Combat Forces in Peril

May 24, 2017

F-35s from Hill AFB, Utah, fly over the Utah Test and Training Range. Former ACC Commander Gen. Hawk Carlisle thinks the Air Force should buy at least 60 F-35s a year. Air Force photo.

Air Combat Command has still not rebuilt from 2013’s budget sequestration debacle, a funding disaster that left entire squadrons grounded, education and training aborted, and maintenance deferred. The previous chief of ACC, now-retired Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, said this spring that “the best we’ve done is [to] stop the decline” in readiness at the command responsible for the lion’s share of the nation’s conventional airpower.

Though he wanted to report that “we’ve started to climb out, … I think that would be awfully optimistic.” Carlisle sat with Air Force Magazine for an exit interview shortly before his March retirement, also meeting with defense reporters in late February.

He assessed Air Force readiness, aging equipment, and prospects for the future. A boost in people, funds, and the speedy purchase of new equipment will go a long way to making the Air Force healthy again, but any further delay means things will only get worse—and much harder to fix—he said.

Carlisle, who retired March 10, was succeeded at ACC by Gen. James M. Holmes, who came to the job after serving as deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements since 2014. Holmes, too, is a career F-15 pilot and has had many assignments in strategy, plans, and policy.

The pace of deployments for individuals is too high, Carlisle said, and there’s so much to do when they return—often going right back out to exercises or diving into schools—that “when they’re home, they’re not home.”


There’s a very real danger of “burning them out,” Carlisle said of his people. “You burn them out for too long, then they vote with their feet.”

The pilot shortage—almost 1,000 fewer fighter pilots than ACC needs—is nothing less than “a crisis,” Carlisle said. “We’re working hard to do everything creative we can” to ease it, he said, by shifting more fighters into fighter training units, relying more on “commercial adversary air”—private jet fighter sparring partners—mixing Active Duty and Reserve units to leaven “the mix of experienced/inexperienced,” and boosting the aviation bonus.

The key thing is to address the capacity issue. The pace of deployments is just too high. Airmen “have to take care of their family and they have to get a break,” he said flatly.

Over a 39-year career, Carlisle held key positions, rising from an F-15 pilot at the tip of the European Cold War spear to top leadership jobs in the Middle East and Pacific. He also served as chief of legislative liaison, the Air Force’s main communicator with Congress. He headed air operations at US Central Command in Saudi Arabia and later commanded Pacific Air Forces.

As a young captain, he served a tour with the then-secret 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron—the “Red Eagles”—flying covertly obtained Soviet aircraft. Carlisle and his squadron mates wrung out MiGs to learn their secrets and teach their weaknesses to US fighter pilots. Carlisle survived ejection from a MiG-23—listed as the YF-113 on his official biography—and would later fly the Su-27 Flanker in an exchange program with his Russian counterpart in the Far East.

After serving as commander of Pacific Air Forces, “Hawk” took over the reins at ACC in 2014, just a year after the Budget Control Act-driven sequester grounded many Combat Air Forces activities. But USAF’s troubles with capacity and readiness—not enough people, not enough aircraft, and lately, a growing shortage of pilots in every flying mission—really started in 2010, Carlisle explained.

Back then, “I made this comment—and I got in trouble for it—[that] ‘we’re a budget in search of a strategy,’?” Carlisle said. The Cold War was long over, crises hadn’t yet started piling up, the one-and-a-half wars force-sizing construct was in disarray, and the Pentagon was anxious to receive from the civilian leadership a coherent vision of what it should be preparing for.

At the time, Operation Iraqi Freedom was starting to wind down, as was—it seemed at the time—the war in Afghanistan. Russia was a “great friend” that had not yet invaded Ukraine, “China hadn’t asserted itself in the South China Sea, … the Baltics weren’t afraid to death, Libya hadn’t fallen apart, Yemen was still functioning,” Carlisle pointed out. In the context of that world environment, the Air Force saw an opportunity to finally get at the long-promised but always-deferred modernization of its most elderly gear, Carlisle said—particularly its fighters.

The decision was made to do the CAF Redux, the reduction of 250-plus fighters from the Combat Air Forces, as well as take some risk by reducing personnel and using the cumulative proceeds to modernize. At that point, the average age of fighter aircraft was in the mid-20s, and bomber average age was nearing 40 years.

“It’s not that anybody intentionally put us in a negative position,” Carlisle said, “but based on what [Pentagon leaders] were facing at the time, they made decisions that now are having repercussions, given the way the world’s changed.”

In the Air Force specifically, he told journalists, “we made some maintenance manpower reductions without thinking our way through it.” Taking so many people out of the maintenance field was “a pretty big mistake,” given that so much of the fleet is old airplanes that simply have to have more care. The new airplanes that need less attention—and thus fewer maintainers—just weren’t being bought very quickly.

Taking Risk

The argument went like this, he recalled: “?‘We have a brief period where, given the counterterrorism fight and other situations in the world, … we can take risk in the fighter force structure to get to fifth generation,’?” in the form of the advanced F-22 and F-35 fighters and what is now known as the B-21 bomber.

The projections were rosy. “That’s the budget that said, in the year 2015, we’re going to buy 110 F-35s” per year, Carlisle noted. It didn’t pan out: Due to procurement money being siphoned off for current-fight operations that have erupted since then and delays in the program, USAF still is not buying even 50 F-35s a year.

“We took that risk, we never got to fifth gen, and by the way, the world changed and is significantly more challenging and demanding today than … we thought it was going to be in 2010,” he said. The F-22 production line was shut down by then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates after turning out just 187 aircraft—less than half the certified requirement.

“Quote unquote from the SecDef [Gates] at the time, ‘We’ll never fight China,’?” recalled Carlisle. Between the CAF Redux, F-35 delays, and Gates’ decision to halt the F-22, “that has put us in this position.”

In that time frame, Pentagon leaders sought a “force sizing construct,” Ca­rlisle said, but “to do what? Do you want us to hold? What is an acceptable loss rate?” Direction never came.

Now, the Air Force has more contingencies than it can send people and airplanes to cover. Regional commanders are being told that, rather than have USAF fighters right at hand for a no-notice conflict, they must settle for the jets deploying quickly from the States—or other forward locations.

The threats and demands span the globe:

  • USAF has been carrying most of the load in the fight against ISIS, bearing some 80 percent of the sorties.
  • ACC attack and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance units have conducted most of the kinetic action in the Middle East.
  • ACC units are regularly deploying for the European Reassurance Initiative to help guard the Baltic States and NATO broadly.
  • Russian bombers are being intercepted with increasing frequency off the US coast.
  • North Korea’s belligerence demands frequent deployments of US fighters and bombers in the Pacific.
  • China’s island-building requires monitoring.
  • Afghanistan still needs support from the air.
  • ACC’s battlefield airmen are fully employed.

Against those demands, “we’re holding our own,” Carlisle assessed. “I really would have hoped that two-and-a-half years after I started [at ACC], we would be moving in the right direction,” but the Budget Control Act is “still in effect, so we’re still fighting for every penny.”

To improve hardware readiness, ACC has been deploying sortie production assessment teams, populated with the most seasoned maintainers who help individual units “do everything they can with the resources they do have.”

Even the calculation of mission capability rates is changing, and Carlisle prefers “aircraft availability” (AA) as a better metric. Even so, some aircraft are “as low as in the 60s” percent AA, and while a few are in the 70 to 80 percent range, “it’s not where we’d like it to be.”

Buy Rate, Buy Rate, Buy Rate

So how to turn things around? The first step—and the first priority if the Trump administration’s pledge to fund a rebuilding of the military actually materializes—is to rapidly ramp up production of the F-35, Carlisle said.

“Buy rate, buy rate, buy rate,” he intoned. The F-35 should be bought at a rate of at least 60 for the Air Force per year, if not 80, and a long-ago goal of 110 per year would be optimal, but isn’t in the cards. The reason why the F-35 has to come first is simple: There isn’t enough Air Force to go around.

The expectation is that “all of us [in the Air Force] have to be ready all the time,” but “there’s not enough.” While F-22s and F-35s are a leap ahead of fourth generation fighters, they can only be in one place at a time.

If “something happened and we had to go into Korea or Iran, or … [the] South China Sea, … [or] somewhere in Eastern Europe” all at the same time, “we don’t have enough force to be able to do that. So it’s really a capacity discussion.”

While Carlisle said it would be no contest if an F-22 squared off against a Chinese J-20, such a discussion is irrelevant because it would never happen that way. The American way of war is to fight in the enemy’s front yard—an “away game,” he said—where an adversary would have his full air force in the fight while the US would have very sophisticated aircraft but only in small numbers.

So “the first priority is the fighter force structure,” Carlisle asserted. “That’s the one that has been a billpayer for the last 10 years [and] more.” If a big surge of funds comes, “that’s going to be the first place that we put money.”

Next—and in keeping with the new administration’s directives to put readiness first—Carlisle said, “We have to do more training.” Combat crew skills have atrophied during decades of operating without being seriously challenged.

We’re woefully short of munitions,” Carlisle observed. “We have to buy more. We’re expending them at a rapid rate.” Precision guided munitions are preferred in the anti-ISIS fight where the enemy uses civilians as human shields and avoiding civilian casualties and collateral damage is the top priority. The munitions shortfalls have to be corrected and some reserve built up, because weapons are just as much a facet of the “capacity” issue as aircraft, he said.

“We need operation and maintenance money,” both to increase flying hours so pilots can retain proficiency and to address real property maintenance, an account routinely raided to pay for beans and bullets in the wars of the last 25 years. The Air Force needs to fix “places where the infrastructure’s falling apart,” Carlisle said.

Congress has been pestering the services for several years to definitively state a revised buy objective for the F-35, given that the existing inventory targets were set early in the program, long before any of today’s multiple contingencies erupted. At the current build plan, the Air Force won’t buy its last F-35s until the 2040s—a half-century after the initial design. The Navy and Marine Corps have actually revised their numbers downward, but the Air Force has resolutely stuck with 1,763 as its must-have number.

At the rate the F-35 is coming on­board, though, is that number still meaningful? “I don’t know,” Carlisle said in the interview. “I do know that we need to get the buy rate up and get as many as we can as soon as we can.” He said that adversary defense systems and competitor fighters in other countries are being fielded “faster than we originally thought,” and “our adversaries are exceeding what we thought they would do.” This drives the need for an F-22/F-35 successor called the Penetrating Counterair aircraft, or PCA.

“Do we take the post-1,000 or post-1,200 F-35 money and put it into the PCA? Maybe that’s the right answer. Or maybe it’s a modernized F-35,” Carlisle said. The baseline F-35 will be delivered early next year with the 3F build of software; but the services and international partners on the program have already begun mapping out the Block 4 and later versions that will have more weapons, better connectivity, and more tricks in the realm of electronic warfare.

Carlisle said USAF requires a big infusion of new technology in other areas, too. A smaller-size successor to the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) is necessary—so more shots can be packed into internal weapons bays on the F-22 and F-35—and with longer range and better kinematics. The Air Force also must have a follow-on to the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) satellite guided bomb that is stealthy and maneuverable enough to survive the last few miles of an attack on ever-improving air defense systems. The service needs a new electronic warfare platform, as well, to escort its fighters deep into heavily defended airspace—a Penentrating Electronic Attack platform.

Add “high-speed weapons and hypersonics” to the list of urgently needed technologies. Hypersonics holds out great possibilities for quick attack at long range, he said, but ACC isn’t counting on it. One thorny problem is that the heat generated on the tip of such a system tends to play havoc with its sensors, but “we’re working on it.”

Keep Your Friends Close

The Air Force must replace its RQ-170 secret remotely piloted aircraft before too long, Carlisle said, but he doesn’t see the near-term sunset of man-in-the-cockpit.

“I think the mix is going to change,” he allowed, with a greater number of remotely piloted aircraft than manned aircraft, because with improvements in autonomy, “you get where machine-to-machine does most of the work,” and human beings are supervising and, when it’s essential, they “intercede.” More will be done with networks and humans controlling large numbers of RPAs, but “I don’t necessarily see that we’re going to take ejection seats out of every manned platform.”

Asked if the US is becoming too dependent on its allies to provide capacity in the event of a major war, Carlisle replied, “We know we have to” fight in coalitions “because we need international support and … national support.” It implies that the nation is “supportive of what we’re doing.”

Together with allies, “we have enough [capacity] to meet the demand of the challenge or threat we’re facing,” and the modern way of war depends on alliances.

“I think we’re pretty good at doing that,” he asserted. “If you think about it, what allies does Russia have? What allies does [China] have? I think our belief [in] and use of alliances is very well judged, very well utilized,” and regional combatant commanders “spend a lot of time taking care of those relationships.” However, Carlisle would like to see a great reduction in the “red tape” that allies must plow through to get the same equipment used by the US. “It is painful,” he said, to promise an ally a tool and then take years to supply it.

“It makes our partners question whether we’re as supportive as we say we are,” he warned. That’s a challenge when the US is simultaneously saying, “Thanks for letting us utilize your bases.”

One of Carlisle’s deepest concerns regards the condition of the defense industrial base. The steep and steady drawdown of munitions stockpiles is symptomatic that the nation isn’t doing enough to keep the industrial base healthy, he said. (Carlisle is expected to become president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association this summer. NDIA describes itself as “America’s leading defense industry association promoting national security.”)

The reason why the Air Force is as good as it is “is because our national industrial base has been so good in getting us here,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to feed” it.

In the munitions category, “you run out of people that make solid rocket propellant, and … start running out of people that … make the warheads,” and then “you only have a couple of places that are doing the avionics or the seekers. … That hurts us as a nation.” He also said that covering these issues only through the overseas contingency operations (the OCO) accounts won’t work; they must be addressed in the “base” budget.

The Air Force always tries “go against the high end, to be the best Air Force in the world … and stay there, against adversaries that are trying to match us.” That standard is “pretty high” he said, “and that’s the one that we’re trying to get back to. … I would never want to stop measuring against that.”