Air Force Times
August 6, 2012
In the not-so-distant future, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz will leave the confines of his Pentagon office for the beaches of Hawaii to enjoy his retirement after four decades of service.
Since becoming chief in 2008, Schwartz has worked to restore professionalism to the nuclear enterprise and to improve the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
But he leaves amid the threat of an automatic $600 billion in military budget cuts, known as sequestration, and tension with Congress over the Air Force’s proposed cuts to the Guard and Reserve.
He sat down with “This Week in Defense News” host Vago Muradian on July 26 to talk about his long career and the challenges still facing the Air Force.
Q. What was the pivotal moment in your career?
A. The singular event that propelled my thinking and my orientation was the experience of April 25, 1980: Desert One. As a member of the special operations community, I was not there that day, but the bottom line is that event propelled an effort in the Department of Defense which resulted ultimately in the mission in Abbottabad that took down [Osama bin Laden].
What happened that day was a redemption to what occurred on April 25, 1980, and it is a great statement, I think, about how America decided — and we in the armed forces and the special operations community, people who served there — it would never happen again, and in fact it hasn’t and it won’t.
Q. What are the accomplishments you are most proud of, what are your regrets and what do you wish you had to do over?
A. A couple things on accomplishments. Clearly, I think we righted the nuclear enterprise and re-emphasized its importance, both to deterrence and the important work that all the people that operate under the enterprise perform on a daily basis.
I think on remotely piloted aircraft, institutionalizing that, normalizing the career path for the remotely piloted aircraft is important.
We emphasized families and their importance to accomplishing the mission.
And then I’d say, finally, that bringing into record the long-range strike bomber was another significant accomplishment that will pay dividends years from now.
A. One, perhaps, and that is that maybe we de-emphasized innovation more than we should have. We had some things to do early on, and we never really came back to pushing that innovative culture, and I have a good feeling that [chief of staff nominee Gen.] Mark Welsh, should he be confirmed, will recover that spirit of innovation.
Q. On taking office, you drew praise for being tough, especially to leaders you felt were falling short. But there’s been criticism — for example, the Dover mortuary case and especially in the more recent [Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland] military training instructor case, where recruits were abused by their instructors — as not moving quickly enough to discipline some of those involved. What are the lasting lessons here when it comes to the issue of discipline? Does the Air Force need to be tougher on discipline?
A. The issue is standards and that all of us, both at the lower and the higher levels of supervision, have to maintain standards, and if we have to pull the trigger in order to get that done, that is an obligation to the institution.
Reputations are hard to earn and easy to lose. We know that. And the bottom line is due process is a factor in all of these matters. It certainly was in Dover and has been at Lackland, but you cannot dispute the outcome of the most recent court-martial at Lackland.
Q. Congress has passed legislation to give the administration 30 days to detail its sequestration plans. How is the Air Force preparing?
A. Fundamentally, we offered a [fiscal 2013] program which was targeted against an anticipated financial impact, and we know that sequestration is possible. I think we, as well as the secretary of defense and [Air Force] Secretary Mike Donley, have articulated very clearly what the consequences would be.
We chose to get smaller in order to maintain quality. If we have to get yet smaller still, this will be an issue for the strategy that we prepared in January that the president announced.
Will we be able to execute that strategy? That is a fundamental question and one of great import.
Q. What sort of impact would [a $109 billion mini-sequestration] have on the Air Force in the near-term?
A. Clearly, it would have less impact than a $1 trillion hit, were sequestration to be fully implemented. We’re not privy to those conversations. And if our target is an additional $100 billion, we will make choices based on the priority of our capability, those that are in demand from the combatant commanders and so on.
The only thing that is very important is maintaining balance: Balance between readiness of a smaller force and making sure that we don’t completely mortgage the future, in which we need to continue to do research, development and evaluation.
Q. Congress has blocked you from cutting the $9 billion that you guys had planned to because they’re angry about the cuts to the active, Guard, to the reserve force. But you’re still required in order to reduce spending under the budget control act. What does that mean? What’s next and how do you convince Congress to change its mind?
A. The fundamental part of this is if the Congress decides to retain force structure, what we have said is that you have to provide the resources to operate that force structure.
There’s nothing worse, and some of us who’ve been around a little long have seen this picture before, [than] where you have too much structure and not enough money. That is the path to a hollow force. That is not where we want to go. Our young people who have been in the fight for more than 10 years know the difference between saying we’re good and being good, and we definitely want to be the latter, not the former.
Q. Air Force sources have told me that when those cuts were made, they were done in consultation with both the Guard and the states and the reserve component. If lawmakers don’t let you cut the reserves, even in the future — or just cut personnel levels entirely, what path do future cuts take?
A. I think here’s the point: We have to make the case to the Congress that we cannot unbalance this Air Force. If they want to have the world’s best and most feared Air Force, we need to have balance, and that involves balance amongst the components — that’s the active duty, the Guard and Reserve; balance between personnel costs, which are high and increasing; acquisition, in other words procurement; [and] modernization, as well as readiness.
We have to get that as close to right as possible. It’s controversial. There are a thousand views on how to do it right, but the bottom line is — I would argue — that it is the Air Force and the Department of Defense that has the best overall view of how this would be done. And I would just commend again to the leadership in the Congress that we need to take a broader view of this, not so much the tactical view — delegation by delegation or district by district — as difficult as that is, but the broader package. It’s important to the nation’s defense.
Q. A good friend of mine, who’s a retired airman, said one of the problems sometimes the Air Force has is it does necessary things or even will have facts on its side but sometimes ends up on the wrong political side of the argument. Is there a lesson to be learned here in terms of how better to maybe do this kind of thing in the future?
A. I think, among other things, [the lesson] is not to surprise either the members of Congress or the state delegations. In the process we followed last year after the passing of the Budget Control Act in August — and we were pressed to get to a budget in the fall of last year — we didn’t do all the interaction, perhaps, that we might have done.
The bottom line is we know very well that surprising people does not increase your chances of success.
Q. You told Congress recently the Air Force hasn’t distinguished itself with acquisition success. What’s the problem and what’s the solution?
A. It’s a complicated business, and the bottom line is we need expertise: that is program managers, cost estimators, contract expertise and so on. We are building that workforce, but the reality is that it requires constant attention and vigilance. We did well with the KC-46 program. We didn’t do so well with the light aircraft for Afghanistan, and the bottom line is it requires constant vigilance on the details every day.
Q. Where are we on the F-22? Are you comfortable with it? Are we past its problems?
A. We’re not past the problems. We have certainly a path ahead to correct those problems. We’ve been with the secretary of defense within the last week. We know what the problem is. It is not a contaminated oxygen supply. It is the quantity of oxygen.
We have mechanical fixings in training and they will begin to roll out in the fall and the months to follow.