ORLANDO, Fla. --- Emphasizing priorities that will largely define the year ahead, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson stressed the need to modernize and grow the force. She also highlighted how streamlining acquisitions will inject innovative ideas and tools faster and more reliably into every corner of the organization.
“Our Air Force is too small for what the nation is asking of us,” Wilson said during a 26-minute keynote address at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium Feb. 28, foreshadowing one of the major conclusions in an Air Force analysis that will be delivered soon to Congress.
The goal, she said, is to increase the force from 312 squadrons to 386. The response reflects shifting geopolitics focusing on near-peer competition as identified in the National Defense Strategy.
While the increase to 386 squadrons is not new – Wilson first announced the number in September – she provided additional details about the factors driving the decision and how that fits into other efforts and initiatives across the Air Force.
“For the first time in 30 years, Russia has resumed fighter patrols over the North Pole and built a ring of anti-aircraft missiles from Syria to the eastern Arctic Circle threatening U.S. airpower,” Wilson said. “The Chinese air force, navy and missile units just finished a month of unannounced live-fire exercises in the South China Sea. We have returned to an era of great-power competition.”
The imperative for improving performance, efficiency and even attitudes across the Air Force is rooted in the findings of an independent National Defense Strategy Commission, Wilson said.
“Regardless of where the next conflict occurs or which adversary it features, the Air Force will be at the forefront,” Wilson said, quoting the commission.
There has already been measurable progress.
“We are more ready for major combat operations today than we were two years ago. And more than 90 percent of our pacing squadrons … are ready to fight tonight,” she said.
Wilson noted, however, that there is more to do. Getting there, she said, demands a new outlook. “It’s not just what we are doing to improve readiness; it’s what we’re trying to stop doing, including wasting time on stupid stuff.”
“Seventeen months ago, (Air Force Chief of Staff) Gen. Goldfein and I told the air staff to review Air Force instructions and to rescind ones that are out of date or out of touch. We have rescinded 302 Air Force instructions as of today,” she said.
“We know these things are annoying and time consuming. What we’re trying to do here has much larger purpose. In a high-end conflict, you will not be able to rely on exquisite command and control to be told what to do,” she said. “You’re going to have to rely on mission orders and adapt and get the job done. If we expect you to fight that way in wartime, we must treat you that way in peacetime.”
Wilson also highlighted the reform on how the Air Force purchases weapons and technology, software, services and thousands of other items for the warfighter.
“We cannot win a contest of great power competition with an acquisition system from the Cold War,” she said.
The Air Force’s Kessel Run Experimentation Laboratory in Boston has achieved tangible results in developing software by teaming coders and operators together from the beginning to spawn ideas and bring them into reality with speed and precision.
There have been hardware upgrades too.
“In the last six months, we have … awarded contracts for our newest trainer, the T-X, and a replacement for the UH-1 helicopter,” she said. “The B-21 bomber is on schedule.”
The Air Force is also changing the way it does business to be faster and more compatible for entrepreneurs, she said.
On March 7, the Air Force is conducting its inaugural Pitch Day for small business with ideas and products that show promise for unique Air Force needs. Winners, she said, will be able to close the deal that same day by signing a single-page contract. Payment will be immediate too through the swipe of an Air Force credit card.
The effort is geared toward attracting small businesses that previously hesitated to do business with the Air Force. Wilson said $40 million is earmarked to identify those companies, evaluate their products and, when appropriate, approve contracts.
“America’s small businesses and startups are engines of innovation, and we are developing creative ways to employ their talents,” she said.
The innovative changes are arriving at a time when readiness and the size of the force are improving.
Overall strength has increased by 8,900 active-duty Airmen, she said. A shortage two years ago of 4,000 active-duty maintainers has been closed.
“Last year, we produced more than 1,200 new pilots – 146 more than originally expected – and our ‘Pilot Training Next’ program is leveraging virtual reality and more simulators to train pilots better and faster,” she said.
Wilson pointed out as well a critical cultural change, citing an aggressive embrace of multi-domain operations. “The way we fight … will also change. Everything will connect. Any sensor, any shooter.”
In broad strokes, she suggested that whatever challenge arises, the Air Force’s past informs its ability to confront issues today and in the future.
“We face a new era of warfare with hypersonic weapons, offensive space capabilities, artificial intelligence, directed-energy weapons, electronic warfare and robotics,” she said. “We’ve been here before and Airmen rose to the occasion.
“You are the pioneers of our time who will earn air and space superiority, enable military supremacy and underpin our nation’s security.”