Acting Air Force Secretary John P. Roth travelled recently to bases in Ohio, Utah, Nevada and California to review programs, meet Airmen and Guardians, receive updates from assorted commanders and senior officials, and engage with three members of Congress on their own turf.
And while all of that did in fact take place during a four-day swing to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Hill AFB, Nellis AFB, Creech AFB and the famed Skunk Works development center in California, Roth carried with him a second imperative that, in the end, may be more valuable and important.
“We, the Air Force and Space Force, have a terrific story to tell,” he said. “In defining what our nation needs for its defense, we play an important role. The challenge for leadership, starting with me, is to be able to articulate that to folks inside the Pentagon, and ultimately to our oversight committees and the American people. Meeting Airmen and Guardians to see where they live and work helps me be a little more credible and informed to tell that story.”
That has always been a goal, of course, but it’s especially important now as a collection of Air and Space Force programs and priorities are maturing and converging, competing for funds and support inside the Pentagon, across Congress, and among the public.
The desire to collect unfiltered, real-world information as well as on-the-ground insights explains why Roth and a small cast of senior aides have been, literally, on the move of late.
In addition to the four-day swing in late March that focused on how the Air and Space Forces are modernizing, Roth travelled the week of April 5 to Barksdale AFB, Dyess AFB and Whiteman AFB to get a first-hand view of Air Force long-range bombers and global strike operations.
His first trip after being named acting secretary focused on space, taking him to Schriever AFB, Peterson AFB, and Buckley AFB as well as the U.S. Air Force Academy. Every stop on every trip also includes discussions about how each facility is coping amid the coronavirus to ensure mission success and readiness.
He’s seen up close depot operations and how Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles are maintained. In one case, a pair of workers with a combined 81 years of service explained how they and their crew keep the missiles at peak operational readiness by making replacement parts by hand.
He spoke with F-35 pilots and commanders on the flightline; he visited the pilot of a remotely piloted aircraft in the “cockpit” to watch a live demonstration of a mission over Afghanistan. He toured a medical laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB that handles virtually all coronavirus testing for the Department of Defense. In California he saw a “flesh and bones” version of the B-21 strike bomber, an in-development and important update to the bomber fleet. He saw the latest version of hypersonic weapons also being developed and built in California.
At every step, he spoke directly to line workers, Airmen, Guardians and civilians who are actually doing the work.
Roth said he was impressed with what he saw.
“From a policy perspective, I was always hunting for what the impact of the COVID(-19) pandemic was. For the vast majority of requirements the force was able to mitigate the impacts. Individual commanders had individual solutions to their particular problems. I saw a lot of individual creativity,” he said.
The timing and the destinations were no mistake.
The Air and Space Forces are currently writing their annual “posture statements,” closely scrutinized official documents that describe the current state of both services, their priorities, aspirations and challenges. Posture statements also present an official justification for upcoming budget requests that will be delivered soon to Congress. Roth says that being able to tell the story of the two services in a clear, tangible and convincing way is crucial for the public, lawmakers and others to clearly understand what the services are doing, what they hope to do, and why.
“As I meet with people … I can say with a straight face that I’ve been out there, I’ve seen it. I’ve been with the program managers and have a deeper understanding than a PowerPoint presentation,” Roth said.
The questions are sure to come.
With a collection of high-profile programs ranging from modernizing the ground-based nuclear deterrent to developing hypersonic weapons and the B-21 and pushing forward with the Advance Battle Management System (ABMS), the Air Force must be able to explain why those programs are necessary, Roth said.
Roth, who spent 47 years as a senior budget official in various senior postings across the Pentagon and with the Air Force, is under no illusions. He understands that competition for dollars will be fierce this year as the nation spends to combat the coronavirus, responds to an economic downturn triggered by the pandemic and shifting priorities that resulted from the election.
“We need to be good program managers. Congress has an oversight role and so do I – we need to keep holding contractors and program managers accountable. We need to be involved and make adjustments as necessary to perform,” he said.
In that environment, he said, there is a premium on explaining what the Air and Space Forces do, and why.
Roth said escaping what he calls the “Pentagon bubble” and its famous briefing binders and PowerPoint presentations leaves him better equipped to make the case for the Department.
“I learned something about not only the programs but the operating tempo for each base,” he said. “I did not have a complete mental picture of the span of the work. Now I understand it much better than before.
“Creech (AFB) and the RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) operations were an absolute eye-opener,” he said after his visit to the Nevada base that is an Air Force hub for drone operations. “I’m glad I went and I learned something. It was very interesting to see how young Airmen operate RPAs thousands of miles from their war zone. The leadership there invested in increased mental health and resilience-supporting capacity.”
During his visit to Nellis AFB, for example, Roth received detailed briefings on ABMS. At Wright-Patterson AFB, he toured the 711th Human Performance Wing‘s Epidemiology Laboratory, which is the Defense Department’s primary lab for COVID-19 tests. On an average day the lab runs about 1,200 COVID-19 tests in addition to diagnostic tests for a range of diseases such as flu and other medical conditions that pushes the daily total to 7,000 tests.
He also delivered a clear message at every stop.
“We all have to perform,” he said, referring not just to Total Force personnel but to contractors and program managers as well.
“It’s one thing to have review charts and talk about the digital triad and digital engineering, but the programs have got to perform,” he said. “Acquisition programs come down to the old-fashioned basics – cost, schedule and performance.
“Programs that perform will have a much better chance of surviving than the programs that don’t perform.”
Roth includes himself in that assessment.
“All of these programs, from the B-21 to the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, are cutting edge,” he said. “There are skeptics on why we may need to make those investments. My job is first of all to perform and second to advocate in a transparent way.”