Beyond the headlines involving a new name for the B-21 long-range strike bomber, a doubling of the Air Force’s drone pilots and several new initiatives by the new chief of staff, there was an abundance of lesser-noticed news during the three days of events at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in National Harbor, Maryland last week. Here are just a few of the news tidbits you might have missed.
Just a month after the Air Force’s secretary and chief of staff announced they were cutting dozens of additional duties from airmens’ schedules over worries that they were crowding out mission-critical work, officials are taking a serious look at paring back mandatory computer-based training, and for the same reasons.
During a panel discussion focused on military family issues, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said he wants to create a pre-defined “ceiling,” setting the maximum amount of time the Air Force can require military members to spend on clicking through educational presentations on their computers.
“And then, whatever we training we choose has got to fit inside that ceiling — everything else is operational risk,” he said.
“I think that’s an appropriate decision for the chief of staff to make: How much operational risk are we willing to take to get the training down to the right level? I will tell you, as the chief, I am willing to take the operational risk that someone will figure out how to operate a fire extinguisher when they get into their first fire,” Goldfein said to applause.
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Goldfein also said the 29 collateral duties the Air Force eliminated, reassigned or scaled back last month are only a “first swing,” suggesting there may be more to come.
“We’re going to continue to look at everything that’s been laid on over time, especially at the squadron level, that’s not increasing readiness but may have crossed the line into reducing readiness because we’re not focusing as much on primary duties,” he said. “But we want to see the actual results from our first swing, travel around and hear from airmen about whether this is actually working.”
As we reported last week, the Air Force has managed to double the size of its training pipeline for unmanned aircraft pilots over the past year. That was in response to senior leaders’ concerns that a high operational tempo over the past decade has taken a heavy toll on the existing cadre of pilots, but the root cause is the insatiable demand by the military’s global combatant commanders for ever more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) flights in their particular areas of operations.
But Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated during a Tuesday AFA speech that it’s time for the military to begin to find ways to curb its appetite for ISR platforms and pilots.
As Dunford noted, since 2007, the military has increased the number of ISR aircraft available to combatant commands by 600 percent. Nonetheless, the Air Force is still meeting less than 30 percent of commanders’ stated requirements. Simply continuing to add more platforms and pilots is an unsustainable path, he said.
“It’s a challenge we cannot buy our way out of. We’re going to have to think really hard about how we collect, analyze and disseminate information at the tactical, operational and strategic level to feed decision making,” he said. “The problem we’re confronted with is not how we can afford to buy more Predators, the problem we’re confronted with ensuring our leadership has the information they need to make decisions. We need to make sure we’re pursuing the right objective. I hope that’s music to the ears of airmen, because we’ve gone to the Air Force over and over again to increase capacity.”
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Indeed, DoD’s latest budget plan calls for a further increase in the number of ISR combat air patrols the Air Force provides — from 60 to 90 over the next five years — but even that level will only fulfill about 34 percent of what commanders say they need today.
“I think that’s probably not the path we want to be on,” Dunford said. “To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we’re out of money, and we have to think.”
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said last week that her service is still very much involved in pushing back against a Capitol Hill initiative that would limit military housing allowances to one-per-household.
She was referring to one of the hundreds of provisions being negotiated between House and Senate staff behind closed doors in preparation for a possible lame-duck November vote on the 2017 Defense authorization bill. The proposal is a somewhat contentious item in the Senate version that would drastically reduce the take-home pay of service members who happen to be married to one another or sharing a house.
In those cases, the Senate language would allow only one member of the household to receive a basic allowance for housing (BAH), which is indexed by geographic location to cover the average cost of rent and utilities. The Senate’s argument is that the original purpose of BAH was to keep a roof over the head of a service member and/or his or her family, and giving the same payment to two or more members who are under the same roof amounts to double-dipping.
The Air Force and most military associations strongly disagree.
“We have been very much out in front with the position that BAH is an element of military compensation that accrues to the individual in recognition of that individual’s work in the military,” said James. “We’re also trying to put forth that among all the military services, we have the largest degree of women in the military, we have the largest degree of dual-military spouses, and that this would be a substantial pay cut to a huge portion of our force. It would be very, very damaging.”
James, who is also a former congressional staffer, acknowledged the argument that BAH is an allowance meant to serve a particular purpose, not an entitlement, but said the Air Force is lobbying lawmakers to at least consider the impact of reducing dual-married service members’ take-home pay by tens of thousands of dollars in a single year.
“Whatever terminology you use, for decades, this has been viewed by airmen as a piece of the total compensation package, so to take it away in one year would be very, very damaging,” she said. “I can’t tell you how it will come out, but we’re hanging in there and we’re not the only ones: the other military services, AFA and other associations are making the same case. A review of total compensation and what all of the elements ought to be might be a better way forward, but to do this in one year would be harmful.”
Exactly one year ago, at last year’s AFA conference, Secretary James explained some of the details behind the Air Force’s “Should Schedule” initiative, an effort to speed up an acquisition process that takes, on average, more than a year even when there’s only one bidder.
Officials predicted it was going to be a challenge since there are few incentives in the Pentagon’s acquisition system to reallocate funds to faster-moving projects, and that seems to have proved correct.
Asked about progress so far, Darlene Costello, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, named just one program in which the Should Schedule initiative has been successfully applied: the Advanced Precision Kill laser-guided rocket. But even that system was later declared an Urgent Operational Need, a mechanism the Pentagon has long had in its toolkit to speed weapons to warfighters when they’re deemed to have an immediate requirement on the battlefield.
“Still, we were able to get that capability in 93 days fewer than what was projected initially,” she said. “And we have a couple of other pilot efforts where we think we’re going to be able to save a couple months’ worth of time.”
“Should Schedule” borrows its name from the “Should Cost” initiative the Pentagon introduced in the first iteration of its Better Buying Power initiative, when top acquisition leaders urged program officials to manage their programs according to what they ought to cost, instead of the independent cost estimates that tend to be larger because they’re based on DoD’s poor track record of cost growth in major programs.
“We’ve banked about $10 billion from Should Cost so far, but Should Schedule is a lot harder because you still have to do good engineering and good work. You can’t just make things go faster,” Costello said. “If you can cut the bureaucracy down you can save some time, but it’s going to be on the order of months.”
On a related note, the Air Force has previously spoken in glowing terms about open architectures and their ability to help on both the cost and schedule front. To dramatically oversimplify the matter, if systems are built with open interfaces, even the smallest of vendors can enter a relatively quick-and-easy competition to solve a new capability gap via an existing platform.
The Air Force announced earlier this year that it would be standing up a new Open Approaches Management Office to drive the Open Missions Systems approach into more of its programs, and as of two weeks ago, the office is now up and running at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.
“They are building processes that fit within the Lifecycle Management Center,” said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition official. “They are engaged with the Air Staff, they are engaged with the Rapid Capabilities Office, and we’re sharing that information with the program offices so that they’re looking at these ideas.”
The new office represents an expansion of the open architecture advocacy that began within the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, where officials first began the project of building open standards — with the cooperation of industry — with the expectation that future hardware and software components would need to fit together in a plug-and-play model as an alternative to a sole-vendor approach whose proprietary systems and interfaces tend to be known only to the company building the platform.
“What they have to do is build to a common interface, which is software, and they’re also working on hardware so that I can change out a component,” Bunch said. “It’s getting the interfaces right and setting the standards right so I that I can do that in an expeditious manner. It’s off and running and it’s going very well.”