General: Air Force faces NATO-like struggle

The Air Force's officer leading the Quadrennial Defense Review said the service needs to innovate if it wants to remain a global leader and avoid the fate of NATO.

The U.S. Air Force and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization share a similar dilemma of seeking global leadership with fewer defense dollars, according to one of the service’s top strategists.

NATO has “an aspiration for doing many things in this world that are good, yet a budgetary reality that doesn’t quite achieve that aspiration,” Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast said March 20 during a speech at the Air Force Association’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. “Here we sit with the same dilemma.”

Automatic budget cuts that took effect March 1 are set to slice about $500 billion from the Defense Department budget over the next decade, unless lawmakers back an alternative plan. The reductions, known as sequestration, come on top of about $500 billion in national-security cuts already included in deficit-reduction legislation passed in 2011.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this month ordered a review of the administration’s defense strategy from last year. The strategy, which seeks to shift focus away from the ground wars of the past decade and toward threats in the Asia-Pacific region, was made with the idea that Congress would act to avert the automatic reductions.

Kwast, director of the service’s quadrennial defense review, didn’t say how the Pentagon’s strategic revision will affect the Air Force or his work on the review, a planning document published every four years. The next report is due in February 2014.

“It is very difficult to make adjustments in this environment,” he said. “It’s very important for subordinates like me to not get out in front of those who have the wisdom, the knowledge and the capacity to make very meaningful changes as we move forward.”

Kwast said making comments before the strategy is revised would be premature and declined to specify which weapons systems or technologies may be affected.

“The brightest minds in our nation are thinking on this right now,” he said. “The American people deserve a defense that is sufficient to the need.”

Kwast said the service must be more innovative if it wants to maintain its leadership role during an era of declining defense spending. Otherwise, it may be saddled with unsustainable programs and stuck in a scenario “where we spend $10 billion in 10 years to deliver something, and the enemy steals it away from us in 10 months, with a good programmer and about $10 million,” he said.

Kwast said investing in air power makes sense, even in a period of financial uncertainty, and urged officials to speak with one voice on Capitol Hill and beyond the Beltway.

“Our role is to find innovative and creative ways of bringing solutions to our political masters,” he said. “It starts by telling our story with congruency so that we are a house united, so that the appropriators of the world give us the resources to build those innovative approaches.”