WASHINGTON — Acting U.S. Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan has spent three months in the service’s top civilian position after former Secretary Heather Wilson resigned in May, but it seems like his time may be coming to an end as Congress debates the nomination of former Aerospace Corp. chairwoman Barbara Barrett.

A former F-15 pilot, Donovan became the Air Force’s undersecretary in August 2017. He has described himself as the point person charged with building the budget. As the service’s chief information officer, he has also been the service’s biggest champion of its “Digital Air Force” business plan to overhaul its data management, IT architecture and business operations.

Whereas Wilson — though publicly supportive of the Space Force — criticized certain elements of the Defense Department’s space reorganization effort, Donovan’s three months as the Air Force head have been defined by unwavering support for the plan to reform military space.

Just days before Barrett’s confirmation hearing on Sept. 12, Donovan met with Defense News for an interview ahead of the Air Force’s major conference.

Barbara Barrett, the nominee for the next Air Force secretary, has her hearing in a couple of days. A vote on her confirmation, we hear, will happen soon after that. The elephant in the room is: Will you stay on as undersecretary?

(Laughs) I need a job. I have a kid still in college, so yeah.

Have you met her yet? What sort of relationship do you expect?

I think it’ll be a really good relationship. I called her after the president first announced [the nomination] back in May to congratulate her. We had about an hour-long discussion about Air Force things and the way of the future. We don’t do a lot of interaction while she’s in the pre-confirmation because of the presumption of confirmation, but I did have a meeting with her this week and we talked about some of the big issues that are going to come up during the confirmation hearing.

During your speech at the Defense News Conference on Sept. 4, you mentioned there would be controversial changes in the next budget. You hinted aircraft could be divested.

I talked about legacy capabilities.

That often involves aircraft, right?

It’s not wrong, but we are much more than aircraft as well.

Is the service divesting aircraft? Is it canceling new programs? Is it getting rid of other capacities in other areas?

Yes. You’re exactly right. It’s not unlike the Army’s night court. What [Defense] Secretary [Mark] Esper has brought up to the OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] level now that he’s the secretary of defense, which is to take a look at everything we do. We have a huge organization, and have to make sure it’s in line with the national defense strategy that [former Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis first laid out.

The Army went through its night court, I think it was the last budget cycle where they were taking a look at lower priority projects that maybe don’t quite align. The Air Force actually started that. I ran a process, which we call a “zero base review,” that started back in 2017. We’ve done that for actually two years now, and we’re also in the process of doing that for the FY21 [budget]. We’ve already submitted our budget to [the Office of the Secretary of Defense], and now we start the knife-fighting phase, right at what we call the program and budget review. OSD is now examining our budgets, all of the service budgets, all of the defense agency budgets, and seeing if they align with the original defense-planning guidance that was put out for us to build our budgets to.

Now that the Air Force has finished that planning, can you say how much would be able to be diverted from legacy capabilities to emerging priorities?

The Army had said $25 billion or something like that. The reason why I hesitate to say it is because we don’t know if all these proposals are going to be accepted yet once we get into the program and budget review. If I gave you a number now, it [might] change by the time our budget [is] rolled out. Because not only do we go through the OSD level review; now it has to go to the Office of Management and Budget in the White House, and they have to accept all of our proposals as well.

Do you expect a protracted, years-long process with Congress? Or do you feel comfortable that when the Air Force does start talking to Congress, you will have enough detail and assurances about these changes for lawmakers?

We’ve talked about [how] the Air Force is too small for what the nation needs. We know we need to grow. How we grow and in what ways we grow is sort of the rub. If we’re going to divest a legacy platform, or divest a legacy capability, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to divest units or people or jobs. What we’ll do is they’ll shift. They’ll be repurposed into the Air Force that we need, which is advanced capabilities, those sorts of things. We’ve done this in the past.

We replaced them with newer airplanes from the active duty, so we ended up drawing down the active duty, but we tried to keep it into a balance of what we need, and that will satisfy constituencies. For example, when we decided not to proceed with the JSTARS recap, we said the advanced battle management system is going to have the same mission, but it’s going to be done in a vastly different way, and somebody needs to do it. Why wouldn’t we use the same people who are experts in that mission like the JSTARS folks?

Is the squadron goal of 386 still a priority? If so, when will we see squadrons added?

The one thing that we’ve always said about the 386 [squadron goal] is that we’ve been absolutely clear about what the requirement is. We’re articulating the requirement for the size of the Air Force for what we need to execute the National Defense Strategy. Whether they decide to fund it or not is not our call. That’s between the White House and the Congress.

The 386 [number] was arrived at with deep analysis based on our current plans, current programs of record and the current way we fight — our current concepts of operation. I absolutely stick by it, but in the newest [Senate Armed Services Committee version of the] FY20 [defense policy bill], there’s a requirement in there for us to provide a report on the Air Force’s future design alternatives. So in other words, we know we need to grow, but in what ways?

For example, we said that we need to increase the number of large-wing ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] squadrons. That’s because [of] current programs of record, the current operation plans of requirements and the current concepts of operations. Well, you know that the advanced battle management system and multidomain command and control is not likely to include large-wing command-and-control airplanes, or ISR airplanes. We’re going to be transitioning to something else. All those things that guys at the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability group, are working really hard on as future design alternatives.

How are the discussions going with the House and Senate Armed Services committees about amending Title 10 to include a Space Force? Why does the Senate side seem hesitant to make that change?

Well, the Senate is the deliberative body of the Congress. They take a lot of time to do this, and I’m OK with that because one of the things I like about the Senate is its phased implementation approach to Space Force.

One of their overriding concerns is cost. I think it was unfortunate that the discussion immediately snapped to cost and bureaucracy and [the question of whether we] can afford this. Those are all of course valid questions, but I’d pose a different question. What are the costs of losing a war? What are the costs of getting behind technologically, militarily, against a superior competitor? I think those are the real questions we should be talking about now, understanding that we’re not going to have a bottomless bucket of money to do this either. That’s why I’ve always been an advocate of creating a 21st century service, built for the information age.

I get a lot of pushback from folks sometimes like that, and they go: "Well, you’ve got to create a service that fits in the existing organization on the Pentagon.” I go: "Do we? Or do we create a pathfinder service where the other services now go?” I think we need a reform and to start looking like a 21st century service. The services, the way they exist today, are largely based on a Napoleonic form of warfare — they are very hierarchical, they’re very bureaucratic.

I’m pushing our folks that are coming up with the initial planning for the Space Force to show me a flat, agile, rapid organization that we can use as a headquarters for staff. That’s some of the discussions that I’ve been having with SASC members and SASC staffers about how we can do that. It’s almost a chicken or the egg because they go: “Well, show us how you’re going to put the staff together.” And then we say: “Well, show us what you’re going to authorize us to do.” We get in this circular argument. Really, the priority, as the president and the vice president have so eloquently articulated time after time, is we need a sixth branch of the armed forces to unleash the potential for space. The only way we can do that is modifying Title 10 of the U.S. code, which lays out all the other services and their responsibilities and their authorities and how they organize strength.

Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast, the former Air Education and Training Command head who retired Sept. 1, has generated controversy for publicly speaking out in favor of a Space Force, and he’s amassed some support from associates who think he should have a leadership role in the new service. Is there a role for Kwast to play within the Space Force?

The president can appoint anybody he wants to any position. There could be [a position for him], but that would be up to the president.

I’ve been talking to the Air Force’s acquisition executive, Will Roper, about his idea for another Century Series and how to apply that to the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance program. What are your thoughts about the risks and advantages for such an approach?

We have to take a look at the context and the difference between today and where we were in the late ’50s and ’60s with the Century Series. I actually started talking with Dr. Roper about this a long time ago, after he came in, and because during the late ’50s and ’60s we actually built 11 prototypes in the Century Series around that time and we fielded six different airplanes.

The exciting thing about it today is that maybe we finally have a way to make our defense-industrial base more robust again. At that time, I think we had eight or 10 major aircraft manufacturers that build military airplanes. After the Reagan buildup, we went into the so-called peace dividend at the end of the Cold War; a lot of those [companies] ended up consolidating. [Those companies] were told: “Look if you’re going to survive, you’re going to have to merge.” That ends up presenting a problem to us because we end up with a lot less competition than what we used to have, and more importantly [we need to] be able to maintain the workforce.

What we end up talking about in his Century Series approach is almost an elite product-type approach. In other words, we develop an advanced capability, we make a prototyping decision, and if the prototype works out, then we make a fielding decision. We don’t end up getting locked into a 35- or 40-year aircraft development procurement program like the F-35.

We’ll receive our last F-35 in the year 2040. I just can’t imagine that even 20 years from now at the pace of technological advance that that’s going to be an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. We’ve gotten our defense-industrial base to where it’s a winner-take-all, and it’s a life-or-death situation for the future of a company if they don’t win a competition. Whereas if we get into that elite product Century Series fighter-type approach, we can make a prototype and then a fielding decision — we buy a small number of airplanes. Then at the same time, whoever did not win that competition now gets an award to develop the next project. I think that’s a healthy way to approach it to keep our workforce healthy.

Are you satisfied with the progress on the KC-46?

Generally we’re satisfied with the progress that we’re making. It’s a tough problem, but we’ve got to hold Boeing accountable for what they’d promised they deliver on the contract. It has to be an acceptable capability that provides capabilities on war fronts. The [KC-46’s camera] system in its current state does not do that.

What’s the conversation between Boeing and the Air Force on the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent? Boeing previously said a joint bid with Northrop Grumman would not be feasible, but is now promoting the idea. Has there been a change to the solicitation to make that solution more palatable?

I really can’t talk about that because we’re still in source selection. The [request for proposals], it doesn’t favor one manufacturer over another, but it also doesn’t disallow teaming concepts.

Corrected Sept. 16, 2019 at 8:52 a..m. to amend the date of the last F-35 delivery.

Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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