U.S. Air Force Maj. Josh Gunderson, F-22 Demo Team commander, conducts a practice over Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., May 21. Nicholas De La Pena
Photo Caption & Credits

Q&A: Future Force

June 30, 2021

As Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration, and Requirements at Air Force Headquarters in the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote is sometimes dubbed “the Air Force futurist. He is responsible for developing Air Force strategy and multi-domain operating concepts, and for integrating through centralized design and validation the service’s operational requirements. Air Force Magazine Editors Amy McCullough, Tobias Naegele, and John A. Tirpak interviewed him via Zoom in late April.  

Q. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. recently divulged that the F-22 Raptor is not in the Air Force’s long-range fighter plan. In effect, fourth-generation fighters will continue long after this fifth-gen fighter retired. Why? 

A. I did a senior thesis at the Air Force Academy on the fly-off between the YF-22 and the YF-23. I was a senior in 1991, so I’m a little older now, about 30 years older, [but the point is] the technology that went into the F-22 is in the neighborhood of 30 years old. … The airframe itself is still very capable today, and will be capable for some time, but now is a good time to talk about how we’re going to bridge [from] the leading air superiority tool of today, the F 22, to the [Next-Generation Air Dominance family of systems]. … We’re going to invest in the F-22 In the short-term, because it needs to bridge us to that NGAD capability in the medium to long term. …The time frame [to potentially retire the F-22] is 10 to 15 years…  

Q. Is the NGAD going to be like Dr. Will Roper, the former acquisition chief, described, where you don’t build it to be a 30-year airplane, but you build it for 10 or 11 or 12 years?  

A. Exactly. That’s exactly what we’re thinking. There’s an interesting analysis that we’re undergoing to understand what is the optimum time frame if you didn’t want to send an airplane to depot. We haven’t answered that question yet, but it’s a fascinating question because what we have generally done is fly the airplanes for a certain amount of time, send them to Tinker [Air Force Base, Okla.], or we send them to Hill [Air Force Base, Utah], and we basically tear them down and rebuild them. But what if that wasn’t the model? What if the model was, you fly them until their service life is ended, … and you’re constantly spiraling to a new platform? … We are inventing how to think about an Air Force this way. 

Q. With the NGAD, the idea is develop it quickly, field it quickly, and by the time you’ve fielded it, you’re already halfway done with the next one. Right? 

A. Certainly the next one is in design, yes.  

Q. So the second NGAD is already in design?  

A. I can’t confirm or deny that one. But what you can expect is that as we get into the NGAD development cycle, what we envision is we’re going to have one being developed, integrated, and fielded [and] one in design. And you’re constantly allowing the great companies of our industrial base to re-enter the competition at the design phase, as opposed to crowding them out in the sustainability phase, which is where we’re headed right now with a couple of our programs.   

Q. So is that on a five-year cycle? A 10-year cycle? 

A. We don’t know yet. We’re still trying to figure out what the right level is…. So, for example you field the platform and as you’re spiraling the software and the … weapons, maybe some of the centers are plug-and-play. So you’re still allowing that platform to mature, through a spiral series [of upgrades], as you’re designing the next platform. And at some point you incorporate the newest of the software, maybe the sensor technology and integration into the new platform, and you jump over that one. So yes, it could be every five years, it could be every eight years.  

Q. So when does the NGAD enter the force?  

A. We’re going to take an event-driven approach to it. … We’re anticipating that’s in the 2030-ish time frame.  

Q.  The Air Force has had difficulty convincing Congress to let it retire older systems. Your future plan depends on that. How will you convince the Hill this is the right way forward? 

A. In a specific sense, I have personally taken members of Congress out to go see some of the developments of the NGAD program. They typically come away, at a minimum, fairly impressed. … We still have to make it real and there’s a lot to do in the program, but when you see what is going on, and you hear it from the Airmen who are flying it, you get a chance to really understand where we’re going. … We’ve also had a chance, within the Pentagon, to take some of our senior [Office of the Secretary of Defense] leaders to go through the same trip. And it’s made a big difference. Seeing is believing. …  

[In a broader sense,] about divesting, this idea of iron for iron. … comes up in every discussion we have with every member [of Congress]. And one of the things that we are seeing is, we think we see a change in the conversation … [in] the willingness of Congress as a whole.  

Q. Are you at all concerned that there will be pressure not to fund F-22 updates, and that you could find it harder to keep it going another 10 to 15 years? 

A. We are concerned, of course, but what we believe is that we have a good story and our story is we keep the F-22 viable as a bridge to get to the new capability. This is not an area of the Air Force where we feel we can take a lot of risk. … We’re going to have to have a really tight transition plan. And in order to make that work, we are going to continue to invest in the F-22, mainly center upgrades to keep it going. And knowing that it has its limitations and we … really do need that modern capability, … we are developing this sea change in the way that we field capability in the NGAD family.  

Q. What about the A-10—your “plus one.” The plan now is to keep them around till the 2030s also. What are the risks with trying to divest both platforms at the same time? 

A. It’s going to be very different when you talk about the transition plans for these aircraft. The F-22, of course, will have a capability that may not look 100 percent like iron for iron because you’re talking about a set of capabilities for the NGAD, and some of that may be unmanned, some of it may be optionally manned. So it’s not one for one. … Whereas, by the time that we divest the A-10s, we’re not looking on building another non-survivable close air support aircraft like it. We’re going to be doing the mission in a very different way. And, in fact some of the ways that the joint force is developing means that by the time we’re talking about divesting the A-10, you’re not even really talking about the same concepts of close air support. … It’s probably going to look much more distributed. … I will tell you that as the Army emphasizes fires, maneuver is not quite as important, especially in Asia where the maneuver is between islands and things like that. So then close air support feels much different. It just is a different type of mission. … The question will be how do we use the capabilities we’re developing to do the types of missions in the types of environments that the A 10 was dealing? Typically, that’s going to be in the counterterrorism environment, and we are developing new concepts and new capabilities that I think will be pretty compelling [there]. By that point in time, I think it’ll be pretty evident that we need to just go ahead and divest the A-10.  

Q. What about the “clean-sheet” idea that the chief has talked about for replacing the F-16? Is that related to the A-10 or is he really just talking design philosophy? 

A. When you think about the types of missions that we may want fighters to do in the future, they’re likely to be the homeland defense mission. … And those don’t necessarily require the high level of survivability that we will be able to have in a program like NGAD. So it may well be that, as an example, radar-Stealth is not as necessary in a design for that [mission], but I would tell you the way that I think they’re absolutely related is in this: How we will design the product and how we will use our government reference architecture to get capability that we can spiral over time.   

Q. Recently the Navy revealed it is going to go to at least half-and-half manned/unmanned aircraft on carriers. And in the 2030s, maybe even a 60/40 mix. What kind of a mix will USAF want?  

A. So, so as we think about what constitutes sixth-generation, certainly we think manned-unmanned teaming has a big role to play. … I absolutely see us moving to autonomous platforms, some that operate in close proximity to manned platforms and act as a support agent or a force multiplier, but also some that act on, on relatively their own and they are able to swarm. A good example of how we see unmanned aircraft playing a high value proposition is in the idea of a sensing grid, the ability to remotely connect many of the platforms and connect their sensors to the … combat cloud … [and] we would be able to get the data correlated, fuse it, and use it. … We actually see that as being something that plays really, really well in our wargames. And we also see it as something where we can share technologies with our allies and partners to be able to create a large number of these and be able to field a grid of sensors that’s going to be really difficult to deny. … That’s part of this idea of what keeps the joint force survivable … you field a lot of these systems that allows you some degree of resilience. …  

One of the experiments that I followed, I think it was this week, we released a video of an unmanned aircraft that took off with a rocket assist and came back to earth with a parachute. … If this idea of launching away from a runway and recovering away from a runway becomes something that’s both capable and affordable, now you’ve really moved to a different era of air power. It’s an era where you can generate combat power far away from 1,000-foot runways. That’s compelling. That’s the type of thing we need if we’re going to survive and operate in the battlefield of tomorrow, especially when all the missiles of the Chinese A2AD [anti-access/area denial weapons] start raining down on our Airmen.