NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- While soldiers and Marines on the ground may feel a sense of relief when an A-10 Thunderbolt II does a "gun run" over enemy territory, they should know that airpower alone isn't going to save the day in the future, the Air Force's top general said Wednesday.
"Whether you want to look at all the operational plans that are on the table ... the National Defense Strategy and the challenges we face, airpower is central in all of it," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in an interview with Military.com at the annual Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber conference.
"It is about air and space power, about owning the high ground," he said. "This capability that we've brought through our history that is going to be absolutely central to every fight going forward is a significant part of our message. What you're not going to hear from us is an 'airpower uber alles [above everything else]' message.
"That we can do this alone, that we can do this without our joint teammates … that's not a message you're going to hear from me, because I've never been in a fight in my entire career and done it with airpower only," said Goldfein, who was shot down in his F-16CJ fighter jet over Serbia in 1999, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. He has credited the "networked approach" to helping combat search-and-rescue teams locate and rescue him during the assault.
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Goldfein has pushed to make his service more competitive and collaborative. As Air Force chief of staff, he has stressed the importance of partnerships with allies and joint services, as well as the imperative to develop a more streamlined approach to carrying out the military's global operations. "[The Air Force has] always been a part of a joint team," he said. "And it's always been a part of a coalition."
It is rumored that Goldfein is one of three generals being considered to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with the anticipated retirement of Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford next year, according to a new Wall Street Journal report.
Thinking Joint in Multi-Domain Operations
During his speech Tuesday, Goldfein pushed the advancement of multi-domain command and control, a concept more or less born out of then-Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work's "Third Offset" strategy.
Pentagon leaders say they want troops thinking more about fighting across the multi-domain battlespace -- incorporating space, cyber, etc. -- and for the last few years have funneled resources to properly train and equip service members for future wars.
For this reason, the Air Force has slowly been moving away from aircraft-only or equipment-only solutions. The strategy speaks to how the service is developing its next best weapon or a "family of systems" that link, connect and share with one another to read the battlespace in real time.
It has been reported the Air Force is not only considering an advanced "F-15X" fourth-plus generation fighter for its inventory, but is also open to an F-22 Raptor-F-35 Joint Strike Fighter hybrid concept.
When asked about those ideas, Goldfein said the discussion needs to go beyond aircraft and back to the cross-domain, cross-platform solution. "Before I'm ready to talk about any particular platform solution, the first thing I want to understand is, 'What is the [concept of operations], what's the kill chain, how does this contribute to controlling [and] to closing the kill chain to be able to accomplish the objectives.' "
He continued, "Once we have that dialogue, I'm open to a platform discussion. But this is about integrated solutions and bringing a family of systems that operates in all domains. Some portion of the joint team needs to be a penetrating force that can do the five Ps: penetrate, persist, protect, pervade and punish."
The possible mix of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters in this kill chain "is an interesting conversation," Goldfein said, but it must be solved with a broader approach.
A recent example is how the Air Force got lawmakers to think beyond the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System program, he said. Through the fiscal 2019 defense budget, the service officially put to bed the JSTARS recapitalization effort. Instead, the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act granted additional funding for the next-generation Advanced Battle Management System in lieu of a new fleet.
"There were strong opinions on all sides, and we laid out our case," Goldfein said. "There are so many technologies and capabilities that are available now that were never available when we originally brought Joint Stars into being as a test … and experimental platform. We have more options on the table now, and the question became, 'Is it a better solution to network than it is to talk about the specific platform' … and I think that that argument carried the day."
Goldfein said he's certain that troops on the ground in a contested space would have been "blind to enemy movement on the previous [recapitalization] solution."
Using a suite of sensors instead, the Air Force will be able to gather and provide more intel and information to service members "on day one, or even before that. Before the fight actually starts," he said.