ARLINGTON, Va. – Acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth expressed comfort and confidence Feb. 26 in the priorities outlined by newly-installed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his focus on modernization, defeating coronavirus, and “making certain our work environments are free of discrimination, hate, and harassment.”
Roth made his comments about Austin and the new administration as well as a range of other topics during a 30-minute “virtual fireside chat” at the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Warfare Symposium.
“We are here to defend the nation and that is not going to change. … I view my role as ensuring that we as the (Department of the) Air Force continue the momentum that we have built up on both the air and space side. We can’t afford to take a pause,” Roth said in explaining his approach to the job as acting secretary.
Like other senior leaders in the Air and Space Forces as well as across the military, Roth said there is a need to modernize and reshape the force to confront new threats from China, Russia and other adversaries. He emphasized the importance of space and the need to be both fast and agile.
“We need to be very clear-eyed and focused on addressing the competitors that we have out there, both China and to a somewhat lesser extent, Russia,” he said in response to a question.
“We need to modernize across a wide range of capability,” he said while speaking to the task of simultaneously executing the National Defense Strategy while looking at the capabilities the Air and Space Forces need in 2030 and beyond.
Drawing from his deep experience developing and managing budget proposals, Roth acknowledged difficult choices are likely to lie ahead. “We need to be focused on that on both the air and space side and we’ll have to make some decisions internally in terms of the balance between legacy requirements and looking to the future,” he said.
Roth was blunt about what is needed for future planes, programs and ideas to prevail. “At the end of the day, those programs that perform probably will be winners and probably will succeed. Those programs that don’t (perform) will likely suffer.”
It’s all about capability,” he said. “The two chiefs (Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond) are articulate in talking about the fact that it’s all about the capabilities we need. We can talk about the platforms, they’re fun to talk about; they’re exciting to talk about. But we need (to focus on) the kind of capabilities we need in order to make sure that we can prevail.”
Roth said he recently took a flight in the Air Force’s new KC-46 (Pegasus) tanker and was confident it will be the backbone of the tanker fleet. He also said the F-35 (Lightning II) fifth-generation fighter is “the core airplane going forward.”
Space is crucial as well.
“There is virtually nothing we do on the ground that doesn’t depend in some manner, shape or form on a capability that we get from space,” Roth said. “We need to continue to invest in space. We had the advantage for well over 50 years in a benign environment in space. Those days are gone.”
Roth praised the way the Air and Space Forces have maintained operations during the coronavirus pandemic. Though he characterized it as “clearly the existential challenge for the nation today and obviously the globe,” he said all missions continued in the air and beyond, and that 27,000 recruits graduated from basic military training in the last year.
“I think the Air and Space Forces have done an absolutely outstanding job internally in terms of coping with the COVID(-19) crisis and making sure that we continue to be ready to do the nation’s business,” he said.
Roth also urged all members of the service to get vaccinated.
“The vaccination process is key to all of this,” he said, noting that he and other top leaders of the Air and Space Forces have been vaccinated.
Roth said the service must continue finding ways to bring in new industry partners that offer ideas and products that fill blind spots. He said information technology and making the Air and Space Forces digital services are crucial to succeeding in the future.
“We would like to bring people in to provide us, frankly, things that we haven’t thought of … new ways of tackling the same sort of problems. That’s the key going forward,” Roth said, mentioning external efforts such as Pitch Day and internal initiatives such as Spark Tank.
“Maybe there’s a young engineer or technologist out there who can bring us the ‘ah ha’ moment,” he said. “We look forward to working with people. … The strength of our nation vis-à-vis any competitor is basically our innovative, creative, entrepreneurial spirit. We, the Department of the Air Force, would like to tap into that creativity.”
Roth also spent extensive time during the fireside chat addressing the need to address cultural and societal issues that affect both services. He highlighted Austin’s call for a military-wide stand-down to examine extremist views in the ranks.
“We know that the vast majority of our force understands their oath and they are ready to do the nation’s business,” he said. “I honor their service.”
But we are … a reflection of society and face some of the stresses and strains that are out there in society. We would be well served to address those in an open, candid way. At the end of the day, it’s all about dignity and respect and having a force that can maximize its potential.”
Where we have issues … we need to be honest with ourselves. Ignoring them will not make the problem easier.”
Roth said both the Air and Space Forces must be “clear-eyed” in recognizing societal problems in the forces and how to attack them. Failing to address them will not only affect people but damage readiness, unit cohesion and the nation’s defense.
“We need to ensure that we have a force and that we have an enterprise where people can come in and work to their maximum potential and not live in fear and not have to look over their shoulder,” he said.
“It comes down to readiness; the readiness of the force. Anything that undermines that readiness or anything that is destructive or corrosive to readiness we need to take on in an open and honest way,” Roth said.