People Versus Modernization, Again

With marching orders from the new administration to improve readiness first, the Air Force in the near term may have to scale back some of its enormous and ambitious modernization effort that includes new fighters, tankers, bombers, trainers, command and control aircraft, and a nuclear arsenal refresh, acting service Secretary Lisa Disbrow and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said Friday.

Speaking at an AWS17 press conference, Disbrow acknowledged that plans to ramp up Active Duty endstrength from 317,000 this year to as many as 350,000 poses a daunting bill, only some of which is likely to be paid for by an infusion of new money from Congress and repeal of the Budget Control Act.

Disbrow said it is “doubtful we’ll be able to do the modernization we need to do” and simultaneously reach “that 350,000 in the next four, five years.” But the Air Force is “too far undermanned” and even at 350,000, that would only restore the service to full manning of existing missions and weapon systems.

To manage the situation, Disbrow said there will first be an intense analysis of how to use people more efficiently. “We’re looking at how robotics and automation could free up manpower to be repurposed in other areas. We always look at the mix of civilian, and reserve, Active Duty, what is needed and where can we make those kinds of shifts,” she said.

Some of the impact may be softened by more innovative contracting methods and manufacturing technologies, she added, noting that space systems and launch services costs are actually declining ”dramatically” and that new processes like additive (so-called 3-D) manufacturing may reduce procurement costs on some programs. So funding may not increase in modernization “but what you’re getting for that amount is so much more.”

Goldfein said the situation is “no different this year than any other year, and trades between “capability, capacity, readiness” is the constant funding struggle. “Very often, the wrong answer is all one or all the other. And the reality is, we’re in the strategic trade business … and as an executive team, that is what we do.” But “right now, the direction that we’ve got from the Secretary of Defense is to focus on readiness. And that’s where, in the near term, you’re going to see us focusing our efforts. And we’ve got to analyze that every day.