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American Forces Press Service

Chief of Staff Looks Back, Ahead as Air Force Observes 65th Birthday

By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 18, 2012 – The chief of staff of the Air force saluted the men and women of the force today, the 65th birthday of the service, by saying air power starts with heroic airmen who just “keep coming.”

Gen. Mark A. Welsh III told the Air Force Association’s annual meeting here airmen carry on a rich history that began in September 1861, when U.S. Army aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe raised himself in a balloon 1,000 feet above Confederate lines and telegraphed their locations via a line he'd carried up for that purpose. Union artillery then fired into their ranks. It was the first application of indirect fire in the U.S. military, Welsh said.

The successes of airmen continued into World War I with the Lafayette Escadrille, the general said, when "all of a sudden aviation was romantic and fighter pilots were incredibly handsome and attractive."

In World War II, "the heroes kept coming," he said, noting Billy Mitchell, Jimmy Doolittle, "Hap" Arnold and others. "And they keep coming," he added.

About a month ago, Welsh said, he visited the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Del., "and met the airmen who are involved in that incredibly important work." One of them, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the dress and wrapping section, is an Air Force reservist who has deployed 10 times to work in the mortuary, he said.

Airmen like this demonstrate how the Air Force values family, the general said: “everybody's family, [and] every member of every family." Welsh did make news about one member of the Air Force family, announcing the retirement of Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Roy.

The Air Force also values innovation, Welsh said, citing the F-22 Raptor fighter jet as “an entire farm of innovation.”

“It does something no airplane can do and no airplane will be able to do for a while,” he said. “Part of the reason we have issues like the life support issues we're dealing with now is we've never had an airplane that could operate, maneuver and pull G's above 50,000 feet -- not the way this thing can. We're into a new era.”

The Air Force has had to revise its priorities following every war since World War I, Welsh pointed out. "And now,” he added, “here we sit at another one of those turning points."

What the Air Force becomes in the next few years, Welsh said, "might not be who we were." Budget pressures and the threat of sequestration – which would double projected defense spending cuts over the next decade -- make it "time for an honest look in the mirror," he said.

Welsh said one of the things he's realized is that people don't understand all that the Air Force is doing -- sometimes not even the leadership. This, he said, is both an incredible testimony and a little worrisome. It means those the Air Force supports don't worry about air power because it's always where it's needed, he explained, but it also means they don't know what goes into making that reliability happen.

"My concern is that we're not telling our own story well enough," he said.

This concern, Welsh said, led him to go back to the basics. He went back to Executive Order 9877, the order that defined the duties of the Air Force after its establishment in 1947.

"Here's some of the stuff it says: air superiority, strategic air forces, air reconnaissance, airlift, air support for ground forces. … They haven't changed,” Welsh said. “These are still the things that our combatant commanders expect us to deliver."

Air Force air superiority drives the way the ground components operate, he said. "If we are not able to gain and maintain air superiority -- which is not a given, and it's not easy -- if we were unable to do that in a future conflict, … then everything about the way the United States Army and the United States Marine Corps fight on the ground would have to change -- what they buy, how they train [and] maybe even who they recruit."

The Air Force, the chief of staff said, needs to make it clear to everyone that air superiority "is a foundational element of the use of air power and of joint war fighting. Period."

Two of the three elements that provide nuclear deterrence for the United States are in the Air Force inventory, he said, and the nuclear mission will remain a primary focus. "We can't afford to ever get this wrong."

The air support and surveillance missions have evolved rapidly over the past 65 years, with much of that change happening within the last 20 years, Welsh said. "I don't think anybody in 1947 could have imagined what [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] would become," he added.

And the demand for intelligence keeps growing, he said. "There isn't enough money in the universe to fund the [intelligence] requirement that we have in the Department of Defense,” he told the audience. “What we buy has to be thoughtfully considered."

No one has accomplished the mobility mission as well as the U.S. Air Force, Welsh said. "We fly 60,000 airlift sorties a year," he said. "Excellence is the way of doing business in our mobility fleet."

Welsh said he is a believer in the cyber mission, but he's "just not sure we know exactly what we're doing in it yet.”

“And until we do,” he said, “I'm concerned it's a black hole."

Cyber professionals need to use common sense and plain English to explain their roles, Welsh said. "This is essential,” he said. “This is the future. It's an air, space and cyber future, there's no doubt in my mind."

The Air Force matters, the general said. "Today, all over the world, we are moving people and equipment -- some into some pretty ugly spots," he said.

Every day, he added, the Air Force is conducting convoys, flying intelligence missions for every combatant commander, fighting on the battlefield alongside the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, flying spacecraft and defusing improvised explosive devices.

"It's important that we tell that story," he said.

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