Gen. James “Mike” Holmes has headed Air Combat Command since March 2017, after a career commanding at every level and on the staffs of Headquarters, Air Force; European Command; and Pacific Air Forces. He spoke with Editorial Director John Tirpak on April 20 about ACC’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, future plans and weapons, and interservice coordination. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. How is the COVID-19 situation different than the 2013 sequester, when the Air Force had to stop flying?
A. We want to be really careful about giving up things that we can’t make up, because of limited capacity. An example is our Weapons School. If we don’t graduate a Weapons School class, we don’t have the capacity to double up in the future. That’s a class of advanced, expert tacticians that we would never get back.
So, we took all the things that the Joint Force depends on us to provide, and we’ve tried to find ways to keep them going, within the constraints of the [Centers for Disease Control] and [Office of the Secretary of Defense]-directed social-distancing measures. So far, I think we’ve been successful.
Q. Are you continuing a fairly normal flying program?
A. We’re continuing to fly. We set some priorities; again, focusing on making sure we kept the critical things that we do for combatant commanders. Some of them are nonflying: cyber, ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance], things we’re doing in the [remotely piloted aircraft] world. We kept our upgrades and things we can’t make up, and continue to do daily readiness preparation flying. There’s been some impact, but I’m pretty comfortable with where we are.
Q. Have U.S. adversaries been trying to exploit the COVID situation?
A. Certainly in cyber. We’ve also seen messaging, from Russia and China and Iran, coming together around some common themes designed to further their interests. We see disinformation out there, some of it just designed to create confusion, and some of it—we think—designed to try to split alliances and pit people against each other in the United States.
Beyond that, there’s been a rash of incidents with Russia doing what we call unsafe and unprofessional intercepts, against aircraft. We’ve seen China take provocative actions in the economic sphere, in the South China Sea, oilfields, and some of those places. We saw Iran put their small boats around Navy ships in [mid-April]. We’ve seen North Korea firing ballistic missiles out into the ocean. So, our adversaries are trying to poke and prod to find out if we’re still ready and still prepared to counter them.
Q. But no very large changes in their military posture?
A. I think all our potential adversaries are also dealing with the virus, which puts some limits on it. But generally, no large posture changes.
Q. Have you moved to fix any fundamental vulnerabilities revealed by COVID about how the Air Force operates?
A. We want to “inoculate” our people with safe procedures and practices, and so far I think we’ve been very successful with that. We want to build workplaces, procedures, and rule sets that keep them safe.
We weren’t prepared for this much teleworking; we didn’t have enough bandwidth and capacity to send this many people home to telework. And I’m proud of the work that 16th Air Force and ACC A6 and the [Headquarters Air Force] and the Department of Defense staffs have made in increasing that bandwidth on short notice and providing some new tools to help people collaborate and continue to work from home.
Q. The Advanced Battle Management Systems is on a quarterly schedule of experiments and demonstrations. Have you learned anything you can apply right away?
A. In these early stages, we are thinking about this as an “internet of military things.” With the fielding of CloudONE, which brings all that data together and makes it accessible to everybody on the network, we certainly see some immediate gains in our ability to store and share information.
It’s a really important and crucial first step to tie together what we have now.
Q. You’ve had some conversations with Will Roper, Air Force acquisition chief, about the evolving definition of a “fighter.” How will it change?
A. The flexibility of fighter platforms is still really important to us, because they can accomplish multiple missions. For example, you can send an F-35 out to do counter-air work, suppression of enemy air defenses, direct attack, battlefield air interdiction, or close air support.
You could make a case that the range and payload equation of fighters works better in a European environment—where the bases are closer to the battlefields—than it does in the Pacific. But the future fight is both inside and outside [enemy air defense zones]. If you’re going to project power from long ranges, we have to rethink the requirement for the future. A fighter doesn’t fit in quite as well with fighting a war from Guam in the Pacific, for example.
We’re trying to think through how our traditional Fighter Roadmap can evolve into a Capabilities Roadmap that looks at how we’ll do the things we’ve done with fighters in the next five to 15 years, and what new capabilities need to be added alongside them.
We’re building-in decision points so that, if the experiments we’re doing in low-cost, attritable aircraft are ready to turn into a program, we might buy into them. Or, as we look at long-range platforms, if some of those might supplant some of our fighter capabilities.
Q. Will a future fighter in the Pacific theater look more like a B-21 than an F-35?
A. It probably looks different than the fighters we’ve [had], but we still want to have that flexibility that a fighter has to do multiple things. What you need in the Pacific is systems that efficiently combine range and payload with avionics fusion and connectivity.
We are working hard on that problem. We’ve got some good ideas, but we’re not ready to share those in public.
Q. Gen. Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, recently told us he thinks the “arsenal plane” might be a clean-sheet design. Is that something ACC and AFGSC can work on together?
A. What ACC is interested in is making sure that everything connects together, making sure that we can get weapons across the target by having the right sensors and communication, and being able to find and fix those targets in space. We’ll be interested in whatever GSC comes up with for that “arsenal” platform or a large standoff platform.
Q. What’s the distinction between “attritable” airframes and remotely piloted aircraft?
A. I’m often asked if the future of air combat is manned or unmanned, and my answer is usually, “yes.” I think the future of air combat is going to be increasingly about autonomy, about systems that are able to make decisions on their own.
We’ll continue to use a mix of platforms that have a person on board, so they can react to the changing threats around them. But we’ll also move toward more autonomous, unmanned systems. The term itself—“remotely piloted aircraft”—implies there’s a person making the decisions for those airplanes. But when you’re operating deep in enemy territory, you have to think about the vulnerability of the communication links that make that possible. The low-cost, attritable aircraft we’ve been looking at will be more autonomous than the RPAs we fly now. We’ll give it goals, and we’ll tell it about its operating environment, we’ll prioritize targets and actions for it, and, through machine learning, we’ll teach it to make more decisions on its own.
Q. Roper says his Digital Century Series idea could yield a new system in five years or less. Are you confident you’ll get something in time, or should we expect a major F-22 extension and a bigger buy of F-35s?
A. I’m very comfortable with the acquisition strategy and the development we’re working with Dr. Roper and Air Force acquisition toward developing that new family of capabilities. I think they have a great approach to it, and I think it’s going well.
Because of the numbers involved and the scope of the threat, we’re going to continue to rely on the F-22 and the F-35 for years to come. We’ll continue to look at that mix between new things and things we’re already buying, and try to make sure we keep up with the threat and put our money in the right places. But yes, we’re on a good path; I think industry and the Air Force are partnering very well on our Next-Generation Air Dominance family of systems.
Q. There was some debate between ACC and AFGSC about the right initial hypersonic weapon. How has that been resolved?
A. The Air Force and the Department of Defense have decided that we will go forward with ARRW [the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon]. I think it’s good to have different things competing with each other across [DOD]. In the Air Force, we like ARRW because it’s a little smaller, and we can fit more of them on our platforms and hit more targets. It’s a unique design, it diversifies the flight bodies that are being looked at across the Department, so it’s kind of a win for everybody.
Q. The Army and Navy are also looking at long-range fires, and the targets they say they want to address have traditionally been within the Air Force’s roles and missions. Is there a debate going on about that?
A. The Navy has always brought a capable long-range strike capability to the joint force, built around the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile. I’m not surprised they’re looking to improve their capability. And I’m not surprised that the Army, as they look at the lessons learned from Russia and the Ukrainian forces, is concerned about competing with Russia in that long-range, surface-to-surface fires environment.
What I would like to see us focus on is making sure we invest in command and control that lets all of us reach out and use all those capabilities. And I think in this budget environment … we’re going to have to be careful [about] how much redundant capability we build.
Q. It sounds like you’re concerned that there’s some duplication already.
A. We all naturally want to build weapons that are designed exquisitely for our mission. But we’re going to have to work together to make sure that whatever we field, we can control and bring together in coordinated joint fires and in support of the joint commander.
Q. In the early days of debate about U. S. Space Force, there was the question of whether it needs its own aircraft to attack satellite ground stations and other terrestrial targets. Has that been worked out?
A. We’re proud of our partnership with the U.S. Space Force and the capabilities that we bring to bear in support of each other. I think the key thing is, yes, they will need to have access to both kinetic and nonkinetic strike capabilities. A lot of the threats to our space assets are launched or delivered from the ground or from the air.
Q. When you say, “have access to,” do you mean simply being able to task Air Force assets, or have their own?
A. To task or coordinate. I don’t think it would be an efficient use for them to have their own.
Q. The Air Force is reducing its high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft fleet. Are you shifting to an all-space-oriented ISR capability?
A. The A2/6 [ISR and cyber division] have put together an ISR flight plan. It concluded that we’ll continue to need a mix of sensors on air-breathing platforms and on space platforms—sensors that can find things in networks—and from publicly available information. We do a variety of things with our sensors, we do preparation of the battlefield in peacetime, we do support for wartime information. So at least for the short- to medium-term, we’re still going to need a mix.