Acting Deputy Chief of Staff for Air Force Futures Thomas Lawhead says his organization seeks to align “the voice of tomorrow’s Airmen” to the future operating concepts and then define how to organize, train, and equip that future force. Mike Tsukamoto/staff
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Q&A: Looking Into the Future 

Nov. 30, 2023

Thomas J. Lawhead is the Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff, Strategy, Integration and Requirements, commonly called Air Force Futures. The office is responsible for developing Air Force strategy and concepts, assessing the future operating environment through wargames and workshops, and developing future force design, using a 30-year horizon. That means Air Force Futures focuses on the 2050 time frame. This interview is adapted from an Aerospace Nation event held by AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Your organization looks to develop concepts for the future, yet, there are threats out there that we can’t ignore today. How do you balance these two time horizons? Or are you specifically concerned with the future and you let the rest of your staff worry about today?

A. No one organization is doing all of the work. Between the national security strategy, the National Defense Strategy, the Joint Warfighting Concept—from which we derived the Air Force Future Operating Concept—the joint force, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Congress, we are very well aligned on where we think we need to go. That helps a lot. We spend a lot of time collaborating and communicating to ensure that the requirements piece that Air Force Futures is responsible for is aligned with the acquisition strategies to get after those capabilities and with the resourcing side of that defense acquisition enterprise [for] how we get from here today to tomorrow’s force. I think there will always be conversations about balance. What’s more important, the weapon or the platform? What’s more important, the network or the platform or the weapon? You’re going to have those vertical conversations. There’s also at that temporal conversation on mitigating risk near term versus mitigating risk [longer] term. 

Q. How do you engage to ensure that there are a balanced set of voices and that you are getting all the inputs you need in context?

A. We work with each of the majcoms … It’s all well and good to have great platforms—fighters and bombers and the weapons for them—but if I can’t communicate between them, and do the command and control, I might as well not have them. … I think we tend to focus when we talk future force design and future capabilities on the capability aspect of what we need, and there is also certainly a capacity aspect. [But] there are about four other parts of future force design, which we are chugging through: the organization that most efficiently and effectively gets us to that combat capability; there’s posture, there’s presentation, and then probably most important, there’s Airman development. [It’s all] part of the future force design.

Q. You mentioned capacity. We all know that the Air Force  is the oldest and smallest in its history. How do we go about regaining the capacity that we need to execute our national defense strategy?

A. Regaining of capacity is defining what capacity is needed. This week we’re doing a sprint effort on stand-in and stand-out [requirements]. And where is there a knee in the curve of the ratio of our ability to stand outside the highly contested environment and shoot into it? How much do we need penetrating capabilities to go into that highly contested environment? And what weapons does that penetrating capability need? What sensor capabilities are needed inside the highly contested environment versus outside? And as we get to that balance, that [will] point to the capabilities we need and the capacity that we need. And then what’s our path toward growth? That gives us the analytic rigor that allows us to go downstairs to OSD and the joint staff to fight for what we need in terms of platforms, weapons, and Airmen, as well as to the Hill to plead our case with Congress.

Q. So all that demands adequate resources. How is the Air Force doing at advocating for and gaining these resources?

A: I think we’re doing great. And the reason we’re doing great, relative to other services, is that we’ve got that analytic rigor behind what it is we need and why we need it, both in terms of capability and capacity. Do we have enough? We never have enough. But we are looking at how can we be more efficient and effective both in terms of organization and what is absolutely essential to tomorrow’s warfighting capability. So from that perspective, we’re doing okay. I think, as I gaze into my crystal ball of future resources, that bite will by necessity continue. We are aligned as a joint force and what we need. And every conversation we have, both with the Joint Staff, with the combatant commanders, with the major commands, and with OSD points toward the joint force need for what the Air Force brings to the fight. 

Q. How does the Air Force’s future force design prioritize air base defense?

A: For Secretary Kendall, probably the one thing that keeps him up at night is base defense of our forces in a deployed environment. And I 100 percent agree with you that, yeah, we learned how to fight through those base attacks, but the scale and capability of the attacks that the force will see in the near- to long- to midterm future, are unimaginably worse than what we experienced during the Cold War. So the way we’re attacking that capability need is really a triumvirate of base defense itself, logistics under attack, and agile combat employment. And those three—which all need to be orchestrated, and commanded and controlled together—are what’s going to enable us to actually generate the combat sorties that we need. 

We have put a good amount of money into repositioning and setting the theaters, not just in the Indo-Pacific, but also in the European theater. So that will enable agile combat employment and logistics under attack, and to generate the sorties. We’re [also] having a lot of conversation with the Army about roles and responsibilities and who is going to protect our bases. 

Those have been fairly fruitful. The Army was given a pretty good slug of money in the last budget to get after sector and regional air defense. We are currently working with the Army in an Integrated Air and Missile Defense Mix study. In addition, in a parallel effort, we’re also working with the Army, NORAD, and NORTHCOM on an Air and Missile Defense of the Homeland analysis of alternatives. There’s also the Defense of Guam study. So we are looking at this holistically at the best way to protect—not just the Air Force—but the joint deployed force [against the threats] we’re going to face, which is unlike anything we have ever seen.

Q. Agile combat employment is an important element of the Air Force’s strategy. Where does the Air Force stand in its attempts to make ACE a reality?

A: The way we will fight in the future is significantly different from the way we fought in the past from fixed bases. We’re not going to have the luxury of a six-month Desert Shield, where we’re able to build up forces and materiel in significant main operating bases, and then, at a time and place of our choosing, initiate conflict and win. Where we see the future, we will be fighting to get out of CONUS, fighting to get into theater, fighting to get sorties airborne, fighting to get into the area of operations, and then actually preventing—whether it’s a cross-strait invasion or a Russian incursion—preventing and denying enemy objectives. And then maybe the most important, hardest, and biggest fight of all is sustaining that fight over time. 

As you look at agile combat employment, the thought that we have and working with the combatant commands is a hub-and-spoke model, where as many spokes as I can operate out of complicates the enemy’s targeting capability. And with the assumption that with mission command, we’re able to continue to fight the fight out of those spokes. This is logistically hard to sustain. So we’ll need to work our way through that. ACE is inextricable from logistics under attack and inextricable from base defense because it all has to happen. So where we see that coming to some fruition is the ability to get into shorter and shorter runways. As we get into runway-flexible, runway-independent capabilities, that starts to expand the number of spokes that we can do.

Q. Collaborative combat aircraft are among the Secretary of the Air Force’s priorities, and that’s clearly a move into the future. Where is that in your vision? 

A. One of the critical needs that we have is to bring affordable mass to the battlespace, and we’ll do that at first with collaborative combat aircraft in the air-to-air role initially and then we will seek to expand to other mission sets. We will hopefully get a 2024 budget sometime soon, because we’ve got a lot of money that we’ve put into it for CCA development, and we think it’s a critical force multiplier and enabler of the joint force.

Q. How does your Futures work integrate space power capabilities and concepts into your vision? 

A. To actually figure out what the joint force needs out of space, we’re in a transition point from where space was a capability provider—think GPS and precision navigation and timing, think MILSATCOM—to where we are collaboratively seeking to use capabilities from space, particularly in the moving target indicator realm … to hold targets in custody and hold them at risk at a time and place of our choosing. 

Q. The Air Force finds itself pursuing multiple solution paths for the GMTI mission. How do you balance space-based GMTI versus what we expect to see with the E-7? Could you elaborate a little bit on how you balance these two different approaches?

A. First and foremost, the E-3 needs to be replaced, and it needs to be replaced as quickly as possible. We see the E-7 as a significant upgrade to the E-3’s capabilities. In a perfect world, I would be able to go to a moving target indicator from space capability immediately, but that capability is still in development and won’t be ready to field for some time. So we see the E-7 both as a gap filler, but more importantly, as a resilient piece that will remain part of the joint force for a long time to come. Even as we go to space for a lot of these capabilities, the ability [adversaries have] to target our assets in space show us that we can’t throw all our coins into one hat. We need an organic capability when it’s necessary, as well as a beyond-line-of-sight capability from space when able.

Q. When you look at the cost of CCAs, it looks like it’s going to be roughly $20 million. Are there platforms you’re exploring, or perhaps already working on, that are cheaper than CCA? And are you working on things that might be more survivable in the Pacific, such as runway-independent platforms?

A. On our CCA effort, we’ll have an Increment 1 and start up an experimental ops unit beginning next year that really paws into how do we go about operating our CCAs. Our Increment 2, which will be a follow on, will explore the trade space in terms of runway length required versus runway independence, and what that gets us from a payload and range capability standpoint. In terms of what’s cheaper than CCAs? We will continue to fight to keep the cost of CCA and its mission equipment as low as possible. Obviously, once a CCA gets up toward the cost of an F-35, you might as well buy an F-35. So we will keep that cost down by using that trade space between what it needs to do, what we need it to do, and how elaborate it needs to be. The other side of that coin then is what are the other things we want uncrewed aircraft to do, whether that’s coming out of palletized effects, whether it’s being launched off of fighters, bombers, or whether it’s special ops forces inserted into the battlespace. We will want sensors, we will want comm nodes, we will want nonkinetic effectors out in the battlespace. All of those could be potentially supplied by autonomous platforms.