US Air Force Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast (CSIS)
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WASHINGTON — Every four years, the Pentagon conducts the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a large-scale look at strategic military objectives. Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast took over the Air Forceís portion of the QDR in January. Defense News sat down with Kwast Oct. 16 to talk about the review and the future of the service.
Q. Was the QDR affected by the government shutdown?
A. It put the work on pause for the days the civilians were gone. But as soon as they came back, we got right back up on the horse. Process-wise, weíre back on track. It still does not help the fact that weíre already pushed up against a deadline. Normally, a QDR has a full year to work through all these conversations, and this one didnít start until the late summer. We had the Strategic Choices and Management Review [SCMR], which set the foundation and did a lot of the analytic work to say where is the money, so we started ahead of the game, in that regard, but it still takes time to develop strategy.
We also have our combatant commanders taking a look at our plans again, taking a look at the basics and asking, can we achieve our end state by doing it a little different way and saving some money? So that creative, innovative work is happening. Itís almost like painting a moving train. Weíre trying to be innovative and creative, do this smarter, cheaper, better, faster, at the same time weíre trying to develop a strategy. Itís hard to do that fast, and weíre rushing to it right now.
Q. What has the impact of the SCMR been on the QDR?
A. What the SCMR did is, it took a look at every single dollar that is spent in this entire department. It took a look at everything and said, hereís where weíre at. That work does accelerate the QDR, because we know where the money is going, so we know where we might adjust it and where we might have flexibility. There was no strategy in it, there were no choices in it, but it did give us that foundation, that insight on where the money is going and where we might be able to save it.
With that, we go back to QDR and start from square one. And we say, unconstrained, what kind of strategy should we have to be leaders in this world for peace, stability, security, predictability, so that people behave responsibly in the global commons and that economic goodness flows to us and our friends. Now weíre saying, OK, thereís strategy, but we only have this much money. What are the options we have to still achieve this strategy with these budgetary realities? Thatís where the creative work comes in.
Q. What kind of communication is there between the services?
A. This is the beautiful thing with our military as opposed to any other military in the world. We always complain that weíre pitted one against the other. But we do all of this work together. We sit down in a room with all of the services and we say, this isnít about one more Air Force aircraft or one more Navy ship. Itís about an approach. This is a joint conversation at every part of the way. Thatís how the strategy of force sizing happens.
Q. How do you factor in the Guard and Reserve?
A. I am continually involved with everything the [National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force and its Pentagon counterpart, the Total Force Task Force] are doing, so we are doing things in QDR that are consistent with the thinking and emerging guidance and conclusions that come out of that. So when that commission gets to next year and comes out with their findings, people will look at them and say, that makes sense, when I look at what QDR did last fall. Theyíve been talking. And we have been. Any time they ask, we will give them the answers. And any time we see something, we push it to them. Itís a push/pull, but it allows for a flow of information as required. It doesnít mean itís free from differing views and perspectives. But thatís not a bad thing.
Q. Youíve said the QDR is a chance to challenge long-held assumptions. Can you give examples?
A. Iíll give two. One is we have a long-held assumption that an aircraft carrier can steam to a place where it has presence, and that the presence gives us access and options. That assumption is no longer true in many places around China, because the technology and precision make it so vulnerable that it canít even get close without being struck. So you have to ask the question, if this assumption, that building a very expensive aircraft carrier to steam in as a method of influencing, is really the way to go in the future as these technologies proliferate around the world? Maybe thereís a different way of approaching that.
Another one would be ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance]. Right now, weíre on a path that you want to be able to see everything, anywhere, all the time. Can we really afford to be able to watch every nook and cranny of the globe 24/7? We canít even process the information, let alone distill it into decision-quality data. Maybe thereís a way of looking at it differently [by] saying, I want the agility, speed and persistence where if something pops up unexpectedly, I can be there [right away], and then I can stay there as long as I need. Weíre spending millions on this infrastructure that may kill a staff sergeant in the Taliban. Can we afford that? Maybe not.
Q. Youíve also said the QDR needs a sober look at technology.
A. A perfect example is drones. We fall in love with drones. We think, this is great, we donít have to have people in there. But the facts are that it costs more money to put up a CAP [24-hour combat air patrol] than it does to have a squadron of F-16s. It costs more people to man a CAP than it does to man a full squadron. The data link is vulnerable. The machine is vulnerable. The command and control is vulnerable. So we have built into it the one thing you donít want to build into any military approach, and that is vulnerability.
We were forced to do it because we were rushing this to the fight, we were told exactly what we would do to provide it, and we could not design the art of warfare into the architecture. So now weíre stuck with a system that is too expensive to sustain and modernize. That doesnít mean we donít have drones. Thereís a place for them. But we have fallen in love with the idea that does not make common sense from a warfighting approach at a price we can afford.
Q. Do you expect the CAP requirement of 65 to come down?
A. The 65 CAP figure is really an arbitrary number, because every combatant commander would like 100 CAPs. That wouldnít even be enough, because it goes back to our approach in trying to be there and flood it with ISR, so you can watch video of people on the ground all the time. Thatís how we got to the 65 CAP.
This QDR is going to ask the question, if this is the right way to go forward, do we expect to have every road in China watched by a [video] feed? You canít afford it and it doesnít really give you much. So the question of how many CAPs is the question of what approach will we have to ISR, and thatís a discussion the combatant commanders are having now. If we do this right, the Air Force will be able to provide more ISR, cheaper, than we currently do. But we have to be given the political authority by Congress to let go of that old branch that is too expensive, doesnít really give us the right thing, and is a cost-imposing strategy.
Q. How do you factor in new technology?
A. You take a look and frame your biggest problems. I bring innovators, technologists, the leaders of those enterprises and I describe my problem, and they help me explore the nature of the problem. And then they go out and they help innovate ways of crawling out of that dilemma. The engineers, the scientists, the smart people will say, here are some emerging technologies that might give you a pathway out of that dilemma. Thatís innovation.
We unlock the power of innovation and technology by allowing the people who really know whatís going on with it [to] help us solve our problems, and then we start investing in the technologies that show promise. But we test it. We make sure we grab that branch of the future and we yank it, but we make sure that it is strong before we let go of a branch weíve held onto thatís now too expensive or no longer solves the problem. We solve problems by pushing technology towards our strategy.
Q. Is anything untouchable ?
A. The QDR starts with an unconstrained strategy. In that regard, everything is on the table. But as you start getting down to the realities of your resources and the realities of your technologies, you only have certain pathways you can take. You canít reinvent the Army or Navy or Air Force overnight. It has to be slow. As you go forward, you realize there are certain pathways that are already invested in. The question is how aggressively you bend those pathways to get to the point where your strategy takes you in 20 years.
The F-35 [joint strike fighter] is an example. Weíre on that path, and thatís a good path. But how do we bend that path so the F-35 is more relevant for our future? That means affordability. That means capability and capacity. You continue refining the problem set. You work with industry, you work with Congress, and look for those pathways to make it more relevant.
With the F-35, [it is] keeping the ramp rate that makes it viable economically for industry and for the parliaments of the other countries of the world. Thatís an important thing that makes it relevant. If we were to do something that would harm the industrial base with that regard, that would not be helping make the F-35 relevant.
Q. Is it fair to say anti-access/area-denial [A2AD] is a major QDR focus?
A. One of the essential things the Air Force does for the nation is project power, with the speed, range and persistence to go anywhere in the world and do whatever the president needs. As the world emerges and technology proliferates, other countries are able to push you off.
What we have now is a world where itís harder to go places and do these things because even very poorly resourced adversaries can get very cheap capability to hold us at armís length.
So a contested environment is a big part of this QDR, because our world is turning more contested and lethal.
We have to stay at a higher plateau than that, so when the president says he needs to see whatís going on in the South China Sea, thereís not a darn thing China can do about us getting in there to see whatís going on. Thatís our job.