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New Chief Of Staff Outlines Global Challenges Faced By The Air Force


When people advocate more U.S. military action abroad these days, they typically don't call for big numbers of ground troops. Mostly, they suggest airstrikes or more aerial surveillance. And that means a lot of work for the Air Force and its new chief of staff General David Goldfein, whom I interviewed at his Pentagon office this morning.

The number one surprise for me is that you say Goldfein. I would have assumed Goldfine (ph).

CHIEF OF STAFF DAVID GOLDFEIN: I know. We have, over the years, we've said Fein (ph) is fine.

SIEGEL: Fein is fine?


GOLDFEIN: Yeah, it has to do with, you know, a few generations ago, you know, migrating over here from Russia - Ukraine, actually.

SIEGEL: General Goldfein was vice chief of staff, and he ran the air war against ISIS. I asked whether the capacity of the Air Force is keeping pace with the demand for the Air Force.

GOLDFEIN: Actually, it isn't in many ways. You know, we have, you know, far more mission than we have Air Force today, which is something that we're dealing with.

SIEGEL: Goldfein credits Defense Secretary Ash Carter with clarifying five global challenges the U.S. faces, not just ISIS.

GOLDFEIN: And in order it's China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and violent extremism.

SIEGEL: Violent extremism is number five in that list.

GOLDFEIN: It is, and it's actually not a - I said prioritized but it's actually, you know, at any given day, each one of these is a global challenge. We're not giving the luxury of applying military power sequentially, meaning we have to take a look at these things in a way that very well might be simultaneous activity.

SIEGEL: Is the Air Force tapped out? Well, General Goldfein says not if the question is can the U.S. maintain operations in the Middle East for another 10 years? But if the question is could the U.S. simultaneously defeat a well-resourced enemy and do everything else?

GOLDFEIN: Then the answer is yes. We are facing significant shortages to be able to manage all of those, which is why you're seeing us trying to build the force back up.

SIEGEL: When General David Goldfein was sworn in this summer as Air Force chief of staff, it was a first. Goldfein, who is described as a pilot's pilot, has not just flown F-16s and F-117As, the kind of warplanes we associate with an Air Force officer. He has also piloted the MQ-9 Reaper. It's a drone, although the Air Force avoids that word. They don't like unmanned aerial vehicle much either. They prefer remotely piloted aircraft.

GOLDFEIN: So we call it that because there's very little unmanned about the unmanned business. If you take a look at our pilot force across the Air Force, our largest percentage of pilots in the United States Air Force are flying remotely piloted aircrafts or RPAS.

SIEGEL: They're not leaving the ground.

GOLDFEIN: Twelve hundred and...

SIEGEL: Twelve hundred people.

GOLDFEIN: Twelve hundred. So when you look at the RPA business, remotely piloted aircraft, we call it that because it is not merely sitting in a container doing video games, which is sometimes how it's described. Let me describe for you my checkride.

SIEGEL: Checkride, the test to be considered mission-ready.

GOLDFEIN: So first of all, I had to be able to transit international airspace. So I had to understand all of the piloting required to be able to transit over countries and understand their requirements to be able to operate safely and securely in international airspace.

When I arrived over the battlefield, I needed to be prepared to operate and work for and with any number of operators on the ground, could be conventional army, could be Navy, could be Marines, could be international, could be a civilian. If any aircraft showed up with ordinance and it was a strike mission, especially if the international, I had to understand exactly what their national caveats were, what munitions they carried, how close I could place those munitions.

And if God forbid there was a personal recovery required, I had to be able to orchestrate all of those. So my message to you is this is, of all the airplanes I've ever flown, as complex a mission set of anything we've done.

SIEGEL: You've described to me everything that's similar about flying, say, an F-16 and piloting a drone. What's different?

GOLDFEIN: I think we've just scratched the surface, honestly. I'll give you one example. So on a manned aircraft, I take off from location X, and I go out and fly a mission. If the weather is bad in location X and I can't take off for some reason, then that mission is a scrub, right? We don't fly it.

In the business of RPA, I've got a single cockpit that can control a mission in Afghanistan or it can shift to control a mission in Iraq or it can shift to control a mission at you name the spot as long as I've got the communications coverage. So this airplane can't get off because it's airborne, I can shift that crew and that cockpit over to another aircraft in another country.

SIEGEL: Well, I get it that there would be efficiencies there in doing that. On the other hand if you're the pilot, it sounds like you're - you could be flying 16 hours a day at that rate, if you're constantly being used in one theater or another.

GOLDFEIN: We have struggled over the last several years to stabilize this community because the demand signal has been so great. We're somewhat the victims of our success. You know, in many ways, it's become the oxygen the joint force breathes, right? If you have it, you don't think about it.

But if you don't have it, it's all you think about and you want more of it. And so we as an Air Force have continued to find ways that we could add more and more capacity over time. What that resulted in is many of our crew - pilot, sensor, intelligence coordinators - would be in a continual demand for flying missions.

And so we're trying now to get it to a more healthy, mature weapons system, which allows our pilots, our crews to be able to do those things that are required for development in their careers.

SIEGEL: U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein. Tomorrow, we'll hear his assessment of the fight against ISIS. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.