The three most senior leaders of the Department of the Air Force told the House Armed Services Committee March 4 that the service is moving aggressively to build and incorporate the newly created Space Force and modernizing the full force to meet new and emerging threats.
At the same time, Department of the Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. Raymond acknowledged that achieving that goal within a tight budget for fiscal year 2021 demands “tough but necessary trades.”
“The National Defense Strategy calls on the Department of the Air Force, as a critical component of the joint force, to deter and, if needed, defeat these threats,” Barrett said, referring to Russia, China, the changing nature of space, and the unpredictable international security environment. “This fiscal year ’21 budget request sets the course for the Department to accomplish these aims.”
Goldfein echoed that assessment but added an important nuance. “In a flat budget environment,” he said the Air Force must successfully connect “all platforms, sensors and weapons in a battlefield network” and “must find internal savings to pay for new capabilities.”
The Air Force is making significant progress on the first, Goldfein said, noting a field exercise of a capability known as Advanced Battle Management System conducted in December that allows all platforms from all services to connect and move the joint force closer to connecting “all shooters to all sensors.” A second test is scheduled next month.
When fully refined and operational, this battle network will allow warfighters to collect, analyze and transmit vast amounts of data from air, land, sea, space and cyber to all services and commanders.
On the second, Goldfein told lawmakers that he, along with other senior Air Force officials, has identified $21 billion in spending that can be shifted to underwrite modernization. Some of those funds come from retiring a collection of older planes. The list includes 13 KC-135 Stratotankers, 16 KC-10 Extenders, 24 C-130H Hercules, 17 B-1 Lancers and 24 RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 20/30 aircraft, among others.
Despite the tradeoffs, Goldfein told lawmakers that the $169 billion proposed budget provides funding that allows the Air Force to meet the security mandates of the National Defense Strategy and to “build an Air Force that can compete, deter and win with our joint teammates against a nuclear peer in an era of great power competition.”
“This budget,” he said, “is designed to achieve this objective.”
The messages delivered by Barrett and Goldfein to the House committee were nearly identical to ones they carried the day before to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Unlike the Senate appearance, however, Raymond took part in Wednesday’s hearing.
Fueled by $15.4 billion for the Space Force that is part of the $169 billion Air Force proposal, Raymond said it is targeted to fund “a very strong pivot towards space superiority and the foundational space situational awareness, command and control, and training infrastructure capabilities that underpin space superiority.”
Since the newest service was created Dec. 20, 2019, as the sixth independent branch of the military, Raymond said the focus, and many of the decisions, has been to build a “Space Force that is lean, agile and mission focused” and “unconstrained by past constructs and thinking.”
“When fully established, we may not look like the services you’ve become accustomed to, but we will be equally proficient at providing space forces ready and willing to protect U.S. and allied interests in space while providing unequaled capability to the joint force,” he told members of the committee.
Yet only minutes earlier, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said he was “ambivalent” about the need to establish a Space Force.
“Space is central to everything we do. It is the center of our command and control structure … it deserves special attention. I get that; I understand that. The concern is, is it just another bureaucracy?” Smith asked.
“Gen. Raymond that is your challenge; to make sure it works in an efficient and effective way and it isn’t just another bureaucracy,” Smith said.
Raymond emphasized that the Space Force would be “lean, agile and mission focused.”
“We have an opportunity to build this service to enhance the lethality of our joint force while optimizing our ability to dominate in space,” Raymond said.
Smith also expressed doubt about another central tenet of the Air Force’s modernization – increasing the number of squadrons to 386. Given budget realities, Smith said, “you’re highly unlikely to get to 386.”
Goldfein explained that the decision to field 386 operational squadrons came in response to a specific question from Congress and as a result of rigorous – and repeated – analysis to determine the force structure required to support the National Defense Strategy.
“This is not gold plated,” Goldfein told the committee, noting that the Air Force had 412 operational squadrons available to confront “a middle weight, non-nuclear threat” during the Gulf War in 1991.
Like the Senate session the day before, the general tenor of the House hearing was cordial, with only polite prodding on topics such as plans to retire a number of the oldest legacy A-10 Thunderbolt II, the production and the cost of sustaining of the F-35 Lightning II and the plan for ensuring problems with the KC-46 Pegasus are resolved.
There were also assorted questions on plans by the Air Force to reduce the number of suicides, to ensuring there are enough pilots and the potential for weather to affect operations.
Like the Senate hearing Tuesday, the session Wednesday in the House was only the first step in a lengthy process that will yield legislation providing a blueprint written by Congress of the spending, security and policy priorities for the entire United States military.