WASHINGTON — Before Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein retires this summer, he will face an enormous challenge: Selling a fiscal year 2021 budget to Congress filled with the forced retirements of beloved aircraft like the B-1 and A-10 in order to make room for future priorities.

His success critical for continued progress (and a hike in funding) toward one of his key priorities: connecting assets across the joint force so that they can instantly share vital data securely — a concept that the Air Force is now referring to as Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2.

Goldfein spoke to Defense News on Feb. 18, ahead of the Air Force Association’s annual air warfare symposium.

How do you think the budgeting process went this year? It’s pretty obvious there were some big compromises made. But it seems to fall short of a whole fleet divestment, which would bring big savings.

I’d just say you never get everything you ask for when you put forward a budget. Some things are always walked back for a variety of reasons. I talked to you before about $30 billion we had found through our own night court [review for savings]. We put that on the table. By the time we were all done with the puts and takes we ended up preserving about $21 billion of $30 billion going forward. So I was actually pretty happy that the story that we were telling really resonated within the building as we went forward. On average, we feel like we preserved about 87 percent of what we put forward that we would call our future capability list. That’s not bad. Given the fact that our story tightened over time within the Department of Defense, I’m feeling pretty confident in our discussion with Congress. At least we can lay out the why. It’s going to be hard asking Congress to retire legacy aircraft. It’s always hard. But I think we have a really positive story to tell with the analysis behind it.

One of the things that’s different between me and some of my predecessors who have taken the same approach in terms of retiring legacy [aircraft] is we have four hot lines producing new aircraft right now. We have a new tanker line, new bomber line, new fighter line, new trainer line, some concurrent and new ISR lines. I’m retiring old, but I do have hot production lines that are producing aircraft. Albeit, not as fast as I’d like and [we’re] not buying as many as I’d like each year — but it does give you mitigation.

This year, the Space Force budget basically came out of the Air Force’s budget. Do you think that’s sustainable?

I don’t think it’s going to be sustainable for what the nation requires when it comes to space capability. That’s why that’s one of our very top investment strategies; other than joint all-domain command control, the next thing is dominating space.

I do think that that the requirement for space capability is going to grow. It’s why Chief [of Space Operations Gen. John] Raymond and I have been working together with and for [Air Force] Secretary [Barbara] Barrett to be sure that we articulate, under his lead, the capability we need to procure and how quickly. What architecture do we believe is defendable and sustainable for the way we intend to fight?

Does that result in a bigger top line for the Department of the Air Force just to meet both services’ needs?

Hard to say. I think that we’ll certainly make the case, as will Chief Raymond, for exactly what we think is needed.

Within the Department, the question will be, does this all live under the current Department of the Air Force top line or is there a new model? I think that’s going to be the interesting debate in the FY22 drill.

I heard that you had dinner a couple weeks ago with a bunch of defense industry CEOs.

I did.

What was your message to them?

We’ve done a series of “issue dinners.” We invite in stakeholders to have really meaningful discussions.

This was one that was really focused on JADC2. What were the industry concerns, but also ideas? How do we move forward together in this? A lot of it was a discussion about how we make what we’re asking for profitable. To me that’s the tipping point for industry. A CEO has reporting responsibility for quarterly earnings. How do we fit inside a CEO’s world so what we’re asking for — open mission system, common data architecture, data shared across companies — is profitable? I’m not sure.

One of the conversations we had that was really good was: Are we having a mature dialogue about data or are we talking past each other? I think we’re talking past each other a lot.

When we talk about data, it’s not all or none. We tend to have this discussion that says, “Well, we want you to share everything.” That’s not going to work. We’ve got to understand that there’s certain elements of data that a company has got to protect. But I’ve [also] got to work at the speed of relevance against a China-Russia threat and having zero access to data is the recipe for failure.

Somewhere between those bookends is the sweet spot. We've got to find it.

The fiscal 2021 budget request was released Feb. 10 by the White House. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
The fiscal 2021 budget request was released Feb. 10 by the White House. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

You’ve only got a couple months left as chief of staff. You’ve made multidomain command and control — now referred to as JADC2 — one of your big priorities. Can you talk a little bit about where you want to see that effort when you leave?

Right now we’re really focused on making sure that my fellow joint chiefs truly believe that we have their equities covered.

I take very seriously [Army Chief of Staff] Gen. [James] McConville’s concerns that he shared with me. He’s got a lot of money right now invested in the [Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System and related command-and-control system] that the Army is invested in. He’s concerned about the scale.

[Chief of Naval Operations] Adm. [Michael] Gilday [also] has legitimate concerns about ensuring that his investment to connect the Navy at sea is protected and can scale for naval warfare and naval operations. Same thing for [Marine Corps Commandant] Gen. [David] Berger in the amphibious setting.

So how do we scale this?

What I want to do in these next few months is make sure that we get to a point where they’re comfortable. We’re not just paying lip service but are diving into this so that we’re moving forward as a joint team and not just an Air Force team. That’s job one.

You said in the past that you would like to see the Multi-Domain Command and Control and the Advanced Battle Management systems become a joint program managed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Is that still a goal for you?

Actually I think it already is happening. Right now, joint all-domain command and control has joint staff, vice chairman sponsorship. There’s a cross functional team that is a combination of OSD and joint staff that’s leading this effort. So in some ways we’re the executioner. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this, which is why, again, it’s so important for my joint teammates to be confident that we’re serious about covering their equities going forward.

Right now the Air Force is kind of putting the money up for this. It’s leading a lot of these experiments. Do you think it should stay that way?

Actually [with] this particular budget cycle, it wasn’t just Air Force money going into this. I think you’re going to see more and more of an OSD joint staff commitment as we go forward with services all putting in what we need to move our services forward.

A year and a half ago, the Air Force said it needed 386 operational squadrons by 2030 to meet the Russian and Chinese threat. Is that dead?

No.

Then why is there no plan to get there?

Well, there’s a difference between the Air Force we need and the Air Force that we can afford. When Congress asked the question, what do you need to be able to adequately support the National Defense Strategy to moderate risk — and that’s as far as I can say in an unclassified setting — we ran 2,000 computer iterations against different force elements, different combinations. What we came up with is what we rolled out in answer to the congressional question — to actually defeat a nuclear peer threat in a 2030ish scenario, it requires 386 operational squadrons.

Now, that analysis still stands today, and if we had the money, we would absolutely be building to that capacity. But you’ve got to make trades within every chief’s sandbox: capability, capacity, readiness. There was not the resources to go just capacity, and frankly that would not have been the right decision because you also need increased capability.

What we found in our war games is hypersonics, artificial intelligence, directed energy, quantum, AI — all of that required the investment first in JADC2.

It sounds like you’re saying that 386 was right, but that it’s impossible under current resourcing.

Yeah, but that’s not a surprise.

But then why not pivot to talking about a different construct and different goal?

I wouldn’t pivot, because the answer to the question we asked still holds true. Again, there’s a difference between the Air Force we need and the Air Force we can afford. The Air Force we can afford looks different, it operates differently, and it may not ever get to the 386 operational squadrons we’d like. But [we have a] hot [production] line of bombers, a hot line of tankers, a hot line of fighters. We are building capacity over time.

The 386 target is still the absolute viable target. And I shouldn’t back off the answer to the question just because we’re not able to afford it. It’s still the absolute answer to the question we got from Congress. And it’s not a gold-plated number. We had 402 operational squadrons when we kicked a non nuclear middleweight out of Kuwait. And we have 312 today, and we’re saying we need less than we needed in 1991 to defeat China and Russia.