Bringing the Air Force into its Centennial

  • The Air Force should focus on restoring readiness, cost-effective modernization, developing exceptional leaders at the squadron level, strengthening alliances, and driving innovation.
  • The Air Force needs to develop near-real-time space situational awareness and a common command and control system.
  • Secretary Wilson advocates to establish international norms of behavior in space, similar to how civil aviation has been regulated.
Wayne A. Clark/U.S. Air Force

This transcript has been lightly edited. The full transcript, including an introduction by CSIS President and CEO John Hamre and a moderated discussion with Aerospace Security Director Todd Harrison, can be found on the Bringing the Air Force into its Centennial event page.

When I came back to the service, having been away from national security issues for about eight years, trying to inflict calculus on 18-year-olds, one of the things I was surprised by was the readiness statistics. In fact, when I saw the first chart showing the readiness of America’s Air Force, I actually thought it was a mistake, or that I wasn’t understanding a change to the way we were doing this. Because in the 1980s, when I was a young officer serving in Europe during the Cold War, if somebody had put one of those charts up in front of our commanding general, the roof would have come off the building.

Air Force Fighters above burning Kuwaiti oil fields during Operation Desert Storm. Credit: U.S. Air Force

But we, the United States Air Force, has been in continuous combat operations now for 27 years. And the strain is showing. It’s like a rubber band that’s pulled to the absolute limit. And we are much smaller than we were in 1991, when we went to the Persian Gulf to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. In fact, in 1991, the Air Force had 134 fighter squadrons. Now, fighter squadrons is not everything in the Air Force but it’s at least one measure of capability. We got 134.And today, we have 55. And yet, we are much more active in combat than we were during the Cold War. So we are stretched to be able to win any fight any time. So we have to restore the readiness of the force.

That means, first and foremost, people. We are too small for all of the missions that the nation expects us to perform. And right now, probably the biggest challenge to our continued readiness is that we’re operating for the ninth year in a row under a continuing resolution to start out the year. Nine years in a row. I believe we’re now up to 32 continuing resolutions. And what would be worse than a continuing resolution would be a return to sequester under the Budget Control Act. The nation has to figure out a way to get beyond the Budget Control Act – find an alternative to the Budget Control Act, which has just not been effective for what it was setup to do, and has caused devastating – would cause devastating impact if we were actually to carry out the sequester.

For the Air Force, a sequester would mean about a $15 billion cut in the service. That would mean that aircraft would fly in combat, crews would fly when they’re spinning up to train for combat. And pretty much the rest of the Air Force would be parked on the ramps. I don’t think the nation can afford that kind of risk to our national security. And so we have to find a way beyond this as a nation. So restoring readiness is the first thing that we are focused on in the service.

The second that was a bit of a surprise coming back to this is the amount of modernization that will take place in the Air Force over the next 10 years. And it’s not just fighters. It is fighters and bombers and the nuclear deterrent and space assets and tankers. It is across the entire Air Force enterprise, because a lot of modernization has been deferred since the end of the Cold War. So if we’re going to increase the lethality of the force, we have to cost-effectively modernize the force. That means getting value from every dollar we spend, and trying to make sure that we treat those dollars with the same respect as the people who earn them in the first place, the American people.

The third area where we have a focus has to do with developing exceptional leaders. The chief of staff and I, Dave Goldfein, believe very strongly that the culture of the United States Air Force is set at the squadron level. And squadron first sergeants and squadron commanders, if they are well-prepared, if they are identified and developed, really make or break the Air Force. And in fact, if we have great squadron commanders and great first sergeants, there’s almost nothing that I can do to screw up the Air Force because the squadron commanders and the first sergeants will take care of it and set the culture at that level. That means that we have to really focus on how do we develop our leaders for the long term of the service.

Foreign pilots participating in exchange program at Joint Base Charleston. Credit: Andrea Salazar/U.S. Air Force

Fourth priority for the service is to strengthen our alliances, because we’re stronger together. The chief and I went forward to the central command area of responsibility during August, when – so Congress was in recess, so we could escape as well, and go to the Middle East and Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. And one of the things that was really striking was the closeness of the coalition in the fight against ISIS. And perhaps more than at any time since the end of the Second World War, having allies is really not an option for the United States. We need our allies. And we need them – and it is a strategic advantage for the coalitions that we build that we’re stronger together.

If you think about it, America’s likely adversaries don’t have that advantage. They don’t have allies. We do. And we have to build coalitions that are really coalition at the core. So not – you know, it used to be that our version of joint in the United States – joint for the – you know, the Navy air and Air Force air was, OK, you take the east half and we’ll take the west half. That was our version of joint. That wasn’t really very joint. That was kind of deconflicted, right? Today we really do have a joint force, and a joint tasking order, and joint training, and joint staffs, and joint planning. We need to get that way with our coalition as well. So it is coalition at the core and we fight together. That will make us stronger over the next decades.

And the fifth objective that the Air Force has to really get back to its roots on is to drive innovation, driving the scientific and technical enterprise. A couple of weeks ago now I announced that the Air Force will take the next 12 months and do a very broad review of science and technology, and what are the most important areas for investment and research by the Air Force. And look also at how we conduct our research. Not just within the Air Force research laboratories, but in partnership with universities and other federal laboratories, so that we figure out how we can engage the next generation of engineers and scientists on problems that are important for the Air Force and the nation.

That strategy should also result in new relationships, new structures, new – possibly new organizations and ways of doing business with respect to research. So the research environment has changed for the Air Force since “Hap” Arnold first did this in the 1940s. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, most basic and applied research was funded by the federal government. Today, there’s much more research and development that’s being done outside of the national security realm. And we need to figure out how to very quickly incorporate that into the solution of problems in the national security realm.

Let me talk a little bit – so those are the five priorities for the Air Force as a whole. Let me talk a little bit about space, because I spend actually probably about a third of my time as the secretary of the Air Force focused on space, across the entire Department of Defense. And one of the reasons, of course, is because we have some significant challenges there.

For the longest time – really since the Air Force has been involved in space, which goes back to 1954 – space was a benign domain, a domain from which we watched and reported. In 2007, when China launched an anti-satellite weapon and destroyed one of its own dead weather satellites on orbit, it became very clear that it was going to be a contested domain. Our adversaries know how much the United States depends on space systems. Most people don’t think about it all that much because it’s really invisible to us. It’s like the universal utility that we don’t think about. But when it comes to communications, indications and warning, certainly intelligence and being able to watch the world – something the military calls position, navigation and timing, but for most of us really means the little blue dot on our phone.

GPS Operations Center. Credit: Mike Meares/U.S. Air Force

GPS is provided by the United States Air Force to a billion people every day. A billion people use GPS. It’s probably the world’s first global utility, and it’s provided by 40 airmen working in a squadron outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado – like average age 22, which is a little bit scary.

But that blue dot on your phone is probably not even the most important thing that GPS does for you. I mean, it does a lot of things for the military, but think about the industries that are dependent upon that signal. And it’s not just Uber and Lyft and Amazon and FedEx, it is the entire banking system. When you take money out of your ATM machine, the timing signal comes from the atomic clock on a GPS system. All stock trades and the banking system relies on that timing signal. So a huge part of our economy is dependent on what’s done in space.

But it’s not going to be a benign domain in the future, and we know that. So we need to be clear about our strategic objectives in space as a nation.

And first and foremost, we need unfettered access to space and freedom to operate in space. Space will increasingly become a common domain for human endeavor. And I think we’re kind of at a turning point, and it was interesting to listen to people talk this morning at the Space Council. There are two things that are happening at the same time. One is a significant reduction in the cost of launch. So if you go from $10,000 per pound to a thousand dollars per pound and potentially to hundreds of dollars per pound, that really changes the economics of doing things in space.

At the same time, payloads are getting much, much smaller. Miniaturization combined with information technology are making, you know, payloads go from the size of a small refrigerator to the size of a six-inch cube. So you put those two things together and you will see a lot more countries, companies and even individuals in space. The economics of it has changed as has the technology.

Some who are in space will be there for peaceful purposes and some will not. For the United States, we’re going to have to assume, as we do at sea and in the air, that there are both kinds of actors in space. And we’re going to have to cope with that reality.

So what does that mean for the United States Air Force and for national security space? There are some things that we need to do and some areas where we’re significantly changing what the Defense Department and the Air Force is doing.

First and foremost, we have to have a common operating picture of what is going on in space. Now, since the Air Force kind of get into the space business in the 1950s, we have provided the catalog to the world of all of the space objects. We actually catalog everything and we check at least every week to make sure that any satellite or piece of debris that’s going around in orbit around the Earth, we know where it is. And if some things are going to bump into each other, we have all kinds of multinational agreements and memorandums of understanding to warn people.

So here is the irony. China put about 3,000 pieces of debris into orbit in 2007, when it destroyed its own satellite. We track all of that debris and we now warn China when their debris is about to impact one of their satellites. There’s an irony there. But that’s one of the things we do is a catalog. But if you’re worried about malevolent action in space, you need more than a catalog. You need near-real-time situational awareness of what’s really going on in space around you, so moving towards a more complex picture of what’s happening in space, rather than just a catalog.

The second thing that we’re going to need is what we call battle management or command and control. So it’s not just enough to be able to see the picture ‒ kind of the equivalent of the radar scope, if you will, that we all think of the FAA guys seeing ‒ you have to be able to do something about it. You have to be able to take action if things are going wrong. So you need to be able to have a common command and control system. We are building that in Colorado. It’s called the National Space Defense Center. It, for the first time, will link together the downlink and control systems for our satellite systems that we operate. It’s Army, Navy, Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office all together. And we also from there warn, that’s the place from which we warn commercial satellites, commercial space.

Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center. Credit: U.S. Air Force

In the future, as we update satellites, that is going to be an open-architecture system. And we’re no longer going to buy satellites with exquisite kind of, you know, science experiment control systems. We can’t do that if we have to decide and act quickly. So you have to have a common system for command and control. So if it doesn’t plug into the common system, we are not going to buy it, so common battle command and control.

And a third thing with respect to normalizing space operations is the ability to create effects. We have to be able to defend ourselves. We also have to be able, if we are going to deter the malevolent actions of others, to take offensive action if needed, so we’re going to have to develop those capabilities in space.

We need to normalize space from a national security perspective.

So that’s what I mean by that language of command and control, a common operating picture, creating effects. For those of you who are wearing military uniforms, those words will be well understood because that is the language of joint warfighting. So we need to normalize space from a national security perspective.

The second area where we’re focusing has to do with integration of space into the joint arena. We do a lot of that now, but on every air operating center around the world, space has to be there. They have to be on the floor of the joint operations center. Space has to be on the Joint Staff. We have to have all of our officers who are wearing blue uniforms more knowledgeable about space capabilities and how it connects to the other domains.

And a third area, in addition to normalizing and integrating, is elevating space as part of the joint team. We have created and stood up a deputy chief of staff for space on the Air staff. General Jay Raymond, who is the head of Air Force Space Command, has a joint title underneath STRATCOM, Strategic Command, to be the leader in joint operations. So we are elevating space as part of the joint team.

This morning out at the Space Council, there were a number of interesting conversations about civil space and commercial space, national security space. But one of the areas where we take this from the national security realm to the broader realm, I think, is, how do we establish norms of behavior in what will be a much more congested domain? This is not ‒ this is going to take some time, but it’s not an unknown thing. This is not completely new.

Anyone here who has flown internationally will understand what I think ‒ what I mean here. If you fly from New York to Paris, you cross through a completely ungoverned area over the Atlantic Ocean. In that area, there are norms of behavior. There are, in some cases, international agreements on what altitudes people will fly at, who they will talk to at which point, and how we treat civil aviation, flying on certain routes, and how we treat each other, even as military aircraft flying in space.

There are similar, although slightly different norms of behavior that we call law of the sea, and in some ways it’s probably more developed because we’ve been at sea for thousands of years, when we ‒ when the rules for aircraft are only about a hundred years old. So there are ungoverned domains in which we have norms of behavior. We have to develop internationally more norms of behavior in space as we have done on the sea and in the air. That will mean customary law, but it also may mean negotiations with others on what are acceptable norms.

I believe that we will also as a nation have to start facing the issue of what is our declaratory policy. And for those of you who think and work in nuclear deterrence, those words will be familiar to you. But what is the policy of the United States if another country were to attack one of our satellites? What would we do if a country attacks GPS or our command and control satellites or our indication and warning satellites? There are countries who are developing the capability to do so.

It’s probably worth thinking through what we would do and what we say we would do and what we demonstrate the capability to do so that there is a deterrent effect before someone makes a decision that they might regret. Now, I don’t know the parameters of what that policy should be, but I think we’re at the point where we need to start thinking about what that policy should be and framing choices for policymakers before a time of crisis.

Falcon 9 first stage landing on droneship. Credit: SpaceX

Finally, just a final word about the Space Council this morning.1 It was a wonderful discussion, and I’m sure all of you who are interested in space will kind of read articles and so forth online about it. But it’s great to hear people talk about planning to go to the moon again as a station for going beyond to Mars. And the aspirational domain of space is something I think maybe we’ve lost along the way. I do think that space will become a common domain for human endeavor and not too far in the future because it’s becoming affordable for more and more people.

Think about some of the things that commercial and competitive space are potentially offering today that really wasn’t in the offering 20 years ago. The United States Air Force now doesn’t build rockets, we buy launches. At our most recent launch out of Cape Canaveral was a SpaceX rocket that launched and then recovered using, by the way, GPS guided ‒ guidance technology back on the pad from which that stage launched. That wasn’t possible 10 years ago, but it’s being done by American innovation.

It’s an exciting time to be part of this enterprise. And I look forward to answering your questions.Aerospace