Defense Media Network

Interview with Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force

You’re the first chief of staff in many years who isn’t a fighter pilot. Does your background in airlift, special operations, and transportation help with your duties today?

Certainly, people’s past experiences prepare them for their duties, but as a member of the Joint Chiefs, I represent the entire Air Force and feel great pride and affinity for all its people and missions. Coming up through the Air Force, I learned many important lessons – in particular, to always be true to your word so that your fellow teammates know they can count on you. But while I’m very proud of my professional background, I would suggest that what particular airframe I flew or what community I came from has been less important to my role as Air Force chief of staff than has my experience serving as U.S. Transportation Command commander. Serving as a combatant commander is a perspective that few others have had, and I think it has enabled me to understand both the demand side of what we do as well as the profoundly important organize, train, and equip function that the services provide. I don’t see myself as somehow unique or special, but my joint experience has definitely prepared me to better undertake the challenges of this job and to understand the unique and important contribution the Air Force makes to national security.

One of my mandates now is also to ensure other airmen making their way up the ranks have the experience required for key leadership positions in our military. In fact, the Air Force has made it a priority to groom our airmen so they have the skills, experience, and credibility to be prepared for important joint posts. As an example, one part of this effort is identifying airmen who have superb warfighting credentials and allowing them to study history, strategy, relevant theory, international affairs, and other strategic-level pursuits necessary to be the national security thought leaders our nation needs. To that end, we have strengthened education programs to send selected airmen to some of the country’s best universities to study and earn Ph.D.s. Our efforts are aimed at ensuring the Air Force is meeting the needs of the joint team by developing bright, well-educated, and capable airmen to help lead our nation’s military efforts in the years ahead.


Tell us about the role of the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve in today’s operations.

Clearly, our Guard and Reserve airmen are essential to our operations today, and a large portion of our Air Force’s capability resides in the Reserve components. But perhaps more importantly, what we have today in the American military is a truly Total Force construct, one in which there is only a technical distinction between Reserve and active components. Today, Guardsmen and Reservists are virtually indistinguishable from their regular component counterparts. Just look at our operations in Libya. Whether it was Air Force Reservists flying C-5s to deliver munitions or Air National Guardsmen refueling American and coalition strike aircraft from KC-135s, we simply couldn’t have accomplished that mission without the Total Force, and I couldn’t be more proud of the work of our “Citizen Airmen.” Their ability to deploy, on short notice, and seamlessly integrate with our active force is unique and was absolutely vital in Libya. Looking ahead to the budget challenges we face, we must maintain this unity and ensure that restructuring is done across the Total Force, consistent with future trends and potential threats, our collective priorities, our national security strategy, and our collective capabilities.


What are your aircraft acquisition priorities?

There are three programs that we will strive to maintain, making trade-offs elsewhere as we look for budget savings. Each of them provides support to the new strategy that the secretary of defense [revealed] in January. They are the KC-46A tanker, which will be the backbone of our worldwide power projection capability and thus our nation’s global expeditionary posture; the F-35A Lightning II, the centerpiece of our future tactical air combat capability; and the long-range strike family of systems, to include a new bomber, which will provide the president the option to hold any target at risk at any point on the globe. These are vital to ensuring our Air Force continues to provide its unique contribution to national security, and thus must all be pursued through disciplined and efficient modernization efforts.


Compared to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), wouldn’t it be cheaper to buy updated, new-build versions of the F-16E/F block 60 Fighting Falcon, the F-15SE Silent Eagle, or even the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet?

Based on some initial cost comparisons we’ve done between F-35As and our current legacy fleet, we believe such a course of action would provide a minimal endgame of savings, if any. But beyond whatever savings might be there, the bottom line is that legacy aircraft – even those with increased capability – would not be able to meet our national security requirements to operate and survive in the anti-access/area-denial environments we face in the future. Such environments include high densities of advanced integrated air defense systems, and we expect these systems to continue to proliferate in the future. Only advanced aircraft like the F-35A will allow the Air Force to preserve access and freedom of maneuver and hold potential high-value targets at risk in these environments.

It is also important to remember that the F-35 will, in effect, create a truly global fighter force. It is the first U.S. combat aircraft acquisition program to have international participation from the very beginning.

Given the challenges we will face in the future, global partnerships are all the more important, and the JSF will allow us to reinforce these important relationships and improve our coalition operational capabilities.

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

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    Ulick mcEvaddy

    General. Enjoy a fine period of retirement. You have done a great job. I might not always have agreed with you ut I respect your service. You are a great warrior. Thank you.