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WASHINGTON — As Congress deliberates over how DoD funds should be appropriated, the military head of the Air Force laid out the case that his service still provides a benefit that other branches cannot match.
“The one thing I want to point out to you today is we are still having discussions about ‘should we just let the Marines do it,’ or ‘let the Navy do it,’ and we just need to shoot this discussion in the head,” Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, said in his remarks. “It’s a ridiculous discussion.”
For years, partisans of the Navy and Marines have hinted that their air components could absorb missions performed by the Air Force, something Welsh dismissed outright.
“There is no comparison between the air arms of the other services and the only Air Force our country has,” Welsh continued. “We just need to understand that. That’s not a threat, it doesn’t say anything negative about any other service, it just lets us take our rightful place as a peer in this critical joint team.”
Speaking to a friendly audience at an Air Force Association event, Welsh also highlighted the space, airlift and strategic ISR capabilities that the Air Force provides, noting “the other services bring other things, but they don’t bring this.”
Like the rest of DoD, the Air Force has seen severe reductions in funding due to sequestration, raising concerns about readiness among pilots who are grounded at the moment.
“The big impact of all this readiness stuff is not going to be this year,” Welsh said. “It’s going to be next year and the year after, if we don’t fix it soon, because the backlog won’t be fixed quickly. You can’t just all of a sudden accelerate training to catch up. It costs somewhere around two and a half times as much money to retrain a squadron as it does to keep it trained. So this is going to stretch out for a while.”
That gap could pose challenges if the Air Force is called upon to enforce a no-fly zone around Syria in the near future, particularly because Syria’s air defense capabilities are significantly better than those in Libya or Iraq.
“We know the Syrians have more updated equipment than did Libya or Iraq. We know they operate it, they’ve used it, they train with it,” Welsh said. “So our assumption is they’re better trained, their equipment is better and it’s fairly modern equipment, and as a result we think it will be a bigger challenge.”
He added that sequestration’s impact on the ability to establish a no-fly zone “depends on the risk you’re willing to accept.”
“If we have aircraft that would be needed to conduct a no fly zone and they haven’t been flying, hopefully we would have time to get them up to speed before we use them for that purpose,” Welsh said. “If we were ordered to go do it, we’d go do it, and we would be accepting the risk of those people not being as current as they normally would be. It’s a risk, and for me that’s a risk we don’t want to be accepting.”
Welsh gave brief updates to the KC-46 tanker modernization program (“on track”) and the long-range bomber (“the requirements are stable and they’re not changing and they won’t change while I’m around”) before turning to offer his full-throated support for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
“I am solidly in support of this program and keeping it on track the way it is now,” Welsh said, noting that while fourth generation aircraft will play an important role in the force mix going forward, the JSF is needed to combat fifth-generation aircraft from other countries that are only “five to 10” years away from having a top-line fighter.
Although he did not name names, Welsh was likely referring to China and Russia, both of which are developing fifth-generation fighter designs.
“Out there, where people fight and die for real? If a fourth generation aircraft meets a fifth generation aircraft, the fourth generation aircraft might be more efficient, but it’s also dead. It’s really that simple,” Welsh said. “We have to keep pushing, even if it means a smaller Air Force in other places.”
Despite these comments, Welsh indicated a willingness to work with China on Pacific issues.
“We have to think a little bit out of the box” when it comes to Pacific partnerships, he said. “For example, I don’t think the fundamental pillar of our relationship between the US and China will ever be a mil-to-mil relationship. But I think part of that connective tissue to start that kind of cooperation could be held now, and the Air Force would love to be a part of that.”