Departing Air Force Undersecretary Warns of Budget Uncertainty
Lisa Disbrow joined the Air Force in 1985 with her sights set on a career in intelligence. The Cold War was still hot when she first began watching the Soviet Union’s moves as a second lieutenant with the Air Force's Indication and Warning Center.
“We watched where the Bear [bomber] aircraft were flying and we mapped it on a giant wall map,” Disbrow said Wednesday in her latest Pentagon office, one with large yellow-tinted glass windows that overlook the Potomac River and Washington.
Russia is still on the mind of Disbrow and other Pentagon leaders. But when she leaves the Pentagon on Friday — her last day in office as the Air Force undersecretary, its No. 2 civilian position — there’s another looming threat she says is bigger: The budget.
“I believe that we have a lot of technological and operational advantage against our adversaries, but we have a lot of budget uncertainty,” Disbrow said during a broad-ranging interview with Defense One. “We are a force that has delayed the modernization of our weapon systems.
“We need to modernize and improve the capability and not just replace what we have, but improve, because of the rapidly changing threat and the capability gaps that we have against our adversaries,” she added. “We need budget to carry forward our plans to modernize and we need to increase the Air Force size based on the nature of the threat that is at hand.”
Disbrow is referring to the Budget Control Act, a 2011 law that caps defense spending levels through 2021. Despite President Trump’s proposal to boost defense spending by $54 billion in 2018, it can’t happen unless Congress repeals or modifies the law, something it has been unable to do over the past six years.
“I believe that [the] really, really largest threat facing us is potential for returning to a Budget Control Act level, which would be devastating to our readiness, devastating to our ability to modernize,” Disbrow said.
Before joining the Air Force, Disbrow eyed the CIA. That didn’t happen. Instead she put together a 32-year career, a combination of uniformed and civil service. She retired in 2008 as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve. But it’s that first assignment at the Pentagon that Disbrow said set the course for success.
“Coming as a junior officer really set me up to understand strategically better than it might have had I started out [on] the normal path, I think,” she said. “It was a really exciting time. I learned a lot … about leadership [and] national defense intelligence.”
When she left active duty in early 1990s, she worked at the National Reconnaissance Office, back when the government didn’t acknowledge the spy satellite organization’s existence. She then moved to the Joint Staff where she spent about 20 years.
She returned to the Air Force in 2014 as assistant secretary for financial management and comptroller. She became undersecretary in 2016. Earlier this year during the presidential transition, she served as acting Air Force secretary between January until May.
Today’s Air Force is much different from the one Disbrow joined more than three decades ago, most notably in size. But one similarity is Russia grabbing headlines.
“They’re a nation that is signaling some pretty bellicose ways to go back to being a global power,” she said. “There’s a similarity I see with their action now of flying aircraft near and in our air defense zones that were similar to what happened in the Cold War.”
Looking to the future, Disbrow talks of the importance of more networked warfare, battles were everyone and everything is connected, something pushed heavily by Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff.
“We already do it, but we need to do to it on steroids,” Disbrow said of networked warfare. “We need to be thinking about how to link our assets into a collective whole to be more kinetic in engagement. We do have our weapon systems that link together, but it’s not as elegant and as secure and as integrated into our operating concept between weapon systems.”
In the interview, Disbrow pushed for buying more planes, particularly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
“We are starting to get into our stride with the F-35, but we would like to get to get to at least 60 [jets] a year and then progress really toward 100 aircraft a year, maybe not all F-35,” she said. “It is a complicated thing. We have a good plan now, but we could procure more. We’re working with Congress to be able to do that.”
Disbrow also stressed the need to invest in space, an area that “is occupying an enormous amount of senior attention.”
“We haven’t had to worry about a threat in space or hostile action in space. But now we do,” she said. “We’ve seen that developing threat out there, China and Russia both and then there’s others developing kinetic and non-kinetic threats to our space systems.”
Air Force leaders have been pushing to make its satellites in space more resilient, able to withstand an enemy attack.
“We are right now changing, and have been for the last several years, our approach to the architecture in space, to make it resilient,” Disbrow said. “We’ve been doing a lot of study, we’ve been looking at our acquisition processes to see if we can move faster in areas where the technology is mature.
“We have beefed up the warfighting requirements focus so that we make sure that we add in the capabilities … that would make us effective in operating in space in a contested environment,” she added. “We have also looked at our organization and realized that we needed more advocacy.”
Disbrow stressed the need to provide care to airmen with what she called “invisible wounds of war,” referring to post-traumatic stress and other mental disorders.
“That’s another area where we need to do more,” she said. “We are working on ways to make sure they get the help they need while they’re still on status and if it’s such that they need to move on for medical conditions, then that we’re staying connected with them even after they’re left the Air Force that they know they’re an airman for life and that they’re part of a team.”
Now, inside her Pentagon E-Ring office most of the pictures have been removed from the walls. A few aircraft and satellites models and a large painting of an F-15C with some other Air Force fighter jets are all that remain.
What Disbrow does in the future is still in the works as she “hasn’t settled on where I’ll serve next.”
“The goal was really working in intelligence,” Disbrow said reflecting on the beginning of her career. “It was the Cold War. I felt deeply about serving and I felt that was my calling. It happened to work out for me.”