Gen. Mike “Mobile” Holmes, USAF, the commander of the US Air Force’s Air Combat Command, discusses roles for new F-15X Eagle fighters the service is considering acquiring from Boeing to replace aging F-15C jets, surge exercises to Europe and elsewhere to add unpredictability to US operations and improving readiness with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando. Our coverage was sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Air Force Association’s Annual Air Warfare Symposium, the number one winter gathering of Air Force leadership from around the world as well as industry executives, thought leaders, and media. Our coverage is sponsored by Leonardo DRS and L3 Technologies.
And it wouldn’t be an AFA if I wasn’t having the opportunity to talk to the Commander of the United States Air Force’s Air Combat Command, General “Mobile” Holmes.
Sir, it’s always an honor and pleasure to talk to you.
General Mike Holmes: Hello, old friend. That’s just part of AFA for me too.
Mr. Muradian: It’s always great seeing you, and it’s always kind of an action-packed time. Let me ask you about the F-15X. The Secretary and the Chief have sort of made it clear that this was something that did not originate with them. But from your standpoint, how do you use the aircraft? The Air Force’s message has always been no more new 4thgeneration airplanes. I ran into a friend of mine on the show floor that said hey, look, these are important for Guard and Reserve and to retire some of the old airplanes.
From your standpoint, you’re the guy who’s going to have to integrate these into the force, 80 of these airplanes is my understanding. Where do they go, what do they end up doing?
General Holmes: We think it’s really important that we buy more airplanes per year. Our fleet’s gotten older every year, and if you stick to about 48 or 50 airplanes a year, then 30 years from now I’d have a 30-year-old F-35 fleet. So it’s important to us to buy more airplanes sooner.
One of the more cost-effective ways to do that will be to take a mix of 4thand 5thgen. The Department of Defense has built the budget that includes some of both.
What will we do with them? We’re still flying the F-15C, both active duty overseas and in the Air National Guard. Of the airplanes that we’re keeping, that’s the one with the shortest amount of time left on it. So unless we take extraordinary, unaffordable means to keep the F-15C flying, it’s about 10 years away from the end of its life. So it makes sense to us to replace those airplanes first. And if we replace them with an airplane that the maintainers already know how to fix, and the pilots already know how to operate then we prevent long, lengthy transition times to a new airplane. We can hold our readiness through that period and replace then F-16s and A-10s or whatever the airplane that was designed to be replaced with the F-35 with F-35.
Mr. Muradian: Are you concerned, though, that this will take away some F-35 from you? Because one of the things we talked about was hey, let’s get that rate as fast as we can. Doesn’t that mean that it’s eight fewer F-35s, for example, that you’re going to be getting every year?
General Holmes: Well, it depends. The balance is what’s the total cost of that total 72 airplanes? I feel pretty confident that a mix of airplanes we can acquire cheaper, we can sustain cheaper, and then you don’t have the MILCON costs that go with adding the new mission with LO facilities and things that go with the F-35. I think the Chief and the Secretary have been pretty eloquent that we’d love to have 72 F-35s, and so would I, but with the budget pressure on the entire defense budget and all the things that the nation asks the Air Force to do, if the position is that we’ll get to 72 by taking a mix of airplanes, then we’ll be ready to do that.
Mr. Muradian: I know that time is very, very tight and Allen’s going to come over here and tackle me in a minute because you’ve got to get on a jet, so let me ask you about readiness. You’ve been working this really hard. Guidance came out from the Defense Secretary last year to really increase that readiness rate. That happened a little bit after you and I talked at AFA, but you were still talking about the importance of getting up the readiness tree. Talk to us about how you’re getting up there, where are the red flags, where are you making progress in terms of getting Air Combat Command with an aging fleet that has a high utilization rate to where it’s got to be?
General Holmes: The first thing that happened was Congress funded manpower for us, so we were able to get rid of our maintenance shortfall. A year ago we were short about 4,000 maintainers. This year we’re full. They’re still young maintainers that have to become experienced where they can work on an airplane by themselves, but when you look at our readiness measures, it’s people, and then it’s training of those people, and then it’s the status of the equipment, and then it’s the supply that it takes to go operate with the war-to-readiness spares kit and the things you need to be able to operate for a length of time down there.
We’re making progress in all those areas in people. We’re kind of greening that up. In training we’re making good progress. And then in the status of the airplanes and the quality of the airplanes, three general officers — Lieutenant General Warren Berry at our Headquarters A4, Lieutenant General Robert McMurray at Air Force Materiel Command, and Brigadier General Tom Miller our Air Combat Command A4 have been really doing great work of figuring out what it will take and where we need to spend money to be able to fly the airplanes enough now to get the readiness that we need.
We’re up about 15 percent in the last year, which doesn’t get us all the way there, but it’s not to be laughed at, and we’re making good progress. I think we’re on track to meet those goals as long as we continue to get the people and we continue to get the funding that we need to sustain the airplanes and do the training.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you about the big surge ex’s. I talked to General Todd Wolters, Commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa and Magu said look, there are going to be surge exercises over the summer that we’re going to see. You’re a key part of that, and he talked about how closely you two are working together on that.
Talk to us about what you’re trying to demonstrate, the kind of capabilities you’re going to be moving forward, and is this getting back to that kind of footing where when you were a young fighter pilot it was hey, 24 hours you guys have got to move and be someplace en mass, in force, and ready to go. Is that the kind of footing you want to get back to?
General Holmes: The Department of Defense and the Chairman, General Dunford, have been driving all the services toward what they call a dynamic force employment model. So we’ll continue to do some of those rotational deployments that are predictable and everybody knows there’s going to be the next replacement.
What we’re trying to be is less predictable, more dynamic in what we do, and surprise people with what we do and where we show up. So I think you’ll see more of those short notice unpublicized surprise deployments. It’s good training for our guys, and it does keep everybody on their toes and you’ll see all our airplanes I think taking a turn at that. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them don’t end up around the world this summer like General Wolters talked about.
Mr. Muradian: Sir, it’s always a pleasure. Looking forward to seeing you down in sunny Langley. Thanks very much for the time, we really appreciate it. Hope you have a great weekend.
General Holmes: Good to see you, and thanks for coming to cover our airmen here this week. Good to see you.
Mr. Muradian: It’s always an honor and a pleasure, sir. Thanks again.