WASHINGTON — When Gen. Mark Welsh became the 20th Air Force chief of staff in August 2012, he entered into an incredibly turbulent time for the Pentagon. Sequestration-related budget cuts loomed, as did an expected transition from a decade of constant war into more of a peacetime force and the need to recapitalize a rapidly aging fleet of aircraft.

Now, with just under a year to go before he retires, Welsh finds himself the most senior member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — and still confronted with many of the same challenges as when he came into office. He talked exclusively with Defense News on Sept. 1. Click here for more of our coverage from AFA.Q. How concerned are you about operating under a continuing resolution (CR)? There's an assumption we're going to have at least a first quarter CR, and there's some talk it could be as long as a year.

A. There's nothing good about a continuing resolution. I think everybody understands that. If a CR extends less than three months, which is a pretty common occurrence for us sadly now in the government, we are able to actually adjust during the fiscal year as long as you have a budget by the end of the third month. If you don't get the CR until later in the year, you just simply don't have the time to execute the program, obligate the money, and acquire things the way you could if you had more time in the year.

You can't make quantity increases in existing programs — so if you want to buy more munitions, if you want to buy more C-130s under a mulityear program, if you want to buy more F-35s, if you want to do any of those kinds of things, you can't under a CR. Then there's some basic things that we use for force management like bonus pays, incentives, all of those kinds of things. You have to go back and get special approval under a CR to use them. So it creates a lot of work, a lot of churn, and a lot of confusion for everybody involved, by the way, not just for the Air Force. It's just not a great way to do business, so nobody is a fan of CRs. Nobody.

Q. Where do you stand on the question of should the service chiefs have more authority, and where do you stand when you look at the acquisition reform language from the Senate?

A. I think all of the service chiefs believe they should be involved in the acquisition process. I believe I am involved in the acquisition process. I'm kind of the keeper of the requirements for the Air Force. If somebody wants to change the requirement set for the long-range strike bomber, or for the F-35 or the KC-46 or any other major programs, they have to come through me. And so with that authority and that responsibility, I believe that I have a pretty good handle on what's going into our major acquisition programs.

I get a chance to make input. I get a chance to ask questions. It gives me the opportunity to advise [Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James] as we approach different acquisition timeline decisions that are required for her to be involved in as our acquisition, because the acquisition authorities run through the secretary. I have never felt disconnected from acquisition since I've been in this job.

Q. Theoretically speaking, though, would you welcome more authority for yourself?

A. I think you have to be a little careful what you ask for. Here's why. I spent a few years working in the acquisition business in the Air Force, and I know how much work goes into it. I know how much energy is spent trying to get these programs right. I know the level of expertise of our acquisition professionals that do the job. I think the service chief's job is to be very clear and very actively involved in the requirements side of the house.

Having the ability, or even the requirement, to be writing major decisions and milestones as they occur and what the service decides would make sense to me. Having a connection to that, so [that] it couldn't happen around you accidentally or due to your negligence, I think, would be a good way of looking at it. Putting acquisition authorities into the service chief's box may create a problem because it would completely change the job, and we'd have to think through that because you'd have to spend an awful lot of time getting smart about the acquisition business.

Q. Looking toward fiscal year 2017, what is driving your budget decisions?

A. The big things are that, first, the demand signal is going up. Second, resources are not. Third, flexibility is going down. Those three things mean that we have to set a series of logic-based decision rules that we follow as we build a budget. For us the first thing we look at is we're going to prioritize delivering trained and ready airmen to the joint fight, because fundamentally that is our job. You can't afford to not maximize your success in today's fight thinking about something down the road. That's the first thing we'll do. The second thing we have to do, though, is [to] understand that being ready and capable today does not relieve us of the responsibility to be ready and capable tomorrow.

As an air force, we have to be both. Choosing between them is just a false choice from a national-security perspective. So wherever we can, we have to make the decision to minimize investment in old things and mission capability that we don't absolutely need today, and transfer that investment to modernization for the future because 10 years from now, the threat and the scenario will be completely different.

Q. That sounds like another year of focus on modernization.

A. We can't quit thinking about fighting a high-tech, full-spectrum conflict. We just can't. It's absolutely the wrong thing to do for the nation. We wouldn't be doing our job. So we've got to figure out how we modernize this force. It's fundamentally important to the Air Force.

That's what we're trying to do with JSTARS. That's what we're trying to do with AWACS. That's what we're trying to do with EC-130. It's really, really important that we get this stuff done. It means that you have to accept risk at some point, strategic risk at some point, in order to make this recapitalization. If you don't accept any risk for the next 10 years, then 10 to 15 years from now you won't have all of that capability, and what you do have will not be useful in the threat environment you're facing. To me that would be not doing our job.

Q. How is Russia factoring into your long-term plans?

A. Well, Russia is not new. We didn't lose sight of Russia. Russia has been recapitalizing for a while. Their capability never completely disappeared. Their nuclear arsenal certainly never went away. Their Air Force has had some great equipment for a while. The big thing to us is that the capability gap that our Air Force used to enjoy over every other air force on the planet is shrinking. I mean, it is clearly shrinking. There is no question about that. How you manage that gap closing is very important. You've got to be very careful the gap doesn't close so much that they get enough momentum that they pass you and the gap completely closes. That's a very difficult line to walk, in my view.

I don't think we should give up the capability advantage. I don't think that's what anybody in this nation expects the Air Force or any other military service to do. And so we have been talking about the need to modernize to be able to maintain the gap. The closer those capabilities come, the more risk you put into all of the men and women who are operating the equipment, whatever kind of equipment it is.

Q. Do restraints on the use of air power need to be eased in the fight vs. the Islamic State group?

A. What I think about this doesn't matter. The United States Air Force doesn't make that kind of policy decision. We execute the policy of the nation. You can make an argument anywhere on the spectrum of full-scale conflict down to doing what we're doing today. The problem is there needs to be clear guidance set. It has been set, and it's being executed very clearly. The air commanders in theater live and breath this 24-7. Our airmen who go over there and perform for them do the same thing. This is very well done. The discussion about how should you do it is an interesting discussion, but you can come up with a thousand different answers here and somebody's going to argue with every one of them.

Q. Are boots on the ground necessary to complete the anti-Islamic State mission?

A. It depends on what you want to do with the mission, over time. We need to wait and see what the game plan is, what the national policy decisions are. The debate between the executive branch, the legislative branch, the department, all of that is a very important debate and it needs to happen, but the right people need to [have it].

Q. The F-22 has been used regularly in operations over the past year. Are you concerned about wear and tear on that limited fleet?

A. No. We have to set an operational tempo that they can maintain. We haven't taken the F-22 and put it into a ridiculous operational tempo yet. Right now the F-22 is being used in places where you think you might need the capability the airplane brings. When there's a potential of an integrated air-defense system being brought to bear, hopefully it never happens, but when there is, you want the F-22 around. When there's the potential of a higher capability and higher threat spectrum aircraft and integrated air-defense systems like you have in Eastern Europe, then you want the F-22 around. Where you need it, use it, and where you could potentially need it, you want to make sure that it's ready to use there.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

More In Interviews