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Air Force Chief Talks About Future Capabilities, Uncertainties

“We will do it, or we’ll die trying,” said Gen. Norton Schwartz.

The Air Force chief of staff spoke in a 50-minute headliner address at the Air Force Association (AFA) convention in Maryland on September 20.

Schwartz was making a commitment to the other military branches, to coalition partners and to the nation.  The bulk of his speech was about anticipated budget constraints. The talk contained no astonishing revelations, but it was the longest and most thorough policy-oriented speech by Schwartz in some time and a poignant a reminder of how hard the Air Force’s service chief – who is also the service’s member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – is working to cope with reduced resources.

One observer who knows Schwartz well said he was “more animated and forceful” than in the past. Others saw something different. “You can see that he appears fatigued,” said another listener. “He looks spent. He is a conscientious man who has a lot weighing on his mind.”

Schwartz promised that Air Force leaders would not allow budget pressures to create a future force that “merely appears on paper to be effective, but in reality is reduced substantially in depth and breadth.”

Obama administration policy is to cut $400 billion from defense spending through fiscal year 2023. However, the Pentagon could face significantly larger cuts if the White House and Congress cannot agree on a plan to address budget deficits when a so-called “super committee” submits its findings to meet a November 23 deadline. If the 12-member, bipartisan committee fails to agree on a minimum of $1.2 trillion in savings, an identical amount of automatic spending cuts, including defense cuts, would be triggered beginning in 2013.

No one in Washington seriously expects the “super committee” to solve the nation’s long-running fiscal problems. Schwartz acknowledged that the Air Force will be smaller than in the past and that service leaders “may have to carefully consider reduced capacities in some areas while maintaining, and perhaps increasing investment in others.”

Schwartz acknowledged that the Air Force may not be able to keep all of the military hardware programs now pending but he stressed that the service needs the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and a new family of global strike capabilities that includes a new bomber.

In calling the Air Force’s F-35A variant of the JSF the “lowest-cost, lowest-risk variant with stable requirements,” Schwartz may have been signaling that the Air Force should keep its JSF even if other service branches don’t. The Marine Corps F-35B version is officially on probation while the Navy F-35C, despite being on track today, also has experienced teething troubles.


Nuclear Enterprise

Schwartz began his presentation by saying that the Air Force has “restored the level of surety, safety and reliability that the American people rightly expect and properly demand” to the so-called nuclear enterprise. Schwartz became service chief on Aug. 1, 2008, after a previous Air Force secretary and chief of staff were fired, nominally for missteps in the handling of nuclear materials. Although the state of Air Force nuclear munitions has not been an issue more recently, Schwartz may have felt a need to mention it because of the way he came to office.

Schwartz organized his first-person account of the present-day state of the Air Force according to core contributions by the service in four areas:

  • Control and exploitation of the air and space domains, as well as mission assurance in cyberspace;
  • Global strike;
  • Rapid global mobility, and;
  • Worldwide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR)


“In any budget scenario, we will be required to continue providing capabilities that offer the nation’s leaders a wide range of strategic options for rapid and flexible power projection,” Schwartz said. “Our core contributions enable America’s global perspective and result in appropriately tailored effects at times and places of our choosing.”

Advocates for a new Air Force bomber were heartened by Schwartz’s assertion that the nascent program is crucial to America’s industrial base and to the nation’s future ability to project air power. “Until last year, there was not a new development aircraft effort in the United States of America in any company,” Schwartz said, referring to both military and commercial aircraft programs.

The Air Force must have the F-35A and the new bomber, Schwartz said, but he acknowledged that the era when the service could ask for “what it wants rather than what it needs” is over. Schwartz emphasized that the Air Force must have discipline in its requirements process. He acknowledged that Air Force acquisition efforts have not always gone as well as planned, and said the recently announced KC-46A tanker program was conducted in an “imperfect” manner.


Difficult Choices

Hard decisions and “difficult choices,” are part of the Air Force’s procurement programs, Schwartz said.  Future development efforts will have to be less ambitious, and government and industry must appraise and adhere to genuine operational requirements and evaluate manufacturability early. “We require straight talk from everybody,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz used his speech to introduce Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Gutierrez and to announce that the award of the Air Force Cross to Gutierrez has been approved.

Gutierrez, who has been selected for promotion to technical sergeant, is a joint terminal attack controller who, despite suffering serious wounds, helped save his Special Forces team in Afghanistan during a 2009 Taliban attack by expertly calling in air strikes. The Air Force Cross is the nation’s second highest award for valor. The Air Force had planned an award ceremony to accompany the speech, but Gutierrez’s wife is about to give birth and was unable to be present. Schwartz will travel to Hurlburt Field, Fla., to present the award when the sergeant’s family is able to attend. Gutierrez met separately with the press at the AFA convention.

Missing from Schwartz’s speech was anything about the staggering personnel costs, including military retired pay costs that are looming as a fiscal threat. Schwartz did not mention the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule on gays in the military, which took place the day of the speech. He did not discuss an ongoing issue within the Air Force of religious proselytizing by some officers and noncommissioned officers.

Despite fiscal and operational challenges, Schwartz said he remains confident that the Air Force will remain ready to defend the nation and its freedoms. “The U.S. Air Force will be prepared for whatever the nation requires of us,” Schwartz said.”

To achieve those things, many believe Gen. Norton Schwartz will confront as many challenges as have ever faced a service chief.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...