US Air Force Gen. Michael Hostage is commander, Air Combat Command. (Alan Lessig/Staff)
As the defense world prepares for the White House to unveil its 2015 budget, the US Air Force is gearing up to defend what service officials have called a series of hard choices about what to keep and what to dump. With finances tight, the biggest fight is over whether to modernize older platforms or risk a capabilities gap while pushing that funding toward recapitalization programs.
Charged with keeping the combat air forces ready to go at a moment’s notice is Gen. Michael Hostage, the head of Air Combat Command (ACC). Prior to taking on this role in September 2011, Hostage was the commander of US Air Forces Central Command, Southwest Asia.
Q. What should we expect to see for ACC in this coming budget?
A. Well, I think we made some very hard choices. The only way you save the amount of money that we are being told we have to cut from the budget is to make entire weapon systems go away.
We talked specifically about the A-10, a weapon system I would dearly love to continue in the inventory because there are tactical problems out there that would be perfectly suited for the A-10. I have other ways to solve that tactical problem. It may not be as elegant as the A-10, but I can still get the job done, but that solution is usable in another level of conflict in which the A-10 is totally useless. It does not make any sense to cut the other program and cut A-10s if I have to give one up for the other. I really save the big bucks when I take an entire [platform] and shut it down because I save the squadrons of those airplanes but I also save the logistics infrastructure, the training infrastructure and all of the overhead.
Q. Should we expect to see multiple platforms removed wholly from the budget?
A. Yes. That is the only way to make the numbers meet, the direction we were given. Now, again, whether the politics will let us do those things are another thing. Unfortunately, if I am told, “OK, we understand about the A-10, you can take half the A-10 fleet” — that, sadly, does not leave me in a very good place because now we have to keep all of that infrastructure that supports the A-10. I get to save some portion of money by cutting certain squadrons but they will save the large dollars that goes with that infrastructure piece, and now I have to go after squadrons of other airplanes so I reduce the overall capability of the Air Force, and I am in a worse place than I would have been if I just cut the whole A-10 fleet.
Q. Do you believe those program cuts can make it through Congress?
A. Your guess is as good as mine. With the budget, we told them what we thought we needed to do, and now it is a matter of the politics of things, whether they will allow us to do it. There is a lot of opposition on the Hill but that opposition does not come with money saying, “Here. You use this money and keep that fleet.” They are just saying, “No, you cannot get rid of that fleet.”
But they are still cutting the budget so I have to do something, and, unfortunately, the something that is left is worse than cutting the A-10 fleet. It is far worse for the nation if I have to keep the A-10 and cut a bunch of other stuff because they will not give me enough money to keep it all.
Q. ISR is another area that has been politically difficult in the past. Is that impacting your plans?
A. Well, we are being driven by politics to take on a weapon system that is very expensive, the Global Hawk. It appears that I will be told I have to continue to purchase Global Hawks, and given the budget picture that we have, I cannot afford both the U-2 and the Global Hawk. I will likely have to give up the U-2. What that means is that we are going to have to spend buckets of money to get the Global Hawk up to some semblance of capability that the U-2 currently has. It is going to cost a lot of money, and it is going to take time, and as I lose the U-2 fleet, I now have a high-altitude ISR fleet that is not very useful in a contested environment. It will change how I am able to employ that airplane in a high-end fight or a contested domain. But, again, politics in the end drives what we do, and if the politics say I am going to go with Global Hawk then so be it, I go with Global Hawk. All of us will have to deal with the reduced capability that gives us. We made the proposal to cut back the number of CAPs [combat air patrols]. We will see when the budget comes out what they actually decide they will allow us to do and that will give me the parameters within which I get to work the rest of the ISR fleet.
Q. Are there any programs you would fight tooth and nail for in the budget?
A. Absolutely. I am fighting to the end, I am going to fight to the death to protect the F-35 because I truly believe that the only way we will make it through the next decade is with a sufficient fleet of F-35s. If you gave me all the money I needed to refurbish the F-15 and the F-16 fleets, they would still become tactically obsolete by the middle of the next decade. Our adversaries are building fleets that will overmatch our legacy fleet, no matter what I do, by the middle of the next decade. I have to provide an Air Force that in the middle of the next decade has sufficient fifth-generation capability that whatever residual fourth-generation capability I still have is viable and tactically useful. I am willing to trade the refurbishment of the fourth gen to ensure that I continue to get that fifth-gen capability. I am fighting to the end, to the death, to keep the F-35 program on track. For me, that means not a single airplane cut from the program, because every time our allies and our partners see the United States Air Force back away, they all get weak in the knees. This program will fall apart if the perception is that the Air Force is not committed to this program.
Q. So you remain committed to the 1,763 figure that has come out?
A. Absolutely. Not one plane less.
Q. What about upgrades to the F-22?
A. The F-22, when it was produced, was flying with computers that were already so out of date you would not find them in a kid’s game console in somebody’s home gaming system. But I was forced to use that because that was the [specification] that was written by the acquisition process when I was going to buy the F-22.
Then, I have to go through the [service life extension plan] and [cost and assessment program evaluation] efforts with airplanes to try to get modern technology into my legacy fleet. That is why the current upgrade programs to the F-22 I put easily as critical as my F-35 fleet. If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22. Because I got such a pitifully tiny fleet, I’ve got to ensure I will have every single one of those F-22s as capable as it possibly can be.
Q. Has the readiness issue subsided?
A. The bottom line is, despite the budget deal, we are still going to the same spot at the bottom of the cliff that we were going to when they started the sequestration madness. They have shallowed the glide path a little bit over the next two years, but we pay it all back in the out years and we still hit at the same spot at the bottom of the cliff.
We still have an urgent need to be allowed to reshape our force, to resize ourselves to fit within the amount of money the country is putting for defense, and as long as Congress is stopping us from doing that, we are going to have difficulty making readiness. The only way to make ends meet when you cannot do major force-structure changes, personnel changes or infrastructure changes is that it comes from your readiness accounts.
Q. Given budget constraints, how do you encourage the development of new technology?
A. What I am trying to spark is partnerships between labs and industry to produce capability of this leading edge technology that potentially is out there. We have had some very interesting discussions with the different partners, and I am hopeful that may generate some paths forward as we look at the technology of the future. That has always been our qualitative edge. It has been the strength of our people, our training and our capability and our people married up with leading-edge technology that is in advance of anything our adversaries have ever been able to produce. We have to maintain that. As budgets dwindle, as S&T [science and technology] budgets dwindle, as industry’s IR&D [intermediate research and development] funding dwindles, I am trying to make sure that industry is still putting money into the IR&D bucket. That is the intermediate research and development that they spend money on to take leading-edge technology and make things of the near term possible out of it. We see the labs with S&T money to make that leading-edge science. I am trying to build the synergy among the three to seed that money in places that has the highest probability of useful payback to all of us.
Q. What areas might have the highest probability of payback?
A. Obviously, we are very interested in directed energy. We are very interested in the materials technology that is burgeoning. Nanotechnology is very exciting and holds some great promise. There are some interesting technological areas out there, but I am sure not going to give away secrets of what the cool toys are we are looking for next. I want my adversaries to be surprised. ■
By Aaron Mehta in Washington.