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September 14, 2009—Air Force Secretary Michael Donley struck a somber tone in his keynote address at AFA's Air & Space Conference Monday. Warning that defense budgets will likely remain flat for years, Donley asserted that "we can't expect to do everything and buy everything" the service needs to fulfill its role.

Comparing today's Air Force program to the Vision 2020 roadmap outlined by service leaders in 2000, he said that in almost all categories, USAF will buy far fewer things and at a more stretched out pace, than the worst-case scenarios of nine years ago. "We are not building the Air Force we thought we would build," he said.

He forecast, "We can be assured of little-to-no-growth defense budgets," and this will force "painful trades" in almost every area of USAF endeavor.

He noted that even though the service will be relying far more on legacy systems vs. new hardware, upgrades of those older systems will only be undertaken where absolutely necessary. He emphasized, too, that the cost of operating older aircraft is up by double digits.

Donley said that whenever possible, the Air Force wants to put its money and "focus" onto next-generation capabilities such as the F-35 rather than into older aircraft that may not be in the inventory for very much longer.

There will be no blanket decisions about whole sectors of the Air Force, he emphasized, and every system will be considered "on a case by case basis" to determine the urgency of a needed improvement and whether the service can accept the risk of waiting until a new, better, or less costly alternative presents itself.

However, he said the USAF leadership is hoping to make these trades "holistically," and nowhere will this be more evident than in pairing new and older unmanned aircraft with new kinds of sensors. Duplication of capabilities will be avoided if unnecessary, Donley noted.

The Air Force leadership is now in the business of deciding just how much risk to take and where. "We will accept short-term risk to achieve long-term gains," in some mission areas, he said.

There has been a funding "shift from combat air forces to joint force enablers," Donley observed.

For instance, Donley noted among "big milestones" of the past year that USAF has aggressively beefed up its intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, achieving 36 combat air patrols with unmanned aerial vehicles "18 months ahead of schedule."

Donley maintained that the service must shift gears to deal with new requirements and threats, saying that the strategic landscape is changing faster than ever.

He noted that the last time an American soldier was attacked from an airplane was over 50 years ago, but the last time an airman was attacked through cyberspace "was at the beginning of this sentence."