The U.S. Air Force is the world’s most formidable air arm. It can deliver precision-guided explosive instruments of American policy to any location on earth.
At a time when the nation seems congenitally unable to face up to deficit and debt issues – termed the greatest threat to national security by a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – the Air Force is spending a little less while accomplishing a little more. It has fewer aircraft (5,549 in the active-duty force) and fewer people (312,568) than at any time in living memory and will be forced to carry out its mission in the near-term future with fewer dollars than it received in recent years.
Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff since Aug. 1, 2012, is possibly the first service chief in more than a decade who is universally admired by troops, lawmakers, and the public. He replaces Gen. Norton Schwartz, who ably handled a multitude of challenges but will forever be seen as an interim chief during a time of change. Welsh came to the job with a mandate to reshape the Air Force for leaner times while preparing for a bigger fight. He’ll be expected to steer the service away from its focus on Afghanistan-style counterinsurgency and toward big-war thinking as part of the administration’s vaunted “pivot” toward China and the Western Pacific.
Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley, who has been on the job since Oct. 17, 2008, and is widely expected to leave during a second Obama administration, is a figure of quiet competence occupying a slot with less meaning and less clout than in times past. Donley has done a good job of telling the Air Force’s story to Congress and defending programs in the face of lawmakers’ questioning, but while he is nominally the boss, Welsh is seen as the helmsman who will steer the service into its future.
The Air Force and its leaders have a job no less important than to defend the nation – yet a lot can be learned about the service’s leadership by looking at an issue that, at first glance, looks trivial. On taking office, Welsh eliminated “Blues Monday.” Most airmen now can wear their work attire, the Airman Battle Uniform (ABU), on duty at all times, even in an office setting. Within the Air Force’s culture, especially among middle-grade noncommissioned officers (NCOs), Blues Monday was at the top of a long roster of service practices, seemingly irrelevant to the mission, that troops despised and held in contempt. “Getting rid of Blues Monday was a great decision for all of us,” said Tech. Sgt. Michael Postel, a munitions systems craftsman at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in an interview for this article.
Other measures, unfortunately, are less popular with troops, including random inspections to root out soft-core “objectionable materials” in the workplace – a reaction to a lawsuit alleging discrimination against women. The morale issues troops complain about have been building up for years. The near-term health of the Air Force will require Welsh to address them.
First, of course, Welsh and Air Force leaders must make their way through the flak belt of industry, Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, and the White House to get the aircraft and equipment they need for those who fly and fight. The need for new aircraft is serious and applies across most of the fleet.
Asked about his aircraft priorities, Welsh lists them in this order – KC-46 air refueling tanker; F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), and a new bomber. Everything else, Welsh repeatedly makes clear, comes after that.
KC-46 Tanker Progress
Boeing plans to deliver the first 18 combat-ready KC-46s (of a planned 179) to begin replacing KC-135 Stratotankers in mid-2017. The planemaker says it will assemble seven KC-46s in 2015, 12 in 2016, and 15 a year annually thereafter.