Lt. Gen. Mark Kelly was nominated to receive a fourth star and lead Air Combat Command after nearly two years as deputy chief of staff for operations at Headquarters USAF. Airman Kindra Stewart
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Q&A: The Future of the Expeditionary Force

July 1, 2020

Lt. Gen. Mark D. Kelly, incoming head of Air Combat Command, speaks with John A. Tirpak about the changes coming to USAF.

Lt. Gen. Mark D. Kelly is the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations. In the post since August 2018, he was nominated in June 2020 to gain a fourth star and take over Air Combat Command. He previously commanded at the squadron, wing, expeditionary wing, and numbered Air Force levels. He recently spoke with Air Force Magazine Editorial Director John A. Tirpak about the requirements process, changing the Air and Space Expeditionary Force model, joint all-domain command and control (JADC2), and operating tempo. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Q. Technology is moving faster all the time. The old requirements process needs to change in order to keep up. What are you doing to accelerate it? 

A. Part of the requirement driver is … adversary technology leaps that we have to patch and reprogram against, and do so at the speed of relevance. We can’t build a software patch on an annual, or even six-month cycle. So we need resilience and secure, rapidly opening architecture. Another requirements driver will be the ability to plug into JADC2 and be a contributor to end-game decisions and superiority of the Blue network. 

Q. Do you see requirements driven more top-down or bottom-up?

A. It will be a natural evolution. For instance, six months ago, we all started teleworking. I don’t know if that was top-down or bottom-up, it just became a natural course we followed. So that’s a small indication of the bigger path we’re on: people are going to have to be able to plug-in and contribute from anywhere around the globe at different security levels. So, I think it’s probably going to be a blinding flash of the obvious.  

Q. You made a presentation at Corona in June about changing the Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) model. What’s going to change, and why?

A. Over the last 18 years, we presented forces to combat violent extremists in the Middle East, crowd-sourcing from a pool of Airmen. They’ve been so capable, flexible, and adaptable. They arrive at a forward base, they meet their new boss, acclimate to their surroundings, meet their deployed teammates, and execute the most intense team application on the planet—which is combat. And that’s a great testament to our Airmen. 

The adversary in that fight allowed the acclimation of Airmen to the situation, but a peer adversary will not. Airmen have to arrive and execute as a cohesive, high-performing team, from Minute one. We have to present forces that are combat-credible upon arrival, and that means training together as a team and integrating with other combat teams. And do that together in a high-end exercise like Red Flag before they’re required to actually fight in a high-end conflict. We owe them that.

But the force presentation can’t be divorced from what I would call the force generation. The 2018 National Defense Strategy recognized the need to have high readiness to counter peer adversaries, and every one of the services has a readiness recovery challenge.

So, force generation is key to our force presentation. 

The generation model we’re working through now adheres to the directed-readiness rates of our force elements. We’ve got well-codified requirements about what we have to have to respond to a crisis. And, we have a well-defined force structure in our Air Force. So, given these known parameters and a requirement to not outstrip our force-generation capability, we have to provide a force that gives Airmen more predictability in their lives. We also owe the Joint Staff, Secretary of Defense, combatant commanders, and allies relevant forces that can only come from the Air Force. We owe our adversaries an overwhelming deterrent. 

It’s a work in progress. But some of the Majcoms are already working incrementally toward force-generation and force-presentation models.

Q. Will you have a new system this year, or will it need more input from the new Chief of Staff, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.?

A. We’ll definitely give General Brown an opportunity to put eyes on it, and we look forward to his guidance to shape it. But he was at the Corona, and he’s been supportive of our plan of action. We’re looking to get some time with him in mid-August to go over some of the final details, and then we expect to have an IOC [initial operational capability] Air Expeditionary Force construct by Oct. 1.

But … we already have obligations to the Joint Staff for Global Force Management; things we have to deploy as the immediate-response force that will be going in October. So, our new AEF has to converge with some decisions already made, and it won’t be the final product.

I would expect full operational capability by October 2021. And then you’ll have combat-credible teams and squadrons train together, or train separately at their own bases and come together in a high-end combat-certification exercise, something akin to a Red Flag. … And we’ll aggregate these capabilities together, and they’ll be offered to the Joint Staff and Secretary of Defense, either as one big AEF or we’ll disaggregate them for Global Force Management.

But—a key point here—is if the Secretary of Defense had a need for a big AEF to be aggregated on short notice now … we would be hard-pressed, based on the speed and relevance of modern combat, to pull that together. It would be very, very hard, if not impossible. We can’t build the way we have and then all of a sudden have a requirement to aggregate in a combat zone … and have a cohesive fighting team. 

So, that’s some of the calculus of why we have to build and train to a cohesive fighting AEF.

Q. We’re hearing a lot about logistics under fire and rapidly moving from one austere base to another in wartime. How is this going to be exercised in the next few years?

A. The preponderance of our logistics infrastructure rides on our unclassified network, and so you could think of it, first and foremost, as networks under cyberattack. Every day is game day; our cyber ninjas are having to operate in the most contested and congested arena. If our guard is down, those important supplies are either at risk of being late to need or never showing up at a forward location.

So that gets a bit at the question of what you have to pre­position, what organic supplies you take, and your distribution capabilities, hubs and spokes, and ability to distribute in foreign locations. … I don’t think we’ll see a faster pace of these exercises, but see them incorporated more into the existing exercises. 

Q. How is the Air Force’s operating tempo today different than at the height of Operations Inherent Resolve and Enduring Freedom? Is the Air Force in a reset or rebuilding period now? Or is there just no time for that?

A. We’re somewhere in between. Our pace around the globe hasn’t really slowed down, but the dynamics have changed. Take our Air National Guardsmen, for example. We tend to think of Air Force operations as big movements of B-1 bombers and tankers and fighters—big operations like we’ve been doing in the Middle East for 18 years.

Now, think about what our Air Guardsmen are doing today. We had to surge them—many of them civilian medical experts—in such a way that we didn’t do damage to their homefront. We surged them to different places all over the U.S. to deal with coronavirus. That was a huge surge, and they’re still doing that. And then in the civilian unrest, our Guardsmen had to step forward and provide additional security in and around installations, and sometimes in the cities. So, all of that is above and beyond the Guard flying missions everyday in the Middle East and anywhere else around the world. We ask a lot of them, and in their eyes, it hasn’t slowed down. And we’re about to get into wildfire season and hurricane season where we’ll have to rely on our Title 32 Guard members to lead the task forces that respond to crises.

On the Active-duty side, it hasn’t changed much at all. The global laydown ebbs and flows a little bit. Coronavirus has added challenges to moving cargo, moving people, and we had a restriction of movement due to quarantine and host nation requirements for health and wellness because it has added processes. Stopping more frequently to wash your hands, being aware of what you touch, wearing a mask, and generally communicating is more difficult. So I would say our optempo hasn’t really gone down much these last weeks and months.

Q. Joint all-domain command and control implies a top-down approach to directing forces rapidly to where they’re needed, but the Air Force has been trying to drive decision-making to the lowest levels possible. How do you do both at the same time?

A. I actually see those two things converging. JADC2, at its core, is about decision superiority; it doesn’t really get into decision authority. Decisions now have to be made in seconds that used to be made in days. So I think JADC2 will facilitate decisions to a lower level, because they’ll now have real-time feedback. As an analogy, I think we’re going to transition from football coaches—who call each play—to hockey coaches, who provide the operational strategy and trust the team to execute. They monitor the execution and make real-time adjustments to facilitate success based on the speed of what’s going on in front of them. They’re both coaches, they’re both in charge, it’s just a different dynamic they have to manage.

Q. Everyone seems to agree there are flat budgets ahead. Does that mean work on “The Air Force We Need” goes on the back burner? Or, if some growth is still coming, where?

A. If budgets double or get cut in half, 386 combat squadrons is still the requirement to execute that’s been given to us by the National Defense Strategy. And we are growing: the F-35s at Eielson [Air Force Base, Alaska,] and [in] Vermont, for example. And yes, our ability to grow or not grow is driven by budget. JADC2 will keep growing. It’s necessary to decision superiority.

Q. Is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) the main growth area?

A. Not necessarily. Think back to 2002. Our ISR wasn’t an MQ-9, or even an MQ-1; it was an RQ-1. It did tactical ISR but was not a shooter. It evolved into a shooter, the MQ-9, and with Gorgon Stare, became a much more capable ISR asset.

The point is, I don’t necessarily see growth in any one area, but as platforms become more capable, they grow beyond a niche capability, adding more utility. That builds decision superiority and more rapid execution of whatever decision is made.

Q. How is the Air Force going to look different in 2030?

A. To look forward, look back. Imagine a decade before the internet: daily life without real-time information. Driving, for example: How did we navigate with paper maps before driving apps that give us a GPS position? Or, how did we fix our cars, paging through a shop manual the size of an encyclopedia because we didn’t have YouTube?

Ten years from now, JADC2 will simply be how we do things, day to day, and we’ll wonder, how did we operate without being so connected? How did those old guys make decisions that were not machine-enabled, by an all-domain, common operating picture fed by a cloud of authoritative real-time data? And the answer will be, we did the best we could with the information we had. That gives you an idea of how things will be different. 

Q. There are a lot of people who can’t function without GPS and wouldn’t know what to do with a paper map. Are Airmen then going to be able to function if they lose connectivity in a fight?

A. The short answer is, yes, because we’re going to have to. We can’t have any single point of failure. That’s part of JADC2: it has to be self-healing. If we lose bits and pieces of it, it has to be able to reroute.