WASHINGTON — Think tanks and analysts are fretting about the Air Force's upcoming modernization "bow wave," a time in the early 2020s where the service could struggle to pay for new acquisitions within its projected budget. During this period, the Air Force is slated to ramp up its purchase of the F-35, start buying its new bomber and training aircraft, replace its intercontinental ballistic missiles and manage a variety of smaller programs.

Lt. Gen. James M. "Mike" Holmes is responsible for ensuring short-term decisions don't put the Air Force's future at risk. As deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, he helps guide the current budget process, but also directs long-term strategy development that influences the next generation of weapons.

Pending approval from Congress, Holmes will likely be moving on from his current position soon — he was recently nominated to succeed Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle as head of Air Combat Command. However, he spoke with Defense News on Sept. 15 about the coming years' budget priorities and the next wave of acquisition programs.

Can you give an overview of what you think the major budget tradeoffs might be this year, or some things the Air Force is going to want to protect, especially with the possibility of a continuing resolution or sequestration?

One of the fun parts of my job is that we're working three five-year defense plans at a time. So the one over on the Hill right now — the '17 plus five plan — is the one that's the president's budget and has official details. The '18 one, we're in program and budget review with the department, so it's really just in draft form. And we'll have to go through the OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] process, and then the Air Force is working hard on planning its '19 five-year [plan].

I'd say our priorities that we're taking into the '18 that we're working now, the chief and the secretary are foremost focused on end strength. We think when we came in with a BCA [Budget Control Act] budget, with hard choices that we had to make in that '15 timeframe, we offered to trade force structure, and we weren't able to do that, but we ended up trading some of the end strength. So they're focused on trying to slowly and gradually rebuild the end strength that we need to make an effective Air Force. That's the first thing that we're willing to focus on, and we're willing to make some trades to do that.

Beyond that, we've worked hard on funding the nuclear enterprise and addressing any shortfalls or gaps or weaknesses to keep that enterprise reliable and effective while we think about the future requirements. The next thing you've seen us talk about and work on is our remotely piloted aircraft enterprise and bringing some health there to that enterprise. It was always surging a little bit beyond its capability, and it could never quite keep up, so those efforts are bearing fruit, and plus-ups we've done in the training programs have now provided a more sustainable crew ratio there.

So the next thing that we'll work on in '19: we'll be taking a look at our combat Air Force enterprise, which has kind of been the bill payer for some of these other initiatives. How can we get that on a sustainable footing for the next 20 or 30 years?

What are the thoughts about that? And when you say combat Air Force, what are you speaking about there – does that include bombers or a potential A-X?

When we talk about the combat air force, we're talking about primarily the fighter and bomber enterprise, but [also] all the tools it takes to make that effective. It includes the ISR enterprise, parts of it.

We're focused on taking a look at that fighter and bomber enterprise into the future and trying to get to a sustainable plan. Since Desert Storm, we've been on a recapitalization schedule of somewhere between 100 and 200 years, if you'd see how many airplanes we've been and the size of the total fleet. If we can get to 48 F-35s a year, that would put us on a 40 year recapitalization schedule. So we've got to find a way to acquire more airplanes. We've got to work to make the airplanes we're acquiring affordable, and then we have to make sure we're getting the right things for the CAF [combat air force] too.

Let's talk some future acquisition programs. Where does the EC-130 Compass Call recapitalization sit, and is the Air Force still considering a sole source from Gulfstream?

We're working with Congress to come up with a plan that meets everybody's needs, and Congress ultimately decides. The business jet recap of the EC-130 was attractive to us because we were already buying new guts, we were already buying new electronics for our EC-130Hs, and then another user — basically another air force — spent the money with Gulfstream to get the shape and a similar project done. So they paid for a lot of the developmental work, to include having a shape of a Gulfstream 550 that comes with an airworthiness certificate. And the way you reduce the cost of programs is to reduce the cost of testing and the timeline that goes with that. So it was an opportunity for us to rehost the inside of an EC-130H on an available platform that already had an airworthiness certificate and would require very little development work. Because it's a fairly simple project. All you're doing is moving one thing you already understand into a shape that you already understand, and putting them together.

So that was attractive to us, because we thought we could do that within the costs of the O&M of the EC-130. So we'd retire an EC-130 and pay for this transition with the O&M savings because it's a fairly cheap proposal. And so that's why it was attractive to us, and we're having a hard time finding the money to do a full competition, developmental approach, and so we try to get it done that way.

If you have to do a full competition, does that push the program further down the road?

It's safe to say that it would take longer and cost more. And so then we'd have to see if we could fit that program into our budget, and it's easier to fit one in that costs less and takes less time.

When might an open competition happen?

You'd have to do surveys of industry to see what's available. You're driven by the entire set of regulations. You have to then write a request for proposals, you have to receive them, so it would add years onto the development process.

Has the Air Force begun thinking about the replacement program for RC-135 and those related systems? Is it considering using an aircraft, manned-unmanned teaming or a network of systems?

We did this Air Superiority 2030 project, and the reason we did it is because we didn't want to just jump into doing an AOA [analysis of alternatives] on an F-X without thinking through the future requirement. And in a multi-domain world, is an F-X really what we wanted to do? It was a great project. It taught us a whole lot about how to think about it, and how to look at it, and we've kind of decided we want to do the Air Force missions one year at a time in the same way we did there.

I think the next one we'll look at is multi-domain command and control, and that will have a bearing on replacing AWACS [airborne warning and control system] and for those things. The third one is likely to be global integrated ISR.

And so when we talk about a multi-domain solution, what we want to look at and see is, what is the right way to do that capability and not the right way to repackage that capability? So when you look at advanced threats, it pushes you further away. So what combination of cyber, space and air tools provide that capability in the future?

So we'll go through those systems in the ISR world, and we'll think through that question before we move forward with recapitalization.

So AWACS would be included in the command and control study?

It would include AWACS in it, but it would really be more about how do you do that theater command and control of air, space and cyber power in the future using all of those things. So it would include that.

And AWACS kind of does both. It does surveillance and it does command and control. So part of the decision is do you keep those together in a platform or do you split them? Do you pull the information from everybody that's out there together and package that, or do you have to have a dedicated radar to go get it. Can you find things out from overhead sensors instead of from an airborne sensor? Can you use cyber tools to get that information? How should we put that together in the future instead of jumping straight into a replacement program to replace a platform. How do you replace the capability? That's what we want to think through.

Q: How does JSTARS factor into that future architecture? It seems like the JSTARS recap program is a more traditional one-to-one replacement program.

A: We're driven there by the fact that the 707 airframe that our JSTARS is packaged in now is just running out of life. So you're forced to either go ahead and do a solution now or accept a gap in that capability. So that's why there's more of a sense of urgency on that program then there are on the others, but we want to pursue something that will fit into the future as well, and then it's the question of where can you use it. And again, with the range of threat environments, not everything is useful in the most densely populated threat environment, and there are ways to reduce that densely populated threat environment so you can bring other things in and make them useful to you. Its about fighting through those integrated air defense systems and degrading them with your fifth generation tools to where you beat it down to an environment where you can bring in other things.

Q: The Air Superiority 2030 study pointed out that the Air Force may rely less on aircraft to do the command and control. Will we see the same for ISR?

A: It did point out — and it's not new information — but as the range of threat systems increases, then your vulnerable systems get pushed back further and further and further, and there's a point where they get pushed back so far away that they're no longer useful. So if you're trying to use a line of sight radar on an airborne platform, if you push it back far enough, it can no longer see the ground in the places you want it to because of the curvature of the earth, regardless of its power. So that's a problem. But what we also decided in the study is that in order to close the whole kill chain of finding a target, fixing it in three-dimensional space, tracking it long enough to target it with something, engage it, and then assess it — we looked at can we do all that from standoff? Can we do all of that from outside and just swap a weapon in to do that. And ultimately we decided we can't. So to close that kill chain, we're going to have to continue to penetrate into that defended space, if for nothing else to get sensors in there. And if you're going to get sensors in there, you're going to have to defend them against ground and air threats. And so that leads us to a Penetrating Counter Air aircraft as a requirement out of Air Superiority 2030.

So you've got to find the right balance between what sensors do we need to take in there. What sensors can we do from standoff? How will we get the information to all the people that need it in a Data to Decision campaign that we're experimenting with, and then how will we defeat agile, intelligent targets — targets that are hard to find and a movable and are doing their best to hide from us. Those two things also come out of Air Superiority 2030 as an experimentation campaign.

What might follow-on programs for current RPAs for MQ-9 Reaper and Global Hawk look like?

We have a plan to replace all the MQ-1s with MQ-9s. Those last airplanes will be coming off the line here soon. We continue to purchase MQ-9s to support the government-owned contractor-operated aircraft that are filling in the gaps. And so we haven't even really finished acquiring the MQ-9, the ones that we're flying now.

The Global Hawk fills in a different niche. We're working through the decisions on if we'd be able to keep some combination of U-2 and Global Hawk, or would we have to go down to one or the other. What's affordable?

And as we get into that enterprise capability collaboration team look at global integrated ISR, we'll take some of the pieces of work that we're doing now and put that all together and come up with a conclusion. So we have work being done in RA-2 here, at Air Combat Command and different places to think about some options for the RPA platforms of the future. But I think that will all come together when we do another one of these enterprise-wide studies like we did on Air Superiority 2030.

When is that going to happen?

My guess is we'll do multi-domain command and control next, and then probably global integrated ISR after that. And we have the bandwidth to do one a year. The chief would like us to do more than that, but with our reduced staffs and everything, it's hard to do more than about one a year.