Leaders discuss Combat Air Forces future at symposium

ORLANDO, Fla. — Four senior Air Force leaders gathered here Feb. 12, to discuss the key issues facing the nation’s Combat Air Forces.

Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command, joined Gen. Frank Gorenc, the commander of U.S Air Forces Europe-Air Forces Africa; Gen. Lori Robinson, the commander of Pacific Air Forces; and Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, on a CAF panel at the Air Force Association’s annual Air Warfare Symposium.

During the hourlong discussion, the leaders touched on a variety of issues, including budget concerns, ongoing operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terrorist group, the future of fifth-generation fighters like the F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II, and the challenges of emerging cyber-based threats.

The impact of sequestration

With the Budget Control Act still the “law of the land,” the leaders were unanimous in their concerns about its potential future impact on the Air Force, based on what they saw during the 2013 sequestration.

“An important thing we learned about operating in a sequestered environment was the effect of not flying airplanes,” Gorenc said. “If you have a squadron sit down for a month, it takes an exponential effort to get it back to readiness. … It does long- term damage to our Air Force.”

Carlisle reinforced the point, noting that although the Air Force is better prepared than in 2013 in terms of planning, operating at BCA-level budgets would have a significant impact on the CAF’s capabilities.

“We have to produce the very best Air Force we can, given the resources the American people give us,” he said. “If we live through BCA-level budgets into the next decade, we will not be able to do what we do today.”

Robinson added that beyond lost capabilities, the cost of sequestration extended to international relationships.

“We did pay a price in partnerships when we had to cancel exercises and TDYs,” she said. “It is a concern for the long-term commitment, trust and confidence of our partners and allies.”

Collectively, the leaders pointed out that at least one positive effect of sequestration was that it highlighted Air Force capabilities to the American public, serving as a reminder of the importance of the service’s mission. The point was made especially clear by Wilson as he discussed America’s nuclear enterprise.

“Most people don’t think much about the ICBM leg of the (nuclear) triad. Our missiles are foundational to our national security because they prevent an out-of-the-blue attack on the U.S.,” he said, reaffirming the Air Force’s commitment to ensure a credible strategic deterrence for the nation which became all the more important when planes were not flying.

Operation Inherent Resolve

Combat operations against ISIL took center stage during the panel discussion, with audience members questioning the effectiveness of air power in Operation Inherent Resolve. Carlisle expressed some frustration with the perception by some that air power was “not working”, noting that substantial impacts had been made against ISIL

“Airpower is actually very effective,” he said. “We have changed the way they (ISIL) operate. Their ability to mass, communicate, and control their forces has been degraded significantly.”

The general also noted that while there is still talk of “an influx of (ISIL) fighters,” they can’t be as effective if their command and control is interrupted.

Fifth-generation fighters

In praising the effectiveness of airpower in OIR, Carlisle highlighted the important role the F-22 has played, noting the fitfth-generation fighter has “exceeded expectations.” In particular, he noted how the aircraft’s capabilities enhance the effectiveness of other aircraft operating with it.

“When you have F-22s in a strike package, every aircraft in the package does better,” he said.

Discussion of the F-22 also raised questions about the future of the Air Force’s other fifth-generation aircraft, the F-35. Carlisle addressed concerns about whether the aircraft would reach its initial operating capability, projected between August and December 2015.

Although Carlisle noted issues with maintenance manning were compelling, he believes the Air Force will reach IOC as projected. However, he added that IOC was “merely the beginning” of important issues the service would need to face moving forward.

“The Air Force is not getting any bigger,” he said. “We have to figure out how to retire aircraft as we bring the F-35s online. Maintenance is just one part of the equation.”

Cyberthreats

The officers also addressed the growing threat of cyberattacks and the need for the U.S. to grow its own capabilities to address them.

“One of the things I think that is interesting is the integration of cyber and kinetic effects. We’re good at predicting the result of kinetic actions, not as good with cyber,” Gorenc said. “The problem is the ability to predict creates so many branches and sequels it exceeds the capacity of the AOC (Air Operations Center) to do the work, particularly in a high-speed conflict.”

Robinson echoed those concerns adding that she also worried about the problem of degraded communications versus merely the loss of them. “We’ll either have comms or we won’t. But I am worried about degradation and how we can detect it.”

The leaders drew their discussion to a close by noting that while the CAF faces a challenging future, the future is still bright because its success is ultimately secured by its greatest asset: the men and women who daily carry out their missions in defense of the country.