The Goldfein Years

Chief 21’s Legacy is His Vision for the Future: A Highly Connected Joint Force. 

Throughout his tenure as the Air Force’s 21st Chief of Staff, Gen. David L. Goldfein sought to tie every fighting domain together—land, air, space, sea, and cyber—convinced that the force most able to do so would have the edge—maximum situational awareness. He’s convinced that goal is well on its way to being achieved. 

Goldfein’s tenure also saw the Air Force define its need for 386 operational squadrons, the creation of a new Space Force, and the real-time adjustment to a global pandemic, but his vision for tightly integrated command and control will be his principal legacy. Over his four years in office, the nomenclature morphed, but the concept crystallized, gaining credence across the joint force. What began as multi-domain command and control finally seemed to take root in the Pentagon late last year, renamed as the service-agnostic joint all-domain command and control (JADC2). 

The challenge is to ensure that JADC2 survives his departure. “I think the secret of success is not to align it with me,” Goldfein said in an interview with Air Force Magazine. “If this is going to succeed, it has to have roots in the [Defense] Department.” 

Goldfein said he’s been assured by the other Joint Chiefs that JADC2 will persist. It has to, Goldfein said: Joint wargames have shown that, without it, victory against a peer military is uncertain. Both JCS Chairman Army Gen. Mark A. Milley and Vice Chairman USAF Gen. John E. Hyten endorse the concept. Hyten will have particular influence as the head of the Joint Oversight Requirements Council, which referees joint capabilities for the services.

I listened, I traveled, I watched, I read, I talked to industry leaders. … This is exactly where we need to go.

Gen. David L. Goldfein, outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff

In his four-year tour as Chief, Goldfein’s focus went beyond that single theme, and he did as well in the interview. He spoke of his drive to bolster the role of squadron commanders; fielding the F-35 and developing advanced fighters; the Air Force’s “pass-through” budget burden; the pilot shortage; and USAF’s relationship with Congress. 

JADC2 aims to be nothing less than a universal, high-speed network connecting all U.S. military sensors, platforms, commanders, and operators to rapidly characterize the battlespace, share and prioritize targets, and get inside adversaries’ decision cycle. In short, it is intended to give U.S. forces the first-mover advantage. 

“We’ve taken it to the point now where we’re no longer discussing ‘whether.’ We’re now in a debate about ‘how,’” Goldfein said. 

A driving force in that adoption is USAF’s effort to replace the E-8 Joint STARS platform—used since 1990 to track moving targets on the ground—with the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), a network of systems to collect and fuse battle information from a multitude of sensors. “ABMS and JADC2 are interlinked,” Goldfein said. “Something’s got to tie all these systems together so we can communicate … and truly operate across the joint team.” 

While USAF spearheaded the concept, Goldfein said, it’s “critically important … that we don’t lose sight, ever, of the ‘J’ in joint all-domain command and control.” Single-service solutions are “guaranteed to fail,” he said. Other services’ investments in C2 systems “will be protected,” he added, but they will have to adapt “to some common standards.” 

No horse-trading was necessary to get joint buy-in, he noted, because JADC2 grew directly out of USAF’s responsibility to provide the ground moving target function.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein (left) met with Air Force Special Operation Command personnel at Hurlburt Field, Fla., in 2016. Senior Airman Jeff Parkinson

“For us to be able to provide that to them, not only on Day One of a campaign, but Day minus 30 … we had to move from a platform to a network solution,” Goldfein explained. “So many of the game-changing technologies that we all talk about—hypersonics, directed energy, long-range fires, precision fires, space capabilities, artificial intelligence—you actually don’t get to do any of those things” without that network. 

Hyten, as vice chairman, will provide that guiding discipline through the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, Goldfein said.

“We’re going to get the ‘J’ in JADC2 right,” Goldfein insisted.ABMS is proceeding through experimental iterations. The most recent of these, run last December in support of U.S. Northern Command, has since evolved into what Goldfein called the “alpha” version of JADC2. Using the COVID-19 pandemic as a test bed, NORTHCOM Commander Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy has been able to collect and fuse COVID-19 pandemic response data from hospitals, the Centers for Disease Control, the defense industry, and other stakeholders. He was able to track individual Airmen and deploy Navy hospital ships and medical units, Army field hospitals, Federal Emergency Management Agency teams, and National Guard units using the experimental system. 

“We just swarmed the entire ABMS/JADC2 team to support NORTHCOM,” Goldfein said. “That’s in operation today. … This is real, this is not lightning bolts on PowerPoint charts. … It’s up and saving lives right now, in New York, in New Orleans, everywhere that NORTHCOM is operating, as they lead the national effort” for the Department of Health and Human Services. Its success has “actually given us legitimacy” in pursuing JADC2. 

The next ABMS experiment is slated for early September, mainly in support of Space Force.

On to the Space Force

Goldfein admits he wasn’t an early fan of creating a separate Space Force.

“I had my own personal journey,” he said. At the outset of the discussion about creating the new sixth service, “I was concerned about separating space” from joint combat plans and practices, worried that it would “derail years’ worth of work to integrate space” in all aspects of joint force. His litmus test was that he’d be open to it if it propelled “joint warfighting excellence,” and be opposed if it didn’t. 

His turnaround came about a year into the debate. Speaking with Schriever Space Fellows at the Air War College, Goldfein asked for a show of hands: Who thinks a separate Space Force is a good idea? “And all but two hands shot up,” he recalled. “So I Iistened to them. And that was a changing point for me.” 

It took another six months “to become a true believer,” he said. “I listened, I traveled, I watched, I read, I talked to industry leaders.” Now, he is certain. “This is exactly where we need to go. We’re going to be better at joint warfighting excellence with two separate services than we would have if we’d kept it as a single service.” He’s sure it can be done without “breaking … the integration of warfighting.” 

Fixing the Budget

The creation of the Space Force is an opportunity to fix a burden USAF has struggled with for decades: the so-called “pass-through” budget idiosyncrasy. The “pass-through” account is money—$39 billion in 2020—that seems to be in the Air Force budget, but isn’t controlled by the service and goes directly to secret programs, mostly space intelligence. It makes USAF’s true buying power look a lot bigger than it really is. 

The Air Force has asked Congress “for permission to have the discussion” with the Intelligence Community and other stakeholders to do away with the pass-through, Goldfein said. A guiding principle, he noted, will be to “not cause damage.” If the conversation is somehow seen as a way to boost USAF’s own budget, it’s “doomed to fail,” he said, but he’s sure eliminating the pass-through will “make us more combat-capable.”

COVID’s Permanent Impact

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of the Air Force. Reacting to it has spurred—or accelerated—many changes in how the service does business. 

“I don’t think training and education will ever be the same,” he said. “I think we have learned new ways of doing business that in many ways are actually better than the old ways.” The new virtual education model—improvised over the last few months—“actually reaches a larger audience and is quite effective,” he said.

Student pilots, for instance, are now issued “essentially, a portable simulator that you can take home.” It allows many practice sessions at the student’s own pace.

Goldfein takes a photo with Airmen at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, during a tour of the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility with Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright in 2018. Senior Airman Kaylee Dubois

 “It’s all about repetition,” Goldfein said. Providing students with a laptop, virtual reality goggles, and an ersatz stick and throttle allows them “to go home and fly the entire profile,” in a good facsimile of the real T-6 trainer. “You do 50 loops in your room. And then you go in the real airplane, and, guess what? Your first real loop is pretty good.” That means fewer real-world sorties, saving time and money.

More simulation time may trigger alarm among some who fear USAF will slash actual flying hours, he said, but “what we’re really doing … is improving our product.” 

Similarly, “there will be a point at which I don’t think we’re going to need the same instructor force.” He’s asked Lt. Gen. Marshall B. Webb, Air Education and Training Command boss, to look at consolidating the number of simulator instructors and their locations. He sees little need for them to be in close physical proximity to students. Over a digital link, the instructor can be anywhere and still “dial a disaster” for one or more students. The debrief can happen over a video connection, with graphics.

“What an opportunity for us to build some simulator cells, perhaps in places where the airlines have hubs,” Goldfein said, so that Air National Guard pilots who fly for the airlines “can come in and do simulator duty” as instructors while waiting for their next commercial flight.

“It’s not just flying. … In the maintenance career field, you can put the VR goggles on … and it basically points you to everything you’ve got to do to complete a maintenance action.” With repetition, and learning at a student’s  own pace, “you’re just going to be a better quality product.”

Similarly, for health care delivery, “telemedicine and telepharmacy” operations, coupled with curbside pharmacy service, are proving more effective, and using fewer people, at remote locations like Minot Air Force Base[N.D.], Goldfein said. “I don’t know if we’ll go back.” 

Teleworking is also waking up the Air Force to new ways of thinking about basic work functions. “This is going to make us better, quite frankly,” he said.

Focus on the Squadron

Another of Goldfein’s coming-in goals was to “reinvigorate” the squadron, which he called the most essential “warfighting formation … where you generate readiness [and] combat capability … and where we succeed or fail as an Air Force.”

His aim was to give squadron commanders greater flexibility to do their jobs, provide them with more resources to take care of issues unique to their location or situation, and “drive down” decision-making authority to their level. 

“I’m pretty satisfied with where we landed,” he said, but “I would not say … we’re done.  … It’s a journey, not a destination.”

Feedback shows squadron commanders today feel they have more latitude to act without waiting for permission and that USAF is investing in them.

“In the past … we may have been guilty at times … of handing a commander the flag and just seeing if she can swim, as opposed to investing in her every day … to make sure she has the tools to succeed and lead,” he said. Squadron commanders know now that they’ll be allowed to “succeed wildly, and also stumble, fall, and get up and learn, and move on again. I think that’s been successful,” Goldfein acknowledged.

Investing more money at the squadron level is paying off. “We have successfully unleashed the innovative spirit,” he said. By providing squadrons with “not an insignificant amount” of money to solve local problems, commanders don’t have to wait for higher-up approval. The message: “I trust you, so …take some risk and move out.” 

For example, some bases have developed software apps to answer specific local needs. At Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., a squadron “put up an emergency operations center in a truck bed,” Goldfein said. “They got their design completed and were firing up the generators two weeks before the flood hit Offutt,” and the vehicle became “the major C2 node” in Offutt’s disaster recovery.  

F-35 Headway

Goldfein is the sixth Chief to preside over USAF’s F-35 program. The service asked for just 48 of the jets per year, but Congress added a dozen more airplanes in each of the last few budget cycles. At the current rate, USAF’s program of record—1,763 airplanes—won’t be fulfilled until the 2040s. Given that the Air Force is already embarked on the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) project, will the service throttle back on the F-35?

“The program of record hasn’t changed,” Goldfein said. “Signaling any reduction on the program of record right now” would be a mistake, he argued, especially when countries “on NATO’s Eastern flank” and partners in the Pacific are signing up to buy the F-35. “We need every country that’s even considering purchasing the F-35 to get into fifth gen,” he insisted. “We need more teammates in the game. … The last thing I want to do as an international air chief is signal any weakening.”

Goldfein is not concerned about the F-35’s relevance in the near term. “For the next 10 years, our force will be extremely viable.” he said. The NGAD program is focused on providing a range of new technologies that will “not only outfit a next generation of capability, but also …[could] be retrofitted into some of our current platforms and weapon systems.”

At more than $16 billion a year, the Air Force’s “black budget” for secret programs is “orders of magnitude” bigger than that of any other service, he allowed, but Congress is supportive when the programs are explained. Members of Congress and cleared staffers briefed on NGAD “have an ‘aha’ moment,” he noted, and quickly grasp why it’s “so critically important for our future.” 

Keeping such programs shrouded is essential to keep potential adversaries guessing. It’s a “reveal and conceal” strategy, he explained. “We reveal at a time of our choosing, based on our deterrence objectives.” 

These secret programs are “based on a significant amount of wargaming,” Goldfein said. Without them, peer adversaries often prevailed and “quite frankly, it did not end well for us,” he said. The injection of JADC2, along with other emerging secret capabilities, changed the game. “We actually turned the tide and began winning far more often,” Goldfein said. This convinces him the Air Force is now on the right track.

Joint Opportunities

Getting more USAF officers into Joint command positions was another early goal, and he claims success.

As director of the Joint Staff in 2013-2015, Goldfein had to review every candidate from which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs would choose Joint leaders.

The Air Force candidates tended to be “too new and too blue,” he said. “Too new” meant that USAF officers, who tend to be promoted earlier than their other-service brethren, were younger and had not had as many different experiences. “Too blue” meant “we tended to stay in our tribe much longer than our joint teammates. So we were very deep, but we were not as broad as we needed to be.” 

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright, left, presents Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein with the Order of the Sword at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 27. The Order of the Sword is the highest award USAF personnel can bestow. Goldfein was only the fourth Air Force Chief to receive the award. Mike Tsukamoto/staff

On Goldfein’s watch, USAF has worked to build officers with greater breadth and depth, and he argues it’s working. “We’re filling a significant number of positions, and the Joint leaders we have out there are doing superb work,” he said, pointing to officers such as O’Shaughnessy and Gen. Tod D. Wolters, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, as examples of USAF leaders shining in key joint assignments. More USAF officers are deputies and senior staff in Joint organizations, as well, he said.   

At the middle ranks, the long-term pilot shortage continues to put a drag on USAF manning. While the pandemic has prompted more pilots to re-up because airline hiring has dried up, this alone can’t solve the problem. “I’ve got to keep the demographics right,” he said. “While I’m eager to allow talented flyers to stay in with us,” it also tends to raise the average age of the force, creating an unmanageable age imbalance. USAF constantly needs “new blood,” he said. 

The pandemic is also exacerbating training challenges. To comply with social distancing, pilot production has been cut in half, an unsustainable reduction. Plans called for pilot production to start increasing again by the end of June, with a goal of reaching 75 to 80 percent of the pre-pandemic rate.

That, combined with increased retention, “can actually sustain [a] healthy force … until we get a vaccine,” he said. But a permanent fix to the pilot shortage will have to come through longer-term approaches.

With much fanfare, the Air Force released “The Force We Need” white paper on Goldfein’s watch: requirements for 386 combat squadrons—or about 25 percent more than USAF has now—to carry out the National Defense Strategy. The near certainty of flat budgets ahead, though, means such growth will likely not occur in the near future, although the Senate has taken moves to compel USAF to start structuring for it. 

Goldfein said the plan is “not aspirational,” and clearly answers Congress’ request to set a needed level of capability, rather than an affordable one. But JADC2 may offset the numbers of people and machines needed, by creating the effect of more capacity through connectivity. Efficiencies and the retirement of some legacy systems will free up billets for growth in space, command and control, and logistics, Goldfein said. 

The Air Force’s relationship with Congress had been problematic since well before Goldfein became Chief, but he sees progress. 

“All I can tell you is that all of my experiences on the Hill have … been very positive,” he said. The dialogues “have gone much better.” 

“I don’t go into any negotiation or presentation expecting that we’re going to get 100 percent of what we’re asking for. But if our story is true, it’s accurate, it’s backed up by analytical rigor, and you’re respectful of Congress’ oversight by having a dialog instead of trying to issue them a fully baked solution. … I think you’re going to be successful,” he said. Hearing and incorporating congressional advice is “the way you win.”