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Feb. 18, 2008—The Air Force is committed to doing what’s right for the US military’s joint warfighting team in the current conflicts, even if this means focusing a bit less on some of its more traditional roles and taking on new ones, says Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz.

“Whatever it takes, whatever it is, the Air Force will make its contribution,” Schwartz told defense writers in Washington, D.C., Feb. 17. He continued, “Change is difficult, but the bottom line is that what we are telling our kids is that we are all in.”

It all boils down fundamentally to a question of balance between being postured for conventional conflict and irregular wars, Schwartz said. “What we want to do is achieve a reasonable balance here,” he said, adding, “I think that is achievable.”

Clearly, Schwartz said, there is a need for the Air Force, to have “more robust capability in the irregular warfare area” than it has had before.

A case in point, Schwartz said, is intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capability. The Air Force is in the midst of a hefty buildup of its overhead ISR capabilities in Afghanistan and Iraq to support ground operations. In these counterinsurgencies, “what you don’t want to happen,” he said, “is have an American marine, an American airman, an American sailor, or an American soldier turn a corner and be surprised by what he confronts or what she confronts.”

Already the Air Force has 34 combat air patrols of sensor and weapons carrying MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles running in Southwest Asia and it is on the verge of operating the new MC-12 manned ISR aircraft there. And, the Air Force will continue to do what it can to meet the high demand, said Schwartz. By 2011, for example, it plans to have 50 CAPs of mostly Reaper UAVs on station there, he said.

“If that means that we make some adjustments in our existing force mix, we will do that in a measured, dispassionate, analytically driven way,” said Schwartz. And, he continued, “If there is a need to do things that are a change from those things which we are comfortable doing, or those things we have traditionally done, again, I do not see this as a threat.”

Or a sign of weakness: “On the contrary, I think it is a sign of a healthy institution that we are willing to revisit long-held beliefs no matter how central to our ethos they may be,” he said. Such thinking, Schwartz said, is what drove the Air Force to formulate a new requirement for the F-22. Although that number is not yet publicized, it is expected to be far less than the service’s long-held stance that 381 F-22s are needed—but still more than the 183 already on order. (Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen has suggested the new Air Force number is 60 additional Raptors.)

At the same time, Schwartz said the Air Force “won’t be timid” in making the case for the systems that it thinks it needs to deal with any type of threat. “That does not necessarily mean that we get everything that we want,” he cautioned. In fact, in the current budgetary climate, “that is not likely,” he acknowledged.

But one key point, Schwartz emphasized, is to make the tough decision and then move forward. “My take,” he said, “is that it is better to make choices, get them done, and move on, and not let things fester, and not lets things sort of boil.”

“The key thing that I think that the force values is certainty,” he said, adding, “And to the extent that leadership can posture in a way that increases the certainty of the force, that’s a plus.”

Discussing other topics, Schwartz said the Air Force likely will end up with an active duty end strength of 332,000 next year, or “maybe a little bit higher.” This is an increase of about 16,000 airmen over the previous plan to draw down end strength to roughly 316,000 in Fiscal 2010. Gates halted that plan last June.

“The truth of the matter,” said Schwartz, “is that there is probably a demand signal for maybe 350,000 [airmen] and we ain’t gonna get there.”

So making do with the additional manpower that it will have, the Air Force intends to apply it to priority areas, he said. About 4,000 of the extra airmen have already been assigned to the ISR mission in areas like UAVs, the new MC-12 Liberty Project Aircraft fleet, and back-end processing of intelligence data.

The nuclear mission will receive about 2,000 to 2,500 of the extra airmen to help with the standup of Air Force Global Strike Command, a new operational B-52 squadron at Minot AFB, N.D., and reopening the weapons storage area at Barksdale AFB, La.

Another 2,200 to 2,500 airmen will go toward aircraft and missile maintenance, Schwartz said. And, smaller numbers will be applied to other disciplines.

Schwartz also reiterated the Air Force’s stance that it should regain milestone decision authority for space systems, something it has not had since 2005.

“We think our track record is respectable in this regard,” he said. “I am not saying it is perfect, but certainly the Air Force record for delivering space capability speaks for itself.”

Schwartz said the issue is not about ownership, but rather has to do with the “expertise and breadth and capacity” that is resident in the Air Force on space acquisition issues.

Overall, he said, the Air Force’s acquisition arm—which has been stung recently by some high-profile setbacks in tanker and combat rescue helicopter recapitalization—is a core function of the Air Force and its workforce is a “key commodity.”

“We need again to focus on the acquisition business in a way that improves requirements stability, improves funding stability, and cultivates the skill sets that are needed right now: systems engineering, program management, cost estimation and so on.,” said Schwartz.