Hinote: COVID-19 Accelerated Modernization ‘Day of Reckoning’

The Air Force can’t afford to keep the force it has and also modernize it, so it must choose new technology over force structure, Brig. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, acting director of the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability, said May 27.

Speaking at an AFA Mitchell Institute event, Hinote said downward pressure on the defense budget due to pandemic spending “is not necessarily a strategic change in the environment as much as an accelerant of all the trends that have been facing us a long time.” The “day of reckoning has come … We can no longer modernize and maintain what we have,” he said. AFWIC is dedicated to future force design and what Hinote called the “voice of the future Airman.” He has been selected to be the A5, director of strategy, integration, and requirements.

Video: Mitchell Institute on YouTube

The need to choose between having “and keeping ready” the existing force, or having a modern force is “a very difficult message … for our stakeholder community.” For instance, members of Congress want the Air Force to have a replacement ground moving target indicator “effect” in hand before letting go of the existing system, but COVID “accelerates the day when you can’t” reduce risk in this way. “And that day is today,” Hinote said.

“I think you’re going to see us have to deal with austerity in a new way,” he explained. He believes the service will be given relief by Congress from “all these statutory things that are floors and ceilings” on certain types of platforms.

“We’re in the stages of grief, and that’s what we’re going to have to work through together,” he said. “What we have to do now is confront the brutal facts.”

Hinote said the “worst thing that could happen” at this point “is for us to decide not to decide … to change.” If there is a default decision to simply follow the National Defense Strategy’s calls for certain force levels, “then we’re on a clear trend to … hollowness, noting USAF would be less ready and capable in the future. The Air Force and its sister services don’t want either, but “we’re staring it straight in the face.” USAF’s requested retirement of 17 B-1 bombers is an example of having to make such a choice, and it has to be explained to the “stakeholder community,” he said.

Mitchell’s Dean, retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, said it “would be nice” if there could be some cross-service recognition of the capability offered by a bomber—which he likened to the firepower of a carrier battlegroup. Hinote said he is encouraged that the other services have a “willingness to explore” such ideas, just as USAF is not balking at Army and Navy efforts to create long-range fires.

The future force will have to be more intrinsically linked, and “leadership acknowledges it has to be a joint warfighting design,” Hinote asserted.

The armed forces will no longer have the luxury of getting ready for battle and launching operations only when good and ready, Hinote. They will be under cyber and kinetic attack and will no longer be able to “generate power … from sanctuary.”

There are short, mid-term, and long-term approaches to the situation, Hinote said. In the short term, “you’re going to have as many airfield options as possible. You’re going to disperse as necessary to survive and fight. We want to create as many targeting problems for our potential enemies as possible,” and this wraps in experiments being done with agile deployments and “multi-functional Airmen.”

In the mid-term “I think we’re going to get into something that looks like base defense,” he said, involving both active and passive measures to defend “main operating bases.” This will include “deep magazine options”—read directed energy systems—“for misdirecting or shooting at incoming ballistic and cruise missiles. That’s just something we’re going to have to be able to do to generate combat power.”

The ability to project power “away from fixed infrastructure” is the long-term approach to basing, Hinote said. “To be able to use things like rocket launchers and parachute recovery” to send supplies to “the Airmen out in the field.” The goal will be to “turn things quickly and [develop] new platforms that are software-defined and very flexible. You pull them out of a box, you send them up in the air, and when they break, you put them aside, get another one out of the box.”

Operating away from fixed infrastructure will allow the USAF to complicate the enemy’s targeting problem “by ten to a hundred-fold,” he asserted. This will also allow USAF to always have “a degree of ‘inside’ airpower,” meaning systems that operate inside enemy air defenses, or inside the range of ballistic or cruise missiles. The rest would be “outside” airpower, through bombers, tankers, and “palletized munitions” launched from cargo aircraft like the C-130 or C-17, as well as long-range fires from the ground or sea. The result will be “‘convergence,’ a term we got from the Army,” said Hinote.

Successful experiments with palletized munitions have been carried out, with more planned, and the result will be making even more USAF assets capable of launching weapons.

While there is not yet a Joint Warfighting Integration Capability, Hinote said the roots of such an approach already exist among the services. It cannot, however, produce a static concept of operations “that we put on a shelf” once it’s done. Hinote said technology is moving too rapidly for that, and any concept of operations will have to be a “living, breathing” document of constant iteration. This is precisely why the Advanced Battle Management System is proceeding in such a fashion, he said.

The ABMS is also a metaphor for why the services must integrate their communications and data systems, using machine-to-machine connections and artificial intelligence. “‘Joint’ is not the way to win the war,” he said. “If you’re talking by telephone” among services and capabilities, “you’re going to lose in the future.”

Imposing cost on an enemy is part of the National Defense Strategy’s overall deterrence approach, Hinote said. Deterrence can be achieved either by denial—the unambiguous ability to stop an aggression in the attacker’s “front yard”—and punishment, the means to impose an inacceptable loss on the attacker.

“We don’t want to fight, we want to deter,” Hinote said. Imposing costs will therefore be key.

“I’ll tell you what it’s not,” he said. “It’s not about hitting missiles coming from a peer competitor with another [missile] interceptor. That’s a very expensive way of doing what you need to do.”

The best approaches are dispersal, deception, and “deep-magazine types” of weapons that would convince an enemy that it cannot overwhelm U.S. defenses.

“I believe multi-domain operations is a cost-imposing strategy,” as well, he asserted, because the opponent has to “defend everything all the time.”  A true Joint All-Domain Command and Control System means “they’re going to have to invest a lot—a lot—on defense.” If JADC2 can be built, “it’s very unlikely” an enemy will “choose to go” to war, “and that’s winning.”

Hinote said, “We think we can compete well, … and deter, and assure our allies … with this combination of deterrence by denial and … punishment.”