Nearly the entire history of flight can be traced while circling Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein’s Pentagon office.
There’s a framed scrap of fabric from the original Wright Brothers flyer, not much bigger than a postage stamp, that was given to the first chief of staff, Carl Spaatz. Goldfein points out the bulky camera used to photograph another Wright plane during a 1908 demonstration for the War Department at Fort Myer, Virginia.
Then there’s the globe Hap Arnold used during World War II — with a gash above Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain that prompts Goldfein to wonder what frustrated Arnold that particular day — plus photographs of legendary aviators such as the Tuskegee Airmen, and photographs, a parachute and a Hershey bar from the Berlin Airlift.
As Goldfein returns to the spot where he began, he points out a framed tribute to Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, the combat controller and Medal of Honor candidate who was killed during a fierce firefight during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in 2002, and a propeller from Wildfire 54, the MQ-1 Predator that flew over Robert’s Ridge during that battle.
“It’s amazing, when you think about it,” Goldfein said. “We like to trace our roots back to being bicycle mechanics. That’s sort of not too far below the surface.”
As the Air Force celebrates its 70th birthday, Goldfein is thinking not only about how far the service has come, but where it’s going next. After all, he said, when the old Army Air Corps emerged from World War II and became the modern Air Force, it was primarily a bomber and escort force.
But over the decades, its mission sets expanded to incorporate responsibilities as varied as two-thirds of the nuclear triad, an arsenal of precision-guided munitions and a cadre of battlefield airmen to help guide them to their targets, a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, a constellation of satellites, and many others.
“One of my favorite quotes from Hap Arnold is when he said, ‘The challenge with air power is we make it look too easy,’ ” Goldfein said. “I wonder sometimes what he would say today if he saw the orchestration and the choreography of what it is that we do — not only in the Middle East but also in the Pacific and European theaters as well. … To see the diversity of missions that airmen are performing today is stunning, really. Today, how many billion people on the globe can rely on a GPS signal that’s being managed by six young airmen at Schriever Air Force Base?”
While some in Congress murmur about the possibility of creating a new Space Corps service, Goldfein notes that the Air Force already provides 90 percent of the military’s work force dealing with space. And, he said, space is going to become an even greater responsibility and key focus area for the Air Force.
“I see myself as the space joint chief that’s connecting the requirements of my fellow service chiefs and the combatant commanders with the capabilities that we bring to the fight,” Goldfein said.
Space is “already critical to everything that we do militarily, but I think it’s actually going to be more important as we look forward.”
For the past few decades, the Air Force has operated against its adversaries in virtually uncontested airspace.
But, Goldfein said, the service can’t take that for granted in the future.
“Owning the ultimate high ground is continually going to be important as we go forward,” Goldfein said. “Air superiority is not an American birth right. It’s actually something we have to plan for, train for, fight for and win. I see it as nothing short of a moral obligation that when any soldier or airman hears a jet noise overhead, they don’t look up. They know it’s us.”
The Air Force also needs to keep building up allies’ air capabilities to bolster America’s ability to project power forward, he said.
But more and more, recent conflicts around the world are incorporating attacks in cyberspace. When asked what worries him most about the future, Goldfein said, “Our ability to stay ahead of our adversaries when it comes to procuring information technology.”
He praised the passion, energy and talent of the Air Force’s acquisition force, but said the current procurement system is designed for hardware, not rapidly changing information systems.
Goldfein said he and Secretary Heather Wilson need to make sure those airmen don’t run into obstacles when trying to keep ahead of the enemy.
“The industrial age model, in which it often takes years to actually have the technology show up, or to transition from the lab to the flight line, quite frankly, is not serving us well today and is not going to serve us well in the future,” Goldfein said. “It’s about information flow that’s got to happen at the speed of light; that’s going to be the secret to our success in the future.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.