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Barrett outlines Air Force budget priorities, strategies for working with other services

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett, second from right, delivers remarks during a panel discussion with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, second from left, and acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, right, hosted by Kathleen Hicks, left, senior vice president of the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, at the center in Washington, D.C., Feb. 21, 2020. The service secretaries discussed their respective department’s posture and budget proposals. (U.S. Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich)

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett, second from right, delivers remarks during a panel discussion with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, second from left, and acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, right, hosted by Kathleen Hicks, left, senior vice president of the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, at the center in Washington, D.C., Feb. 21, 2020. The service secretaries discussed their respective department’s posture and budget proposals. (U.S. Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich)


Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett united Feb. 21 with secretaries from the other military services, pledging to work closely to fulfill the mandates of the National Defense Strategy as well as advancing new, capabilities for warfighting, joint operations and ensuring superiority in space.

Appearing at the Center for Strategic and International Studies with Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy and Acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly, Barrett also emphasized the importance of space and continuing to reform – and streamline – the department’s acquisitions process.

With the recently released fiscal year federal 2021 budget, all three secretaries said the services are working to “strike the right balance” between maintaining legacy systems, divesting where appropriate and putting money into new technologies, systems and warfighting approaches that meet emerging threats such as those posed by China and Russia.

“We are working especially hard to look for ways of process reform, building faster, better processes,” Barrett said. “Our acquisition process has been too cumbersome, too slow. We need to find ways of doing that faster. We need to minimize risk but at the same time we are looking for the best tools and investing in more modern, more capable, more lethal equipment. With all of that, building our space capabilities.

“We will be taking measured, calculated risks and building for a longer-term, strong future,” she said.

She highlighted the imperative of bringing into reality a data-intensive, fully interconnected system known as Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) for collecting, sharing and analyzing information and connecting “all shooters and sensors.” Achieving that she said, demands close cooperation and partnership with the other services.

“These things can’t be done individually or with the individual services,” Barrett said. “We must be cooperating. And we are. JADC2, building connections that connect each shooter with each sensor (is one example). There is work on artificial intelligence; working on hypersonics. We’re all involved in that. Much of the advancing technology is very much a joint effort and if we did it individually, we’d be finding duplication and inefficiencies that we cannot afford.”

Barrett, McCarthy and Modly each agreed that the services must focus on readiness and modernizing while assuming that budgets are unlikely to grow.

“We don’t anticipate a top line (budget) growth though we certainly have ways we could use it,” Barrett said.

“We face two-thirds of the nuclear triad modernization and that’s coming. We have all the expenses that go with increased capability in space. At the same time, we’re implementing reforms. Acquisition reform is taking not just money, but time out, of the process.”

The event at a well-known think tank coincided with the release Feb. 10 of the fiscal 2021 budget proposal that is designed to further shift the U.S. military from its decades-long focus on smaller scale anti-terrorism operations to a starkly different preoccupation on a “great power competition” with Russia and China.

The hour-long session, which included a question period, was billed as an opportunity for the secretaries to discuss “the state of their services, defense strategy and key initiatives in the FY 2021 budget and associated future years defense program.”

Focusing on broad themes rather than granular detail, the secretaries each said the future was rooted in a the smart use of technology, of fostering strong ties with allies and squeezing the maximum benefit out of every tax dollar that is spent.

Barrett spoke at length about the importance of space and how the birth of the Space Force will present an important, tangible reference point that will help the public recognize the critical role space plays in national security and everyday transactions.

“Sometimes it’s a challenge because the things we need to invest in are not visible, are not tangible; they are not associated with a constituency yet,” she said. “Things like connectivity, those are invisible and harder to identify. Similarly, space. It’s ubiquitous but it’s invisible so a lot of people don’t appreciate how very engaged each of us is with space.”

“The two key investments we will be making … are space and technology. Both of those are harder to sell because they aren’t tires that can be kicked.”

Each of the service secretaries noted cooperation on developing hypersonic weapons and incorporating artificial intelligence into operations and plans.

Like the Air Force, McCarthy and Modly noted that finding the proper balance in the budget between supporting existing systems and underwriting cutting-edge technology can be difficult. Readiness, McCarthy said, “is our No. 1 priority” but “striking the right balance between new capabilities and divestiture” is also critical.

“The ships we’ll need in 10 to 15 years don’t even exist right now,” Modly said. “But we have to get right after that right now.”

Modly pointed out that a variety of “mundane” efforts are also crucial. Foremost in that category, he said, is upgrading the Navy’s IT network to meet modern-day demands.

Another he said is working to reverse consolidation of the industrial base. Only one company today can build an aircraft carrier, he said. But through contract reform and new approaches that all three services are promoting, the number and mix of companies is growing.

“The competitive field is not as broad as I’d like it to be,” Modly said. Because of efforts currently underway, “I believe the Navy will have a healthier industrial base 10 years for now.”

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