Air Force secretary: 'Make hard choices now'

Michael Donley advises service leaders not to get "over-extended" in programs they cannot afford.

Acknowledging the prospect of leaner defense budgets and Pentagon pressure for greater efficiency, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley Monday emphasized improvements in the service's procurement process, more realistic requirements for new systems and more streamlined organizations and command structures.

Donley also described a process for developing a new long-range strike capability that would focus more on conventional warfare than on the service's nuclear mission and would avoid "the painful experience of previous Air Force bomber programs" where unrealistic requirements and high cost forced cancellation or curtailment.

Addressing the Air Force Association conference at the National Harbor convention center in Maryland, the secretary also urged industry representatives in the audience to "help yourselves and help us to be more efficient so we can buy more of what you produce."

Saying he wanted to discuss "the world we live in today and how we'll ensure our Air Force remain postured for what tomorrow brings," Donley's speech was more somber than usual.

Topping the list of recent accomplishments he cited were programs that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has pushed, getting additional remotely piloted aircraft and the manned MC-12 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance planes to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Looking ahead, Donley saw "significant challenges" including new demands for missile defense, cyber warfare, improved situational awareness in space, including replacing satellites, and "modernizing our aging aircraft inventory" by bringing on the F-35, new trainers, bombers and "specially tankers."

Noting that defense spending is under increasing pressure due to the poor economy and high deficits, Donley said his guidance to Air Force leaders stressed restraint, telling them not to get "over-extended" in programs they cannot afford, to concentrate on a few essential modernization efforts and to re-emphasize program stability.

"Make the hard choices now," he said.

He embraced Gates' guidance to improve internal efficiency to "move resources from our supporting tail to war-fighting tooth," noting that the Air Force has made changes that enabled it to reallocate resources "into growth areas" like ISR and RPA or to "reinforce the critical nuclear enterprise."

Donley also vowed to "keep the pressure on improvements in acquisition" by rebuilding the acquisition workforce and being "better negotiators."

He made it clear that the Air Force was deeply committed to the controversial and potentially hugely expensive procurement of a long-range strike capability to replace the ancient B-52s, aging B-1Bs and limited number of B-2 bombers. Although there is consideration of using converted intercontinental ballistic missiles with conventional warheads, Donley proposed a "family of systems" including weapons, ISR, electronic warfare and communications systems that seemed to be built around aircraft.

And, he said, "while recognizing the continued need for the nuclear mission, we are approaching LRS capabilities mainly from conventional perspectives, where they are most likely to be used." The new capability would be produced with known technologies and consist of a fleet large enough to be flexibly operated and sustained, "but not so large that we cannot afford it, and with unit cost as a key factor."