: First, reinvigorating the fighting formation of the Air Force, in particular empowering squadron leaders; second, joint development; and third, digitizing and connecting joint warfighters, a concept that became multi-domain command and control, and then, as he was reaching the end of his tour, joint all-domain command and control (JADC2). 

Of the three, it is the third one—helping to convince the other services that his concept joint command and control concepts not only made sense but were critical—that will likely be his long-term legacy. “When we started the conversation, it was a question of whether we really needed to do this,” Goldfein said. “What took four years was building trust amongst the services that this wasn’t the money grab.” 

The challenge was that all the services were already operating in multiple domains. “Think about it: If you’re the Chief of Naval Operations, you’ve invested billions in command and control to connect what you believe is an all-domain force that operates from subsurface submarines to the surface and to the air. So you’re already a multi-domain force, and you build C2 to connect your forces at sea. If you’re the Chief of Staff of the Army, you’ve invested billions of dollars to connect your Soldiers, and you’re transitioning your Army into the digital world. And along comes this Air Force guy that says, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea: Scrap all those investments you’ve made and let me come in and solve this for the world.’ That is a nonstarter.” 

Goldfein knew the Air Force had expertise the other services could leverage. Going back to 1947, Congress had identified command and control as an initial Air Force mission. “But if we were to approach it so that it could be interpreted as a money grab, it would be dead on arrival,” Goldfein said. He spent the next four years “squinting with his ears,” he said, listening and learning about the challenges each service chief saw in his particular domain. The Army chiefs saw the issue as one of scale and speed. While the Air Force sought to connect a few thousand airplanes, the Army needed to connect a million Soldiers; and as USAF tried to operate at the speed of sound, the Army needed to keep up only with the speed of traffic. 

“We had to educate ourselves,” Goldfein said. “If we’re going to offer solutions to the Army, we better understand ground maneuver. If we’re going to offer solutions to the world’s greatest Navy, we better understand submarine operations.” 

Slowly the multi-domain phrase caught on. The Army and Navy began to adopt the language. The question had changed. Instead of ‘Why do we do this?’ Goldfein said, it was, “How do we get after this as a team?” 


Not everything went so well. Goldfein inherited a force in decline, one too small to meet its many requirements. The nuclear force was decrepit, he had a new tanker that wasn’t performing, his fighter force was aging out faster than he could acquire replacements. When Congress asked for an objective assessment to define the Air Force the nation needed, Goldfein and then-Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson responded with a clear flight plan: 386 operational squadrons, a 20 percent increase over the existing force. 

The plan was laid out at AFA’s Air, Space, & Cyber Conference in 2018, halfway through Goldfein’s tenure, and the Air Force celebrated by giving the press and others coffee mugs emblazoned with the number 386. “There was classified assessment and intelligence analysis that went into this,” Goldfein said. “This was 386 squadrons that directly aligned with the national security and national defense strategy and combatant commander demand, given classified operational war plans.” 

Some greeted the disclosure of this plan as the beginning of a new campaign to grow the Air Force. Goldfein did not. “We did all the analysis, and you could back it up with data to say you could meet the need at moderate risk with 386. Anything below that, you just increased risk. So now, do we keep banging the drum and say 386, when we’re actually at 320? That didn’t make much sense.” 

Goldfein saw the analysis as a worthwhile, but academic exercise, because he couldn’t imagine that Congress would fund 66 more squadrons and all the people, weapons, and support that would require. 

A generation before, at the end of the Cold War, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell presented his Base Force, the blueprint for a scaled down, peacetime U.S. military in a unipolar world. All of the services would be cut deeply, and all of the services accepted their fate. Whatever pushback occurred, only the Marine Corps managed to take their fight public, resisting the call to shrink the Corps to just 159,000 Marines. Then-Commandant Gen. Carl Mundy, a buzz-cut, square-jawed Marine straight from central casting, launched a sort of insurgency, telling every audience possible that yes, he could cut the Corps to 159,000—but then pivoting to say that to meet the nation’s security requirements, 174,000 Marines was the number needed. Mundy repeated his case at every opportunity for a year and ultimately won the argument. 

Could Goldfein not have followed that model to achieve his needed 386 squadrons? 

“The big difference between us and the Marine Corps [in 1992] was that the Commandant already had 174,000 Marines,” Goldfein said. The two services were approaching a similar value statement, but from opposing directions. 

The Marines were drawing down from a force greater than 200,000 and hoped to be spared the deep cut to 159,000; by contrast, Goldfein’s force was already undersized. Rather than seeking to foreshorten a drawdown, he would have been asking for a budget increase measured in the tens of billions. That was beyond imagination. 

Still, “386 was a helpful metric for me because I could then articulate where I thought we were risk-wise, in various scenarios, whether in the tank or at the White House,” Goldfein said.  With that, he said, he could “now articulate what I thought was the amount of risk was, and I could do it with a lot greater granularity, based on where we were versus where the moderate risk level was. It was a very helpful benchmark in some of those discussions.”

Goldfein saw risk every place he turned. But he also saw opportunities, seizing them—at some cost. 

When the Air Force took a cut to help fund fourth-generation Navy F/A-18 purchases, he later got a chance to claw some of that back. But Defense Department leadership were offering a choice. He could have the money to fund new-build F-15s, built in the same Boeing Co. plant in St. Louis where the F/A-18s were made, but not for additional Lockheed F-35s. 

“My first response was, ‘I’m not going to spend a penny of fifth-generation money against a fourth-generation asset. That’s a red line,’” Goldfein recalled. “And then I said, second, that ‘there can be no trading of aircraft, because where we are headed is fifth- and sixth-generation. But I do have a capacity challenge, and I can’t allow the Air Force to lose $7 billion in assets.’” 

Goldfein took the deal, accepting a future that would include dozens—and possibly up to 200—new-build F-15EX fighters. If it was the will of the Department of Defense and the Congress that the Air Force purchase F-15s, Goldfein said, “then we’re going to look at these airplanes and we’re going go take a look at the fleet, and then determine the best option.” 

What the Air Force found, he said, was that the Pacific’s long ranges made the new-build F-15EXs attractive because—as good as the F-35 is—it can’t match the F-15 for range and payload. “In a Pacific scenario, when we played various force elements together, the combination” proved attractive, he said. 

New advances promised by the F-15EX also helped change his perception. “Stealth is not the only spectrum,” he said. “Radar is not the only spectrum where you have to hide. And so the more we looked at the options, the better the F-15EX looked from a joint warfighting perspective.” 

Now Goldfein’s focus on jointness came into play. “I was confident I was making the Air Force a better joint warfighter and joint warfighting service by entering the F-15EX,” he said. 

He also had a problem. The first was that he was breaking a line held by every Chief before him for nearly two decades, that the Air Force should not “buy new old airplanes.” Second, the real skinny on why this made sense couldn’t be shared in the open. The real advantages could only be shared in classified settings, Goldfein said, meaning Goldfein struggled to tell that story publicly, while generally holding his own in private.  

Goldfein’s tenure included four wildcards. The first, was his nomination to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford’s term as Chairman neared its end, Goldfein seemed the hands-on favorite to succeed him. Having positioned himself as a joint warfighting advocate, focused on projects and programs that made the joint team stronger, he was a natural. No Airman had been Chairman since Gen. Richard B. Myers from 2001 to 2005, and in the 15 years since, the position had been held by two Soldiers, two Marines, and one Navy Admiral. 

Goldfein had the endorsement of Defense Secretary James Mattis, himself a retired Marine general. But by then, [President Donald J. ]Trump was feuding openly with Mattis, questioning his loyalty and challenging his independence. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, a burly New Englander, was less joint in focus but held some special appeal to the President. Whether it was his Princeton pedigree, his New England roots, his substantial presence, or merely the fact that he wasn’t Mattis’ choice is unclear. But Trump nixed Goldfein for Milley, regardless. Goldfein has no regrets. 

“I’ve never looked back for a second on the decision to make Mark Milley the Chairman,” he said. “Hey, he’s a friend. He’s a great officer, we served together as Chiefs, we served together in Afghanistan when he was there, and I was the CFACC.” The President interviewed both—chose one. “He chose the individual he had really good chemistry with. … It’s not personal. It’s professional.”

Space Wars 

This was 2019, debate about forming a stand-alone military branch focused on space was underway. Goldfein was opposed at the start. He saw a seamlessness in the integration of air and space within his force, and “I was worried that in the business of separating the services, we would separate that jointness,” he said. “I was worried about us, you know, losing some of our edge and the integration of air and space.” 

He imagined turf wars ahead, because he’d been around the Pentagon to know well enough that when something is new, “First thing you build is a castle, then you dig a moat, and then you fill it with dragons. Because you’ve got to protect your resources,” he acknowledged. But then Goldfein went to Maxwell Air Force Base and Air University. He met with a group of Schriever Fellows, “our smartest space officers.” 

Goldfein was trying to sell them on his operational integration concept. “I was watching their body language, and could see: They ain’t buying it,” he admitted. “So I finally just stopped, and did what Chiefs really ought to do, which is to listen.”

By the time the conversation was over, Goldfein said, “I was convinced. I said, ‘Show of hands: How many of you think we need a separate service for space?’ Every hand went up. You know, when you’re the Chief and your Airmen are telling you something, you better listen.” Goldfein set out to learn more. I visited every space base, I went and I read, I listened, I watched, I spoke to industry leaders, I went to NASA. 

“I had two fundamental questions I was asking myself: Can we as a service culturally embrace space superiority with the same passion that we historically have embraced air superiority? And, who can move space for the nation faster in the business of joint warfighting?—Me, as a service Chief that does leaflets to nukes and everything in between, and operates in all the domains? Or a service Chief that is singularly focused on advancing space for the nation?”—In the end, he said, “I came to my own personal conclusion that the President got this one right.”

There were still risk, he thought. If the Air Force and Space Force got this right, the two would co-exist as close and effective partners, independent masters of their individual domains, yet at the same time interdependent on each other and tightly integrated to maximize their joint effect. 

He took to sharing a photograph of himself holding his two granddaughters, each two years old at the time. “I said, ‘Hey, meet my granddaughters, Eva and Rae. They don’t know this, but they are members of the Class of 2040 at the Air Force Academy. And one of them—I’ll let them choose—will join the Air Force and one will join the Space Force. And when they walk across that stage in 2040, the class of 2020 will be graded.”

The test, would be what the two services had forged over the prior 20 years. “Did we build two services that were focused and built on a foundation of trust and confidence in each other, able to work as a joint team for air and space operations, as both supported and supporting commanders?” he asked “Or did we build castles, moats, and dragons?” 

Goldfein bet his tenure on tearing down castles, slaying dragons, and breaching moats. He sees just one good option for the future. Slay the dragons—or fail.