A.F. chief says San Antonio’s Lackland must prepare for “new abnormal” in year of coronavirus

The Air Force has been planning for what its top commander Thursday called the “new abnormal” of coping with the risks posed by high infection rates for at least the next year or more.

Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force’s chief of staff, told the Defense Writers Group that “a new reset” will require coping with the coronavirus “until we get a vaccine.”

Estimates that a vaccine won’t be available for “upwards of a year,” mean the service needs to refine its “ability to survive and operate and do the … missions the nation requires,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “And we’ve got to bring back those missions that we’ve slowed down …(to restore a) sense of new normalcy in an abnormal world.”

In outlining the turbulent skies the Air Force is navigating, Goldfein pointed to changes in basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland as an example of how it will approach the pandemic. He also described an advantage amid otherwise grim threats to its readiness for war, telling reporters that pilot retention is improving amid the sudden economic downturn that has stalled competition from airlines for its aviators.

All of the planning now in the works, he said, is part of Air Force culture, one that has an acronym, ATSO — Ability to Survive and Operate.

The possibility of halting basic training has shadowed Air Force planning as coronavirus has spread around the world. Acting Undersecretary of the Air Force Shon Manasco, in a visit to Lackland on Wednesday, noted that the Army, Navy and Air Force briefly stopped shipping recruits to boot camps, and Pentagon discussions have centered on how “to keep those pipelines flowing, but to do it in a safe manner.”

The training command has been isolating arriving recruits for two weeks before letting them begin basic training, and quarantining scores of recruits who came in contact with a handful of them who were ill with COVID-19. Five out of six sickened recruits so far have recovered and rejoined training units. The 59th Medical Group is overseeing a small tent city there to improve its testing and isolation capacity.

Goldfein said he expects to learn by June 1 from Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, head of the Air Education and Training Command, how many recruits can safely move through Lackland and the smaller satellite location for basic training set up this month at Keesler AFB in Mississippi.

“Right now we’re at 50 percent,” Goldfein said, though the reported pace of the modified basic training this month actually has approached two-thirds of normal capacity.

On ExpressNews.com: Enough coronavirus-positive recruits in San Antonio could stop training, AF undersecretary says

“You know, we’re probably not gonna get to 100 percent,” Goldfein said. “If we can get … to 60 percent, 70 percent, 75 percent, ah, that would certainly be helpful.”

Marilyn Holliday, an AETC spokeswoman, said it was “too early to know how many recruits will graduate this year because of mitigation measures and depending on how long COVID-19 measures are in place,” but the goal for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 remained 37,000 graduates.

The shortage of military aviators has been chronic, but the pandemic has slowed the operational tempo of pilot training, a bad turn given the Air Force’s goal of increasing the number of new fliers. Goldfein said the impact coronavirus is having on airlines — which had been hiring large numbers of military pilots every year — could help the Air Force.

“Airlines are not flying as much for the flyer and maintainer force,” Goldfein said. “So we’re actually seeing our retention number go up, which somewhat mitigates … the lack of throughput through basic training.”

On ExpressNews.com: Tracking coronavirus recruits, Air Force slowed outbreak at San Antonio training hub

The larger problem, however, is the specter of a long, protracted battle with COVID-19. The Air Force, he told reporters, would “be living with this virus” and the likelihood that, even with a vaccine, it “could come back in some cyclical way.”

“So if that’s … the world we’re living in, how do we as an Air Force operate in that environment and do the nation’s business, especially in those key tasks that we should not expect any relief?” he asked.

“There is no situation where I see the nation or the leadership giving us relief on having a safe, secure,… effective nuclear deterrent and connecting the commander-in-chief with forces in the field. We always have — that’s a no fail mission. We always have to get it done and so we have to figure out how to operate.”


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