Since revealing the next-generation bomber’s name and teasing mock-up images four years ago, the Air Force has tried to strike a balance between talking openly about the B-21 Raider acquisition effort -- the Pentagon's biggest since the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program kicked off in the 1990s -- and guarding details of its advanced technology.
The future stealth bomber's design and early development have hit planned milestones, defense officials have said. But the project remains under a veil of secrecy as the Pentagon pursues its strategy to take on more formidable foes, such as Russia and China.
The years of secrecy raise questions about what else the service has in development, especially as this year's Air Force budget proposal asked lawmakers to support further investment in classified programs. Should the American public keep an eye out for other secret weapons to make a surprise debut?
"Maybe," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, who's set to retire Aug. 6, said in a July 22 interview. "As it should be no surprise to you, that of the services, the vast majority of those [secret] things, those capabilities are in the Air Force -- and the Space Force."
This reporter posed a similar question to then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in 2019.
"We always have things in the works that we can't talk about," Goldfein said. "This is part of what I would call a reveal-and-conceal strategy. It's a little hard to deter someone if they don't know what you have."
He continued, "If you truly want to deter, which is our overall intent because we'd prefer not to fight, then you have to reveal at a time and place of your choosing what you have. That's why I say maybe, because that's a secretary of defense, really a presidential decision, of when we reveal."
Goldfein spoke on a number of topics, from his mission to build a more inclusive service to ensuring bomber forces stay ready. He also reflected on his own high-profile shootdown and rescue in Serbia in 1999. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Military.com: In 2017, you told DefenseOne that the Air Force had been preparing to put bombers back on 24-hour alert status in part by upgrading facilities for hundreds of airmen to support the potential mission. This year, there have been shorter, but more frequent bomber rotations all around the globe. Are these part of the same strategy, or what's the current status of getting these airmen "24-hour alert" ready?
Goldfein: Bombers are always prepared to go on alert. And they stay in readiness status that we track on behalf of the U.S. Strategic Command commander. He always knows on any given day what the status of our bomber force is. And so they're prepared at any given time, should he call for them to go into an alert status. … They don't sit alert day to day. But we do exercise that pretty robustly, [such as] the command-and-control communications, etc. When it comes to facilities, we always have to have facilities where we can generate the bomber force, should it be required. And so those facility upgrades and improvements compete for resources like any other facility upgrade, but I will say I'm pretty excited about moving out on the recapitalization of the nuclear enterprise going forward. Those investments are absolutely critical.
Military.com: You spearheaded a large initiative to study how the service can produce more female-friendly gear and uniforms and updated the Air Force song to make it gender neutral, among other actions to make the service more inclusive. What work would you still like to see done to create greater equality for female airmen, and how long do you believe it will be before there are women in Air Force Special Operations Command as operators, aside from Tactical Air Control Party Officers (TACP-O)? (The career was formerly known as air liaison officers, or ALOs.)
Goldfein: We of the services had the least number of combat positions that were previously closed to women when it was decided that all combat positions would be open, so it wasn't as big a lift for us to open those positions. But what we've got to do is get beyond the "first" this, first that. We have [women] in leadership positions. In fact, part of the general officer corps in AFSOC, so that's already there now -- maybe not in the numbers I'd like to see. But we need to represent the population that we're privileged to defend. What I want to see is this journey that accelerates, that makes the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard. And the right thing is a culture of inclusiveness and belonging, where a young woman who decided to hold up her right hand and swears to defend the Constitution and defend the homeland, that her journey in [the] United States Air Force is one that's that's respectful, that creates an environment where, when she has life choices -- like wanting to start a family, she has the same options as her male counterparts. ... We've got a task force that's up and running full time that's working these issues. And I see this as a journey, not a destination. Because as the environment changes, we've got to change, and we've got to be the best organization on the planet, both inside the military and out when it comes to women in the workforce.
Military.com: You were shot down in an F-16 during Operation Allied Force over Serbia. How did that experience shape your decisions as you rose through the ranks, and what do you want airmen today to understand from that event?
Goldfein: The shootdown. So here I was, guiding in the rescue helicopter, as they're dodging surface-to-air missiles. And they're risking everything. They're not slowing down. They're not going to go home without me. You won't always want to be someone who's worthy of that risk, because it could have easily ended differently … and so ever since that night, [it's been] about paying it forward. And the message I would get out to airmen, and mainly to leaders, when I've used this experience -- it's to talk about the importance of character. And the journey that we're all on on this journey toward impeccable character. And I call it a journey because I'm not sure anybody ever arrives [at a resolution]. I certainly haven't. I'm still working on it. We don't know, especially as officers, when some young airman is going to risk everything to pull us out of bad guy land or a burning truck or an aircraft or you name it, and risk everything to save us. All we know is, on that day, we better be worthy of their risk.
[My experience] actually fits within a vast number of scenarios to talk about ... especially when I'm talking to squadron commanders about preparing their primary role. … I have exact clarity on one thing. And that is, we have from right now, this moment, until the war starts to get our forces ready. We ought to treat every day like it's a blessing, as if it's our last day of peace, and have this sense of urgency so that we're training hard, and we're bleeding in training so we don't bleed in combat. And that's been my message from the beginning. [Whether it was Desert Storm or a Red Flag exercise], my job now is to produce that same confidence for young captains and staff sergeants that we send into harm's way. I want them to feel the same confidence. That's the importance of training.
Military.com: The Air Force has seen and responded to a number of major weather events, including hurricanes, during your tenure as chief. There have been studies done on how the Air Force can better prepare for storms, and how the climate affects day-to-day operations. What has the service learned from these events, and are you studying how Air Force missions potentially contribute to climate change?
Goldfein: We study these things all the time. So, we are the largest agency in government when it comes to procurement and use of fossil fuel. What I constantly think about as chief is, 'Are we good stewards of the environment?' Are we ... thinking about hazardous materials?' One example, we're doing some really creative work on engine technology right now, where we're [looking at] getting up to 30% to 40% reduction in fuel. We're always looking at alternative fuel sources that are more natural fuel sources. It's a breakthrough technology that's moving rather quickly. Because if we could move to an alternate fuel source that was more natural and had [fewer] emissions, if we could move to using less of it, because our engines are far more efficient? That would mean 30% reduction in fuel use across the largest agency in the United States government that uses fuel? That's powerful.