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Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson: 'This is not a game. It's a very dangerous world'

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"We are too small for all of the missions that the nation is asking us to do," says Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. (Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner)

Heather Wilson took over as Air Force secretary last May, making her the first of three service secretaries in President Trump's Pentagon.

A former congresswoman from New Mexico, Wilson is an Air Force Academy graduate who, after representing Mexico's 1st District, went on to become president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City.

She sat down with the Washington Examiner last Thursday to discuss her first year as Air Force secretary and the challenges facing a force she says is too small for all of the missions that the nation is asking it to do.

Washington Examiner: It looks like once again, we’re going to go at least another month without a full budget. When Congress gets its act together and finally fully funds the Pentagon’s budget for fiscal year 2018, what are you going to do with that money? What’s the first priority you need to address?

Wilson: The most important thing for the Air Force is to restore the readiness of the force. And for the Air Force, that is first and foremost about people. The size of the Air Force declined significantly, but the operational tempo is still very, very high. And we find in maintenance as well as in pilots and cyber and some other fields where we’re just short [of] people, and it puts a lot of pressure on people, and really hurts our readiness. When we look at and assess readiness, so first and foremost, it’s about people.

The second part is munitions, to make sure that the munitions that, you know, we’ve been fighting against ISIS, and in Afghanistan, that we replace munitions and get to a very high level of production, maximize the production from industry. And the other part has to do with training and flying hours so that people feel as though they’re trained for whatever may come at us, particularly for the high-end fight. One of the things when the chief and I went forward into the Middle East in August, flying against the violent extremist fight, defeating ISIS, is a very different kind of environment than preparing for a high-end conflict against a Russia or China. And we are supposed to be prepared for any fight. So, we worry about the training for the high-end fight.

But first and foremost is readiness, second is modernization, and cost-effective modernization. And it’s across the board: It’s tankers, it’s bombers, it’s space assets, it’s fighters, the nuclear deterrents. So, we’ve got modernization across the board. And over the next decade, there will be a huge amount of modernization that goes on in the Air Force.

Washington Examiner: Is the Air Force too small, and if so, how much bigger should it be?

Wilson: We are too small for all of the missions that the nation is asking us to do. We now have about 300, I guess 301, operational combat squadrons. We got a new National Defense Strategy, and then the Air Force will look at: OK, to execute this strategy, how large should — how many squadrons should the Air Force have? And we’ll actually do that work this year.

Washington Examiner: So, when you talk about squadrons, I think about the F-35. Has that program turned the corner?

Wilson: The F-35 is operational, and if we went to war today, they would be called into service. The thing about the F-35 is it’s never just about the F-35. And people will say, “Well, how would the F-35 do against,” you know, fill in the blank. It’s not a one-on-one fight. One of the things that the F-35 brings is the ability to link other things together. And so, it is a node on the network. It is the quarterback of the fight.

And the chief was talking about being out at a Red Flag exercise. It was actually a Marine officer who was checking out to be the quarterback on an air fight. So, 100 air assets. And he goes to his F-35, puts on his helmet, looks at his device, and he’s already seeing how cyber and space are starting to play in the war game he’s about to lead. When he gets up on the tanker, he’s getting real-time information on special operations forces that are going in to take out particular air defenses. He gets a warning of a downed airman and has to divert part of his force, all of which he can see in front of him. This is completely different than the first Gulf War where an F-16 was part of a four-ship, and they have radios to talk to others who are out there.

Washington Examiner: Are you going to be able to acquire the F-35 in sufficient numbers in the coming years to rebuild the force?

Wilson: We are planning to buy over 1,000 of them. We’re buying them, I think, this year. We had 48 that were requested in the president’s budget. The authorization level is a little higher than that, and we’ll see what we get when the Congress finally decides a budget. I would say the biggest risk to the service today is not having a budget. When you think about what has been the greatest impact on the Air Force over the last decade, it is not what our adversaries have done. It’s what sequester has done to the Air Force.

Washington Examiner: President Trump has promised to rebuild the military. Has anything been able to happen in his first year given the budget constraints of Congress and the failure to negotiate a lifting or elimination of the budget caps?

Wilson: The fiscal year '17 budget kind of stopped the decline. Fiscal year '18 turned the corner for the Air Force on readiness and size of the force. We are not self-sequestering, so we’re four months into this budget year, assuming that something will be sorted out here. If we had a CR at last year’s levels, that is the equivalent to sequester for us, effectively. And it would mean very, very deep impact in the remaining six, seven months of the year.

Washington Examiner: How do you answer critics who suggest that maybe the Air Force, in particular, but the military in general, is overstating the dire consequences of the continuing resolution, that if you look around, to the laymen, it would appear the military’s functioning at a pretty high level?

Wilson: When I came back to federal service, I didn’t anticipate returning to federal service, and I had been away from the national security world for a while. I’d been tormenting college students with calculus. And so, I came back to the national security business, and I was getting briefed to be prepared for my hearings. And I saw the first charts on readiness, and I actually thought they had inverted the numbers, because I was in the service during the Cold War, and the readiness numbers are far lower than any general officer would have accepted during that time. Now that doesn’t mean that we won’t go. Low readiness levels mean we go. It means that fewer will come back. This is not a game. It’s a very dangerous world, and we need to be ready.

Washington Examiner: What are your priorities as you look to the future? Every service secretary comes in with something that they believe is important.

Wilson: There are really five, and it’s driven by the National Defense Strategy, and by the guidance given to us by [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis: Restore the readiness of the force, cost-effectively modernize the force, drive innovation for the future, develop exceptional leaders, and deepen our partnerships with our allies. And those are the five things that will shape the force for the future.

Washington Examiner: Now, you came from a research university. Innovation is something that’s sometimes difficult to quantify. How are you approaching that?

Wilson: Well, there’s a couple of things that we’ve done. One is we’ve launched a 12-month review of the Air Force science and technologies strategy to look at where are we making our major investments, and where are the other services as well. Because, you know, hypersonics is not just of interest to the United States Air Force. It’s of interest to the Navy. So, how are we prioritizing what we need to do for the force of the future? And then, how do we do our research? But that’s not the only thing we’re doing. We are increasing our use of experimentation and prototyping, which are new authorities given to us by the Congress.

So, we don’t have a very long program of record before we start to do work. Let’s just experiment. Let’s see what the realm of the possible is. We’ve done that in several large space programs. $100 million consortium on space to work with small innovative companies. We just did it in a competitive engine selection. We’ve got an experiment going on on high-performance engines. We said: Set a goal for adaptive engines of a 10 percent increase in thrust and 25 percent increase in fuel efficiency, and give those to two manufacturers of engines. See what they come up with. It’s an experiment. We spend $5 billion to $6 billion a year on fuel for aircraft. If we could get a 25 percent increase in fuel efficiency and a 10 percent increase in thrust, that’s a game-changer.

Washington Examiner: Let me ask you about space. The National Defense Authorization Act recognized that space is a war-fighting domain. What does that mean, practically speaking?

Wilson: It means the Air Force has been in space since the 1950s, or actually, the late '40s. About 80 percent of what’s in space, for national security, is operated by the Air Force. We are heavily dependent on space, and our adversaries know it. And so, we kind of, we built a glass house before the invention of stones. And so, in 2007, the Chinese started a very significant anti-satellite program, and we are now having to significantly shift to be able to take a punch and keep on fighting through, to be able to provide what the warfighter expects from space.

And when you think about it, I mean, most people don’t think about it, but there is not a military mission that doesn’t in some way depend on space. It’s communications, global positioning navigation, and timing; it’s indications and warning of missile launches, command and control, intelligence. So, it is very important to the warfighter, and we need to make sure that it’s resilient.

Washington Examiner: Should there be a separate service to deal with space?

Wilson: I think when we look at any of our missions in any of the services, and you look at the future of warfare, what you see is it’s becoming more integrated – not separated, but integrated. And one of the best examples, and the chief and I were talking about this just recently, in Kosovo, our idea of a joint operation with the Navy was OK, you take the west of the country and we’ll take the east of the country. That’s parallel; that’s not joint. Today, in a fight in the Middle East, there’s one air-tasking order, and it includes not only the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps assets, but dozens of coalition partners as well. So, the future of warfare will be faster, it will be more integrated, it will be multi-domain. So, space, air, ground, sea, undersea, cyber, and space integrated, and so multi-domain warfare is where we’re going in the future.

Washington Examiner: Let me ask you about the B-21. Northrop Grumman beat out Boeing for the contract. There’s been some industry speculation that they underbid, and that the contract won’t be executable at the bid price, and that we’re heading for some big cost overruns or some other problems with the program. What’s your view on that?

Wilson: The program is moving forward, and it’s on cost and schedule at the moment, and we don’t see a problem. We’ve got a lot of problems in the Air Force. That’s not currently one of them.

Washington Examiner: Let me ask you about another beloved aircraft, the A-10, which, you know, close-air support advocates still swear by as the gold standard, and has big support in Congress, especially by Rep. Martha McSally [a former A-10 squadron commander], who now is running for Senate. What’s the future of the A-10?

Wilson: Our intention is to keep the A-10 in the inventory. I understand, my predecessor’s situation, that the budget was declining, they had to make choices that they probably would not have tried to make if they weren’t under both the sequester and the budget pressure that they faced. I think we need more squadrons, not less, and I think the A-10 is a very good aircraft for its close-air support mission. Long term, we’ve got to figure out, you know, what we’re going to do to continue to do close-air support, but the Air Force is committed to the mission.

Washington Examiner: What’s the biggest surprise that you’ve faced since you’ve come back and come here to the Pentagon and taken over this pretty weighty job?

Wilson: Well, there’s a lot that’s new to me. I guess I would say this, having been a junior officer in the Air Force, and really never paid much attention to, you know, what went on in the Pentagon, I suppose, being a service secretary, it’s a wonder. If you have a good relationship with the chief of staff, there’s a lot you can do that matters to, particularly, the airmen, but also to the security of the country. And it’s a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be.