The absence of a defense budget is the biggest threat the Air Force faces today as it grapples with adversaries and threats around the world, the service branch’s top general says.
In an exclusive interview Tuesday with this news outlet, Gen. David L. Goldfein addressed, among other priorities, the consequences a lack of a budget would cause, the future of technology development at the Wright-Patterson headquartered-Air Force Research Laboratory, and welcoming input from President Donald Trump to lower the cost of weapon systems without sacrificing capability.
The four-star general was at Wright-Patterson to mark the 75th anniversary of the Doolittle Raiders historic attack against Japan in World War II.
Under current spending caps, the Air Force will confront a $2.8 billion shortfall if Congress and the White House fail to agree to a budget deal and continue to spend at last year’s levels under a continuing resolution that expires at the end of this month.
“For a service chief, the most important thing for me in terms of trying to really deliver for the nation is predictable funding because without it you just can’t plan,” he said. “If you’re going from year to year, it’s almost impossible to do any kind of long-term planning and it wreaks havoc on industry who is trying to deliver for us.
“Without a budget, all programs are at risk and we’ll have to make the strategic trades a service chief has to make between capability, capacity and readiness,” Goldfein added. “That’s the sandbox that we operate it. My ability to make those kind of flexible trades, to be able to deliver what the nation needs is dependent on being able to get a stable budget that I can count on for more than a year or two years.”
Capping spending levels at last year’s budget will impact Air Force readiness and operations, he said. The four-star general has told Congress that could mean everything from grounding planes to delaying maintenance to postponing retention bonuses.
“It’s going to have a significant impact on our readiness to be able to do all those jobs simultaneously,” he said.
Unless Congress acts, the federal government faces a partial government shutdown April 28 when funding under the current spending resolution runs out.
The last shutdown sent thousands of Wright-Patterson civil service workers home for days in 2013.
The youngest civilian workers were hit the hardest, a situation Goldfein said he wants to avoid. Some faced hardships such as not having a paycheck to pay rent, he said.
“It was devastating,” he said. “… The worst part is that many of them decided that they couldn’t hang with this business of working for government and we lost really talented young men and women. We broke faith with them. They’re the ones I’m most concerned with in a government shutdown.”
The Air Force is able to meet a hot spot of demands around the globe but the lack of a budget creates risks, the former fighter pilot said.
“Make no mistake, when it comes to taking the fight against ISIS or assuring our allies and partners in the Pacific or deterring bad behavior around the globe, we’re able to meet and succeed in our global commitments today,” Goldfein said. “And that’s a statement not only for the Air Force, that’s a statement for the Joint Force.
“The challenge is as we start moving more and more towards simultaneous activity then our challenge with current readiness begins to become more problematic,” he said. “So what you’re hearing from all the service chiefs is, in this global security environment, that continues to get more dangerous not less, presents even higher risk if we don’t get a budget that allows us to fund the training and fund the readiness that we desperately need to maintain to be able to keep these global commitments.”
Trump criticizes aircraft
President Donald Trump has criticized the cost of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a future Air Force One Boeing 747-8 jetliner, but Goldfein indicated he welcomed the input.
“For one I’ll tell you that I’m actually very appreciative of the president’s interest and anything that can help get the costs of these programs down lower, certainly for a service chief is win-win,” he said.
“… To have pressure that allows us to be able to procure weapon systems at lower cost is really helpful. The biggest challenge that I see in the future that we’ve really got to work on is the life cycle costs and the sustainment costs because quite frankly that’s what eats your lunch over time.”
Citing the work of AFRL, the chief of staff said he’s focused on creating a network to connect different capabilities in new ways on a multitude of platforms and weapon systems.
“The reality is our Air Force of the future is it’s going to be both old and new,” he said. “It‘s going to be manned and unmanned, it’s going to be some portion of its that penetrating and some of it that’s stand-off. It’s going to have some of it that’s conventional and some of it that’s unconventional…”
To bolster its workforce and meet rising demands, the Air Force has targeted adding 4,000 additional airmen on active duty in critical areas such as maintainers, nuclear and cyber jobs. Goldfein anticipated a corresponding growth in personnel numbers in the Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, and civilian workforce, but did not have specifics.
He also said he’s focused on landing a budget deal before the Pentagon and Congress consider a round of base closures, but he added realignment of missions is as important as talk of closing bases.
While he did not talk specifics about how Wright-Patterson might fare in a base realignment and closure process, he did say the “absolutely incredible support” the Dayton region has shown airmen and their families ranks as a factor.
“That’s as important as anything we else we do when it comes to how a base fares in this kind of a discussion,“ he said.