Robbin Laird, a member of our Board of Contributors, and Ed Timperlake conducted what looks like it will be the last interview with Gen. Mike Hostage, the head of Air Combat Command, before he retires in early November. Hostage has overseen the Air Force’s transition to fifth generation aircraft with the introduction of the F-22 and preparations for introduction of the F-35 fleet. Read on. The Editor.
Question: The F-22s have seen their first combat mission flying against ISIL in the Middle East. They could have been used before but have not. We have been asked by a number of analysts and journalists, was the F-22 operating as a separate asset or was it integrated with the force?
Hostage: Any platform that we operate today is integrated with the force. We don’t operate very many single mission combat aircraft, other than maybe close air support. Even that today is a highly orchestrated affair.
I think it is kind of ludicrous for someone to think that we have a platform that doesn’t integrate with anything else. Clearly, on a machine-to-machine basis, the F-22s can not communicate with everybody else at the level they communicate with each other.
But in terms of integrating the platform with other assets, that was ongoing from day one. This is largely true in terms of TTP or tactics, techniques and procedures.
With regard to the current operation (against ISIL), they were part of a force package. It wasn’t like they were operating alone and by themselves, without anything else. They were part of the force package. They had a role to fill in that force mix.
They had targets to hit, but they had other roles before delivering airstrikes. Clearly, their level of situational awareness, and their ability to protect the fleet was a significant part of their mission set but they had targets just like everybody else.
I don’t see how you can be any more integrated than that.
Question: Airpower has become more important over time in terms of the range of missions, which it can conduct or enable. Yet there continues to be a public debate, which posits boots on the ground versus airpower. We see airpower as both a shaper of the battlespace and a key enabler of a variety of other operations.
How do you see it?
Hostage: The boots on the ground debate is a political, not a military debate. Nobody argues that putting boots on the ground will not give you better fidelity, better opportunities to identify the good guys and the bad guys, and put weapons on the forehead of the correct bad guy.
But it’s not a military decision whether to do that or not, it’s a political decision. I think it’s a legitimate political consideration that our national leadership deals with. They choose whatever path they choose, you could like or dislike it, but it’s not a military choice, it’s a political choice.
We have significant and intensive ISR in the fight and am not sure it could get much more intense than we have, other than just putting more aircraft up there.
But there’s a limit to what you can do from the air just because of range and the fidelity of your sensors. You can’t see through buildings. You can’t hear whispered conversations. There’s clearly a limit to what airborne ISR can produce.
It’s pretty spectacular what it can do, and we’re doing some pretty quality work up there as we speak. We’re doing everything we can do to maximize our effect within the context in which we are operating.
If you compare the current situation with what we have done in Afghanistan one can see a difference. In Afghanistan, we have been able to work with the rebuilt Afghan forces, the Afghan police and US and coalition forces on the ground. We overlaid that with a very intensive ISR blanket of a variety of different platforms, electronic and FMV (full motion video). We cannot do the same in the current Iraqi situation, but the Iraqi forces are in disarray.
We’re doing what we can do given the constraints of the situation.
Question: As you come to the end of tenure at ACC, what do you look back on as your key achievement?
Hostage: Well, I’m proudest that I have an F-22 fleet that is the most capable combat platform on the battlefield. Clearly using it in Syria is not necessarily the most stringent or rigorous test. But the fact it did exactly what we needed it to do, it was flawless in what it did.
It vindicated all the effort of getting it back on track, you know, when I took over the platform that had been grounded for six months. The pilots were afraid to fly it; the maintainers were afraid to fix it. I mean, it was in a shambles. We were at risk of losing our crown jewel.
We have just about completed putting the 3.1 software into the plane, which gives it a very, very significant air-to-ground capability in an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) environment.
And it is a game changer for us.
I wish I had the numbers we should’ve had. But even 184, it is an absolutely compelling force. And I’m very happy as well with the technical capability that the F-35 has today, and that it promises to have in the future. As long as we don’t fail to deliver the right numbers of aircraft, that’s going to be an equally compelling capability when we deploy that fleet of 1,763 airplanes.
Question: The last time we met, we learned that you had become the first ACC Commander to actually fly the F-22. We were impressed. From your perspective, how will the challenge of working the F-22s and the F-35s be worked with the legacy fleet?
Hostage: You mean the re-norming air operations, if I were to steal a term? Well, I was fortunate to fly the airplane; I learned what I didn’t know.
I was writing war plans in my previous job as a three star using the F-22s in a manner that was not going to get the most out of them that I could’ve because I didn’t truly understand the radical difference that the fifth gen could bring.
People focus on stealth as the determining factor or delineator of the fifth generation. It isn’t; it’s fusion. Fusion is what makes that platform so fundamentally different than anything else. And that’s why if anybody tries to tell you hey, I got a 4.5 airplane, a 4.8 airplane, don’t believe them. All that they’re talking about is RCS (Radar Cross Section).
Fusion is the fundamental delineator. And you’re not going to put fusion into a fourth gen airplane because their avionic suites are not set up to be a fused platform. And fusion changes how you use the platform.
What I figured out is I would tell my Raptors, I don’t want a single airplane firing a single piece of ordinance until every other fourth-gen airplane is Winchester. Because the SA (situational awareness) right now that the fifth gen has is such a leveraging capability that I want my tactics set up to where my fourth gen expend their ordinance using the SA that the fifth gen provides, the fifth gen could then mop up, and then protect everybody coming in the next wave. It’s radically changing how we fight on the battlefield.
We are fundamentally changing the tactical battlefield. How a tactical platform operates with the fusion of fifth gen. What the aviators do is fundamentally different in a fifth gen platform versus fourth gen in the tactical fight.
From an operational standpoint, there are some changes because there are now some things that we can do with fifth gen that I might not have been able to do before.
But the fundamental mechanism of producing air superiority, to enable ground operations, to enable deep strike, to enable all these other things; those fundamental things, those tasks are the same.
I have got the command embarked on a full-court press to get a fourth-to-fifth, fifth-to-fourth capability that will need a combat cloud to be fully empowered, but it will then allow us to fundamentally change how the fourth generation platforms fight in addition to the fifth gen.
Without that back and forth communication, machine-to-machine, the fourth gen’s going to have to do what they already do, they’ll just leverage some of the capability that fifth gen — the SA the fifth gen can provide.
If I can get that machine-to-machine, now the fourth-gen platform will begin to realize some of the benefits inherently at the tactical level that the fusion engines of the fifth generation aircraft provide.
Question: It has been pointed out by analysts such as the former chief scientist of the Air Force, Mark Lewis, that the weapons revolution to exploit the full capabilities of fifth generation aircraft needs to be unleashed. How do you view the evolution of weapons working with the fleet, and where we need to go in that domain?
Hostage: I don’t think we’re necessarily producing fifth generation weapons in addition to our fifth generation platforms. But I would say it’s more in that sequential linear fashion than leaping ahead.
In the end, it’s the effect you want to achieve; the platforms that we have now coupled with the linear growth of the weapons capability are giving us the ability to produce the effects we need to produce.
As we start to deal with an intense anti-access and area-denial environment, the need to do deep strikes into an area that is just totally denied, that’s going to cause us to stretch our level of effort to develop weapons that are truly new and game changing.
Question: One of the concepts we’ve played with is what we called the S Cubed, which is the tradeoffs between sensors, stealth, and speed. And how you played them off against one another. Does that make sense?
Hostage: It does. I think an excellent portrayal of the value of looking at the interaction of those parameters is to examine Raptor versus the Lightning. A Raptor at 50-plus thousand feet at Mach 2 with its RCS has a different level of invulnerability than a Lightning at 35,000 at Mach .9 and it’s RCS.
The altitude, speed, and stealth combined in the two platforms, they give the airplanes two completely different levels of capability. The plan is to normalize the Lightning’s capability relative to the Raptor by marrying it up with six, or seven or eight other Lightnings.
The advanced fusion of the F-35 versus the F-22 means those airplanes have an equal level or better level of invulnerability than the Raptors have, but it takes multiple airplanes to do it because of the synergistic fused attacks of their weapon systems.
That’s the magic of the fifth-gen F-35, but it takes numbers of F-35s to get that effect. That’s why I’ve been so strident on getting the full buy. Because if they whittle it down to a little tiny fleet like the Raptor, it’s not going to be compelling.
Question: The allies and partners from this standpoint are key enablers of a global F-35 fleet. And another key aspect of what you are talking about is changing the concepts of operations of airpower with the fifth generation, and to build and to design to a 21st century battlefield, not the battlefield that we had 30 years ago. For example, (former Air Force Secretary) Mike Wynne talks about fifth gen performing a function as scouts, much like you were describing using their SA to enable the other strike aircraft.
Hostage: Absolutely. But again, in order to have those forward scouts picking up targets, and then having fourth gens and standoff hit it, you got to have that combat cloud, that ability to move the data back and forth, and that is why we’re working so hard on that effort.
It is also important to rework how we do C2 (command and control). What happens in Afghanistan happens now because the CAOC operates 1,500 miles away and is able to orchestrate, integrate, and get the synergies of the different platforms out there to achieve the effects that they achieve in an uncontested battlefield.
You start to deal with airspace over Syria, airspace in the Straits of Taiwan or something where you’re significantly challenged; they’re going to go after that link if you’re relying on long-range prompts from a centralized command-and-control element.
The concept of having distributed control out there utilizing the cloud that’s populated by your fleet in place, but then the ability to continue to orchestrate is what we are after. We’re not talking about platforms that operate by themselves to execute a mission, we’re talking about air platforms that operate in synergy with others to achieve the effect, and to survive the adversary.
If you’re going to operate with other platforms and operate in synchronization, you’ve got to have a synchronizer, that’s the distributed control element. That could be a BMC2 (Battle Management, Command and Control) platform, like a JSTARS, it could be an AWACS, it could be an E2C, it could be a wing command post, it could be a ship at sea, it could be a variety of different things operating to help provide that forward distributed control capability to organize airpower in a forward battlefield and a contested battlefield.
Question: The US has had air superiority within which airpower can shift to other roles enabling sea and ground forces. This ubiquities of airpower tends to be assumed and also forgotten. How do you see this challenge?
Hostage: Air operates way up there where nobody can see it, and I have told my Army brothers that, for 60 years now, they have never worried about the sound of noise overhead. You never look up, you don’t have to; you know it’s us. You can’t always assume that’s going to be the case. That has been the case for 60 years because we have made sure that it was so.
If we don’t, the battlefield changes dramatically. The guys on the ground are going to have to start looking over their shoulders, and wondering if that noise is going to beat on them or not.
Question: One of the changes in front of us is the almost certain return of air-to-air combat. We recently published an interview with Chuck Debellevue to remind folks of what is entailed in such combat, including dealing with the threat from the ground to air insertion forces. How prepared are we for this transition from air to ground to air to air?
Hostage: What we’re asking a young lieutenant to do in her first two or three years as a fighter pilot is so far beyond what they asked me to do in my first two to three years, it’s almost embarrassing.
The things we require of her, the things she has to be able to do, the complexity of the system that she operates are so much more taxing, and yet, they make it look easy. They’re really, really good.
I have no question that they’re going to triumph when it finally happens. I really think the Shock and Awe will be back the day that we clash with somebody in the air because our systems, and our airmen are so capable, I think they’re going to do really well.
I watch what we do at our U.S.-only Red Flags, and it is frighteningly capable. So I’m very confident. I have no doubt that they’ll triumph, if we can keep from crushing the defense mechanism that supports them with our current fiscal path.
Question: How important is the ready room and the pilot’s learning culture to the evolution of airpower, notably with the new airplanes coming on line?
Hostage: Any time you put your magic piece of hardware in the hands of a young lieutenant, they’re going to figure out something new that you never thought of. And they’ll use it in ways that you never considered. And ultimately, we’ll rewrite the tactical manuals.
But that’s expected.
You want it to be a disciplined process, which is why we look for them out there at the squadron level to come up with ideas, but we do a very disciplined weapons and tactics review every year where we have the weapons officers from every tactical squadron show up at Nellis for two weeks. We have them hammer out every new thing that the people thought of, but all the experts feed on it, and pull it six ways to Sunday.
If it survives that test, then we document it, and we write it down, and we start training everybody how to do these things.
That’s how we propagate these great ideas across the force.
Because you’re right, the engine is out there in the mind of the lieutenant who has just figured out something new to do with their fancy piece of machinery drives change.
Robbin Laird, a defense consultant, is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors and owner of the Second Line of Defense website. Ed Timberlake works with him.