The way the Air Force wages war is changing, and Air Combat Command needs to change with it.
For the last quarter-century, the Air Force has operated in “permissive environments” where it controlled the sky, largely unopposed, using precision weapons and supporting troops on the ground with little collateral damage, said Gen. Mike Holmes, ACC commander, in a Sept. 6 interview.
But in recent years, he said, adversaries have developed new tactics, strategies and capabilities ― such as making it more difficult for the United States to base closer to target areas, and better integration of its defenses and surface-to-air and air-to-air capability ― to whittle away at that advantage while the Air Force “let some of our other skills atrophy.”
For example, he said, the Air Force’s campaign against the Islamic State in Syria has become more dangerous as it contends with Russian and Syrian air forces and air defenses.
“We are now putting our young crews into places where they are still pursuing those permissive environment tactics, right up against the edge of a contested air space,” Holmes said. “They may have a Russian fighter flying on top of them, while they are being illuminated by a Russian-built surface-to-air missile, while they are trying to fight in support of Iraqi or other surrogate ground forces against [ISIS]. So it made it tremendously more complicated, and the decisions that we are asking those crews to make became tremendously more complicated.”
And now that environments are becoming more contested, Holmes said, ACC is trying to regain the kind of readiness it will need to operate against those new threats.
To accomplish that, Holmes said ACC needs to develop leaders who “are ready to win in that new environment” ― and that will include being more willing to take risks on the battlefield.
“We have operated under really tight command and control, that was focused on avoiding an error, and so now we are trying to rebuild the initiative and skill set in ourselves, to be able to evaluate risks and take risks and take initiative and act without being told what to do,” Holmes said. “Because to operate in that contested environment will require that.”
Holmes also said ACC is working with Air Force Materiel Command and the Air Force’s acquisition corps to find new ways to develop new systems and create new capabilities faster.
Around the world
As ISIS spreads from Iraq into other places like Afghanistan, Yemen and Africa, Holmes said ACC is following them. ACC is providing capabilities such as precision strikes, remotely piloted aircraft, and long-duration coverage to support special operations forces ― but this also increases the demand on ACC and the pressures its airmen feel, he said.
“We have been in continuous combat for more than 25 years,” Holmes said. “No Air Force has ever done that, and we have asked our people to endure more than any group of airmen ever have. And you see some of the strain of that on our retention and readiness.”
That problem is especially acute in the Air Force’s ranks of fighter pilots, many of whom are leaving for lucrative jobs flying commercial airliners. The Air Force is rolling out a slate of initiatives service-wide to encourage more pilots to stay, and Holmes is looking for ways to make ACC pilots’ lives better so they don’t leave.
Holmes said he wants to give squadron commanders more authority to manage day-to-day matters to “make squadron commander the best job in [ACC] and the Air Force,” so more young officers will grow into those jobs. He also said ACC is trying to cut as much as possible the number of non-flying deployments.
Years of budget cuts ― especially since sequestration kicked in ― forced ACC to “salami slice” bits of funding each year from sustaining and repairing its facilities, Holmes said.
It’s gotten so bad, he said, that they can only afford emergency work orders and not regular maintenance. That means everything from water heaters to equipment needed to maintain airplanes only get fixed when they’re broken — they don’t get the upkeep needed to keep them from breaking in the first place.
Funding for this kind of maintenance work has improved slightly in recent years, Holmes said. But more needs to be done.
“We recognize that you can only take risk in those areas so long, or you lose your ability to be able to generate the combat power that the nation depends on,” Holmes said. “For me to keep the great airmen that I need to keep, I‘ve got to do all I can to make this a good place to work.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.