Since taking office nearly two years ago, Gen. Norton Schwartz has worked to improve intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; provide better airlift and close air support, retire aging planes and restore luster to the service's tarnished nuclear enterprise.
Schwartz also struck a landmark partnership with the Navy to develop Air-Sea Battle, an operating concept aimed at heavily defended potential foes like China and Iran.
And while some in the Pentagon want the Air Force to buy hundreds of light, propeller-driven strike planes for counterinsurgency warfare, Schwartz says his current aircraft can do the job more cheaply. He does say he needs 15 light planes to help train foreign militaries.
He also spends more time pondering future budgets, and how to cut personnel and overhead costs that annually eat more of his budget.
Q. Is it fair to say that the future holds decreasing budgets?
A. I think decreasing purchasing power; put it in that context. That decreasing purchasing power and the reality of where investments are required. For example, our personnel costs for the department continue to increase, and there are good and valid reasons for that. But the reality is that that kind of scenario is going to force out content elsewhere in the portfolio.
Q. Personnel costs are skyrocketing and critics say you have an organizational structure dating from a time when airmen cost $85 a month, not $200,000 a year. How do you get that right?
A. We will have to come to terms here with our personnel costs. Other industries in the country have had to do this, and we will as well.
That is one of the reasons why the United States Air Force is not going to grow, even though we have a demand signal for manpower that exceeds our statutory ceiling of about 332,000 active-duty. The reason is because we cannot afford it. Or that we have to trade something that we think is very important with respect to our capabilities.
A case in point: We've put probably more than 4,000 into the ISR business with a fixed manpower top line. That means you've got to take manpower from other areas in the Air Force. This cannot continue indefinitely. We have a mandate to grow to 50 24/7 orbits by the end of 2011, 65 by the end of 2013.
There is a place for automation here that reduces the manpower requirement, both to operate and to process the backend data stream. Here's a case where we have to use modern techniques. With basketball replays, the data comes to them - they don't screen the thing. It's done very smart. Similar techniques will apply to our business as well.
Q. At some point, are you and the other service chiefs going to look at your folks and say, "We have to start dialing back on some of the things we do for you?"
A. I think that is in the cards. And it's not just the active duty. It's the alumni, as well. That is going to be very heavy lifting, for all the right reasons.
But the deal is that we're going to have to again look at ourselves and the proportion of dollars that we invest in personnel and personnel programs and family programs - where we might be able to sort of reduce the growth in our personnel costs. Any strategic leader has to look at that. As have American companies - and they have found ways to adjust.
The president asked for a 1.4 percent pay raise for military members. Typically, the Congress adds to that, and we certainly are grateful for their generosity. However, it comes from someplace. It requires a trade. And that is why each of us has said in our own way that for now, 1.4 percent is enough.
Q. It takes roughly 70 man-hours to process data from each hour that a Predator UAV is aloft, and that's going to jump to 800 hours with the next generation. What impact will that have?
A. That's because the video capability of the Reaper will be, initially, from 10 to 12 times as much. Where you have one spot now, you'll have a dozen or more - maybe 30 or more.
The bottom line is, again, that we cannot continue to throw people at this. We have to find ways to do this better, less manpower-intensive.
But I think in the larger sense, these are the sort of strategic tensions that we face. How do we maintain the right content in our force structure, in the investment streams that go along with that?
Q. Do you feel you have to always make the case for an independent Air Force?
A. I don't think so. And maybe I'm naïve, but look at what [Chief of Naval Operations] Gary Roughead and I are doing. He's going to have his version of Global Hawk, BAMS [Broad Area Maritime Surveillance], and I'm going to have ours.
So the question is: Do we let this evolve in a way that his ground station is different from mine, that his depot is in a different location than mine, that the way he processes the data stream is different than mine? It makes no sense to do that. And he's not in a better position to afford non-prudent investment any more than we are.
This is one example of a number where we and the Navy are working our common content issues.
We are concerned, for example, about area denial capability. This is a major feature of our future contribution. We need to make sure that we and they, if there's duplication, that we agree that makes sense. That we rely on each other. For example, would anyone in the department suggest that the Navy have its own refueling fleet? It makes no sense to do that. They have some tactical for limited purposes.
Over time, we have engendered a level of trust where they have confidence that we'll be there when they need us. The same thing is true of the Army on direct airlift support. [Army Chief] Gen. George Casey and I have discussed this at length. It revolves around the C-23s and C-27s and so on. We ran a test in Iraq, and we did it with two National Guard C-130s, by the way. And there are times when specific maneuver units need direct support. Is the Air Force postured to do the latter? It's a matter of trust. We demonstrated, convincingly, that we can do this, and that we are willing to do this if that's what's required. In the end, this is a "show-me game."
Q. What's your view of OSD's proposed capability assessments, which appear to shift authority from the services?
A. The department has a legitimate place articulating what their
expectations are. What I will share with the leadership in the department, and I certainly have with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, is what should not happen is for such assessments to foreclose the debate - to foreclose discussion about things we believe in, and that we think are important for the department and for the joint team.
The Joint Chiefs have a voice in this, as well. To have one agency of the department to declare out of bounds certain areas for discussion, or certain options for consideration one needs to proceed very carefully.Now, if the analytic rationale accompanies the assessments that makes me much more comfortable. But we should be very careful about agencies asserting their sense of the correct outcome without the accompanying rationale.
Q. On F-35, do you have backup plans?
A. We're committed to the F-35 because we believe that a generation-five fighter is the thing we should hang our hat on for the next 30 years. Now, I can't speak for Gary Roughead, but my sense is he understands their need for a generation-five capability - or a mix of carrier aviation capability. And certainly [Marine Corps Commandant] Gen. Jim Conway is committed to his short-takeoff and vertical-landing [STOVL] version of the F-35.
For us, as we see the threats evolving, I cannot bring myself to a point where, in a situation with limited resources, I am going to dissipate that pool of resources by buying airplanes that will last as long - 25 or 30 years - and be less capable than we have to be to deter a fight and win. I think that's not a good solution.
F-35, obviously, we just had a Nunn-McCurdy breach, but I think it is interesting that Jim Conway's airplane just had its first full hover of the STOVL version without a single mishap. If you go back to the early days of the Harrier, it took them six airplanes to get to that point.
All I'm suggesting is that we've had program management issues, we've had cost-control issues, we've had some manufacturing issues, but what I'm seeing is, at the technical level, pretty promising. So if we can bend the cost curve and exert the kind of program management focus that [Pentagon acquisition chief] Ash Carter has undertaken, I'm nowhere near to thinking of abandoning this effort.
Q. What's your view of long-range strike?
A. I think the innovation in the Quadrennial Defense Review was - and it's something I agree with - that long-range strike isn't 100 percent defined by an Air Force platform. It is a family of systems.
The issue is: you have tactical aviation, you have long-range aviation, you have stand-off missile capability, you have penetration capability, you've got potential prompt global strike in a conventional intercontinental ballistic missile or conventional Trident missile, you've got electronic attack, you've got ISR pieces of it.
Fundamentally, the question is: Do we as an Air Force need to have a lone wolf? Or can we, like we suggest to other elements of the joint team, rely on other means to support our mission so that our platform doesn't have to be quite as exquisite? Again, that is an advantage of looking at this as a portfolio, as a family of systems that may allow us, at least up front, to have a machine that will accomplish the tasks required but not be so well-equipped that it can do it exclusively by itself.
The independent variable on all this will be cost. What I am trying hard to do is to move us beyond - and to move both our acquisition community, our requirements community - beyond wishful-thinking mode. The reality is that cost is going to be an issue. It may be that, to some degree, we will have to design to cost.
å Fiscal 2011 request: $170 billion, including $24 billion for acquisitions.
å Fiscal 2010 budget: $166 billion, including $22 billion for acquisitions.
Personnel, as of April 30:
å Active-duty: 336,263
å Air Guard: 108,518
å Reserve: 68,989
å Civilians: 185,963
Source: Defense News research
By Vago Muradian in Washington.