New Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein's plans to overhaul the structure of squadrons, improve command and control, and strengthen how the service develops joint leaders are on the right track, former Air Force leaders say, but turning them into reality could be tricky.
During a Sept. 11 address at the Baltimore conference of the National Guard Association of the United States, Goldfein outlined those plans, which he called his top three goals. "My intent is to pull these forward, and to focus on them the next four years," he said.
At the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference, Monday to Wednesday outside Washington, the chief of staff's priorities will be a prime topic of discussion. He also plans to issue three short papers on the priorities, which draw upon ideas from the service's strategic master plan and Air Superiority 2030 flight plan.
"I think they are not only the right moves, but they are inevitable," said retired Gen. John Jumper, who was chief of staff from 2001 to 2005, in an interview Thursday. "We've entered a new era of warfare. We're responding to a different concept of operations on the battlefield than we have been in the past."
As the nature of warfare has changed — along with realities such as the tight budgets the Air Force has faced in recent years and some of the lowest manning levels since its creation — it only makes sense for the service to reconsider how it structures its most basic unit, the squadron, Jumper said.
Goldfein didn’t offer many details on how squadrons might change, but said the new squadron would probably incorporate a mix of active duty, Guard and Reserve airmen.
"I think there’s a full-time/part-time mix that we ought to look at in the squadron level," Goldfein said.
Goldfein also said civilians and contractors could take on a greater role in the new squadron.
What Goldfein envisions, Jumper said, could look like the F-22 units at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, where elements of the 192nd Fighter Wing — an Air National Guard component — operate alongside the active duty 1st Fighter Wing. This could give squadrons access to airmen with a wide array of experience, potentially making them more flexible.
"This allows us to take advantage of the great experience of the Air National Guard while retaining the full rapid-response capability of the active duty," Jumper said. "This has not been an easy thing to do. It started when I was the chief. But if you go there now, you will find a very experienced Guard unit working hand-in-hand with active duty. It gives us the best of both capabilities, and without having to squabble over who’s in first, and who’s best, and all of the emotional arguments that tend to go along with this type of integration. They’re over all of that."
When asked how a squadron that uses a variety of active, Guard and Reserve airmen might look and what the mix could be, Jumper said that it could vary, and will likely require experimentation to find the right balance.
"There’s no one template that will fit across the board," Jumper said., but "this is the kind of agility we should take advantage of as a total force."
As the Air Force struggles to fill crucial jobs in the wake of its staffing shortages, Jumper and retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, who was chief of staff from 1990 to 1994, said that taking better advantage of its Guard and Reserve populations could help the service plug those critical gaps suffered by active duty.
"There’s no argument that the readiness of our forces is not where we want it to be," Jumper said. "Shortages in various career fields have to be addressed. The way we put them together is the way we get greater efficiencies out of the forces that we have."
But even if that is the case, McPeak said, the Air Force can’t lean too heavily on guardsmen and reservists in lieu of building up the active force to where it needs to be — especially as the Air Force has been fighting regularly for roughly 25 years now. Doing so would be little more than a band-aid that doesn’t address the structural manning problems the service faces, he said.
"If [the active duty is] undersized for the workload, then we ought to increase the size of the Air Force," McPeak said. "The Guard and Reserve has a function of reinforcing the active duty Air Force in an emergency. If in fact they are seen as kind of a force augmentation, full time, round the clock forever, then we need to rethink the whole purpose of the Guard and Reserve."
McPeak cautioned that — while he’s not against a closer incorporation of Guardsmen and Reservists into squadrons alongside active duty — the Air Force must take care not to lose the state-focused heritage guardsmen are proud of.
"The Colorado Guard is a great institution," McPeak said. "The Dakota Guard, the boys from Syracuse. These guys have their own tradition. I would hate to see that lost in any kind of amalgamation that might occur in our squadrons."
McPeak said Goldfein could conceivably look at other aspects of how squadrons are structured. He could decide the Air Force needs more, but smaller, squadrons — each with fewer aircraft than they have now, McPeak said.
And Goldfein could change the composition of squadrons around, possibly including flightline maintenance personnel in with operational squadrons, instead of in separate squadrons, McPeak said.
Taking a look at the squadron structure is particularly crucial today, McPeak said, because those are the organizations the Air Force deploys to fight, not the wing level.
"The 20th Wing back at Shaw Air Force Base [in South Carolina] doesn’t really go to the fight, but its squadrons go to the fight," McPeak said. "Squadrons are the carriers of that combat heritage. And so that makes our squadrons even more important from a standpoint of morale, cohesiveness the heritage of their organization."
Improving command and control
The Air Force has a fair bit of flexibility to adjust squadrons as Goldfein hopes. But the chiefs cautioned that fiscal realities could throw cold water on his command and control plans.
Goldfein said the Air Force needs to improve those capabilities so it is more networked and can make fast decisions in the heat of battle, before the enemy has a chance to respond.
"How do we get to a point where we are lifting and shifting and operating at a speed of decision making and force movement that our enemies can’t counter?" Goldfein said. "That becomes our asymmetric advantage, and I think we as an air component can be the connective tissue for the joint team."
Goldfein suggested a more widespread use of open-architecture systems could help improve command and control, at places such as the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Teams at that center use different proprietary systems, making it impossible to share data without a gateway bridging the systems.
But, Jumper said, with the Air Force already facing tight budgets, it will likely be hard to get funding for modernization programs that would improve integration of command and control capabilities.
McPeak was even more pessimistic about the chances of solving the command and control problem for the foreseeable future – though he said it is important to try and praised Goldfein for trying to tackle the problem.
"It can’t be fixed in four years of a chief’s term, or in eight, or in 16, or in 32," McPeak said. "Command and control is like having cancer. You just have to learn how to live with it and fix a little of it every day. There are no revolutionary remedies. Whatever you impose has to be backward compatible in the system you already have — which is a mess, because it’s evolved over time, and billions of dollars have been spent on it."
Complicating matters, McPeak said, is that the Air Force’s command and control also has to be interoperable with other services, as well as foreign allies’ militaries that may not be enthusiastic about linking systems up.
"How do we do command and control with the Russian air force currently in the Middle East to make sure operations of each don’t conflict?" McPeak said. "Welcome to the real world. That is a command and control problem that is virtually unsolvable."
And keeping these systems updated and modernized is bound to be very expensive as technology evolves.
"In the command and control world, everything changes every 18 months … as a new chip set springs out of Silicon Valley," McPeak said.
Developing joint leaders
As his other top priority, Goldfein said the Air Force needs to do a better job developing its own leaders who can serve jointly with other services, and how it teams up with other services.
His thinking is driven, in part, because any fight against one of the military's top five threats — Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and violent extremist groups — would likely contain an air element.
"We're going to have to make sure that we're strengthening the development of joint leaders so that we can step in, and not only support, but lead any of those operations," Goldfein said.
McPeak agrees that this is another important issue to tackle — and said the Air Force hasn’t done very well in producing joint leaders.
Part of the problem, he said, is that many Air Force leaders such as squadron commanders come up overseeing mostly officers, whereas leaders in other services have more time overseeing enlisted service members. This leaves Air Force officers at a disadvantage and without key leadership experience.
Putting more maintainers back in operational squadrons, as McPeak supports, would help give those squadron commanders more challenges and more time overseeing enlisted airmen, he said.
"If we’re looking at the composition of squadrons, [we need] to make sure it’s the best leadership laboratory it can be," McPeak said.
The success of Goldfein's tenure as chief of staff will likely be determined in large part by the progress he makes on his top priorities. At the Air Force Association conference, he plans to introduce the three generals who will be leading each one of those efforts, he said. The Air Force's ability to meet the challenges ahead, given the fiscal constraints under which it operates, depend on Air Force leadership's ability to move the ball forward in the months and years to come.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.