Air Force leaders continue to emphasize air and space priorities on Capitol Hill

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Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein briefed congressional leaders on the Senate’s Defense Appropriations Committee on the future of air and space power during testimony on Capitol Hill June 21.

The leaders highlighted that efforts to restore readiness and increase the lethality of the force were foremost in their minds. Wilson said any objective evaluation of today’s Air Force reached two conclusions: The Air Force is too small for what the nation expects of it and adversaries are modernizing and innovating faster – putting Americans’ technological advantage at risk.

"The fiscal year 2017 budget began to arrest the decline, and restore the readiness of the force, so this fiscal 2018 budget starts us, I hope, on the road to recovery,” she said.

Air Force in Demand

Looking forward, Wilson and Goldfein do not envision the demand for air and space power diminishing in the coming decade.

Today, the Air Force is manned with 660,000 active, Guard, Reserve and civilian Airmen, a 30 percent decline since Operation Desert Storm 26 years ago.

"If I'd been talking to the Air Force in 1991, I'd [have] been looking at an Air Force of over 8,600 aircraft, 134 fighter squadrons from which we deployed 34,” Goldfein said. “Today, the grand total of your United States Air Force, active, Guard, Reserve, is 55 squadrons total. This is a much smaller force that's engaged in the same level of activity as we were in 1991."

The Air Force leaders said while the fiscal 2018 budget request focuses on restoring readiness and increasing lethality, future budgets must focus on modernization and continued readiness recovery.

Restoring readiness

The two testified that maintaining superiority starts with people.

"For Airmen, it's nothing short of a moral obligation to ensure that we establish air superiority quickly whenever and wherever it's required," Goldfein said.

The fiscal 2018 budget will bring the active duty force from 321,000 to 325,100 while also adding 800 Reservists, 600 Guardsmen, and 3,000 civilians, bringing the total force to approximately 669,000. The increased manpower will focus primarily on increasing remotely piloted aircraft crews, maintainers and pilot training capacity by adding two additional F-16 training squadrons and maximizing flying hours to the highest executable levels.

Wilson said next to people, the most obvious readiness need is munitions. In the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Air Force has delivered approximately 56,000 direct-attack munitions, more than it used in all of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The fiscal 2018 budget funds maximum factory production of the most critical munitions.


The fiscal 2018 budget focuses on the Air Force’s top three modernization programs:

• Purchasing 46 F-35A Lightning II fighters and modernizing other fighters;
• Buying 15 KC-46 Pegasus tankers;
• Funding the B-21 Raider bomber development

The proposed budget also supports the continuation and modernization of the nuclear triad with funds dedicated to both air- and ground-based capabilities.

Our nuclear enterprise is getting old and we must begin modernizing now to ensure a credible deterrent, Wilson said.

"Standing side-by-side with the United States Navy, we're responsible for two of the three legs of the nuclear triad,” Goldfein said. "On our worst day as a nation, our job is to make sure that we have the commander in chief where he needs to be, when he needs to be there, and through nuclear command and control - which we're responsible for - that he stays connected to a ready force to be able to defend this nation and deter adversaries as we also assure our partners."


The Air Force has been the leading military service responsible since 1954. Over the last several years, the service has been developing concepts for space control, changing the way it trains its space force and integrating space operations into the joint fight.

"This budget proposal has a 20 percent increase for space, that means situational awareness -- the ability to not just catalog what's up there, which we would do in a benign environment, but to have a near-real-time understanding of what is going on in space, who is moving and where they're moving to," said Wilson.

The proposed budget increases space funding, including a 27 percent increase in research, development, testing and evaluation for space systems, and a 12 percent increase for space procurement.

On June 16, 2017, Wilson announced the establishment of the new headquarters space directorate. This directorate will be led by the deputy chief of staff for space operations, who will be the advocate for space operations and requirements to meet the demands of a warfighting domain.

"We’ve provided GPS for the world. We’ve transformed not only the way we fight but the way all of you probably navigate around the city,” Wilson added. “We must expect that war, of any kind, will extend into space in any future conflict, and we have to change the way we think and prepare for that eventuality.”

Innovation for the future

Research, development, testing and evaluation are critically important for the Air Force, Wilson and Goldfein said.

To prevail against rapidly innovating adversaries, the Air Force must accelerate procurement. The service will take advantage of authorities provided in the fiscal 2017 Defense Authorization Act to help field operational capabilities faster than ever before, Wilson said.

The request for funding for long-term research in air dominance increased significantly in the fiscal 2018 budget. The Air Force will seek to increase basic and applied research in areas where it must maintain the competitive advantage over adversaries. This includes hypersonic vehicles, directed-energy, unmanned and autonomous systems and nanotechnology.

Budget stability

It’s going to take approximately eight years to be able to get to full spectrum readiness with stable budgets, Goldfein said. The Air Force will be unable to execute the defense strategic guidance under sequester.

If the Budget Control Act limit is not fixed and we have to go through sequester, that will be equivalent to a $15 billion cut, Wilson said. The Air Force is too small for what the nation expects of us now; sequestration would make the situation worse, she said.

According to Wilson and Goldfein, by supporting the budget request, Congress can provide fiscal predictability to the Air Force so it can continue to own the high ground, defend the homeland and project power in conjunction with allies.