As the head of Air Mobility Command, Gen. Mike Minihan’s top priority has been preparing the Air Force’s airlift and aerial refueling enterprise for a new era of military operations in the Pacific. This year marked the first time that Mobility Guardian, the command’s massive biennial training exercise, tested how well airmen could handle a short-notice, two-week deployment to the region. Minihan sat down with Air Force Times on July 9 for an interview on the sidelines of Mobility Guardian at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. This transcript was edited for length and clarity.

Q: How is Mobility Guardian different from what Air Mobility Command has done in the past?

A. In Afghanistan and Iraq — I’ll use a cheesy analogy — there’s a stadium, and your journey there is uncontested, and by the time you get there, it’s the best possible presentation of forces because you don’t have to fight through. What you’re watching now is a team come together in a much different type of environment. That’s the way it’s going to be, times 100, if this were really to go down. You’re seeing a real look now at what it takes to put a team forward quickly, and then also have to come together in a cohesive manner.

Q: What’s your impression of how it’s going so far?

A. The standout so far is the attitudes and the professionalism and the eagerness with which they’re getting after the mission. The real world has not stopped out there. There’s still distinguished visitor travel, there are still other combatant commands that need to be serviced. There’s incredibly important mission sets of high priority that can’t be dropped.

When you ask for things to go very quickly, you make a decision on being light. There are some things you leave behind, knowing that it will have to come later. There are people out there, saying, ‘Hey, my stuff’s not here yet.’ You heard me tell one team, ‘Get over it. You’re gonna have to figure it out without everything you need.’ They’re going to have to use their intellect to get through those challenges.

Q: What are the top policy problems that have come out of the exercise so far?

A. We’re really getting after the joint force readiness, integration and agility. For the nations from which we’re going to operate, we have to make sure that we’re ready to go in and play by their rules. When you pick up a sister service unit or an Air Force unit, there’s an enormous expectation that they’re ready for us to pick up. I think that we’re going to find that we’ve got work to do there. You can quickly be overcome by events, and maybe not get out of there with the speed you want.

Q: What is your message to China with this exercise?

A. We stand united with our partners allies for a free and open Indo-Pacific. And that would apply to any potential adversary. We all want to present a joint force that’s ready, integrated and agile.

Q: How will lessons learned from Mobility Guardian affect your future investments?

A. There’s an abundance of external tanks that provide hours of more fuel for C-130s. That’s value that exists that we simply haven’t incorporated. It’s not just about how we talk with each other and integrate with each other, but it’s how we understand where adversaries are, where the good guys are, how all that comes together. Can it speak to our partners and allies? Connectivity would be my No. 1 concern.

Q: What kinds of waivers have you authorized for more flexibility during the exercise?

A. One was a little bit longer of a crew day than we anticipated. That was more weather-related. That was the biggest one, and the one that I’m paying extremely close attention to. It’s much different. It is a departure from the status quo we’ve operated for decades under in the mobility forces.

Q: How are you addressing quality of life for airmen who are stretched thin by the demand for mobility assets?

A. I’ve never been in a unit, ever, that had enough people, enough time or enough money. There is always operational tension. If the objective is that I may have to fight and win in this region, do I have the right training? Am I doing the right exercises for the right reasons? I’m not going to play a game where we’re not righteous on the wise and efficient use of airmen’s and organizations’ time. It’s going to take a while to get there. The insights of this exercise are incredibly critical.

We also need to make sure that, when they’re laying in their bunk, and they’re dealing with normal life stressors, and they’re dealing with all the things that come with serving, that they’ve got every [mental health] tool necessary. I think we’re in a much better place.

One of the biggest insights I got after Operation Allies Refuge was airmen telling me they wished they had known what they were getting into, that it was the surprise nature of what they were experiencing downrange. The bruise that had is still being dealt with.

Q: With the KC-10 retiring, how are you ensuring you have enough capacity to meet the demand for tankers?

A. There is going to be an enormous demand signal, higher than the normal day-to-day demand that we have. When you’re contested from the continental U.S. forward, the more challenging it gets, and the more reliability you need out of your airplane.

We’ve had staff talks with Air Force Materiel Command twice a year, where we talk through how we can make improvements in advance. We’re doing enormous work at the depots to get after more efficiencies and more effectiveness. Probably the biggest thing that we’ve done is tabletop exercises and other things that talk about how maintenance and reliability would be attained.

We need to be a command that’s already putting our intellect into what follows the older airplanes, so we don’t let the airplane decide when it wants to retire.

Q: How are you moving partnerships forward with countries in the Pacific?

A. I met with my counterpart in the Philippine air force. He’s trying to develop his mobility portfolio, so one of the things we discussed is they’re going to get C-130Js in a few years. We’ve got an enormous amount of expertise that we can share. The Philippines just added more coalition bases, I absolutely have the conversations within my portfolio about how we can work together.

NATO partners are out here learning how to refuel off of the KC-46. At Scott Air Force Base (in Illinois), the Japanese were working in the Air Operations Center, and I’ve invited the Philippine air force as well. More presence and exchange, absolutely.

Q: What is Mobility Guardian teaching you about capabilities you want for the next generation of aircraft?

A. I want airplanes that can facilitate long mission days — anything that can take a burden off of the crew that’s flying it. Those are the things that allow the human to think about the mission, not just about operating the airplane.

I’ve got to have connectivity over any other thing. Connectivity leads to survivability, leads to situational awareness, leads to mission effectiveness, leads to integration with partners and allies in the joint force.

There’s a lot of real estate on my airplane that’s underutilized; I can do other things. I’m intentionally moving away from the “C” and the “K” prefixes, because if you put a C on it, you’ll think about it as cargo only. If you put a K on it, you’ll think about it as a tanker only. I can do electronic warfare; I can do jamming; I can do spoofing; I can do decoy; I can do precision navigation and timing; I can increase a lot of mission sets. Let’s think about effects-based aircraft and not simply platform-based aircraft.

The acquisition team is doing the analysis of alternatives right now for next-generation air refueling systems. That process does take some time, but we’re probably five to 10 years away from something reasonable being developed and, hopefully, starting to be integrated.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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