Lt. Gen. James Slife, commander, Air Force Special Operations Command, discusses AFSOC operations at the Air & Space Forces Association in Arlington, Va., in September. Mike Tsukamoto/staff
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Q&A: AFSOC Shifts Focus

Oct. 7, 2022

Lt. Gen. James C. Slife was set to transition from his role commanding Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla., at the beginning of October, with a likely assignment to the Pentagon next. He visited the Air & Space Forces Association in September for an Air & Space Warfighters in Action event. This conversation with AFA President Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright has been edited for space.

Q: How is AFSOC preparing to make the shift from counterinsurgency to peer competition with the likes of Russia and China?

A: The question is, how do you go about this change, particularly in an era [where] we expect fairly flat or perhaps declining budgets  for the special operations forces? … The answer is, you take stock of what you have, and you think about how you can use it a little differently.

The analogy that I use is … [sometimes for dinner] we go to the grocery store, we get a buggy and we fill up the buggy with rib-eye steak and a baked potato and key lime pie and a bottle of wine. But more often than not, we go and open the refrigerator and we open the cabinet next to the refrigerator and we look at the ingredients that we have and we figure out how to make different recipes with the ingredients we’ve got. 

We’ve got some great ingredients in the Air Force Special Operations Command. Obviously, the most powerful ingredient we have is the Airmen that make up the command. We’ve really got a fantastic force. Clearly our Airmen are our competitive advantage, so how do we empower those Airmen? 

The second great ingredient we’ve got is some really fantastic platforms. Not without our challenges in some of them of course, but AFSOC has the youngest fleet of aircraft inside the entire Air Force. …They’re multi-role platforms. We can use them a little differently. 

Q: AFSOC recently demonstrated you can launch a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) from an MC-130. What is this capability for?

A: One of the things that we tend to do [in the Air Force] is we get affixed to our prefixes. … What do we do with airplanes that start with B? We drop bombs.
… We label our airplanes, and we allow that to constrain our thinking to what we can do with that airplane. But, in fact, they’re all just airplanes, right? …

If you can take a C-130 and enable that to be a delivery platform for a dozen long-range standoff precision munitions, this is the same payload that a B-52 [can carry]. Out of a 3,000-foot dirt strip, you can have a long-range fires platform that carries the same payload as a B-52. …

And so this capability allows us to use what we already have in non-traditional ways to create volume-of-fire challenges for our adversaries. It also creates targeting problems too. I mean, it’s not hard to figure out where all the 10,000 feet concrete runways in the Pacific are. But when you’re trying to figure out where the 3,000-foot straight stretches of road and grass strips are … that’s a different targeting problem for your adversaries. …

Q: How is AFSOC combining Agile Combat Employment with your already proven joint warfighting experience?

A: Since the end of the Cold War, the Air Force has been on a bit of a centralization drive. We typically centralize things because we tell ourselves it will be more efficient or there are economies of scale or we don’t have enough to go around. … And when you centralize, you tend to create functional organizations. We gather together all of our comptrollers, and we put them together into a single squadron, and we call it the comptroller squadron. …

While that has worked reasonably well in a static environment where we’re largely not pressured by an adversary, … the challenge is that’s not actually how a mission manifests itself. I spent several years at CENTCOM, and in the time that I spent at CENTCOM, we never once submitted a request for forces asking for the on-call comptroller squadron because we had a financial management emergency that we needed to solve in CENTCOM.

And so the question is, how do you build teams organized around a mission and not around a function? That’s kind of at the heart of how we’re approaching what the Air Force broadly calls agile combat employment. We’re building what inside of AFSOC we call mission sustainment teams. This is 58 Airmen—19 different specialties—that come together into an organization, and they spend an entire force generation cycle together. …

And those 58 Airmen all learn one another’s skills. They all learn to interoperate. And critically, they learn to trust their teammates because they’ve been training with them for the whole cycle. … And the sense of purpose that those Airmen possess is really remarkable. Every time our Command Chief and I go visit these Airmen, the first question they ask is, ‘Do I have to go back to my squadron?’ They really, really like what they’re doing because they’re directly connected to a mission, and they’re challenging themselves. …

Q: You mentioned the Air Force’s new force generation model. What are you seeing there?

A: From a commander’s perspective, the value of a disciplined force generation model is it allows you to articulate capacity and risk to the joint force in a way that has eluded us up to this point.

For example, when I was an ops group commander, we were kind of in the … ‘more ISR, more ISR, more ISR’ business. … And the question was always, ‘Hey, can you fly one more combat line for us?’

How do you answer that question? I actually have a crew here that’s available. And I actually have an airplane that’s available, and I have a ground control station. And so, I mean, the answer is, ‘Yes, I can.’ But what I’m unable to communicate is the pressure on the force. …

We’ve been unable to talk about our capacity in a way that resonates with the joint force. It becomes too technical and complicated. And so when we migrated to a four-cycle force generation model, it allows us to have these conversations very unemotionally and very fact-based and allows us to articulate risk and capacity in a way that has really eluded us [before].

Q: How does the demand signal from combatant commanders contrast with the resources you really need?

A: We frequently talk about mission and resources: ‘We have more missions than we have Airmen’ [to do them], or ‘we’re being asked to do more with less.’ It always comes down to mission and resources. But the point that we make inside of AFSOC is there’s actually a third variable, and that third variable is risk. And so there’s always a tension between mission, risk, and resources.

If you tell me, ‘Hey, Jim, I need you to do more mission with no more resources,’ I can do that. It just comes with increased risk. Or if you tell me, ‘You’re taking too much risk. I need you to reduce the level of risk you’re taking,’ I can do that. It either means I do less mission or I need more resources. So there’s a three-way relationship here, and what we have to be better at is articulating risk in ways that are understandable to people outside the bubble of the Air and Space Forces.

Q: You discussed earlier the use of a C-130 to deliver a JASSM. What challenges will that capability create for adversaries?

A: The thing about that capability, it’s not actually about the JASSM. It’s about the unconventional use of the platforms that we have available to us. We’re actually looking at other types of munitions and capabilities, whether it’s an electronic attack capability that we might want to deploy, whether it’s long-range precision fires. I mean, you could use your imagination to figure out the many things that you might do with a large volume carrier like a C-130 or C-17.

The challenges that presents [are], No. 1, from a targeting perspective, I think an adversary has to take a different look at the region [in regards] to where we project power from? No. 2, we have a lot of partners around the globe that don’t have heavy bomber platforms that would be traditional carriers of those types of munitions. But they’ve got plenty of C-130s proliferated around the globe, and A-400s and C-17s. And the beauty is, this capability doesn’t require any aircraft modifications, and it doesn’t require any special crew training beyond what any airdrop crew already possesses. It’s really easily exportable to our partners and allies around the globe. …

We’ve had a number of requests from partners to actually demonstrate this capability and to help them integrate that onto their aircraft.

Q: In competition with China, how important are advanced AI sensors for the future of AFSOC?

A: If you think back … as an Air Force, when we got into the remotely piloted aircraft business in the 1990s, we did it the way that you might expect the Air Force to do it. … One pilot, one cockpit, one data link to one airplane—that model has persisted now for the better part of 30 years.

… That’s a very manpower-intensive methodology for operating aircraft. And so one of the things we’re looking at is moving to an open architecture control layer that has the ability to control multiple platforms, multiple types. It’s really platform agnostic. …

All of that is here and now stuff. It’s a matter of bringing it together into a logical architecture. And we’re actually moving pretty quickly down that path inside of AFSOC.

Q: What is the testing plan for developing an amphibious capability for AC- or MC-130s ?

A: We don’t have any plans to land a gunship on the water. The weight and the center of gravity is a little bit different on that. [This is] really for our MC-130s. But we’re already going through the tank testing right now.

We’ve got a 100 percent digital design. We started out with a number of digital designs. We ran through a series of testing to figure out, do we want to do a catamaran, a pontoon, a hull applique on the bottom of the aircraft? I mean, we kind of went through all the iterations of that. And we settled on a design that provides the best trade-off of drag, weight, sea state performance—all those types of things.

And so we’ve got a 100 percent design done. Everything has so far tested out pretty much the way the digital design was predicted to perform. And so I think we’re going have our first construction of this, an amphibious modification—it’s not a float plane. It will have the ability to land on both land or water. And it’ll be a field-installable modification kit. And so it won’t be every airplane; it won’t be all the time. It’ll be a capability that’s available to the fleet, and I think we’re going to start aircraft integration in 2023.

Q: What synergies exist between SOF, cyber, and space, and what AFSOC is doing in that realm?

A: A common theme for the last five years inside of SOCOM has been the magic that occurs at this intersection of SOF, space, and cyber capabilities. … Much of the defining security. … tend to be trans-regional in nature. So these three combatant commands [CYBERCOM, SOCOM, and SPACECOM] have global responsibilities, and so there is an opportunity to kind of bring those three together to address some of these trans-regional challenges.

The question then becomes, how do you do it at the tactical level? Inside of AFSOC, our answer to that [is] we’re building in each of our wings units that have a heavy intelligence, analytic, multi-source intelligence capability, and have some of our more high-end SOF capabilities embedded inside those units, along with teammates from both the Space Force and CYBERCOM embedded in those units. And so that synergy can take place, not at an ethereal level but down at a tactical level, solving problems that are much more locally focused.