The latest National Defense Strategy (NDS) calls on the United States to shift its focus from counterterrorism operations to preparing for the threat of great-power conflict. Meanwhile, Air Force leadership argues that to fulfill its mission in this new strategic environment, the Air Force must grow, modernize, and reduce its operational tempo to relieve years of excessive burdens on its personnel and equipment. While recent improvements in defense budgeting have helped, challenges remain ahead.
On February 19, General David L. Goldfein, the 21st chief of staff of the Air Force, engaged Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon in conversation on the challenges faced by the Air Force in this era of great power competition.
General Goldfein began by describing the state of his and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s thinking on the strategic and budgetary environment. He noted that the NDS was written with significant input by service chiefs, which has resulted in close alignment between the Air Force’s budget request and the strategic vision laid out in the NDS. Goldfein explained that the NDS ascribes five key missions to the Air Force: defending the homeland; ensuring a safe, secure, effective nuclear deterrent; defeating a peer threat; deterring rogue nations; and finally, maintaining momentum against violent extremism. Preparing to conduct these five missions together, with no more than moderate risk, is what gives rise to the need to grow the total Air Force to 386 aircraft squadrons from its current level of 312, Goldfein argued.
O’Hanlon brought up theoretical conflicts with Russia or China, asking whether war planners think about achieving conflict termination so as to avoid escalation to all-out conventional or nuclear war. Goldfein noted that it is critical for the nation’s armed forces to provide credible military options so that the secretary of state, for instance, can “negotiate to an end state so that we’re at a better place than we were when we started.”
Turning to budgeting, O’Hanlon asked Goldfein about challenges related to years of delayed budgets and continuing resolutions, in addition to sequestration. Goldfein said that “no enemy on the battlefield has done more damage to the United States military than budget instability.” For Goldfein, as chief of staff,, his “ability to build the Air Force we need is 100 percent dependent on budget stability and [being] able to plan going forward.” Goldfein underscored the complicated and lengthy nature of the industrial and planning process required to build the force needed for national security by observing: “I’m the 21st Chief of Staff. In 2030, Chief 24 will go to war with the Force I built. If we go to war this year, I will go to war with the Force that John Jumper and Mike Ryan built [in the late 1990s and early 2000s]. Such is the nature of lead time for building Air Forces.”
O’Hanlon asked Goldfein how much he thinks he can do with the defense budget that will soon be unveiled, and where he thinks he needs to advocate for growth. Goldfein said all categories matter, but “if you take a look at the growth in the squadrons that we need, it shouldn’t surprise you that the longest growth are in long range aviation, bombers, tankers, intelligence surveillance reconnaissance, C2…because if you take a look at a China scenario, a Russia scenario, long-range aviation is going to be in huge demand given the defenses and what we have.”
Finally, O’Hanlon raised multi-domain operations and asked Goldfein to clarify what exactly the term means. While Goldfein conceded that it’s a concept of operations not yet ready “to be doctrine,” it refers to using:
our asymmetric advantage as a joint team to be able to bring all of our capabilities to bear on an adversary, so that we can overwhelm them and cause so many simultaneous dilemmas for them that they either would choose not to take us on—i.e., we have effectively deterred, and if deterrence fails we are able to win because we can bring capabilities to bear that they can’t counter.
He used the F-35 as an example to illustrate a point about making investments across the portfolio of penetrating capabilities:
If [China or Russia] ever do see an F-35…it will never be alone. It will be part of a penetrating joint team. And in the “we’re here” message, the message is we’re here in space, we’ve been here for a while, we’ve been watching you, we know what’s going on, and we have already penetrated whatever defenses you think you have. You cannot put a block of wood over your country, you can put a block of Swiss cheese over your country, but like Swiss cheese there are holes there and we know where they are and we can exploit them and we can get in, we can hold targets at risk.