Foreign Policy sat down on Sept. 12 with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, who took office four years ago after his predecessor, Michael Wynne, was fired over the service's mishandling of nuclear weapons. Donley took over an Air Force that then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates had accused of mismanaging the way it bought weapons and of not providing enough intelligence planes to the counterinsurgency fights in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the years since, the United States military has pulled out of Iraq, is preparing to leave Afghanistan, and will slash defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade. Meanwhile, Pentagon planners are worried about high-end weapons, seemingly designed to keep U.S. forces at bay, that are being fielded by nations such as Iran and China. Donley is now in charge of a service that is revamping itself to face the challenges of 21st century warfare -- and budget reductions.
In fact, one of the biggest short-term challenges is the uncertainty of whether the service will have the money to buy and operate 1,763 stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 100 or so new stealth bombers, and 179 new KC-46 tankers that it had planned to purchase, should U.S. lawmakers fail to reach a deal on deficit reduction in time to thwart further massive cuts in defense spending that are scheduled for January. Donley warned that the across-the-board cuts to defense under a process known as sequestration will be catastrophic: "It is not possible to take that much money out of the defense program and not have an impact on units, on states, on businesses, on communities -- the dollars will come out somewhere."
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation, in which Donley offers his thoughts on sequestration, the Air Force's plans to buy new weapons, the shift to Asia, and the meaning of Air-Sea Battle.
FP: You've been in office for four years, what are your top priorities for the rest of your time as secretary?
MD: Obviously we're focusing on making sure we address all the issues we have that were of concern regarding the nuclear enterprise, and we're continuing to focus on that work, which is very much a zero-defect environment, so we always have an eye on that. Certainly partnering with the other services and coalition partners in today's fight remains a very, very high priority for us. Air Force capabilities remain very much in demand by combatant commanders, especially in the [Central Command area of responsibility] and attendant areas. Modernizing our inventories and making sure our significant modernization programs remain on track also is a priority for us.
Also, developing airmen; we rely on an experienced, highly trained cadre of airmen to do what we do and making sure that their requirements, their needs with respect to training, readiness funding, and support for their families are also attended to.
Also, continuing to improve our acquisition process. Those five are things we continue to work on.
In the near term, in terms of how we package these issues in the context of the strategic and budgetary constraints we outlined at the end of last year, and as we made strategic decisions going into [fiscal year 2013] informed by the Budget Control Act and the new strategic guidance that we got, if you sort of package up our issues in the context of those two major pieces, [the priority is] really focusing on our strategic choices that we made, which were to be a little bit smaller, to trade size for quality, but to be a ready Air Force that will continue to improve in capability over time. We will leave room even in a constrained budget environment for continued modernization of the Air Force, making sure that even though we're smaller going forward, we continue to get better and that we're always ready for whatever contingencies are right out in front of us.
I think the overarching challenge right now is to sustain those strategic priorities in the context of a lot of budget uncertainty going forward with the conclusion of [fiscal year 2013], the preparation of fiscal year ‘14, and the sequester overhanging all of that.