Shaping the Way Ahead for Airpower: General Hostage Focuses on the Future


2013-01-24 Second Line of Defense and AOL Defense Board of Contributor Members Dr. Robbin Laird and Lt. General Dave Deptula USAF (Retired) sat down in mid December 2012 with General Mike Hostage, the Commander, Air Combat Command, with headquarters at Langley Air Force Base, Va.

As the commander, he is responsible for organizing, training, equipping and maintaining combat-ready forces for rapid deployment and employment while  ensuring strategic air defense forces are ready to meet the challenges of  peacetime air sovereignty and wartime defense.

ACC operates more than 1,000 aircraft, 22 wings, 13 bases, and more than 300  operating locations worldwide with 79,000 active-duty and civilian personnel.

When mobilized, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve contribute more  than 700 aircraft and 51,000 people to ACC. As the Combat Air Forces lead agent,

ACC develops strategy, doctrine, concepts, tactics, and procedures for air- and  space-power employment.

The command provides conventional and information warfare forces to all unified commands to ensure air, space and information superiority for warfighters and national decision-makers. ACC can also be called upon to assist national agencies with intelligence, surveillance and crisis response capabilities.

For a comprehensive look at the challenges facing a combat Air Force as seen by a previous ACC Commander see the discussion by General Corley.

The focus of the discussion was upon the challenge of evolving the air combat capabilities of the USAF in the face of meeting 21st century challenges, including evolving threats, fiscal pressures, aging aircraft inventories and fifth generation aircraft shortfalls.

The overall tone of the conversation was the need to provide the most  operationally effective combat power based in the context of the amount of  resources allocated to the military in the future.  Although platforms were  discussed throughout the conversation, a key theme weaved throughout was the  need to shape new concepts of operations (CONOPS) exploiting aircraft  capabilities and to have the flexibility to insert new systems that would allow  advanced CONOPS to be shaped and executed.

In effect, the General is facing two challenges to getting the assets he needs:  overall fiscal pressures, and an inability to put new aircraft in place rapidly  enough to allow for an airpower transition.

The core image, which the General put on the table of where the transition needs  to go, is the ability to shape a “combat cloud” as a key element of the  battlespace within which the various deployed aircraft interact together to  shape air dominance to achieve joint force objectives.

This combat cloud would be enabled by fifth generation aircraft and include the deployment of F-22s, a substantial number of F-35s and the ability to link to legacy aircraft.  This capability would then define the approach to any systems added thereafter, such as the long-range ISR/strike aircraft.

The core image, which the General put on the table of where the transition needs to go, is the ability to shape a combat cloud as a key element of the battlespace within which the various deployed aircraft interact together to shape air dominance to achieve joint force objectives. With a fifth generation enabled combat capability, one could put the pieces in place to deliver the operational situational awareness critical to joint forces, but this would be difficult if one does not have the fifth generation aircraft in the numbers required. Credit Images: Bigstock

SLD: How important are the fifth generation aircraft to shaping the “combat cloud” which you see as essential to the next phase of air combat capabilities?

Hostage: They are central to the transition.  We are operating in contested air space, and need to shape a distributed air operations capability.

The F-22s aggregated in appropriate numbers can do some amazing and essential tasks, and with a significant number of F-35s, we can reshape the operational space.

The ability of the planes to work with each other over a secure distributed battlespace is the essential foundation from which the air combat cloud can be built.

And the advantage of the F-35 is the nature of the global fleet.

Allied F-35s and American F-35s, whether USAF, USN, or USMC, can talk with one another and set up the distributed operational system.  Such a development can allow for significant innovation in shaping the air combat cloud for distributed operations in support of the Joint Force Commander.

SLD: Historically, the evolution of aircraft has been described in terms of change in the form factor.  This is really changing with the F-35.  What is your thinking on the impact of this change and the introduction of software upgradeable aircraft?

Hostage: The fifth generation aircraft will enable the air combat cloud and allow me to use my legacy assets differently. 

Many of my 4th Generation fighters can be used to extend the network of linked systems providing reinforcing fires, and I can focus on the fifth generation assets as the core nodes shaping distributed joint capabilities.

And when we come to the evolution of “next” generation systems, the form factor  could stay quite similar as we evolve the capabilities within the planes or in terms of how the flying systems can interact and operate together.

Rather than thinking of 6th generation aircraft in form factor terms, we can operate the new air combat cloud and leverage that moving forward.

This graphic looks at the impact of a fleet wide deployment of F-35s in the Pacific. In effect, this a foundation for building a US and allied “Big Blue Pacific Combat Cloud” for the Pacific. Credit Image: SLD

SLD: How important are numbers for the F-35 from this perspective?

Hostage: Very important.  It is not a boutique aircraft.

The full impact of the F-35 aircraft comes with its fleet operational capabilities for the enablement of the air combat cloud.

Another advantage of the F-35 is that is built to evolve over time as the environment evolves.  Software and hardware upgradeability will allow changes over time to the fleet, not just individual aircraft.

SLD: In other words, your focus on the air combat cloud is joined at the hip with an emphasis on shaping distributed operational capabilities.  The two meet in a fundamental reality-21st century air operations need to be re-shaped to ensure mission success in the period ahead.  It is distributed; it is global; and it is about connectivity across a distributed battlespace.

How is the legacy of the past decade in air forces operating in conjunction with ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to be carried forward with this approach?

Hostage: It will be important to be able to deliver situational awareness to the ground element but it cannot be done the same way as we have done it over the past decade.

For example, the preponderance of our current fleet of MQ-1s and 9s that are so effective in the permissive airspace over Afghanistan and other locations in the mid-east simply may not be transferable to the vast expanses of the Pacific or in contested airspace.  The right kind of RPAs can make a contribution, but again it will be as part of the air combat cloud which defines the role of the RPAs not the other way around.

In contested airspace and in the operational area of the Pacific, the same means certainly could not achieve the same ends.

With a “fifth generation” enabled combat capability, one could put the pieces in place to deliver the operational situational awareness critical to joint forces, but this would be difficult if one does not have the fifth generation aircraft in the numbers required. 

For a video of General Hostage’s presentation at CSIS on November 30, 2012 see the following:

For our development of some of the comments discussed by General Hostage see the following article in Joint Forces Quarterly:

An earlier version of this article appeared on AOL Defense

Editor’s Note: A key aspect of leadership is doing what you say.  General Hostage is one of those types of leaders as the following story clearly points out.

This Raptor pilot has four stars

July 11, 2012

The F-22 Raptor has its critics, but the general who oversees Air Combat Command isn’t one of them.

Gen. Mike Hostage, based here at Langley Air Force Base, has said that pilots take risks any time they go into the air. And while the Raptor’s risk level isn’t where he’d like it to be, it is acceptable.

He has gone a step further to make his point. Hostage recently qualified to fly the F-22 Raptor, saying he should assume whatever risk he’s asking of his pilots.

Hostage completed his F-22 qualification training with the 325th Fighter Wing at Tyndall Air Force Base on June 27, according to an Air Force announcement. He said he will use his time in the cockpit to maintain a more personal connection with pilots and maintenance crews.

“Flying the airplane allows me to understand exactly what our airmen are dealing with,” Hostage said. “It’s an amazing airplane to fly, and I’m confident in the procedures we have in place to help enhance crew safety.”

Hostage graduated from the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School, and is a command pilot with more than 4,000 flying hours. He has flown combat missions in multiple aircraft, logging more than 600 combat hours in operations that go back to the 1991 Gulf War, enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq, and the subsequent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.