WASHINGTON – What a buzzkill.
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley faced a huge ballroom on Monday morning ready to kick off the biggest Air Force conference of the year. But instead of giving them the old Rick Perry red meat and whipping the crowd into a frenzied, spontaneous singing of “Into the wild blue yonder,” Donley delivered a dose of Jimmy Carter malaise.
The Air Force is at war, but there also is a war on debts and deficits in Washington, he warned a cavernous ballroom of generals gathered the Air Force Association Air and Space Conference. “Efficiency” programs won’t save enough money. The Air Force must be part of spending-cut discussions. Get ready for the knife. But keep doing everything you’re doing right now.
“We will need to accept greater risk in some areas, terminate some lower-priority programs, streamline others, continue driving efficiency in our operations, and make some tough choices about the core tenets of our national security strategy,” Donley said. “It’s safe to say that every single line of the budget is under scrutiny.”
He also said international “uncertainty” requires a balanced Air Force ready to remain forward deployed, continue fighting across the conflict spectrum, fulfill current war missions and be ready for future threats, and do everything the joint staff demands of it “from humanitarian assistance to nuclear deterrence.”
The word of the day: balance. (That was also Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno’s word, as he reviews the Army’s force structure under the same spending/threat crunch.)
Donley covered all of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s talking points: the military must do its part to find cuts; no “hollow force”; “keep faith” with troops (on promised benefits). If the Air Force is too large, it is unsustainable. If the Air Force is too small, it is unsustainable. It must be modernized but not at the expense of personnel.
He singled out some capabilities for protection.
“There is no alternative to the F-35,” he said, answering congressional murmurs that perhaps that entire program deserves the axe.
Also worth saving: special operations forces; nuclear missiles and a new long-range, nuclear-armed bomber; airlift and aerial refueling; the decade’s massive build up in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, particularly aboard drones; and anything cyber.
From disaster responses to Libya-type no-fly zones, Donley later explained to reporters the force must continue to be prepared to do it all.
“We know that we will be asked to do those sorts of missions in the future,” he said.
Air Force leadership already has determined that none of the Air Force’s twelve “core functions” required by the Joint Chiefs can be cut, he said.
So, if the Air Force must have everything and be prepared to do everything, what are the hard choices?
“The choices are how fast you can respond, how many of certain types of operations can be undertaken at the same time, or the distance in time between the first operation and second operation – those are the choices,” he said. That also includes the U.S. military footprint around the world and potential “trade-offs” in the balance of troops in Europe, the Persian Gulf and the Pacific.
But for his speech, the audience sat almost entirely silent -- a marked difference from past conferences. One line about saving the nuclear triad drew a smattered slow-clap.
Even Donley’s built-in applause lines fell flat.
This is a “season of important national debate and there will likely be more budget churn to come,” he said, but they will ensure the U.S. “continues to have the world’s finest Air Force for generations to come.”