The United States is pivoting to a “great power competition” with China and Russia as it adds billions of dollars to restore military readiness and plans to add thousands of airmen to its ranks, a top Air Force leader says.
In an exclusive interview with this news outlet, Undersecretary of the Air Force Matthew P. Donovan, the No. 2 civilian leader, addressed a wide scope of issues — from bigger budgets and emerging threats to rebuilding the nation’s nuclear arsenal and boosting capabilities in space.
“We’re ready now, but it’s important to understand ready for what,” he told this media outlet at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson.
A newly rolled out national defense strategy says, “China is the pacing threat that we need to worry about,” he said. “Russia is still a very dangerous country and we do have to be prepared for that because we have friends and allies that we have extended our assurances to that we will help protect them and that’s Europe and NATO as over in the Far East.”
The Pentagon’s big budget
Congress and the White House have authorized $700 billion in defense spending this fiscal year — the Air Force is budgeted to receive $183.6 billion — but spending has been capped at last year’s levels until a final budget deal is reached. In the interim, the Pentagon has operated on five stopgap spending measures since September. The latest deadline is March 23.
While prolonged short-term funding resolutions have been “very damaging,” the new budget will start to reverse a decline in readiness and add service members to the ranks. By 2023, the Air Force has targeted growing to 338,000 active-duty airmen from 321,000 today.
“That’s going to do a lot to fill the holes and the gaps and help us restore the readiness,” he said.
Despite concerns about readiness taking “a toll” after nearly three decades of flying in the Middle East, Donovan said the Air Force was prepared for conflict. Tensions have escalated in recent months with North Korea as it’s conducted repeated nuclear and missile tests and the U.S. and its allies have engaged in military exercises on the Korean Peninsula.
“Make no mistake, we’re ready to go,” he said. “One of the things about readiness is that we’re always going to go when called and we will make the short-term preparations if needed to, to ensure that the units that go are fully manned and fully trained up.”
‘Swinging towards the real threat’
The U.S. has long had air and technological superiority over potential adversaries, but it may not hold, Donovan said.
“When you have enjoyed such total dominance for such a long period of time, people start to think it becomes your birthright and we understand that in some areas of the world and against some adversaries that it’s not necessarily a birthright,” the former fighter pilot said.
A new national defense strategy shows “if we’re going to maintain our advantages then we need to get off our hands and start swinging toward the real threat, which is China and Russia,” the undersecretary said.
“Now we’re not saying that war or conflict is inevitable, but there’s a deterrence aspect of being ready, to being well-prepared and anyone who might want to get adventuresome with the United States needs to understand we still are a very capable force,” he said.
‘Unsustainable” F-35 costs
The Air Force has added squadrons of new F-35 stealth fighters – it expects to purchase 48 this year — even as it deals with a long-term outlook that the plane is unsustainable financially.
The service branch has told the F-35 Joint Program Office the cost to fly and maintain the F-35 is “unsustainable for us and something is going to have to give,” Donovan said.
A Government Accountability Office report in October cited a $1 trillion F-35 fleet sustainment cost over 60 years for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Among several additional factors, the report noted maintenance depots need 172 days to repair parts, far above the objective of 60 to 90 days, and spare parts shortages meant the F-35 could not fly about 22 percent of the time.
“The Joint Program Office has an objective right now of reducing the sustainment costs by 38 percent which is a really bold goal, but I think it’s doable,” said Donovan, adding both industry and the Air Force would need to work to reduce costs.
With more money expected, the Defense Department set aside a plea to Congress for a round of base closures in the 2019 budget. Donovan said the national defense strategy review, and a push to grow the numbers of airmen in ranks, could mean space that isn’t used now could be in the future.
“It may be that a lot of these bases that are not 100 percent utilized could become that way again,” he said.
Flush with cash, the military faces spending the money in five months or returning it to the treasury. Some accounts allow carry over, and Congress has weighed extending the spending into the next fiscal year for those that don’t.
Operations and maintenance dollars are needed to restore readiness, but shouldn’t be spent unless it’s spent wisely, he said.
“If we can’t responsibly spend the budget dollars … it should go back to the U.S. treasury,” Donovan said.
Searching for ‘a smoking gun’
The Air Force has had to grapple with hypoxia-like incidents, or a lack of oxygen, for aviators flying in the F-35, and T-6s in recent months and has provided few answers on the cause, creating concern among pilots and congressional leaders.
“We haven’t found a smoking gun on any of these issues, but we have some really smart people working on it,” including NASA and university experts, Donovan said.
“I can tell you the commanders in the Air Force are not going to let anyone fly unsafe aircraft,” he said. “They’re making sure that all these risk assessments are conducted, and at the squadron commander level where he can look his pilots in the eye and make sure they have confidence in their equipment before they go flying.”