Gen. Mark A. Welsh III outlined several "foundational" missions for the Air Force at its annual conference on Sept. 18 and joked about the ceremonial uniform he wore during his transition ceremony, shown here. (Mike Morones / Staff)
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force is going back to the basics, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III said Tuesday.
Speaking at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference here, Welsh outlined several missions that are “foundational” to airpower.
First and foremost: the nuclear enterprise.
“We have 36,000 airmen every day who worry about the nuclear mission,” Welsh said. “It’s a big deal for us we can’t afford to ever get this wrong.”
Another essential Air Force mission is the ability to hit targets from a long way away, and that is why the Next Generation Bomber, with a price tag of $550 million per plane, is a “must-have capability,” he said.
But what the Air Force absolutely must continue to do is provide control of the air, otherwise the Army and Marine Corps would have to change the way they fight, Welsh said.
“I’m not talking about asking fore more F-22s folks,” he said. “I’m saying this mission is critical.”
To demonstrate this point, Welsh showed a picture of U.S. troops sleeping in fox holes in the desert.
“Can you imagine any enemy doing this with the United States Air Force in the air?” he said. “It would never happen.”
The mobility mission has been the Air Force’s greatest success story, with mobility airmen flying 60,000 sorties per year, Welsh said.
“I have never showed up at a tanker track and the tanker wasn’t there,” he said. “That’s remarkable. Excellence is the way of doing business in our mobility fleet.”
Meanwhile, Air Force leaders need to educate themselves on the cyber domain quickly, said Welsh, who admitted he is largely ignorant of cyber terminology.
“I haven’t figured out what an IP address is,” he said.
For years, the Air Force’s success has been based on three things:
Recruiting the best people, providing them the best training and education and giving them the best equipment money can buy, Welsh said.
“That third part may be at risk,” Welsh warned. “We may just have to get equipment that’s better than everyone else’s.”
That means the Air Force has to put its emphasis on recruiting and training, because if the Air Force can’t get that right, it won’t be able to attract the best and brightest anymore, Welsh said.
Welsh took over as chief of staff in August amid the looming specter of $500 billion in cuts to defense spending over the next 10 years. The cuts, known as “sequestration,” would affect aircraft built for one purpose, such as the A-10, the most, he said.
Even if the cuts do not take place, the Air Force will be under intense budget pressure going forward, requiring “an honest look in the mirror,” Welsh said.
One of the things the Air Force has to examine is how much intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance orbits it needs to provide, he said. While the service may have to provide ISR at the squad level some of the time, it can’t do it all of the time, he said.
The Air Force also needs to look at whether it can fully fund all of its air operations centers, Welsh said.
“If we can, we should; if we can’t we should have fewer of them,” he said.
“Downsizing these things is hard. There’s lots of pushback from many places. This is a discussion we need to have.”
Welsh also is concerned about readiness.
“I’m worried about fleet health and I’m worried about flying hours,” he said.
Replacing flight time with simulators works fine — as long as the simulators are funded, he said.
“I don’t think we are where we think we are,” Welsh said.
Welsh admitted that he has been confused by Air Force terminology since he took over as chief of staff. What he takes away from that is the Air Force needs to communicate better.
“My concern is we’re not telling [our] own story well enough,” he said.
“We’re trying, but something is not connecting.”
To help explain why the Air Force matters, and to mend some fences, Welsh spent a lot of time talking about dedicated airmen, such as a senior airman who pays attention to every detail when helping families of wounded troops.
The airman is a reservist, underlining Welsh’s theme that the rift that has developed between the active-duty and reserve component force over budget cuts needs to be healed.
Welsh also introduced the noncommissioned officer who is in charge of wrapping fallen service members, paying attention to every detail, including printing new dog tags to reflect a service member’s posthumous promotion.
And he mentioned a Guard fighter pilot who was prepared to ram one of the hijacked flights on Sept. 11, 2001. Her father was a commercial airline pilot.
“She knew he was flying that day, but she didn’t know what flight number she was flying in,” Welsh said. “Can you imagine that? Where do we find them? We value courage in this business and we should all value her.”