Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James coins members of Team Whiteman who helped organize her visit to Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., Nov. 9, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Danielle Quilla)

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James coins members of Team Whiteman who helped organize her visit to Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., Nov. 9, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Danielle Quilla)

With curtain call fast approaching for the Obama administration and Secretary James’ tenure coming to a fast end, many in the force are wondering, “Where do we go from here?”

The force is undoubtedly facing many challenges in all areas. We need maintainers and skilled pilots, we need parts and legacy systems able to keep us fighting well into the future, and we need be prepared for battle in the ever-changing cyber domain.

Recent news shows that while President-elect Trump contends he’s prepared to build an unmatched defense machine, he’s also going to be watching every penny along the way.

All costs aside, both the incoming administration and the new Secretary are going to have to be decisive and deliberate if our branch wants to be postured for success in the coming years.

F-35

 Secretary James said in a recent interview that if President-elect Donald Trump tries to drop the F-35 in favor of the F-18, which he hinted at in a recent tweet, the Air Force would oppose the move.

“The Air Force does not view the F/A-18 and the F-35 to be substitutable at all,” James said. “They fulfill different requirements. They’re both fine aircraft, don’t get me wrong. But it’s fourth generation, and the F-35 is fifth generation.”

But is the F-35 a sustainable resource? The 20-year program is fat with cost overruns, and safety issues that directly affect aircraft reliability and durability.

According to memo dated August 2016, the Department of Defense for Operational Test and Evaluation reported, “The program (F-35) is actually not on a path toward success, but instead on a path toward failing to deliver the full Block 3F capabilities for which the Department is paying almost $400 billion by the scheduled end of System Development and Demonstration in 2018.”

Whether or not we should keep a program is possibly a question best answered by Congress or even in the Oval Office. Maybe it’s time to take a hard, serious look at these programs and take decision-making authority out of the hands of service chiefs and defense contractors and put effective oversight back into the hands our country’s leaders.

MANPOWER

 There is no question our branch is undermanned. We are licking our self-inflicted wound years after former Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh thought it was a good idea to cut 19,000 airmen in one year instead of phasing those cuts as Congress suggested over a five-year period.

“We’re struggling right now [with] 7-level maintainers,” Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody said Sept. 16 at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference. “We need fighter maintainers. We specifically need seasoned 7-levels, crew chiefs. The problem continues to get greater and greater as we bring on more and more of our fifth-generation fighters.”

Even Welsh himself changed his tune toward the end of his tenure.

“Virtually every mission area” faces critical manning shortages, and the Air Force risks burning airmen out. “We’re at 82 to 85 percent manning levels in virtually every mission area,” Welsh said during a discussion at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “We can’t reach in someplace and grab more manpower to fix a problem anymore. And so we have got to figure out different ways of using our people in a more efficient way or we will wear them out. And if we lose them, we lose everything.”

How do future leaders fill the void left behind by leaders who placed more emphasis on PT scores than recruiting and retaining skilled airmen?

Secretary James announced the Air Force’s latest policy covering dress and appearance standards, which is set to be released in the next, few weeks, will allow for a larger demographic of eligible candidates.

“We will be opening up the aperture on tattoos and certain medical conditions that will allow a wider pool of people to come into our Air Force in the future, but of course always, always, always taking into account and keeping extremely high, our standards in the Air Force,” James said.

Broadening the candidate pool is about taking a realistic look at what we’re asking our airman to do.

“If you think about warfare in the future and if you think about … this third offset strategy, which is this interface between man and machine. How much brawn does the military really need and how much intellect?” said Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso in October 2016. “Do I care what a cyber warrior weighs? Do I care that they run a mile and a half in 12 minutes, it gets to this idea: rather than think of the standard for the whole force do we think of individual standards? … [Tattoos] are in vogue so do I really care that somebody has a flower on their arm or on their back? These sleeve tattoos are very popular.”

The Air Force is also trying to sweeten the pot with higher pilot retention bonuses while addressing quality of life concerns.

“We are putting the finishing touches on an initiation plan through our strategic basing process to expand the basing structure and that will help with some of the quality of life concerns that our [drone pilot] force reports to us. We do plan to announce the preferred location for a new [drone pilot] base within the next couple of weeks,” James said.

CYBER THREATS, RESPONSE

 Cyber security is a topic that’s been ‘above the fold’ since the election. However, it’s not a new threat. America has been … and continues to be … under attack from state and non-state actors since the Internet’s earliest beginnings.

Last week’s DIA testimony pointed out the deficiencies America faces regarding the cyber threat. Intelligence officials said the threats are real and admitted our counterintelligence efforts are less than effective.

Where does the Air Force fit in to this intricate game of cat and mouse?

To prevent a cyber 9/11, the Air Force is working toward a streamlined approach and less bureaucracy in responding to emerging cyber threats. Leaders say the decision cycle for response needs to be shortened and there needs to be broader understanding of Information Assurance (IA).

In addition, the new budget reality means that the Department of Defense needs to find more effective, yet less costly ways of securing its networks. Commercializing U.S. government flight and ground operations could be ways to save money while upgrading to the latest technologies available in this arena with equivalent … and in some cases better … security.

We can no longer assume that cyber security is a terrestrial matter alone. Nor can leaders be complacent in thinking that space will remain a peaceful theater. By recognizing how these issues are interconnected and by leveraging commercial innovation, we can improve U.S. national security and global prosperity.

END GAME

The new year is about bringing change. We’ve weathered the storm long enough and must believe our future holds for us an environment where airman quality of life is top priority. Quality of life comes in many forms. It comes in relieving us of redundant extra duties. It comes from giving us the tools we need to do our jobs effectively and it comes from leaders accurately recognizing the reality of our environment. Honest assessments of our hardware and an aggressive approach to fixing our manpower shortage must be addressed and remedied in the early days and months of the new administration. It’s time to shift focus from aesthetics and start posturing our service back toward a culture of excellence.

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