Eric Fanning is undersecretary of the US Air Force. (Mike Morones / staff)
When Eric Fanning became undersecretary of the US Air Force in April 2013, he never expected to spend almost six months as the acting secretary after Michael Donley stepped down. With the swearing in of Deborah Lee James in December, Fanning was able to return to his normal day job — not that it’s a particularly calm one.
He spoke with Defense News during the 30th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last week.
Q. There seems to be confusion about whether Russia is actually halting sales of the RD-180 engine. What’s your understanding of the situation?
A. There have been clear statements, but no, there has been nothing official to follow up on those statements. [The United Launch Alliance] has not been notified formally or even informally about any of the things that we heard in the media. I do think it is important that, while we look for ways to mitigate our reliance on the RD-180, we do not overreact to what is being said in the press or in social media. And to take pause and let this play itself out carefully so that we do not unnecessarily minimize options for ourselves.
Q. Should an American-made alternative engine be pursued regardless of Russia’s actions?
A. I do not know that we should pursue building an alternate engine, but I do think we need to explore ways to mitigate our reliance on the RD-180. There are multiple options we will look at; one of them could be building an alternate engine. That could mean inside the Air Force or as part of a public-private partnership, so even that has multiple options. Certainly, we hope to have certified new entrants that could help with our launch assurance. Then we have the Delta, of course, that we can use as part of the mitigation strategy. I do not know that the final answer will be that the US Air Force builds an alternate engine, but that is one of the options that we need to look at.
Q. When you say a public-private partnership, what do you have in mind?
A. It could mean that instead of pursuing a program to build an engine on our own, we invest in private partnerships to sort of launch some competition for an alternate engine. It could be research and technology to get things started. There is a range of options even if you decide you want an alternate engine that is US-built.
Q. Are you concerned that the funds for this would have to come from somewhere else?
A. I am very concerned about that. Clearly one of the reasons that we have not launched and pursued an alternate engine is that it just has not fit into the budget in the last few years, and the budget is only getting tighter. We have a number of bills for the Air Force stacking up on each other. It is not clear where they are going to be resourced in the long term — the combat rescue helicopter (CRH), investments in the nuclear deterrent, now the alternate engine. [There are] a number of other things that concern me greatly.
Q. Are you concerned that the relationship with SpaceX has been damaged, given its recent lawsuit?
A. I don’t think so. Despite the lawsuit, we are working very closely with SpaceX on a weekly basis as we work through this certification process. To me this is all about competition — best value to the taxpayer and mission assurance and personalities and what plays out in the press. I do not think it will have a long-term impact on the relationship.
Q. It looks like the Hill is going to protect the A-10, at least for one more year. So how do you proceed now?
A. We have cut the budget now so much and so quickly in the last few budget cycles that the trade space that is normally inside the budget is gone. You see it in the struggle for the A-10. [You see] the Senate struggling [with] how to pay for it. It’s the same problem we went through as we built the ’15 budget. We don’t really like any of the choices that we were forced to make. They are hard trade-offs and we do not know where the funds [will come from] for some of those things we have to keep back in. Our fear is that it comes out of the same place we have been taking it out of, which is operations and maintenance, your readiness and your future investment accounts.
Throughout the hearing process, the budget process, we have explained the rationale behind our decisions. I think it is clear to Congress how tight the budget is, and the squeeze this is creating for us in our attempt to right-size the Air Force to an Air Force that we can keep whole and we can keep ready. I think it has more to do with the political calendar and trying to avoid making any major force-structure decisions this year in case there is some change next year. I am not optimistic that the budget will increase next year, so my fear is we are just kicking the can down the road another year and making the problems larger and more expensive to fix when we finally get around to them.
Q. The KC-46, F-35 and new bomber are the three big programs the Air Force has defended pretty successfully. Of the second-tier programs, like combat rescue helicopter, JSTARS [joint surveillance and target attack radar system] and T-X trainer, what are the priorities?
A. I would not actually characterize those as second-tier programs, because I would put a lot of other things in at that level. For me those are all important, but the next-generation trainer, the T-X, is sort of existential to the Air Force. The trainers we’re using now are really old, well past their expected life, and if we do not have those, we cannot train to the next level of platforms. To keep the joint strike fighter affordable, it is important that we have that trainer. JSTARS also would rank very high for me.
Q. The CRH is something the Air Force wasn’t planning on doing for most of the budget process, so where does it fit in?
A. We were not planning on doing it, but it was right. When we did our budget process, we spent the vast majority of our time looking at the smaller budget. One of the great parts is that you knew what was on the line. CRH was right on the line and so it did not take much effort on our part at all to bump it up above when we got the clear intent from Congress. That is also a critical program. That mission is so critical for the Air Force that recapitalizing the platform was important. Secretary James was very clear with Congress, when she testified that if-when we return to sequestered levels, many of the programs in the budget are going to have a relook. [And despite its importance] CRH was one she called out specifically.
Q. Will the budget discussions impact plans to award CRH this June and the bomber next summer?
A. Something is going to have to give if there is not more money. [I am] beyond concerned in that regard. The bomber remains one of our top three priorities. There is a lot of support for it on the Hill, understanding how important the bomber is. So I feel pretty confident that we will be able to protect that. Something somewhere else inside the Air Force budget — even multiple things if we cut down that low — are going to have to give, particularly when you add in these new bills.
Q. But you are not considering delaying or cutting the bomber.
A. I do not think so. If you look at the long-term schedule, the near- and long-term schedule, the bomber and the capability gap, I think that is a program we need to keep on schedule.
Q. Is the service considering furloughs or flying hour cuts?
A. I have never been in a meeting where additional furloughs have been discussed, other than in a negative context. I certainly don’t have an appetite for furloughs again. I think our civilian workforce is terribly misunderstood and underappreciated, and those furloughs fit right into that. During [that time] I was still new to the Air Force and out in the field visiting bases. First thing the commander said to me when I got off the plane: “I need my civilians back.” Last thing before I left: “I need my civilians back.” I think there is a misunderstanding of what the civilian workforce is. They are not middle managers. They are not all in back offices pushing paper. They are in our ranges, they are in the labs, they are in the depots. They are critical to the war fight and to supporting the war fighters.
For the Air Force, [flying hours were] the balance last year, and part of why the Department of Defense moved forward the furloughs as a whole, is we really were down to the furloughs and flying hours. At the time, we were talking about the possible contingency operations in Syria. Those pilots were not flying. You cannot get much more stark in your contrast than that, people you are going to send into harm’s way. But it does come down to that, if we are asked to keep all this force structure for another year. Your own accounts is what takes the hit, and flying hours are a big part of that.
Q. What are your biggest concerns about the industrial base? What are the areas that need tending to?
A. In the Air Force, what I would worry about the most is many of our investments go into research and development, science and technology, and I am afraid that as we cut into the bone, we risk losing that technological edge that we have, and it is an infrastructure that you cannot rebuild. Certainly not quickly, if ever. It has many appendages. So many small businesses that really are centers of innovation that rely on the prime contracts, and we do not even see what happens to them right away.
I worry very much about that innovation and that technological edge that feeds into us through the industrial base as we squeeze it down. ■