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Acting SecAF Donovan highlights progress in achieving ‘Air Force We Need’ in speech at Air Space Cyber Conference

  • Published
  • By Charles Pope
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Highlighting a series of small but important achievements, Acting Air Force Secretary Matthew P. Donovan told an influential audience at the Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Sept. 16 that the service is more ready and more capable than ever before and is adapting effectively to meet new threats and technical demands.

“Today looks a lot different than it has over the last quarter century since the end of the Cold War,” Donovan said in a closely-watched, 35-minute speech at a cavernous convention center near Washington. His speech was equal parts pep talk and valedictory remarks.

“We are operating in the most competitive international security environment in generations," he said. "If this last year has taught us anything, it’s that long term, strategic competition between nations is back with a vengeance.”

The Air Force, Donovan said, is making progress even as it copes with new threats and shifting geopolitics. The Air Force is “digging out of the readiness hole” while also embracing the creation of the Space Force as a new and separate branch of the U.S. military.

“In 2019 we made real progress in readiness restoration and were finally able to start rebuilding the force,” Donovan said, citing steady and predictable budgets as a major reason. “More importantly, we made significant first steps in building the ‘Air Force We Need.'”

That term – and that goal – were unveiled to considerable fanfare last year at the same conference. It holds that the Air Force needs 386 squadrons to meet today’s array of national security demands. Those challenges are made more complicated by the emergence of China and Russia and a period of great power competition. Whether that specific numeric goal will be met, however, is to be decided by Congress and the White House. What is certain, Donovan suggested, is that the Air Force will meet future needs.

To drive that point home, Donovan used his speech to formally unveil the name and tail design of the Air Force’s newest trainer, the T-7A Red Hawk. The supersonic trainer, scheduled to go into service in 2023, is a key element in training pilots so they are proficient in fifth generation airplanes and tactics.

“The T-7A will be the staple of a new generation of aircraft,” he said. “The Red Hawk offers advanced capabilities for training tomorrow’s pilots on data links, simulated radar, smart weapons, defensive management systems, as well as synthetic training capabilities.”

The plane honors the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II by carrying a red tail. On stage during the unveiling of a one-quarter sized model of the plane was retired Col. Charles McGee, a fighter pilot who flew more than 400 combat missions in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Donovan also noted that the Air Force’s newest strategic bomber, the B-21, “is on schedule and the first test aircraft is being built at the same facility in Palmdale, California, as its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit.”

In addition to hardware and force strength, Donovan focused on the importance of science and technology, including increased use of artificial intelligence, “machine learning,” hypersonics and innovation. It also means discovering ways to forge new systems with old ones, he said.

“As we began to pivot toward the future, some of this year’s most notable feats came from our scientists and research and development teams,” he said.

“Our advances in hypersonics weren’t just theoretical,” Donovan said. “We conducted flight tests with the carriage of a hypersonic missile from a B-52. That’s right, we used the oldest aircraft in the inventory to test our newest kinetic capability. And, it’s all tied together with rapid prototyping as we increase the speed of our acquisition system…faster, smarter.”

He illuminated a collection of easy to miss – but crucially important – advances in procurement reform such as Pitch Day and more aggressive use of the federal law’s section 804. These authorities allow the Air Force to move faster and with dexterity to develop new weapon systems, software and other “tools.”

Donovan also offered robust and unequivocal support for creating the Space Force as a new and separate sixth military service.

“Our nation needs the United States Space Force to guarantee our preeminence in the space domain and it must be a new and separate service to unleash its full potential,” he said.

At the same time, Donovan noted that the Air Force will continue playing an important, even leading role in space even with a separate Space Force.

“The U.S. must develop a long-term, national strategy to ensure continued leadership in space,” he said. “A whole of government effort is required to ensure we can defend our national interests, our commercial capabilities and our people in space. The Department of the Air Force is leading this effort.”

He noted the Air Force’s attention to quality of life for both total-force personnel as well as spouses and family. To illustrate the point, he said the Air Force would offer up to $500 to reimburse the cost of transferring professional licenses.

“When a family PCS’s to a new state, the Air Force will reimburse them up to $500 for exams, registration and other costs required by their new home state so they can continue their careers,” Donovan said. “This is a quality of life issue designed to help spouses get back to work quicker after a move, while keeping money in our Airmen’s pockets.”

Donovan, who was elevated to acting Air Force secretary in May when Heather Wilson resigned, closed his speech by noting that his tenure as the service’s civilian leader is likely to end soon. Barbara Barrett, who President Trump has nominated for the job, is expected to be confirmed this month.

When that happens, Donovan will move back to the job he held previously – Air Force undersecretary.

“We eagerly await the confirmation of Ambassador Barrett as our 25th Secretary of the Air Force,” Donovan said. “It truly has been an honor of a lifetime to serve with you these last few months as acting secretary, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to thank you for that, and all you do for our nation, every day.”