WOTR Podcast: How is the Air Force Adapting to Great Power Competition?


Ryan caught a flight with Gen. David Goldfein, the chief of the Air Force, who broke down how his service is preparing for a new era of great power competition. What is the Air Force of today doing to get ready? What will the Air Force of the future look like? With support from two bright Air Force officers studying at Maxwell Air Force Base — Lynn Haack and Stephen Bressett — he puts some meat on the bones of “multi-domain operations,” where the U.S. military is ending up on Space Force, and how military power can enable and reinforce diplomacy. The chief closes with some kind words about War on the Rocks and the importance of public engagement by Air Force personnel.




Ryan: General Goldfein, thanks so much for doing this.

Gen. Goldfein: You bet.

Ryan: And thanks for the lift home from Alabama. I don’t know how I would have gotten home otherwise.

Gen. Goldfein: Absolutely. Great to have you.

Ryan: So I’d love to talk about, and hear from you about how the Air Force is responding to guidance in the National Defense Strategy, and reorienting itself away from what have defined the last, you know since 9/11, these continuous fixed operations in Afghanistan, and then later Iraq, towards great power competition, primarily with Russia and China in mind.

Gen. Goldfein: Well, for us it starts with the key tasks that we’re responsible for, not only in the Air Force, but across the joint team, our allies, and partners. But the tasks begin with defending the homeland. And then from defending the homeland, we’ve also got 2/3 of the nuclear enterprise, so we’re working side by side with the United States Navy. We’re responsible for a safe, secure, effective nuclear deterrent, and getting the President where he needs to be, when he needs to be connected to forces on our worse day as a nation.

And, we have to be prepared to fight, and win and defeat a pure threat. And we have to assume that if in fact we get anchored in that kind of a fight, that a rogue nation, middle-weight, might choose to take us on and take advantage. And so we’ve got to be able to deter while we fight and win. And we have to maintain campaign pressure on violent extremists. So if you take a look at the tasks that are laid out —

Ryan: It’s a lot.

Gen. Goldfein: It’s a lot. And as an Air Force, we don’t get a by. We play in every one of those tasks.

You know, the way I think about it, if in fact we get into a situation with a pure threat, the likelihood is that three phone lines are going to ring at the same time in my office. The first one will be from the geographic combatant commander, who is going to tell me what he needs to fight and win, and execute his war plan. And there’s going to be two more lights blinking.

And then the STRATCOM commander, General Hyten, is going to tell me what he needs to be able to execute his mission, because there’s potential that we’re now in a conflict, or in a scruff with a pure threat that’s a nuclear power. And then that other line that’s blinking is General O’Shaughnessy, who’s going to tell me what he needs to defend the homeland. And the Air Force is going to play in every one of those, so we got to make sure that we’re ready.

Ryan: It’s interesting hearing how the different services are responding to this new era. You know, I heard from a lot of my Army friends over the last several years, that all this light infantry focus on counter-insurgency, they had lost a lot of competencies in combined arms warfare, heavy infantry armor, artillery. What has sort of been the equivalent for the Air Force? The task that you guys needed to get brushed up on more.

Gen. Goldfein: You know for us, I look at it … You know, we have some muscles that are actually pretty cut. We’ve been in the gym for 17 years, we’ve been exercising those muscles, and they’re pretty well-defined and in good shape. And we have some muscles that have atrophied. And so as Chief, my focus has been, how do I get my service to get the balance right. Right? So there’s some places where we got to get those muscles back into shape.

And some of those muscles have to do with how we present forces very quickly in an immature campaign, that allows us to push forward forces very quickly, because the combatant commanders expect its Air Force to arrive very quickly. In many ways, to be the halting, blunting force, as follow-on forces arrive, by nature of the fact that we can fly into theater. So how do we arrive very quickly, and be able to present forces to the combatant commander? Every echelon of command understands their specified and implied tasks, and they’re organized, trained, and equipped, and prepared to execute the job.

So, you may have heard me talk about sort of a return to our expeditionary roots. And those expeditionary roots is about, how do we take an air expeditionary taskforce, with every echelon of command, roll it forward very quickly, halt enemy activity, be the blunting force, and be able to execute that combatant commander’s campaign, that is likely a global campaign. That’s where we’re focused.

Ryan: We hear some criticisms of the National Defense Strategy, that it doesn’t make enough choices, and we’re taking on this huge task of great power competition, while still fighting the Taliban, fighting what was one AQI, now ISIS. And so that lack of choices, does that cause concern for you from a resources perspective?

Gen. Goldfein: I look at the National Defense Strategy as a framework. It’s a framework for how we ought to be thinking about the future of warfare, and what we ought to design a military to be able to do. And for me, as the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, it’s what blueprint, what design for a future Air and Space Force do we need to build to be able to fight and win?

And so I actually think that the right choices are actually in the National Defense Strategy, because we help drive it in that direction. You know, if you don’t have key priorities, and if you don’t have some direction on where to actually take risk, then the strategy doesn’t balance the ends, ways, and means dialogue. And so I think actually, the National Defense Strategy does a pretty good job of that. Now I will tell you that some of that is in the classified section. So you know, that’s the —

Ryan: All the cool stuff is always in the classified section.

Gen. Goldfein: I know. That’s the limitation of our being able to talk about some of those key choices. But it lays it out pretty well.

Ryan: How important, and I know you probably can’t answer this question fully, but how important has the experience operating over Syria been for the Air Force? Obviously it’s a fight focused on ISIS, but we’ve also got quite a close experience with Russian aircraft.

Gen. Goldfein: It’s been a great … You know in this regard, it’s been really important, because it’s as complex a battle space as we’ve had to operate in in years. Relatively small airspace, close proximity, flying inside IADS, ensuring that we operate in a very disciplined and professional manner, that we are de-conflicting our operations with Russians, Syrians, others that are flying in the airspace.

So, I will tell you, I go back sometimes to one of my favorite Hap Arnold quotes. You know? When he said in WWII, and he said, “You know, the problem with air power? We make it look too easy.” And I wonder what Hap Arnold would think if he actually had a chance to look inside what General Harrigian, and now General Guastella, have achieved in terms of the professionalism of this force, operating in a really, wickedly hard, challenging environment that they’ve been operating in. And I give them a heck of a lot of credit for how they’ve pulled it off.

Ryan: The Air Force and the Army are talking a lot about something called multi-domain battle. And once was what multi-domain battle, now multi-domain operations.

Gen. Goldfein:  Yeah.

Ryan: I edited tons of articles … Little turbulence. I’ve edited tons of articles on this, and I have to be honest, that I still don’t fully understand the concept. I don’t really like the branding. As far as I’m able to tell, we’re talking about joint-ness down to the tactical level, plus space, plus cyberspace. What more is there? What am I missing? How important is this to the future of how America is going to fight its wars, if need be?

It turns out, down at Maxwell Air Force Base, there is a section of students studying this concept in-depth, dedicated to studying multi-domain operations. I spoke to a couple of them, and asked them to explain to me the reasoning for this new operational concept that is on its way to becoming doctrine.

Stephen: I’m Steve Bressett. I’m a major in the United States Air Force. I was a B-2 pilot at Whiteman for the last five years, and then I’ve been at the Air Command and Staff College, undergoing the multi-domain operation strategy concentration for the last year. And then I’ll be heading to the Army School of Advanced Military Studies next month.

Lynn: Lynn Haack. I’m also a major in the United States Air Force, and I fly an RC-135 as an electronic warfare officer. And I’m at school with Steve in the multi-domain concentration. And after this, I will be headed to SAASS, which is the Air Force’s Strategic Air and Space Studies.

Ryan: So what are these domains that we’re talking about in multi-domain?

Stephen: At the joint level, we have a hard time even agreeing on what the definition of a domain is. In our program, we spend time clearly defining that space enables the electromagnetic spectrum, which enables the traditional domains, air, land, and maritime, which ultimately get at the human domains. So we view it as six ultimate domains. So whether your objective is in one of those domains, you’re going to exploit all domains to come together, to exploit the interdependencies between them, to ultimately achieve your objective.

Lynn: Operating in both domains, and it’s not just having two services operating at the same time, which is technically joint. It’s looking at the system to exploit how they interact, and create accesses, small windows of opportunity to eventually get in, complete the mission, and then start to collapse the system.

Stephen: How do we tackle these opponents? Not just in a face-to-face or toe-to-toe competition militarily, but how do we exploit advantages in globally integrated operations?

Ryan: Back to the Chief.

Gen. Goldfein: So here’s the question. How do we use our asymmetric advantage to bring all domain capabilities to bear on an adversary, at a pace that it absolutely overwhelming? So that they first choose not to take us on, because there’s enough doubt in their minds on what we can bring to bear, that they don’t want to make a poor choice, because we brought all domain capability to bear.

You know, that’s why maybe you’ve heard me just describe … I’ve said before, if the adversary ever actually sees an F-35, which is highly unlikely, I want to change all their screensavers, and I want to just put two word that are going to pop up on their screensavers that says, “We’re here.” Not “I’m here,” “we’re here.” We, the joint penetrating team are here, and we’ve been here for awhile.

Ryan: Can you actually do that? Because that would be really cool.

Gen. Goldfein: I hope we can. We’ve been here in space. We’ve been watching for awhile. We know what’s going on. Nothing you can do about it. We’ve been here on the ground with small team special forces. We’ve been here under the sea. We’ve been here with all domain capability. Multi-domain ops. Not sequentially, not the old days of an air campaign followed by a land campaign with a maritime campaign, but this is simultaneously overwhelm an adversary by converging capabilities at a time and place of our choosing. It means essentially that we understand the operating environment better than they do because we’re denying that to the adversary. We can make better decisions and faster decisions, and we can bring capability to bear. That’s the essence of multi-domain operations, and if we get it right, we won’t ever have to use it because they’ll have enough doubt in their minds to question whether actually they ever want to face the Secretary of Defense. I prefer that they want to face the Secretary of State.

Ryan: So how much of this is actually new? You’re right that things tend to have a more sequential logic if you look at older major operations, but the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 wasn’t super sequential. There was a lot of simultaneous stuff going on in the different domains, wasn’t there?

Gen. Goldfein: There was, and in fact you certainly could argue that for years we’ve been doing multi-domain operations. What’s been missing though somewhat, I think, is the simultaneity of being able to bring multiple capabilities to bear again from all domains. Vertically, horizontally, across components, and we’re lashed up in a way today that we haven’t been lashed up in the past, but we still have a ways to go because I would offer that we’re coming out of a period of wars of attrition where we would field platforms and sensors and weapons, and then after the fact, figure out ways to connect them to be used in new and different ways.

If we get multi-domain operations right, we’re going to shift from being focused on trucks to focusing on how we build a highway. If we build a highway, the network that the trucks ride on, the trucks will come.

Because, let me tell you about the Air Force of today. It’s old and it’s new. It’s manned and it’s unmanned. It’s conventional and unconventional. It’s attributable and it’s unattributable, and it’s penetrating and it’s standoff. And guess what the Force of 2030 looks like? About the same. We’ve got some great, new capability that we’re bringing on, but we’re going to have old and new. I’m very confident that a B-52 is going to be flying at the same time as an RQ-170 that’s the same time as an X-37 and a tactical submarine and a special operations team. And the fundamental question for us today is are those systems connected in ways that connect, and share, and learn at the tactical edge. If we can move that forward, then we are bringing a capability to bear on the adversary that today we can bring, but not at the speed, and not with the levels that we want to get to in the future. That’s what multi-domain ops is all about.

Ryan: So how much of this is an acquisition problem versus a doctrinal problem versus a training problem, personnel problem?

Gen. Goldfein: I think it’s actually all of the above. And I’d offer it’s a cultural challenge for us because we’re coming out of years of wars of attrition, and so I have a picture that I show of the Air Force of 2019, and it’s got a lot of platforms, a lot of sensors, and a lot of weapons. And when I put it up, I leave it up for about 15, 20 seconds, and then I look at the audience and say, “Every airman in the room has already found his happy place, or her happy place,” right? Because there’s some platform that has helped define their career. And the question culturally is at what point can we as a service look at that same picture …

Because it’s one hell of an Air Force. When can we look at that picture and actually not see platforms, but see computing capacity that’s advancing at Moore’s Law, doubling in capacity and connected in new ways so that warriors of the future can connect different capabilities across the joint team and our allies and partners in ways that we can’t even fathom right now.

What goes in the B-52 in 2030 is in the mind of a young soldier, sailor, airman or marine right now, and the question for us is how do we create the environment that gets that from the lab to the flight line of the launch pad in a timeline that’s relevant?

Ryan: So what are a couple big muscle movements that you want to see happen before the end of your tenure as Chief of Staff that will get the Air Force towards that goal?

Gen. Goldfein: Making this shift culturally, technologically. Shifting from a war of attrition mindset to a war of cognition mindset. Focusing on the highway and building an Air Force that executes multi-domain operations against the national defense strategy tasks. That is my focus. It’s about joint war fighting excellence, and what the air component brings to the fight as the service responsible for holding the high ground. The nation expects us to bring air and space superiority, and be able to lead joint operations, and that’s where we’re focused.

Ryan: So last time you were on the podcast, what was going to happen with Space Force, the concept? The debate was ongoing, and now there seems to have been a decision. Could you give us any insight into how we got there and why you think this is the best way forward?

Gen. Goldfein: Yeah, I’ll tell you that the President’s actually done it. It’s a great service. If you’re an airman that’s passionate about space superiority, the President has done us a great service by elevating the conversation to a national level dialogue that quite frankly we couldn’t have had even a couple of years ago. So the fact that we’re having this dialogue at a national level, I think, is really healthy. If you separate yourself from the emotion, and just look at it from just purely a business of joint war fighting, you can’t name a mission that we perform today across the joint force that space is not integrated into.

So the fact that we’re moving forward right now with a nomination for a commander, General [Raymond 00:17:39], to be the Space Command Commander is absolutely the right way forward because that starts normalizing space war fighting, because we know as a department how to organize, trade, equip, and present forces to a combatant commander. That starts normalizing it. And then when you look at the Space Force, the President’s direction was pretty clear when he said this is a separate service that’s going to be a separate service, separate department, separate secretary, and so we began a months-long discussion in the department on just how to we get after the President’s guidance?

And then we’ve been back and forth with the White House, and I think where the White House and the department landed is a really good place, because it’s recognizable from a joint war fighter’s perspective, and that’s a service that stays within the department of the Air Force.

A challenge we have is that we came to that conclusion just a week or two before we pushed forward the legislative proposal, and then we immediately stood up a team, led by a two-star General [Clint Crosier 00:18:45], to start working the detailed planning of what that force looks like. And there’s a thousand decisions that have to be made now, and we’re really only weeks into that planning. So that’s both the challenge and the opportunity going forward is we know the way ahead, but now the detailed planning is ongoing.

Ryan: I’ve heard some scholars and younger officers that look at this problem and say that we’re not going far enough, that instead of looking at this from a war fighting perspective, terrestrial war fighting perspective primarily, we need to be thinking about the future of humanity in space, and thinking about a space force as something separate that treats space more like a navy or a coast guard for space, and focus more on competition over resource extraction in space, and things like that, and not exclusively or as exclusively focused on conflicts on the planet.

Gen. Goldfein: Yeah. First, I will just say that I think [John Hyten 00:19:41] was the first one to say this and I agree with it. He said, “You know, there’s no such thing as war in space. There’s just war between two adversaries on the terrain,” and so the question becomes does war extend or does it start in space? And I’m one that believes that if, in fact, it ever does, everyone loses. No one actually wins if we start or extend a war into space. It doesn’t end well for either side.

My number one concern going forward, and it’s really on me as the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the lead joint chief for space, it’s on me primarily and our secretary to ensure that we don’t allow space to be separated from the business of joint war fighting as we build a separate service. That’s one of the worst things that could happen because I will tell you today, you go out to Red Flag at Nellis, and the mission commander that stands up to brief his or her mission will start that briefing with the space fight and space capabilities. And then once they brief that, they will then transition to talking about the cyber fight and cyber capabilities. And it’s their job to understand how to integrate space and cyber into their campaign as they then build their traditional air campaign.

As they’re taxiing out, especially if you’re in the quarterback, the F-35, you’re getting feedback from the space fight and the cyber fight, and you’re calling audibles real time on how that fight’s going. So the last thing we want to do is to lose the integration, the exceptional integration that we’ve achieved by bringing space war fighting into the joint war fight, and so we’ve got to make sure that we don’t allow that to be separated going forward as we get after the President’s direction.

Ryan: All right. Shifting gears again, great power competition. Usually it’s in reference to two countries, sometimes directly, sometimes more obliquely to China and Russia. How do you view them as adversaries? There’s obviously major differences, but in terms of deterrents, you were talking about the role that you hope multi-domain operations plays of the deterrent value of that concept and that doctrine eventually, but also the way a war would play out with both of those countries.

Gen. Goldfein: Well, first of all, I think that we got to be very careful that we don’t think too simplistically about what is a rather complex international relationship, right? I think it would be inappropriate for us to paint everything that China and Russia does as bad, and everything that we do as just the opposite. The example I would give you is that right now as we speak, Colonel Nick Hague is living in the International Space Station with his Russian teammate. When he goes out on his spacewalk to fix the, work on the panels and do what he has to do, his life support gear is being monitored by his Russian teammate. So one could offer that, in this complex international relationship, we’ve actually found common interests above the atmosphere, while we have very few below the atmosphere. Such is the nature of complex international relationships.

So the way I look at it is, we have national interests, and we have allies and partners that rely on us to advance our common interests in a way that allows freedom and prosperity to continue. It’s what we have helped provide really for the last years, since the end of World War II, and we’ve put some of the mechanisms in place. And every country, to include China and Russia, has been the beneficiary. So now, as we see them pushing against that world order, I believe that we have to collaborate where we can, and compete where we absolutely must.

At the end of the day, military power, and what an Air Force and the other services [inaudible 00:23:56] What we bring to bear is, we want to strengthen the Secretary of State’s ability to be able to negotiate to a better peace. I often think of the conversation that occurred in, I think it was 1994 in the office of President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. It was Ambassador Richard Holbrooke with his military counterpart and sidekick, if you will, Lieutenant General Mike Short. This is before the beginning of Operation Deliberate Force. General Short looked at the president of Serbia and said, “Mr. President, you have to make a choice. In one hand, I have a U2. In the other hand, I have a B2. I’m prepared to employ either one, but you have to make a choice on which one I reach for.” The president of Serbia made a really bad choice, and his country suffered as a result.

We want future adversaries to want to face the Secretary of State, and never want to face the Secretary of Defense, and we want them to choose wisely, with enough doubt in their minds of what we can bring to bear through multi-domain operations so they make good choices.

Ryan: That’s useful context, and I understand if you’re not able to go into more detail on this, but you’re a guy that is surely watching how the People’s Liberation Army, Navy, Air Force are developing, and you’re looking at the Russian armed forces in the same way. What are the things that strike you now about some of their differences and similarities, and some of the choices they’re making in their force-structuring doctrine, and how you think that might play out?

Gen. Goldfein: Well-

Ryan: I know there’s some things that you won’t be able to touch on here.

Gen. Goldfein: Here’s the framework, at least, I use to think through this. Well, you always start with the threat and understand the threat. As a chief, I’ve always got to be up to speed on what the threat looks like that we’re up against so that we can always counter it and defeat it. From the threat, drives your strategy. From your strategy, drives your concept of operations, or your ConOps, normally the purview of a combat commander. From your ConOps, drives your requirements, and your requirements drives your acquisition. That framework all rides on a foundation of trained and ready airmen who can go out and do the nation’s business.

When I look at not only the national defense strategy, but peer adversaries, I look at it through that framework. What is the threat, what are they developing, how fast are they developing, how do I ensure I stay out in front, and use our asymmetric advantages? So I’m always thinking through the lens of using our strengths against where they are vulnerable. There is actually no country on the planet that can put a block of wood over itself and say it’s impenetrable. The best thing they can put over the top of themselves is a block of Swiss cheese. There are holes there. It’s actually our job to know where those holes are, and to exploit them and get in. We know how to do that.

Ryan: On War on the Rocks, usually we’re enjoying a beverage on these shows. We’re not now. We’re all working. We’re all on the clock. But why don’t you tell me, do you have a favorite drinking story from your career at any point?

Gen. Goldfein: You know, I am a scotch fan. I love Macallan as my … I’ll tell you, I love sitting down … Chief Wright, my wing man, and he’s also a scotch fan. He’s a cigar fan. I enjoy an occasional cigar. Sitting out in a fire pit with my chief master sergeant of the Air Force and talking about life … I’m one that believes that no senior officer in the United States Air Force got to that position without being raised by a great senior NCO, and I’m certainly one of those that can absolutely say that. Today, I’m privileged to work with one of the greatest chief master sergeants of the Air Force in our history, and a guy that I admire. So sitting there with a scotch with my chief, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Ryan: Who was the most important NCO earlier in your career?

Gen. Goldfein:  My first chief when I was a squadron commander was a guy named Jimmy Kelley. He raised me to a certain extent, because it was the first time I actually had a senior NCO as my teammate. Boy, he taught me a lot. He taught me a lot about leading, he taught me a lot about airmen, he taught me a lot about blinders, things that I just couldn’t see for a variety of reasons. So I’ve been blessed over my career with a series of senior NCOs who’ve took me under their wing and taught me how to lead.

Ryan: Great. Thanks for your time.

Gen. Goldfein: Oh, thank you. Hey, and thank you, by the way, for … You’ve generated a lot of really great, serious thought with your podcast and War on the Rocks. You’ve got airmen writing now, and you’ve got them submitting. You know from me, and you know [inaudible 00:29:15] Ned Stark episode, I love the fact that the folks in the profession of arms, and specifically in the Air Force, feel the freedom to contribute to the body of knowledge out there, and don’t feel like they’re going to lose their head a la Ned Stark. I want to thank you personally for taking that on. You’ve made us better.

Ryan: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. It’s one of the things I was talking to the … Earlier today at Maxwell, I was giving a little talk to the leadership development course that you put together there. It’s another thing that makes our armed forces special, is, even in our really close democratic allies, the British and the French … You know, I love them. I worked with the British really closely in Afghanistan. But they do not have that culture of writing, where it’s, as long as you say something reasonable grounded in evidence, you have those magic words as, “These do not represent the views of …” name your institution, and you could pretty much … You could write a lot of wide-ranging opinion. Not a lot of other military institutions in the world have that, and we do. Not a lot of institutions in our government here in the States have that, and the military does. It’s just something that I’m very happy about and proud of.

Gen. Goldfein: Yeah. I’ll tell you, I love it. At the end of the day, we are a profession of arms. The nation expects a lot out of its military, and certainly a lot out of its Air Force. If we’re not debating the big issues, and if we don’t have the freedom to be able to put forth our opinions and argue those out, then we’re nowhere near where we need to be as a profession. So I just wanted to thank you for helping us move forward.