Part 2: Q&A With Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom on the Future Fleets

Air Force Magazine Editor in Chief Tobias Naegele and Pentagon Editor Abraham Mahshie sat down with Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom, Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, for an exclusive interview that touched on everything from the the Next Generation Air Dominance platform to the Air Force’s plans to replace the aging AWACS fleet.

This is Part 2 of that interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Air Force Magazine: If you didn’t have to fund that big nuclear modernization thing all out of your budget, what would that do to the rest of the plan?

Nahom: Well, it’s more money. 

Air Force Magazine: It’s a lot more money. It would change everything if you didn’t have to … 

Nahom: I mean, there’s a lot of things. But it’s our duty as the Air Force to make sure we have that two-thirds of the nuclear arsenal. And so, there’s a lot of things I could wish for, but obviously, more [budget] is probably No. 1.

Air Force Magazine: Well, that’s kind of where I’m going. Do you think that the Air Force really needs a much bigger check?

Nahom: Well, I’ll let you ask leadership that one. I mean, obviously, if you have more money, you’re not making as tough resource decisions if you have more money. I mean, that’s obvious. But the nation gives our Air Force a lot of money to equip our Airmen and our force. It’s not up to me completely, but as the A-8, it’s up to me to be part of the process to make sure that we do our best with the resources we’re given.

Air Force Magazine: So you’re investing a lot in NGAD, almost $2 billion. It’s a family of systems, you used the term yourself. Who are the members of that family? In the back of your SUV, how many, what does that family look like?

Nahom: It’s hard to get into specifics. I probably have to get back to you on that and find out exactly what I can and can’t say. I want to make sure that we don’t discuss anything classified or pre-decisional. 

But the intent is … Air dominance—air superiority—is the American way of war. Our Joint Force assumes we have it. And the only people that are going to give them air superiority is the U.S. Air Force. That’s what we do. And as warfare changes, especially when you look at what a conflict would be like in the South China Sea, we’re going to have to continue to evolve. 

I’ll tell you, one thing is interesting: If you look at our fighter platforms from development, we’ve never developed a fighter with the ranges of the Pacific in mind. And so this would be a first. Really everything, including the F-35, has been designed with Europe in mind. And Europe ranges are a lot different. So I think it’ll be a fascinating time as we continue to develop out what our air dominance, air superiority is going to look like in the future.

Air Force Magazine: And that’s a built-in part of the NGAD requirement?

Nahom: Well, I won’t say it like that, but I’ll just say that our leadership has said, we have a pacing challenge, and it’s in that part of the world, and we have to make sure that we, as an Air Force, are equipped. And the days of taking off out of your airfield and declaring air superiority over your airfield are probably not here. Probably, you’re going to go quite a distance and have to do that and then get quite a distance to get back, and you’re probably going to be in contested airspace. So it’s a different-looking problem set.

Air Force Magazine: Do you know, by chance, what it would have cost to upgrade the F-22 fleet that’s instead going away?

Nahom: I’ll check and see if we can share that. But you know, you have to wait. You’re looking at fifth-generation combat power. We have a fifth-generation airplane coming off the assembly line right now. And so you have to make decisions. Do you want to do this, or do you want to buy more F-35s? Because you’re not going to do both. And so I think we made a good risk, a good financial decision about putting the oldest F-22s in the boneyard while we modernize the majority of the fleet, and we make sure we keep our eyes on the future.

Air Force Magazine: And then how do you continue training the pilots for those F-22s?

Nahom: Well, it’s interesting, and I came out of the F-22, so I understand the difference between the two airplanes—the block 20s, which are the aircraft we’re retiring, to the Block 30, 35, which are our front-line fighters. 

Because of the nature of the hardware and software in those airplanes, the difference [between] them is getting greater and greater over time, because we keep putting more capability on the operational Raptors that’s not being put on the training ones, because they don’t have the capacity. … And so what you’re finding is the students that go through the school, you learn on an airplane, [and] you really have to relearn a lot of things when you get to your operational units. 

And we’ve gone through this over time. I mean, when I first started out, I went through my first F-15 school in the F-15A, and when I got to my operational unit, the F-15C, it was like almost a complete restart. You’ll see this in the F-16s as well—you see a big difference in the training airplanes. 

You try to minimize it as best you can, so when a young kid goes through the training, when they show up to their operational unit, it’s a quick top-off, and they’re off to the races. It’s not that way with the Raptor right now. So, what we’re going to do is … we’re going to take some of those Block 30/35s and turn them into a training unit, and it will be able to train [students] at a higher level. And so you’ll have a much more full-up round when the young pilot shows up at his or her operational unit.

Air Force Magazine: Can I follow up on a couple points on the EX that you mentioned? Was part of the decision to go with the F-15EX that you can get them faster than F-35s? And then on the South China Sea, protecting our interests out there, does the EX work better for those needs?

Nahom: When the chief outlined the four-fighter fleet, we talked a lot about the F-15 platform. And I’ll say it like that, because the way in which we would use an F-15EX and the way we would use an F-15E would be pretty comparable. They’re obviously similar airframes, similar OFP, as well as they’re going to carry similar weapons. The advantage of an F-15 platform is the ability to carry some outsize weapons that you [wouldn’t] necessarily put internal into a fifth-gen airplane. 

It also carries a lot of weapons and a lot of gas, which gives you an advantage in certainly critical infrastructure protection in permissive areas. Think homeland defense, point defense. Think of your ability to protect and defend, and doing a mission that you don’t necessarily need a fifth-generation airplane. So you kind of almost think of it as like a truck. It can haul some things. We don’t need a large fleet of them. And I think you’ll see in our budget, we’re not going after a large fleet. But I think the Air Force is going to find that platform very useful, not only in permissive environments and defending, but also in its ability to carry outsize weapons and its contributions into the high-end fight.

Air Force Magazine: So let’s go back to NGAD. You’re talking about fifth-generation or sixth-generation capabilities. The plan is to still have the F-35 as the backbone fifth-generation capability. What about fifth-generation weapons? We keep hearing this come up: We need fifth-generation weapons to go with a fifth-generation aircraft. What does that mean?

Nahom: We are certainly invested in … much improved—I won’t say fifth-generation, let’s not put a generation on it, I don’t want to define something here today. But let’s say much improved air-to-air weapons that are comparable with our platforms. We’re also investing in a lot of air-to-surface weapons that are improved and comparable with our weapons as well. We can check and see if we can give you specifics on what those are. 

… I think you’ve heard [Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mark D. Kelly] say that you can’t run around with fifth-generation platforms and third-generation weapons.

Air Force Magazine: That’s really what I was driving it. So what do you do in advance of that?

Nahom: We are certainly invested in them. This is one of those trade-offs, too, because you want the stockpiles if you have a conflict today, but you also want to be invested in the advanced weapons for tomorrow. And I think you’ll see in our budget a pretty good measurement between those two. But I’ll tell you, we have a lot of discussion on that, certainly with OSD and CAPE and the other services, because we invest in weapons as a Joint Force. Certainly the Navy and Air Force platforms carry the same weapons, and that’s how Americans would want that. So we work very closely with our Navy counterparts to make sure that we’re adhering to the stockpiles we need if something should happen near-term and making sure we are adjusting with the times, let’s just say.

Air Force Magazine: Well this includes there, again, the range issue. Is the [AIM-260 JATM] long range?

Nahom: It is, yeah. Ranges are always gonna be a factor. Going forward, I’ll tell you, the Air Force is committed to making sure we have the open-air ranges we need. Our features are obviously the NTTR—the Nellis Test and Training Range—and the JPARC up in Alaska. There’s other ranges. … You’re going to see a big push in the Gulf Coast, because we’re putting a lot of F-35s in the Gulf Coast, so you want to make sure that they have the ability to train there. 

But the big thing, when you look at training to that level, we also have to adhere to the virtual. We have to make sure we have the virtual environment that’s needed, so our crews can train to the highest … threats, because you’re not always going to have the open-air ranges. You’re not always going to have the adversary air and the weapons and the things you need in open-air ranges. So we’ve got to adequately augment it with the correct virtual environment. And we are correctly invested in making sure we get that.

Air Force Magazine: And that’s been one of the holdups really for F-35, right?

Nahom: In the joint simulation, yeah. And that’s a big part of us, because that virtual environment they’re building is certainly something we can build upon for training as well.

Pilots still need to fly—that’s a big part of readiness. But they also need to be overwhelmed and challenged and have the threat densities that aren’t always available in open air. I would love to declare the UTTR over Salt Lake City and the Nellis one big range and tell all airlines to go away for about an hour, but I just don’t see that in the cards.


Air Force Magazine: You also have a challenge, though, just exercising some of the capability on that airplane that you can theoretically only simulate without giving away its [capabilities].

Nahom: No, I mean, we’ll find places to make sure we test weapons. We will adequately test weapons. But obviously, there are some things you’re going to have to simulate. But you know, there’s also a piece of it—why do we still have WSEP? Because sometimes a simulation works too good, and it’s nice to know where the imperfections are in the system and test them. And I think we, as an Air Force, do that better … than any air force in the world.

Air Force Magazine: So I want to talk about the [AIM-260 JATM] again, because Gen. Wilsbach talked about China in that context at AWS just recently. So does that buy back some capability? Does that create for us a new counter threat? Will it buy back some of the edge that the Chinese have with the PL-15?

Nahom: The 260 is a wonderful weapon, and we’re really looking forward to getting it in service. I think when you mix that with our platforms, certainly the Raptor and the enhancements we’re putting into the F-22, that is going to help us keep our advantage. But we can’t stop, because our adversaries aren’t stopping. And that’s why you see our investments in things like NGAD and moving past that. But we’re very excited about the upgrades we’re making to the F-22 and excited about integrating the JTAM onto that platform. 

Air Force Magazine: So ACE, can we talk a little bit about ACE? I think there was some discussion yesterday about investing in pre-positioning and so on. Really ACE is about this ability to be instantly mobile and get anywhere quickly. So pre-positioning is almost a misnomer in a sense.

Nahom: People talk about ACE and logistics under attack, and they kind of almost talk about them in the same sense. I like to separate them out. And that might be a little too simple, but when I think about logistics under attack, I do think of pre-positioning, because if the stuff is already there, I don’t have to bring it into the theater. That simplifies my logistics problem if it’s already there. So I think there is an aspect of that. 

But everything comes with balance. If you’re going to pre-position everything, and you’ve got a couple of theaters, you have to buy two of everything. And we don’t necessarily, as a nation, want to buy two of everything.

Air Force Magazine: You might have to buy three of them, or four.

Nahom: We hope not. But I think there’s got to be a balance. I think there’s some things we should put forward. If it’s heavy and cheap, and a host nation is OK with us stockpiling it there, or we have a facility, let’s do it. If it’s expensive, exquisite, and small, and we can move it quickly, maybe we don’t want to commit that to one theater and have to buy two or three. 

And so I think there’s certainly a balance, and we’re looking at what that is, because the days of having months to build that U.S. iron mountain are probably not there with the way modern warfare is. So we’ve just got to balance it. 

When I think of ACE, we have to have the ability to be able to operate, not from one or two or three large footprints in a theater, but maybe operate from many, many places and much smaller, offering up a much more difficult problem to our adversaries. Operate in places they don’t expect us, operate from many places, and be able to move and be agile when we do it.

Air Force Magazine: So that’s why the pre-positioning thing seems to be kind of counterintuitive, because you’ve got small groups, they can’t all come from the same place.

Nahom: I mean, there’s places that you wish some things were there, I tell you, one of the hardest things to move is fuel. If you could tell me where we could possibly be, and I could count on there being gas there all the time, I’d say sign me up. But it’s one of the heavier and more difficult things we move in a theater. In a place like the Pacific, it’s not going to be as prevalent as it is in places like Europe or even the Middle East and all the places we fly in and out of. So could there be some pre-positioning? You would like that.

Air Force Magazine: And that’s the sort of thing…

Nahom: It’s just not everything. You can’t put everything forward. But there could be some things you put forward and are there waiting for you. But I think the the ACE piece, though—the ability to jump in maybe to a large location and then spoke out to smaller locations or come right into smaller locations and operate out of many areas where an adversary may not have expect us, and in much smaller footprints where you’re not as vulnerable and maybe not as attractive to target, because you’re not as vulnerable, and still be able to operate. 

I’ll tell you, I’ve done it before. … It’s not easy. And so we say, ‘Oh, yeah, just take four jets over there, six over there.’ Let me tell you right now, when you split up a maintenance package. …

Air Force Magazine: Because now you don’t have the specialist you need, you don’t have the quality of the equipment you need …

Nahom: You know, it’s amazing, you start finding your limitations. I mean, I remember operating out of the Pacific, we were operating out of several locations for training for different exercises. And I remember them asking me, and I was the ops group commander down at Kadena at the time, they’re asking me, ‘What’s the long pull—what are you missing?’ I go, ‘Seven level avionics maintainers.’ I only had enough for three locations. I had enough jets for like six locations. But three of those locations were not going to have the right avionics specialists. So if something broke, it was going to stay broke. 

And so these are things you start thinking through when you start operating out of many places—what is that long pull? And it may be a certain thing, and you may be putting a crew chief on an airplane with a small part. It’s really fascinating. You see it in the Pacific, because not only do you have great distances, you don’t necessarily have great transportation between those great distances. The ways you can get around Europe are amazing—road, rail, small planes, large planes, shoot, discount airlines. You name it, you can get around.

Air Force Magazine: When you mentioned fuel, it got me thinking about, are there some Pacific Deterrence Initiative dollars going into maybe building up some partner?

Nahom: I don’t want to get into the details of PDI. But obviously, we’re investing, and we’re investing in our facilities over there and making sure that we can ACE in many locations, but I’ll leave it at that. I want to be careful with what I say.

Air Force Magazine: Can you help me understand the bridge …  how the tanker shortfall that’s coming and pre-positioning fuel can help that?

Nahom: What tanker shortfall?

Air Force Magazine: I guess when you start to retire some KC-10s before the KC-46s all come online?

Nahom: No, the KC-10s are actually divesting pretty commensurate with the KC-46 bed down. In fact, if we don’t retire some KC-10s, we’re going to have parking location problems, because some of the places—McGuire is probably the perfect example—we’ve got to be careful, there’s not enough ramp space for the KC-46s coming in if I don’t get some KC-10s out. 

So I think, actually, the KC-10 is on a really good profile. And we need to leave it there. We’re at a nice couple-year divestment plan for it. We’re taking care of the jets at the end. We’re taking care of the crews. We’re transitioning. We’re transitioning the missions, and the two locations we’re going into where the KC-10s are coming out, McGuire and Travis, are doing great. We’re really excited about getting the new capability in there. 

The KC-135 is a little different. We’re going to retire some KC-135s this year, as you saw. One of the things we want to make sure we keep on track is we’re investing a lot of money in air refueling. In fact, we’re investing more in the air refueling enterprise this year than we did last year—we actually increased funding. The No. 1 thing we can do is keep the recapitalization of our tankers fleet on track. Right now, that’s KC-46. So we’ve got to keep the KC-46. I’ll tell you, that was challenging. When you look at all the challenges I had this year with resources, that was one of the challenges, to make sure we keep KC-46 on track, and we did. And we, as a nation, just need to keep going. Because when we get to the end of the KC-46 buy and we start looking at KC-Y and beyond, the KC-135s on the ramp were still built in 1960 and ’61. So it’s important to keep going,

Air Force Magazine: You’re getting rid of a lot of AWACS: half the fleet. And I suppose half the fleet wasn’t working anyway. 

Nahom: Well, I think first AWACS has served our nation extremely well. But you know, it’s a 707 on a very old engine, and the maintenance challenges—the two big things for the E-3 fleet [are] the maintenance challenges as well as the capability. There’s capabilities out there it just doesn’t possess because of the age of the system. It’s time to move on. And so what we need to do is, we need to divest some to free up the resources so we can invest in a replacement. And so all that money’s going into a replacement platform, and we are going to get at that as quickly as possible.

Air Force Magazine: So Wedgetail, presumably …

Nahom: Right now, we’re looking very hard at Wedgetail. Wedgetail has got an advantage, because it’s got the capability we want. It’s a new airframe, so it’s going to have the maintainability that we would want. We’ve got some partner nations flying it—the Royal Air Force is ordering them right now. So it’s a hot line. So it’s externally very attractive. 

What we’re doing right now, we’re doing a very quick study with industry to make sure there’s not other things out there that would match that capability. And then our plan is to get after pretty quickly. But we have to do due diligence to make sure there’s not anything else out there with industry that would meet our requirements.

Air Force Magazine: So let’s say, best case, you settle on that hot line. It’s still five years or so before you have an airplane. So what do you do for that five, seven years that you’re without half of a fleet that has been in pretty high demand?

Nahom: It’s in high demand, but it’s also stressed and challenged. So I think we have to be realistic with where we are with that fleet. But there’s also some risk involved. And just like many of our fighter fleets are going to go down in numbers before we can get them back up, we just believe we have to commit to recapitalize this fleet and get after it.

In current resources, there’s just not a path to do it without taking some decrement in capacity in the near term. There’s just not a path. You’d love that world where you can maintain capacity and bring the new system on and just keep going. It’s not there. It’s too much to maintain the old systems and invest in the new. And there’s not resources to do both at the same time. 

Air Force Magazine: Is [airborne moving target indication] going to be a capability that’s sort of merged into that airplane?

Nahom: Right now the intention for what is going to replace E-3 is primarily getting after AMTI, the airborne moving target indicator system, the ability to see things moving through the air, and that’s all things moving through the air. 

GMTI is very important, the ability to see things moving on the ground—we found it very valuable over the years. JSTARS is in the same boat, if you will, if not worse, just because of the age and the stress on that platform. GMTI is different because there’s other ways to get after it. We have other airborne platforms, as well as, without getting into the details, certainly, you’ve heard us discuss the potential for space-based capability. And I’ll leave it at that. We also have other platforms, we can mitigate some of the capacity, the RQ-4 Block 40. And there’s some other joint platforms, too. 

We will continue to mitigate the GMTI while we get to the next phase, but when you look at GMTI, when you look at some of the opportunities, they’re not there with AMTI. We certainly feel, at least in the interim, we have to go back after another airborne platform like an E-7, potentially.

Air Force Magazine: Space would not be an answer?

Nahom: Right now we’re not looking at that. We’re looking at least what we could call a bridging solution. But we have to get to a more maintainable modern platform that can do the mission that’s expected. And we’ve flown, obviously, alongside E-7s for years with our Australian allies. And we’re very impressed with the performance of that airplane. So obviously, again, we’re looking at it, but we have to do due diligence with industry.

Air Force Magazine: The B-21, you started out, they wanted 80. Then they wanted 100, then they wanted 120, then 145.

Nahom: Obviously we’re going to a two-bomber fleet. So we’ll get to the B-21 and the modified B-52. My focus as your A-8 right now is making sure we have the resources applied so we get the B-21 development, and we get [these] B-52 modifications moving. Because I’ll tell you, the B-21 is doing wonderful. It’s going to be a great airplane, a great capability for our nation. 

The B-52 is a pretty complex undertaking, and you’re taking an old platform, you’re making it a new platform. And so how we manage that over the years, with taking airplanes offline so we can modify it with new motors and new internal software and hardware [while keeping] enough capacity for near-term conflict is going to be a challenge. 

But the B-21. I would say the final number is not settled. But right now the focus, just like anything, is, let’s keep this development moving. The program’s doing well. And I think you heard Mr. Walden and others say we’re going to fly it relatively soon, which should be pretty exciting.

Air Force Magazine: So there’s also an unmanned bomber?

Nahom: Yeah, I don’t want to get into the ACPs, the collaborative platforms, just yet, because I’m not sure what we can or can’t say yet.

But obviously, you know we’ve been experimenting with unmanned systems in different ways than we have in the past with MQ-9s and MQ-1s and others. So we’re doing a lot of RDT&E and experimentation on what that looks like in the future, because all platforms that we use in a high end conflict, may or may not be crewed.

Air Force Magazine: Well, it comes back to this idea of a family of systems. Are you anticipating—like NGAD is going to be a family of systems—is B-21 going to be a bit of a family of systems as well?

Nahom: If you look at the Secretary’s [operational imperatives], that’s exactly what we’re looking at. And I think right now, as we’re looking at the operational imperatives, is what exactly does that look like? And there’s some exciting technology out there. Whether we can get after it and get it in a manner where we can get military utility out of it in long-range strike or in that air dominance role is what the experimentation is all about.