Air Force Secretary Michael Donley made the obligatory genuflections and concessions Monday in his keynote address at his service's big annual trade show outside Washington. The Air Force needs to play a role in budget reduction. Everything needs to be ... wait for it ... "on the table," including pay and benefits for airmen -- but not today's airmen or their families. Still, Donley said, the U.S. needs to protect some key aspects of today's Air Force.
Like fighters. And bombers. And ISR. And space. And its cyber-capabilities. And air mobility -- which, as he reminded the audience that didn't need reminding, is as a "critical enabler" for the rest of the military. It must protect what the Air Force's calls its "expeditionary" presence overseas. (Marines have a different definition of expeditionary, but let's leave that aside.) Donley said he wants the Air Force to keep a presence, whether active, guard or reserve, in all 50 states. He got his only mid-speech applause from the packed room when he said the U.S. must preserve the nuclear triad, of which two-thirds belongs to the Air Force.
In other words, even though checked off the necessary political boxes by acknowledging the need for "hard choices," Donley named virtually everything the Air Force does as essential to its future. In business terms, that means he believes the Air Force will buy the F-35, the KC-46A, its new super-bomber, its T-X trainer, new utility and combat search and rescue helicopters -- and he even mentioned the need for "presidential support aircraft."
Donley did acknowledge that the Air Force that would buy all that stuff and do all those missions might be smaller than it is today, but he said "the joint and coalition team will continue to rely on the U.S. Air Force to provide unique capabilities whose tailored, timely and precise effects span the spectrum of operations, from humanitarian assistance to nuclear deterrence."
That's certainly true, but the Air Force's track record does not necessarily inspire confidence that it will be able to execute all the programs Donley vowed to defend -- at once, as its budgets are shrinking. The Air Force has already tried and failed once to build a next-generation bomber and a new combat search and rescue helicopter, and even its attempt to replace its ancient UH-1 Huey utility helos out in missile country has not been a smooth one.
There's a case to be made, although Donley did not make it, that the security environment of the 21st century demands that DoD break with modern history and fund the services unequally, making the strategic bet that everyone wants but hasn't yet materialized. A smaller Army might offset the cost to maintain the "balance" that Donley wants in tomorrow's Air Force, although that's a battle that none of the services may want to try to fight -- yet.