Air Force Times
September 23, 2013
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has a lot to contend with — an aging fleet of aircraft, an uncertain fiscal future and the possibility that the Air Force will be needed for an operation in Syria.
With all the demands on the service, Welsh is concentrating on making sure the Air Force can execute its core missions. In a wide-ranging interview, he talked about what the future holds for the Air Force.
Q. This year Air Combat Command had to go to tiered readiness for the first time in the service’s history. Do you expect this to be the new norm?
A. I hope not. But, until we get the fiscal problem straightened out and we have a predictable top line, we are planning for every possible contingency here. So, hopefully in ’14 we will have, even if we do have a continuing resolution and fall under sequester again, we will have an entire year to spread it across, as opposed to the six months we had[this] year. But, we cannot take any option off the table right now.
Q. When you look at where the service needs to fund its priorities, how do you triage between what the Air Force absolutely needs to do and then what, for lack of a better term, would be called nice-to-haves?
A. We have five core missions [air and space superiority; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; rapid global mobility; global strike; and command and control]. They have not changed since 1947. We will be expected to provide those core missions for the combatant commanders. And, so that is where we will focus. We do them in three domains, we do them in air, space and cyber, and we change the way we do them over time, but those core missions are what we do. And, that is where we will prioritize resources.
Q. We know there are personnel cuts in the ’13 budget and, as sequestration lasts, it is likely there will be more. Do you find yourself in a position where you have to trade personnel for modernization?
A. [In] any business, if you look at changing your top line significantly over time, you are going to have to take a hard look at where you spend money in your infrastructure, whether that is facilities infrastructure or is people as infrastructure. We have four pots of money in the Air Force. We have facilities infrastructure, we have personnel, we have modernization, and we have readiness. Right now, because of the mechanism of sequestration and limits on cutting money from other places, we cannot touch the installations and infrastructure piece yet. We have not been able to touch the personnel piece yet, which is 50 percent of our budget. And, so everything we have taken so far has come out of modernization and readiness. In the future, the math does not work, unless we change that approach. So, we have to get at some of the savings in those other two areas.
Q. The Air Force during the last [base realignment and closure] round had 20 percent excess infrastructure, and that has only gone up as the Air Force has cut back on the number of air frames. Do you foresee the services being able to convince Congress of the need for another BRAC round?
A. The members of the United States Congress are all pretty smart people, and I think what we have to do this year from an Air Force perspective is focus on making sure that we have looked hard at the things they asked us to look at first, which is all of our overseas infrastructure. And, that we have a solid plan for either consolidation, reductions, whatever makes sense. This has been fully coordinated with the combatant commanders and approved through the Department of Defense, and let us get that to the Hill and let them take a look at it and get their comfort level to a point where they know we have taken a serious, due-diligence look at overseas infrastructure.
There is some enduring infrastructure required overseas to provide options to the president. And, so we just need to make that clear… and then we will talk again about doing a BRAC here in the states.
Q. Another issue is the aging fleet of aircraft. I have heard it said that this is the oldest iron the Air Force has ever had in the service’s history. What are the real-world consequences of that?
A. Over time, you either become unaffordable, because maintenance and operations and sustainment costs get so high, or you become not viable against a threat, or you become both. So, we are looking at every platform we have, every one of those five core missions and trying to decide where must we recapitalize versus where can we modernize. You get to a certain point where modernizing an older platform is not much cheaper than recapitalizing to a newer one. And, then there is other technology that you need to recapitalize on like the F-35 that is expensive. It costs a lot of money to maintain your superiority and be able to operate in the most complex air defenses in the next 30 years. And, yet, it is a capability operationally you simply have to have if you are going to be the Air Force for the world’s foremost military power.
And so, our objective is to make sure we paint this picture clearly in the budget discussions. My personal belief is that we need to be sure we do not stop recapitalizing. We have to recapitalize, not just modernize.
Q. You have said it is easier to cut an entire fleet than individual aircraft.
A. I did not say it was easier to do it, I said you only gain major savings if you cut an entire fleet. You can cut aircraft from a fleet, but you save a lot more money if you cut all the infrastructure that supports the fleet.
Q. Were you thinking of any particular fleets?
A. No, that is just as a guiding principle. If you are going to save large chunks of money, you have to at least consider reducing fleets.
Q. When people hear that, I think the first thing that comes to mind is the Air Force is considering phasing out the A-10.
A. Oh, they can pick an airplane. We have lots of fleets. The thing that people need to be considering right now is that $1.3 trillion over 10 years is going to leave a bruise. The impacts are significant, and that is if the numbers do not come down more. So, we have got to be willing to look at big changes. If we do not, we cannot pay the bill.
Q. And, what are some of these big changes?
A. Fleets of airplanes, different ways of organizing, looking at how we do business in our five core mission areas, figuring out whether we recapitalize or modernize. We cannot do both, or we cannot do as much of both as we would like to, so we have to adjust everything we have in the plan right now.
Q. You are working on a plan of what the Air Force is going to look like in 2023. How is that coming?
A. Pretty well. Now, the plan is going, it has multiple branch plans depending on what the actual resources look like once we get to a final decision on what the long-range budgets are going to be for the Department of Defense and then the Air Force’s piece of that. The [quadrennial defense review] will influence that as the department goes through a discussion of where should the priorities lie, and things could be adjusted based on that.
Q. While the Air Force is facing these severe fiscal constraints, there is talk about a possible operation in Syria. You have talked about the impact of sequestration on readiness. Would the Air Force be prepared if called upon to enforce some kind of mission in Syria?
A. There is not a mission that the nation could ask the Air Force that we would not be capable of doing. Over time, and this has nothing to do with Syria by the way, it just has to do with reduced readiness over time, just creates a little higher level of risk. And so, while you can deploy, you can get the mission done, you are introducing an element of risk that does not have to be there to your people and your equipment, because they are not as highly trained as they normally would be.
Q. Getting back to sequestration, what is it going to feel like if it lasts into fiscal ’14 and fiscal ’15, and how are airmen going to feel the effects of it?
A. They are feeling the effects now. There are some who are not as well-trained as they would hope to be right now. There are some who are not as proficient at their primary task as they would like to be. They take great pride in being good at what they do. If you are in a unit that has not been flying or has not been going to training or has not been the normal exercises that you do to stay proficient, and continue to help yourself know that you are the best in the world at your task, then you are a little frustrated by that right now. And, I think for a short period of time you can get through that. If that extends into long periods of time, morale becomes a concern.
Q. When you talk to airmen and they voice their concerns about sequestration, what do they tell you they are most worried about?
A. The big thing I think most airmen that have talked to me are worried about [is] the capability that they believe the Air Force brings to the nation. And, they do not want it to diminish, because they are very proud of it. They work awfully hard to provide global vision, global reach and global power for America, and they do not want the Air Force’s ability to provide that to be diminished in any way, shape or form. I think we are facing a reality where our capacity will have to come down, but nobody wants, while that capacity comes down, for our capability to come down with it. We still want to be really good. I mean, that is who we are, that is kind of how we operate, how we think.
Q. If sequestration lasts, is there any idea how much more of a cut in end strength the Air Force would have to take?
A. No, it is going to depend on how long it lasts, what we have to do to, what trades we end up making, what the Department of Defense decides, the trades it is going to make in terms of capability between the services. There are a lot of factors in that that I just do not know the answers to, yet.