Air Force leaders on Monday talked about the need for the service’s capabilities to change and adapt in the face of a modernizing China, especially the need to spend money more efficiently. 

Speaking during a panel discussion Monday during the Air Force Association’s 2021 Air, Space and Cyber conference, Lt. Gen. David Nahom, Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs, underscored the necessity of spending the Air Force’s money more efficiently when it comes to platforms.

Lt. Gen. Clinton Hinote, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration and Requirements, said the service is

“very happy” with how the B-21 program is going, but more needs to change.

“At the moment, fingers crossed, we’re pretty happy with how things are going there. But that doesn’t mean that that’ll be all that we do because what we find in our wargames and our modelling and simulation is you can never have enough bombers, actually,” Hinote said.

However, Nahom said, “well from the money guy, I’m telling you you can have enough bombers.”

Nahom argued the B-21s will become the service’s fourth bomber fleet.

“We cannot afford four bomber fleets. So the future of the Air Force is in the B-52, a very modified B-52, and the B-21. And we’re going to get past the B-1 and the B-2 as quickly as possible and bring in that new technology on.”

He also said the future Air Force must focus on capabilities that are connecting, persistent and survivable. 

“If you think about the U-2 and the RQ-4 and the MQ-9 and the J-STARS and the E-3. These platforms have difficulty in maintainability and connectivity and survivability and you’re going to see the Air Force moving past a lot of these legacy platforms.”

“As Secretary Kendall said, if we hang onto legacy platforms, that is the money we need for future platforms. So you’re going to see us talking a lot more and we’re going to be a lot louder about the risks needed to get to that future force over the next couple of years,” Nahom continued.

He asked the defense industrial base to help the service spend its money better.

Using the example of the fighter force, Nahom said the Air Force is currently maintaining seven fighter fleets.

“No other air force in the world does that. We would like to reduce the number of fighter fleets. We’re not going to spend any less money on fighters, help us spend that money better. There’s a lot of business for the companies out there, we just have to spend it better because right now we’re wasting a lot of money on legacy capability that we could focus better on future capacity that Gen. Hinote needs for his [force design].”

For his part, Hinote explained that there is no more time to delay changes against a near-peer competitor. Hinote said in the past some wargames set in the future did not go well for the U.S. forces, but it was thought to be a future problem. Now, this has become a current problem.

“Exercises where we take the best and the best and we see what’s going to happen. Not in every case, but in many more cases than we are comfortable with…where we are at parity with our peer competitor and that’s not ok,” Hinote said

Hinote argued that is why other Air Force leaders and speakers at the conference have spoken about there being no more time for the service to change in being more efficient with spending and capabilities.

He said the Air Force must have capabilities to project power in highly contested airspace to protect allies in the Indo-Pacific region like Japan.

“If tomorrow’s warfighters fight the way we fought yesterday, we’re going to lose, and that’s not okay, Hinote said.

He said the Air Force cannot rely on platforms that will not deliver the desired effect.

“So we are at a point where we’ve got to change, we have to do something different,” and that means penetration and survivability in the bomber fleet, Hinote said.

Hinote said this also relates to the B-52 bomber and the idea the Air Force will rebuild and reinvent the B-52 since it has “good bones” and real capability left in the airframe.

“We’re basically going to reinvent it as an airframe so it can carry that bombing, that fires capacity for the joint force as we go forward.”

Also at the panel, Lt. Gen. Duke Richardson, Military Deputy at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, spoke to the need for acquisition reform.

Agreeing with how Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall talks about reform,  Richardson said acquisition reform requires setting reasonable and meaningful requirements, putting professionals in charge, and giving those professionals what they need.

Relatedly, he said digital acquisition is “actually the future way of doing it.”

Richardson noted while putting professionals in charge is important, “we don’t right now have the bench, in my opinion, to do that across all of our programs. It may not even make sense to do that, so we’re also learning quickly how to do that. I would also submit industry is doing the same thing, so we’re learning together.”

Nahom said the three work together regularly, with Hinote’s team working on design of the future Air Force with what capabilities are needed for acquisition, Richardson’s team sees if the technology is ready, and then Nahom’s team looks to see if it is fiscally responsible to get it.

Richardson added that the service needs the industrial base’s help in a broader way.

“We need you to think more broadly than your company. If you believe this is a fight we could lose, and I do, then your motivations have to be larger than quarterly earnings calls and also shareholders, you’ve got to come up. I actually think that our interests are aligned there because I think there’s going to be more opportunities if we get this right.”