An F-16 takes off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Freedom's Sentinel, on March 23, 2018. USAF photo edited by TSgt. Gregory Brook.
Air Combat Command is in the final stages of developing a Fighter Roadmap, comparable to Global Strike Command’s Bomber Vector, which will explain what new air dominance programs the service needs to pursue, how the existing fourth-generation fleet will play in it, and eventually give way to new systems like the Penetrating Counterair Aircraft, ACC chief Gen. Mike Holmes said in an interview.
Holmes also discussed current thinking on “fifth-to-fourth” generation fighter communications, and the need to pursue contractor-provided “Red Air,” to present adversaries for USAF fighter pilots to practice against.
“We’d like to lay it out in front of the department leadership this fall as we work through the details of the ‘20 POM [Program Objective Memoranda],” Holmes said of the Roadmap, “and get agreement on it there, so we can take it onto the Hill the same way Gen. [Robin] Rand did with his Bomber Roadmap.”
Rand, head of Global Strike Command, worked last summer to explain to members of Congress how the Air Force will gradually phase out the B-1 and B-2 bombers in favor of the new B-21 as that aircraft starts to deliver in the next six years or so. Members have so far not raised many objections to the plan, which calls for retaining existing bomber bases and personnel, and simply changing out the aircraft.
Holmes said, “I concur with the analysis that’s been done at the Pentagon” that USAF needs to build up from 55 fighter squadrons to 70, which he called “a good number” for all the missions the service is now asked to perform, but said “within the realities we face in our budget” it won’t happen fast. The Air Force has to modernize its nuclear deterrent and pay a lot of other modernization bills, Holmes said, “and so what I propose is that we work on having 55 fully capable squadrons” for now, “and then we’ll see about growing and … what happens next with the budget level.”
The Fighter Roadmap will show “the logic and the math” for evolving toward the 70 fighter squadrons it wants to build toward. He hopes Congress will “enact” the Roadmap in the Fiscal 2020 budget that will be built in the Fall. He suggested that at least some form of the document will be publicly releasable.
Because the Air Force got most of what it wanted, or at least is expected to, in the form of upgrades to fourth-generation F-15s and F-16s in the Fiscal ‘18 and ‘19 budgets, “we’re in a pretty good place” with those fleets, Holmes insisted.
An Analysis of Alternatives begun last year to decide the next steps in air superiority is almost finished and “should [be] complete sometime this year,” Holmes said. Despite “new ideas” from the new administration, “we’re convinced the nation will continue to depend on the Air Force to control the air so we can exploit it as a joint force,” he asserted. The AOA will provide “options” for senior leaders as to how best to provide for air superiority, and what form the PCA will take.
However it shapes up, “we know it has to operate as part of a family of systems, we know there are multiple approaches to what we’re talking about,” Holmes reported. The AOA will come with recommendations, “and then we’ll advocate for that.”
Holmes said USAF is working on a joint solution to the vexing problem of getting fifth and fourth generation fighters talking to each other, such that the massive amount of information collected by fifth-gen platforms can be shared across the force.
“I’m hopeful that we can agree on a way forward with the other services in a year or so” on an arrangement that allows all aspects of the joint force to communicate and share data, Holmes said. “We’re going to have to think through … multidomain” intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and how it scoops up data from air, space, cyber, and “publicly available information” to create a comprehensive picture of the battlespace.
The Navy, Marines, and Army are “invested in some things” already with regard to how information is shared, “so this is not a decision I can make unilaterally,” Holmes acknowledged.
Asked about ACC’s plans for contractor-provided “Red Air”—commercial adversaries that USAF fighter units can practice against—Holmes said it’s the way to go “for the time being.”
“At the number of squadrons we have, to regain readiness, we have to put some money into this,” Holmes said.
Initially, he said, “we started off with threats that pretty much just give us a piece of iron to show up on radar,” but contractors are working to enhance the degree of challenge they can present.
“We’re looking to expand the contract, and part of it is, we have to be transparent with the bidders and we need to commit to a certain number of sorties at a certain number of installations, so they can decide how much money they want to spend to get the capabilities we’re looking for.”
He said he can’t realistically expect contractors to provide “a threat that’s on the same level as what I’m facing, at an affordable level; if they could, it’d be a miracle.” Consequently, USAF will continue to fly two squadrons of F-16s as Aggressor units, as well as T-38 adversaries for F-22s at JB Langley-Eustis, Va., and Tyndall AFB, Fla. Contractors are already at Nellis AFB, Nev., and “we’re working through the stages of spreading them around to some of our other installations.”
Holmes doubts that retired F-15s could be put back in service by contractors to play the Aggressor role. Those aircraft have been retired “because they’re prohibitively expensive to operate.” He’s skeptical that a contractor could “operate them and make money and meet our cost goals,” and in any event, it would be a decision beyond his level to decide if such aircraft could be released for private ownership, he said.