Going into his third year as the head of Air Combat Command, Gen. Mike Holmes is continuing to focus on how to reshape his command to prepare for a possible “great power” conflict.
A big part of that will include changing how ACC’s wings deploy airmen overseas, Holmes said Aug. 8.
For about the past decade and a half, wings have deployed smaller teams of airmen, mostly to the Middle East, in predictable rotations to replace airmen who are coming home.
But if the Air Force needs to deter — or even fight — nations with comparable militaries, Holmes said, ACC needs to be ready to deploy larger units, such as whole squadrons or even wings.
Resurrecting those skills, which used to be common in the Air Force, requires “a little bit of ‘Back to the Future,’” he said.
“We’re re-learning things we used to know about that," Holmes said. "How should we organize our wings so they’re prepared to succeed in combat and not optimized for garrison operations back in the United States? How do we prepare wing commanders to open a base, to receive follow on forces, to project combat power, to command and control, to sustain a base, to do things in an environment they haven’t had to? And what command and control tools do they need.”
When tensions flared between the United States and North Korea a year and a half ago, ACC carried out some focused training exercises across its wings, he said. That included practicing how an entire squadron would pack up its gear and deploy — including dry runs for processing all deploying airmen.
If an even larger force would need to be sent overseas, Holmes said, what kind of a wing structure would it need and which wing commanders would be sent forward to pull the squadrons together?
After about six to eight months, these exercises — which also included a Red Flag exercise — greatly increased ACC’s ability to deploy large units, he said. Since then, wing commanders have continued to practice deployments, including how they would send units forward in simulated combat situations.
“We put our chem gear on, we simulate attacks on the airfield, and we get back in to training, not just the individual skills, but into integrated group training, across the squadron, group or wing,” Holmes said.
The next step comes as wing commanders experiment with wing command and control, Holmes said, because in a major conflict, a wing is going to need to operate largely — or entirely — cut off from the rest of the Air Force.
The 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina has been experimenting with new ways to support deployed combat forces. The 355th Wing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona has also been working on how the so-called “dynamic wing” can pick up the pieces and go overseas in a large group. Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho and Hill Air Force Base in Utah have also worked on relearning these skills and teaching them to airmen — who themselves are coming up with their own ideas, Holmes said.
Holmes also plans to spend much of the coming year concentrating on “people issues,” to make sure ACC does everything possible to help airmen be ready for the challenges they are facing now and in the coming years.
That includes continuing work to get commanders’ support staffs fully manned — both with young airmen and adjutant officers — in order to remove some of the paperwork and administrative burden in squadrons.
The Air Force is starting to stabilize its alarming decline in pilots, Holmes said. ACC is particularly short on experienced 11F fighter pilots, and to make sure operational squadrons have enough pilots, staffs at ACC headquarters and at numbered Air Forces have taken a hit, Holmes said.
ACC has pulled in some reservists and Guardsmen, as well as civilians — some of whom are retired active duty pilots — to help plug those holes at the staff levels, he said.
Meanwhile, ACC is trying to speed up how it gets new pilots into operational squadrons, so they can start getting experience more quickly. ACC is working with its squadron and group commanders to make sure they’re giving young crews the right opportunities to learn more — safely.
“Out in the squadrons, what we see is, we have enough pilots, but we have many inexperienced pilots,” Holmes said. He compared the pilot situation to the maintenance career field, where a once-massive shortfall has been filled on the active-duty side, but many maintainers are still green and need seasoning.
Each platform and weapon system has its own unique challenges and situations, which means their crews will have to learn differently, he said.
ACC is also working on improving the way it creates and grows leaders by improving development courses. ACC tweaked the squadron commander course to prepare officers for the things they will face every day to include more interactive presentations in which they practice giving feedback to virtual icons representing airmen.
“The things we’ve done there [were] to try to make sure our airmen get the leaders they deserve,” Holmes said.
ACC is also looking at “comprehensive airmen fitness” to prepare airmen for the pressures they face and improve the climate, Holmes said. He hopes that by improving the environment, so airmen feel like they’re a valued member of a high-performing team and are cared about as individuals, it will pave the way to help counter problems such as suicide, and prevent sexual assault and harassment.
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.