WASHINGTON — Air Force Under Secretary Matt Donovan is used to playing a critical but often backstage role in shaping policy and budgets. In his most recent job as the Senate Armed Services Committee’s majority policy director, the former F-15 pilot helped helm Sen. John McCain’s tough criticism of Air Force programs like those of the B-21 bomber and F-35 fighter jet.

Now Donovan finds himself on the other side of the budgetary process, as he works within the Pentagon to help Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein figure out how best to fund a host of competing priorities.

In his first-ever interview in his new role, Donovan sat down with Defense News in October to chat about upcoming Air Force budgets and the service’s relationship with Congress.

Now that you’ve been in this role for about two months, what do you see emerging as your priorities? I know that your main job is to support the secretary as she mans, trains and equips the force. But do you see any sort of pet projects coming up for you?

Primarily my role is to keep the trains running on time. [Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson] kind of looks up and out as the secretary and chief of staff do. I kind of tend to focus in and down.

I think the secretary leans on me because of my background and my experience in the programming world. In other words, POM [program objective memorandum] builds, I have a lot of experience doing that here in the building and understanding how the process works — how to interface with OSD [the Office of the Secretary of Defense]. But then also my time I had on the Hill is valuable as well because now I understand the perspective of Congress, and so I can help sort of translate between the Air Force, Department of Defense and the authorizing committees as well.

I think the perception is that the Air Force’s relationship with Congress hasn’t really been the best over the last couple of years, particularly with SASC, which you just came from. Do you see yourself being able to improve that relationship?

I agree with that assessment. The other thing is, I worked for Sen. McCain, who has had his ups and downs with the Air Force. But what I remind people — and especially people inside the Air Force — is he is as tough on any service as he is on the Air Force. I’ve personally witnessed that with his interactions with other members of the service. He cares very deeply about defense, as you certainly know.

And he also cares very deeply about taking care of the American taxpayer dollar. So when things don’t go so well, that’s when he really gets engaged in certain areas as you’re certainly familiar. I think part of the value I bring to this is, No. 1, I brought value to the SASC because I had 30 years active duty with the Air Force and then six years as a civilian. I was able to go over and sort of translate the other direction as well, too. Although, I had to follow Sen. McCain’s guidance. He was my boss. I wouldn’t say I was easy on the Air Force, and some folks would probably say I was tough on the Air Force, but I was able to provide that translation to the committee members on just where the Air Force was going, what they were trying to do, where their shortfalls were with budget and policy and authorizations, and that sort of thing. I think it was just really fortunate for me to get the opportunity to come do this job after having the experience in the Air Force and then the Hill and then get to come back.

Do you think you can be the person to help to smooth things over and create a better relationship going forward?

You know Sen. McCain has his moments with the Air Force, as do all members occasionally when there’s a pet issue that kind of becomes a burr in their saddle. But the team that’s in place now, and especially Gen. Goldfein, [starting from] when he was the vice chief, he put in place some changes that really helped the relationship with Congress.

The Air Force used to go submit their budget and then go tell the Congress what they were going to do. In other words, a fait accompli. As the Air Force SASC primary portfolio guy ... [Goldfein] would now come to talk to me about things that they were thinking about doing. And then I would bring him in to see Sen. McCain, and he would have a good discussion with Sen. McCain to get his advice, to kind of identify any pitfalls.

When we talked a couple of months ago, I asked you what you were thinking about regarding the B-21 and the secrecy about the contract value. Do you see that changing anytime soon? Do you see that needing to change anytime soon?

Well, it’s something that we’re always taking a look at. It’s funny because they knew I was the guy that was always kind of pushing on that from the Senate side and then when I get over here … but I’ll tell you, Gen. Goldfein had met with Sen. McCain on several occasions to explain to him the need for operational security and not revealing capabilities that could be harmful to the country if adversaries were to get a hold of it, and Sen. McCain understood that. He still believes that the American taxpayer needs to know where the money is spent. But one of the things I’ve been able to do is come over here and go: We need to release things as soon as we’re sure that we can. I know that Gen. Goldfein still does a review every couple of months and the B-21 folks come talk to him and give him an update because he is very responsive to Sen. McCain’s desires to make sure the American people know.

So that’s ultimately a call that comes down to the chief of staff, I’m guessing.

Well, I mean military operational security really is one of his best military advice roles. And Sen. McCain certainly respects that of his four-star service chiefs as well, too. He does take seriously their military advice to both him and to the president up the chain.

But I’m guessing you don’t see them releasing the contract value any time soon.

Yeah, I think, you know, I suspect it will be some time. As I said, if conditions change as we get farther along in the program, I think the chief and the secretary will certainly consider that and release as much as they can. You know one of the issues is the budget for the B-21 is in the unclassified budget, right? So, for example, in the FY18 request that Congress is considering right now, we asked for $2 billion, and I do believe if you’re going to put $2 billion in the budget, then the American people should know what that’s for.

And I know that they have talked about some of the activities that they’re doing and that they’re in the development phase and they’re staffing up with all that and also doing their design work — engineering drawings and that sort of thing.

If you recall from my confirmation hearing, Sen. Angus King said: “I want you to manage the hell out of that program.” So, I’ve taken that seriously. I’ve already gone down [to B-21 prime contractor Northrop Grumman’s facilities] to visit. Even the short time here I’ve gone down to visit the contractor and make sure that they know that I’m watching them, as well as Congress, and we’ll keep the pressure on them to make sure we stay on cost, on schedule and on performance on this very critical program.

What should we expect from the FY19 budget?

You’re familiar with [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis’ budget guidance that he released back about a week after he took over. In FY17, we’re going to concentrate on readiness and filling in the readiness holes. In FY18, we’re going to continue that. And then FY19 is really the first budget that the administration and the members of the administration like the secretary of defense can really do from beginning to end. Of course, he’s also developing a new national defense strategy that’s in conjunction with the national security strategy that’s also being developed by the White House. That has certainly impacted [it].

Do you expect a lot more money to be funneled into modernization?

Rebuilding and increases in lethality means that we’ll probably increase capacity and/or capability depending on which service budget you’re looking at. But the president has said that he’s going to rebuild the military, so we expect once we get the guidance from the national defense strategy, national security strategy that I’ll follow his statements.

Do you feel like the White House is satisfied now with the progress that the Air Force is making in cutting costs on the Presidential Aircraft Replacement program?

Yes, I believe that. PAR is a different animal because it’s of course the symbol of Air Force One when the president goes and lands someplace, especially in foreign nations. But there are also strict requirements because the president is the commander in chief, [he] has to have communications that are instantly available worldwide. It also has to have some protection to protect the president. It’s a very expensive program. But they have gone through many reviews since this program started to try to reduce costs. One of the things I noticed is that when [Joint Chiefs Chairman] Gen. [Joseph] Dunford testified, he said they removed the aerial refueling capability. That actually was removed in 2013 when they did a requirements review and scrub process. … Because the new aircraft and the new platform has such longer range and could carry more fuel, that it really was decided that it didn’t need that.

All the way back in 2013?

[During] 2013 was the requirements review, and it was validated by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council in 2014, who issued a new capabilities development document that documented that.

Is the Air Force foreseeing a fight on the Hill because of this, though? Sen. Tom Cotton mentioned that he wanted to look into it more.

To be perfectly honest, PAR was in my portfolio when I was a PSM [professional staff member] over there. And that surprised me, too. I didn’t know that it didn’t have air-refueling capability because the current VC-25 does have that refueling capability. But from what I understand it’s rarely, if ever, used because it has such large fuel tanks and it can go for such long distances.

But if the goal is to be able to keep the president in a flying White House on the country’s worst day, wouldn’t you want aerial refueling?

I’m not that familiar with the JROC process that went through this, but I can tell you it was a very deliberate discussion and requirements scrub. JROC is the one who sets the requirements from the Joint Staff and then passes it down through the services as validated requirements. I have no doubt that it went through a very rigorous review.

This interview has been edited and condensed.