New Leaders Forum

US Air Force Faces Reality

A top US general outlines his priorities for the US Air Force as the service is forced to confront tight budgets.

At this week’s Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition, United States Air Force (USAF) Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz outlined the three priority programmes for his service amid new austerity efforts in Washington. These include the tanker, F-35 (‘at some appropriate level’) and the new long-range bomber.

Echoing comments made prior to the convention by Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Dunn, Schwartz took the opportunity to lobby hard for the new bomber, probably the most vulnerable of the three programmes with lawmakers: ‘We think it’s vitally important to the country and our ability to execute the National Security Strategy, that there is a successor platform for the current long range strike assets.’

In arguing for the bomber, Schwartz tied its acquisition to larger US military and commercial industrial needs. ‘It’s very interesting that until last year there wasn’t a new development aircraft effort in the United States of America in any company either on the military or the commercial side,’ he said. ‘Everything had been proceeding to production. Now that’s a strategic concern, I think. I don’t doubt that that was one of the considerations that the former Secretary of Defense took into consideration when he was thinking about long-range strike.’

Separately, Schwartz stated that the Western Pacific will remain a key strategic focus area for the USAF. On the related issue of China, Schwartz said: ‘I think the fundamental question is both one of capability and intent. While we can observe attributes of capability, it’s more difficult to discern intent.’

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Schwartz therefore maintained that a key objective for the United States is to work with China to ‘minimize the likelihood of misunderstandings’ and gain critical ‘insight into our respective thought processes.’ This appears to lend support to analysts who contend that the US will need to quickly secure increased Chinese transparency as they continue to modernize their military forces and become more assertive diplomatically and militarily.

On the issue of ASEAN defence industry collaboration standards facilitating increased interoperability with the US military, Schwartz said: Nations with common interests…if they can pool their assets, can certainly serve mutual interests very constructively. I would say that’s a very positive development and one we should continue to foster it.’

Finally, Schwartz addressed the current state of technology. From his perspective, ‘at least for the next 25 years, maybe 50 years, there's going to be a mix of manned and unmanned (aircraft). Beyond 50 years, anything's possible.’

He also opined that he isn’t ready to ‘contemplate a nuclear sortie on a remotely piloted aircraft,’ at least in the near future. No doubt military enthusiasts will look at that statement as having important design implications for the new long-range bomber, which is currently under a design requirement to be optionally manned, if the programme gains further momentum under Schwartz’s watch.


Eddie Walsh is The Diplomat's Pentagon (accredited) correspondent. His work has been featured by Gulf News, ISN Insights, CSIS, The East Asia Forum, The Jakarta Globe and The Journal of Energy Security. He blogs at AsiaPacific Reporting, can be reached at [email protected], and followed@aseanreporting.