ASHVILLE, Tenn.– Citing evolving missions and shrinking budgets, the Air Force chief of staff is calling for the Air National Guard and active-duty forces to work closer together.

“The skill set of National Guard members is critical to sustaining worldwide partnerships,” Air Force Gen. Norton A. Schwartz said during a speech at the 131st annual National Guard Association of the United States General Conference here Sept. 12. “We stand to succeed across all areas of our total force mission, but we face numerous challenges.”

Schwartz said the total Air Force structure is evolving along with the demands being placed on the force by the Defense Department.

“We need to adapt to this change,” he said.

Schwartz said the Air Force’s most pressing priority is the acquisition of new refueling tanker aircraft. He echoed Air Force Secretary Michael Donley’s speech at the conference the day before, citing a robust request for proposals that is due out to contractors later this year, with a final contract awarded in late 2010. “You all have a considerable investment in the new tanker,” Schwartz told the audience, which responded with applause.

The second priority is fighter aircraft, the general said.

“Why would I want to dissipate a limited pool of resources on a 4.5-generation fighter when I can purchase a fifth-generation platform?” Schwartz asked the audience. He said it would be a “major mistake as a nation” to spend money on upgrading the existing Air Force inventory and “prematurely walk away from the F-35,” the joint strike fighter dubbed the Lightning II.

“I think this is the wrong approach,” he said.

Schwartz said he believes the F-22 Raptor is “over-spec’d” for the Air Force’s air-sovereignty alert mission, but that he hopes to bring a combination of F-22s, F-35s and legacy aircraft — including upgraded F-15 and F-16 fighters — as well as unmanned aircraft to the that mission.

Schwartz noted that while distributing new platforms concurrently among the active-duty Air Force and Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units is important, the changing role of the Air Force means not all units will retain their present missions.

“We must recognize that the total Air Force is evolving,” he said. “As I said before, we need to adapt, but adaptation also applies to a concurrent and proportional rollout in terms of F-35 procurement.”

Schwartz said that in the future, not every fighter unit will retain its flying mission. Units may migrate to operating unmanned aircraft or switch to a nonflying mission.

“We need to be equally prepared to do those missions, too,” he said.

The third priority for the Air Force is its long-range strike capability, Schwartz said. “I think our country needs a penetrating air capability,” he said. “We cannot depend exclusively on ‘fire and forget’ ballistic missiles.

“And as you know,” he continued, citing the B-2 bomber mission at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., “[The Air Force] has a significant partnership in long-range strike capability with the Guard and Reserve.”

Schwartz reminded the group of ceremonies commemorating the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, calling them “a sobering reminder of the unfamiliar political and military landscape Americans now face.”

“Now, more than ever, we must be vigilant in our efforts to provide for the common defense of our nation,” he said.

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