The Air Up There
How Sec. Michael Donley sees sequestration and the future of aerial warfare.
Foreign Policy sat down on Sept. 12 with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, who took office four years ago after his predecessor, Michael Wynne, was fired over the service’s mishandling of nuclear weapons. Donley took over an Air Force that then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates had accused of mismanaging the way it bought weapons and of not providing enough intelligence planes to the counterinsurgency fights in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the years since, the United States military has pulled out of Iraq, is preparing to leave Afghanistan, and will slash defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade. Meanwhile, Pentagon planners are worried about high-end weapons, seemingly designed to keep U.S. forces at bay, that are being fielded by nations such as Iran and China. Donley is now in charge of a service that is revamping itself to face the challenges of 21st century warfare — and budget reductions.
In fact, one of the biggest short-term challenges is the uncertainty of whether the service will have the money to buy and operate 1,763 stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 100 or so new stealth bombers, and 179 new KC-46 tankers that it had planned to purchase, should U.S. lawmakers fail to reach a deal on deficit reduction in time to thwart further massive cuts in defense spending that are scheduled for January. Donley warned that the across-the-board cuts to defense under a process known as sequestration will be catastrophic: "It is not possible to take that much money out of the defense program and not have an impact on units, on states, on businesses, on communities — the dollars will come out somewhere."
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation, in which Donley offers his thoughts on sequestration, the Air Force’s plans to buy new weapons, the shift to Asia, and the meaning of Air-Sea Battle.
FP: You’ve been in office for four years, what are your top priorities for the rest of your time as secretary?
MD: Obviously we’re focusing on making sure we address all the issues we have that were of concern regarding the nuclear enterprise, and we’re continuing to focus on that work, which is very much a zero-defect environment, so we always have an eye on that. Certainly partnering with the other services and coalition partners in today’s fight remains a very, very high priority for us. Air Force capabilities remain very much in demand by combatant commanders, especially in the [Central Command area of responsibility] and attendant areas. Modernizing our inventories and making sure our significant modernization programs remain on track also is a priority for us.
Also, developing airmen; we rely on an experienced, highly trained cadre of airmen to do what we do and making sure that their requirements, their needs with respect to training, readiness funding, and support for their families are also attended to.
Also, continuing to improve our acquisition process. Those five are things we continue to work on.
In the near term, in terms of how we package these issues in the context of the strategic and budgetary constraints we outlined at the end of last year, and as we made strategic decisions going into [fiscal year 2013] informed by the Budget Control Act and the new strategic guidance that we got, if you sort of package up our issues in the context of those two major pieces, [the priority is] really focusing on our strategic choices that we made, which were to be a little bit smaller, to trade size for quality, but to be a ready Air Force that will continue to improve in capability over time. We will leave room even in a constrained budget environment for continued modernization of the Air Force, making sure that even though we’re smaller going forward, we continue to get better and that we’re always ready for whatever contingencies are right out in front of us.
I think the overarching challenge right now is to sustain those strategic priorities in the context of a lot of budget uncertainty going forward with the conclusion of [fiscal year 2013], the preparation of fiscal year ‘14, and the sequester overhanging all of that.
FP: Are you moving ahead as normal with your planning for FY-14 and beyond?
MD: The [Department of Defense] is reviewing the services’ [five year funding plans — known as POMS — for fiscal year 2014] but there’s a great deal of uncertainty because the Congress has not resolved the sequester problem and all of that overhangs DoD’s planning right now.
FP: But you’re not officially planning for sequestration?
MD: No, but the closer we get [to the January 2013 deadline for Congress to reach deal on national deficit reduction] the more interested we get in understanding the details and the potential impacts not just to the Air Force but to the rest of the department, and they’re significant. We need and expect the Congress to address this overhanging challenge of sequester before the end of this year.
FP: I’ve heard you say time and again that sequestration would be catastrophic for the Air Force.
MD: It would be for all the services including the Air Force; it would have an impact of at least 8 to 10 percent in most of our accounts, in some cases a little bit more, [and offer] very little flexibility in how it’s implemented. It would affect the readiness of the Air Force, the accounts that support our operations and maintenance, potentially flying hours, maintenance of aircraft, civilian personnel. On modernization programs once again, [there would be] very little flexibility on how it would be implemented. Each program, project, activity would be decremented and this is extremely disruptive to existing contracts and to program management and execution. It’s very much a negative and disruptive process if it’s implemented.
FP: What are the long-term security challenges that you’re trying to position the Air Force to meet?
MD: I put them into two contexts. First is the geostrategic context — the guidance we received from the president and the secretary of defense to put additional focus on the Asia-Pacific region — but we’re doing that at a time when the Centcom [Central Command] area is still very much in demand. Even though we’re out of Iraq and we have a plan to draw down in Afghanistan, our experience is that those draw-downs often involve a continued requirement for Air Force resources. Often the combatant commander, as the ground combat force footprint shrinks and becomes thinner in a geographic area, wants more or continuing levels of overhead presence from airpower resources, they want the continuing ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] availability, if not a bit more to cover uncovered areas on the ground.
In addition, we have the overhanging issues in the Centcom [area of responsibility] of Iran and how the U.S. and its partners in this region will respond to the instabilities and potential threats from the Iranian government, and then also, the instability in Syria and the migration of al Qaeda and its affiliates, if you will, from contested areas that we’ve been fighting them in the Af-Pak region to places like Yemen. Those are the challenges I think, in geostrategic terms; to put a little focus on the Asia-Pacific region, but as we do that we’re still quite busy in the Centcom area.
FP: Can you elaborate on the Air Force’s role in the shift to Asia?
MD: Of our overseas permanently based forces, about 60 percent of that is already in the Pacific for the Air Force. The region really highlights the importance of range and speed and the attributes of airpower, given the vast distances that are involved. It’s for this and other reasons that the Air Force and the Navy have collaborative approaches, through initiatives like Air-Sea Battle, to work issues of common interest and concern. It applies to other regions as well, but especially in the Pacific there’s a great deal of synergy between air and maritime needs and interests. In addition, some of our high-end capabilities [are in the Pacific]. About 60 percent of our non-training F-22s are positioned toward the Pacific theater, and certainly we have new capabilities coming on board that will be applicable to the region. And different from a COIN [counterinsurgency] environment, they will be more applicable to potential higher-end threats that we face, not just in the Pacific but elsewhere. Probably the first overseas basing of the F-35 will occur in the Asia-Pacific region; obviously the new tanker will be useful in that region; the long-range strike bomber, when it comes on board, will be obviously applicable to this region where you’re working long distances.
FP: How is the F-35A — the Air Force’s version of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — coming along?
MD: F-35 is the department’s largest acquisition program ever; it’s actually largest Air Force acquisition. It accounts for 15 percent of our total [modernization] investment, so it’s a significant program. It’s obviously a joint program for Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps. It’s an important international program already and of growing importance as we have a number of partners involved in this work, so it’s a must-succeed program; it’s going to be a very capable platform. We continue to work through the concurrency issues. ["Concurrency" refers to efforts to simultaneously test and field an airplane. Aircraft are usually thoroughly tested before production and delivery.] And some of that testing and working kinks out is taking a little bit longer than we would like, but we’re working through that. We already have 22 aircraft delivered, 13 in the test program, nine aircraft have been delivered to Eglin Air Force Base, which is the first training site. In the conventional Air Force version, we have 1,000 sorties under our belt in the test program and 2,000 flight hours. We are undertaking what’s called an operational utility evaluation, which is a brief but independent assessment of where we stand to help inform certification that we’re ready for training. So we’re getting close to the point where we will begin F-35 training at Eglin. We’re not quite there but we’re working up to that, and we’ve been flying the F-35 at Eglin for the past several of months. Again, there are remaining technical issues to be resolved — it’s a highly concurrent program — and some producability issues. We’d like to get the costs down even as we need to resolve some of the technical issues. But at the same time [the program is] delivering aircraft and we’re not far away from beginning training, I hope.
FP: do you have an estimate for when F-35 flight training will begin?
MD: No. Again, we’re taking a conservative approach to it but slowly building up the hours, the experience with the aircraft . . . we’re working up to it. [The start of training] will be the next important milestone.
In addition, we’re making decisions on where the F-35 is going to be based. We’re putting more focus on maintenance and sustainability, the infrastructure that will support F-35 operations. The program is turning in many respects from just an acquisition program into a program that is being fielded, and we’re addressing the broader issues of sustainment and supportability going forward. So the Air Force is quite active right now in working all of those issues, apart from the program office which is focused on building airplanes and working through the test program.
FP: How is the family of next-generation, long-range strike systems, particularly the new bomber, coming along?
MD: It’s progressing as planned. I can’t talk about it in detail but it’s, again, a very important capability for the Air Force. I think the strategic review from last winter demonstrated the importance of long-range strike and ended up reinforcing the capabilities that long-range strike brings to the combatant commander — the range, the payload, the flexibility. It’s very much needed in the context of modernizing the long-range strike fleet because obviously the B-2s are 20-plus years old, they’re the newest of the bombers, and they’re the only stealthy capability in the existing fleet. Replacing the B-1s, replacing the B-52s is going to take some time, but it’s very much necessary to meet the modern threats that are out there. The bomber program is intended to get after that and to start delivering capability in the mid ‘20s. I think we’ve benefitted from the B-2 and other related programs that are underway. Our focus on this program is to make sure that it is undertaken with cost in mind so that we can build them in numbers. Between 80 and 100 is the target number for procurement, and it’s important to maintain cost control in the program, as [then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates] highlighted for us as he put together the framework for governance of this program just prior to his departure. I think the program is on track and I think we have the right sight picture of cost-consciousness, not trying to put too much capability into a single airframe but taking advantage of the operational flexibility that goes with [having the bomber operate as part of] a family of systems that involves not just the bomber but recognizes the importance of communications systems, electronic warfare, ISR, and weaponeering that is connected not just to one platform but is connected to a variety of systems with which the bomber will interact.
FP: Are those joint systems?
MD: There’s joint work in that mix.
FP: There’s still a lot of confusion out there regarding Air-Sea Battle; what is it?
MD: It’s an organizing concept, if you will, for how to marry air and maritime power in a way that helps us address contested environments where threat capabilities have grown in a fashion that can endanger or threaten global commons. I think it just brings into sharper focus, at the operational level, those [areas] in which the Navy and the Air Force have common issues — airspace management, for example, missile defense kind of issues, ISR issues, common weapons that the Air Force and the Navy have developed for many years, electronic warfare — all these areas that are pertinent to how one operates in a contested environment are very pertinent to Air Force-Navy cooperation to our joint development of not only technologies but operational concepts which develop synergies between the air and maritime domains.
[Air Sea battle is] all about sort of identifying opportunities for collaboration in that world and to get the best thinking on both sides of this equation.
FP: Can you elaborate on the Air Force-specific challenges that remain in the Middle East?
MD: I remind folks that of the nearly 30,000 or so airmen in the Centcom [area], only one-third of those are in Afghanistan, the other two-thirds are elsewhere throughout Centcom supporting the needs of the combatant commander and contingencies or presence or ISR or other work in support of the Centcom [area] that’s not Afghanistan. The U.S. has always had a presence in the [Persian] Gulf of one kind of another, and that’s likely to continue going forward, especially given the instability in the region.
The other thing I would mention in terms of threats, I mentioned the geostrategic [threats], but the other is the functional or technical issues that our military needs to address that represent new challenges. Missile defense is one of the more obvious [things] that has grown in importance over the last 20 years or so as ballistic missile technology has proliferated in the Centcom [area], for example, and other places as well.
Obviously, the cyber domain is growing in importance as both an area of opportunities, but also of growing threats. The proliferation of information technologies and the importance of the cyber domain is a new area for the military — in relative terms — where we’ll have to progress and we’ll get better at even though defense resources are going to be constrained.
Another is space situational awareness. There are now, I think, 59 space-faring nations, and the space domain is now more congested than it had been, say, 30-years ago, and it’s more contested as well. We have requirements for space situational awareness just to know what’s going on in space just for safety of flight issues if nothing else. So we have new requirements in that area that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago.
In these new technology areas . . . there is growth and need to continue to evolve our forces, even as we potentially get a little bit smaller given the budget constraints going forward.
FP: Can you talk about political resistance to the Air Force’s cuts in everything from aircraft to the realignment of Air National Guard units as it tries to become a smaller but stronger force?
MD: In relative terms, we’re still at the front end of the defense reductions that are now being discussed. So the Budget Control Act from last year caused us to make commitments to $487 billion dollars in defense reductions over the next ten years and this was the first [budget] cycle where we actually had to go to the Congress and say these are the kinds of things we’re going to have to do to meet the requirements of the Budget Control Act and these are the kinds of strategic level decisions we’re making. There will be give and take going forward, I’m confident.
In the larger context, it’s important to take into account that this was the first opportunity for Congress to really see and understand what it meant to take $487 billion dollars out of the defense program and what it might mean going forward if additional reductions in defense need to be considered depending on how the national leadership works through all those issues between Congress and the president. This is not easy, and it is not possible to take that much money out of the defense program and not have an impact on units, on states, on businesses, on communities — the dollars will come out somewhere.
Again, this is the first cycle where Congress got to see some of those things, and not all of the proposed reductions were well-received. But again, it’s the normal course of our democracy that there will be give and take on these issues but there’s certainly more [cuts] to play out to implement the requirements of the Budget Control Act . . . and whatever comes from future deliberations between the Congress and the president.
Editor’s note: Donley’s spokesman emailed FP the following statement on unmanned aircraft.
MD: We’ve clearly seen the value of Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the joint fight, and we’ve made the institutional commitment to this important capability within our Air Force. For example, we’ve created career fields for Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilots and sensor operators, and over the past two years, the Air Force has provided initial qualification training to more Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilots than bomber and fighter pilots combined.
Although almost every area of our budget faces constrained resources, we have taken care to protect the distinctive capabilities on which our teammates depend. So we have minimized reductions, or in some cases increased our investments, in areas such as Long Range Strike, Air?Sea Battle-related programs, and special operations, but also in Remotely Piloted Aircraft because they are clearly a part of our Service’s future.
As you suggest, they do currently have some vulnerabilities, to include flying in hostile air environments. The RQ-170 is a low-observable Remotely Piloted Aircraft being developed, tested and fielded by the Air Force, and we also are looking at how we can capitalize on the benefits of remotely-piloted platforms in non-Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions. A good example of that is our work on the Long Range Strike bomber, which will be designed to accommodate manned or unmanned operations.
So there is no question that Remotely Piloted Aircraft will be a permanent part of the Air Force inventory, and we will continue our work to maintain the right mix of remotely-piloted and manned, high-performance aircraft for the joint team.