Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom is the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs; the “A8.” He programs the flow of systems entering and leaving the force. He spoke with Air Force magazine Editorial Director John A. Tirpak on Sept. 24 about how the service is accelerating change, balancing immediate and long-term readiness, and adapting to new threats.
Q. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s “Accelerate Change or Lose” paper has injected new urgency into Air Force transformation. How has the threat changed since the National Defense Strategy came out in 2018 to drive this new urgency?
A. The National Defense Strategy is a very well-written document. I believe it correctly pivots not only our Air Force but our entire joint force toward peer competition to make sure we’re ready for what is next.
I believe it got the threat right. … But I also believe the threat is accelerating. Our peer competitors have really hastened their transformation and are bringing new capabilities to the field sooner than we would have expected. We in the Air Force really believe that this necessitates our need to accelerate change, as well.
Q. How do you do the calculus that tells you what capabilities the Air Force needs, and when?
A. In the last two years, the Air Force, correctly, split the A5 (strategy, integration, and requirements) and the A8 (plans and programs). Why is that important? On the A5 side, we now have a very smart crowd that looks strictly at the design, the strategy, the threat, how it’s all going to come together, not only with our joint partners but with our coalition partners.
That cleans up the plate for me to look at ways to actually get the Air Force to that design, and frankly, in an affordable manner. So we look very closely with the A5 not only at the design—what the Air Force should look like—but about how we get there. … To make sure we’re correctly addressing the threat and mitigating any deficiencies.
It’s a very difficult balance because the resources needed to modernize—the money and manpower—are the same resources I need now for day-to-day operations.
That’s where the art of this comes in. The balance of maintaining a credible defense and deterrence today, but also in the future … designing a force that can win against a peer competitor.
In a perfect world, you could shut down the U.S. Air Force for a couple of years so we can modernize. But we all know, with the world we live in, that’s not possible.
Q. How do the other services’ programs affect yours? The Navy and Army are pursuing long-range strike. In your planning, are you counting on their capabilities to come about?
A. There are a lot of healthy discussions going on right now about long-range fires.
In a potential peer fight, volumes of fires, long-range fires, are going to be very important. It’s useful having the other services look at different ways of doing it.
For me, it always goes back to the kill chain. And the part that’s so important is to ‘find and fix.’ That’s one thing if the target’s stationary, but it’s a whole other thing if the target’s mobile.
We in the Air Force … are often in a better position for that find and fix. In terms of fires in general, not just long-range, we bring something that the other services will never be able to bring. That makes us unique. Not to mention, we can be ready at a moment’s notice, just because of the nature of our bomber force. We can be ready here in the continental U.S., and not have to worry about permission to use airspace of other nations, etc., and we can be anywhere very quickly. That makes us different.
The other thing is the networks we’re building.
In the joint world, the word is JADC2, or joint all-domain command and control. In the Air Force we talk about our Advanced Battle Management System—ABMS—but really it’s how we bring together not just the Air Force sensors and shooters but all the joint partners, and how we share data and targeting information. That’s very important because shooting a projectile a long distance is impressive, but what’s very impressive is hitting what we need to hit at a time and place of our choosing.
Q. Will Roper, the Air Force acquisition executive, was very excited after the early September ABMS experiment, in which a cruise missile was shot down with an artillery round. How does this feat affect your planning for air base defense, when the Air Force is planning to rapidly move around among various austere bases in wartime?
A. Those are very attractive options to defend your stuff when you’re operating in places potentially in range of enemy fire.
The excitement you heard was that this represents a way to get on the correct side of the cost curve. It’s hard to win a long fight when what I’m using to defend myself is more expensive than what they’re shooting at me.
More important than the projectile, is the ‘finish’ part of the kill chain; the entire ‘find and fix,’ that entire JADC2 ABMS network that came together that day, to allow us to aim that projectile at that incoming cruise missile at exactly the right time.
That is not going to happen by accident. We’re going to have to build this network, take advantage of data at machine speeds, and give decision-makers the tools they need to make these decisions very quickly. Because an enemy attack in a peer competition, 5 to 10 years from now, is going to be happening very fast. We have to be able to move information and data much quicker than we do right now.
Q. But what’s the practical result? Do you buy artillery pieces? Does the Army go with you when you go to austere bases?
A. It’s not just about defending air bases. … This was showing us ways that we can look differently in the future. I think that exercise opened a lot of doors for the joint force.
Q. There’s a lot on the Air Force’s combat aircraft plate: the F-35, the F-15EX, the Next-Generation Air Dominance aircraft, Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft, an MQ-X. What are the priorities, and how do you match them to an adversary’s calendar of fielding new things in five, seven, 10, 15 years? What are the off-ramps if a program is overtaken by events?
A. We have a lot of legacy systems in our Air Force. Meaning, ‘old.’ And we have to refresh a lot of them.
The cost to sustain and modernize is just eating us up. My weapon system sustainment costs right now are far outpacing inflation. Bringing in new systems to refresh our Air Force is critical.
You have to look at the systems we need to move out first. Because not only are they costing us too much money, but they’re offering us too much risk. You’re seeing that right now with the F-15Cs. You’re going to see us moving them out quickly and bringing on the F-15EX as quickly as we can to recapitalize those units, where and when we can.
And when we bring systems out, you may see some gaps in certain areas. And that’s the risk piece we’re going to have to have.
We don’t have money and manpower to have overlapping systems. We just don’t. If you have a fighter flying right now, the money and manpower to operate that fighter is the same money I need to operate a new fighter. If you bring the new one on, you can’t overlap them for a couple of years until you’re completely comfortable.
But, certainly in the prioritization, we’re looking first and foremost at the lethality.
Also, there may be other platforms that can backfill [a capability] in a different way. You may be able to achieve [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] with a different platform; differently, but get the same result. So, to mitigate the risk, we may be looking at other platforms to pick up the slack.
We also may be working with some of the other services, or working with coalition partners to help us out, maybe mitigate some of the risk, while we modernize a platform or a capability.
In some cases, we can take an older platform and we can modernize it, like the B-52. But, in some cases, it’s actually better to look at a new platform. Look at the [shift from] B-2 to the B-21: It’s more cost-effective, and you get a much better capability to take us into the future.
Q. In the last few months, many senior leaders, including yourself, have suggested the Air Force really needs 220 bombers, vice the 158 it has today and a notional 175, ultimately. Why not simply—officially—state that requirement?
A. My biggest concern with bombers is not the numbers right now. We have a three-bomber fleet with the B-1, B-2, and B-52. In a matter of years, we’re going to go to a two-bomber fleet: the B-21 and a very modernized B-52.
Between now and then, we’re going to go through a period where we’ll have a four-bomber fleet. My biggest concern is minimizing that overlap. How quickly can we get the B-21 in and operational? How quickly can I get the B-52s modernized so then we could correctly divest out of the B-1 and the B-2? That is the big trick.
Do we need to grow beyond that, to a larger fleet? “The Air Force We Need” very clearly stated that, and we actually have analysis that shows that we need a larger bomber fleet.
But when we grow, we need to grow with the B-21 in mind, not maintaining legacy [aircraft] longer. Keeping the legacy longer is going to cut into the resources we need to modernize.
Q. Discuss your planning horizon. When it’s year-to-year, that tends to drive small adjustments. Where are the break points for the big changes?
A. The threat never sleeps, and conditions are always changing, so we’re constantly assessing where we need to go. We’re obviously always looking long-term, with the A5. We also plan in a cycle of five years, the [Future Years Defense Program], so we’re always assessing five years out, but, at the same time, I have a planning cell that’s looking one FYDP past that, as well.
Our newest fighter, the F-35, and some of our previous platforms, had really long development cycles. There’s new technology now that we’re hoping really changes that. You’ve heard Dr. Roper talk about digital engineering, and the potential to get on a much tighter timeline for how we develop new platforms and capabilities.
We’re really excited that we can potentially plan in much shorter timelines in the future. There’s just a lot of hope for this, bringing new systems like the T-7 trainer into service much quicker than we would have in the past.
Q. The Chief and others have said the Air Force probably has to give up the idea of having air superiority everywhere, all the time, because peer competitors are catching up. How does that affect how you plan?
A. First of all, we as an Air Force must always be able to achieve air superiority at a place and time of our choosing. There may be a temporal aspect to that in the future, but if we need air superiority for an operation … we need to have the ability to do that. And over the next four or five years, I think everyone will see that we’re absolutely committed to that.
Since 9/11, we’ve been operating in a permissive environment, where we really had freedom of maneuver in the air all the time. With peer competition, that’s not always going to be the case. We’re going to have to work for it.
Q. How much more does the Air Force need to do everything it’s been asked to do?
A. I don’t want to put a number on it. Let’s just say we have a flat topline going forward, and look at what that does to our service, when you have inflation. I have weapon system sustainment costs going up, manpower costs going up. Even if [the budget stays] flat, my buying power changes, in a negative direction. So we’re not always going to have the resources we want. It’s a delicate balance.