Gen. James M. “Mike” Holmes is commander of Air Combat Command (ACC) at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, where he oversees 94,000 military and civilian personnel at 34 wings that operate more than 1300 aircraft spread among 19 bases and 70 operating locations worldwide. As the commander, Holmes 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.
Airman Magazine: What are your top priorities as commander of ACC?
Gen. Holmes: The Chief of Staff’s three priorities, revitalizing our squadrons, building joint leaders and teams, and realizing multi-domain command and control, are where we start. Our take on that, at Air Combat Command, is going to be focusing on the readiness of our squadrons by taking a look at the readiness of our Airmen, the readiness of their families and the readiness of the weapons systems that we operate. It’ll be building leaders that can win at joint warfighting. We’ll take a look at our education, at our training and at the experience that we give our warfighters. Then we need to look at accepting risk to bring on the future faster. We need to improve our capabilities by accepting risk in our acquisition processes, combining and streamlining those processes, and working with our joint partners and coalition partners to do that faster.
Airman Magazine: You just wrapped up Atlantic Trident. How important is inter-operability with our partner nations?
Gen. Holmes: You win wars by having allies. Secretary Mattis talks about how important it is to have allies and partners. We will continue to rely on the partnerships and alliances that we have around the world and the capabilities they provide. Our partners have some excellent capabilities that they bring to the fight. The exercise we just completed with the Royal Air Force and the French Air Force here at Langley brought our fifth-generation forces, the F-22 and the F-35, together with their newest aircraft, the Rafale from the French Air Force, and the Typhoon from the RAF. We fought together on the same side to see how we will mesh those capabilities in the most effective way, and to make sure that if we’re called upon to go fight together with those advanced capabilities, that we know how to do it.
Airman Magazine: What air combat capabilities do the United States and its allies need to employ in order to achieve and maintain air superiority over the next few decades?
Gen. Holmes: When we look at our mission in Air Combat Command, we think it is pretty simple. It’s to control and exploit the air on behalf of the joint force. The capabilities required to do that are really everything that the Air Force brings to the fight, and everything that it takes to support the Airmen that make that fight.
To control the air, you have to be able to complete a whole kill chain from finding, fixing, tracking, targeting and engaging. I think the key things that we’ll be focused on, in the short term, are to provide Air Force capabilities across the range of military operations; from the permissive environment we’ve been used to operating in for the last 15 years, to relearning how to use the capabilities to be successful against a more contested environment, against a higher threat.
We’ll take the things that we have, and we’ll make some modifications to them to keep them competitive with new threat systems. We’ll field some new capabilities alongside of that, but our number one weapons system is the Airmen that operate our weapons in ACC and that fix them. We’re going to focus on that, too.
Airman Magazine: Could you describe the concept of multi-domain command and control and why it’s critical to the future of air combat?
Gen. Holmes: If you look at multi-domain command and control and the things that Air Combat Command brings to the fight, we bring a counter-air capability to be able to physically control the air. We bring a conventional strike capability in our fighter aircraft to be able to put precision weapons on targets. We bring our persistent attack and reconnaissance enterprise and our remotely piloted aircraft fleet that can also get after targets in different environments. We bring a global integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance package that find threats, and some of those systems are equipped to be able to target them while they’re there.
We work with joint cyber capabilities to be able to neutralize targets and to be able to help us get into places that we need to get. We depend on space capabilities provided by Air Force Space Command to give us warning on what threats are doing and give us the communications that we need to be able to operate precision navigation and timing through GPS. We depend on Air Mobility Command to be able to get us into places that we need to be, and to provide the right stuff at the right time so we can continue to fight. We depend on Global Strike Command to bring the bomber part of that conventional attack capability.
Our multi domain C2 efforts will help joint force commanders integrate these multi domain capabilities better and allow them to shift emphasis between these capabilities more seamlessly.
Airman Magazine: What are ACC’s priorities in development and acquisitions moving forward?
Gen. Holmes: We’re continuing to modernize some of our older systems. We’ll continue to put money into our conventional fourth-generation aircraft and to our fifth-generation aircraft to make sure that they maintain an advantage against the threat systems that are being fielded around the world.
We’ll look at our command and control enterprise. We’re making decisions on how much we’re going to recapitalize, and we’re looking at an analysis of alternatives for air battle management that’ll decide how we should go forward in the future to provide the command and control that our Air Force needs.
We’ll look at where we go next with the remotely piloted aircraft enterprise, beyond the MQ-9, and decide what’s the right mix of capabilities to go forward there.
Airman Magazine: Let’s talk about autonomous versus manned aircraft in the future.
Gen. Holmes: People ask, “General Holmes, is the future manned or unmanned?” I think the answer is, “It’s both.” It’s going to be manned and unmanned aircraft working together. It’s going to be man and machine interfaces, which is something we’ve always done in our airplanes. We’ve always worked between people and computers to build the information and to prepare. We’ll work with our RPA community to think about how to employ unmanned aircraft. We’ll continue to put them alongside our manned aircraft, and we think we’ll see advantages in how they work together in environments to make each one more effective.
Airman Magazine: Can the range, payload, endurance and cost equation for the F-22 and F-35 be altered by the development of new weapons delivered by those platforms?
Gen. Holmes: Again, like manned versus unmanned, it’s both; a mix of standoff and penetrating shorter range weapons. Long-range weapons give us the ability to work across vast distances, big oceans. We’re a lucky country with friendly neighbors north and south and giant oceans east and west, but that means we have to be able to project power across those oceans. Our long-range systems, our bomber force, the long-range reconnaissance assets that work with them, we’ll need those, and we’ll need them to be able to penetrate, and we’ll also need them to be able to fire standoff weapons.
To have persistent air that doesn’t have to fly back and forth over those long ranges, we’re also going to continue to need some shorter-range assets that can give us the density of sensors and the density of weapons and the density of weapons systems that we need at the point of attack to have a lasting, recurring, continuous effect. To be able to operate those short-range systems closer to the threat, we’re going to have to work on how we operate from bases that are threatened by an increasing range of enemy systems. It’ll be a combination of active defense of those installations, passive defenses that try to fool the enemy and the ability to move between bases to complicate the enemy’s targeting.
Airman Magazine: How would the development of a counterinsurgency airframe affect the operations and cost of operations of more technologically advanced aircraft.
Gen. Holmes: We entered this conflict post-9/11. There have been a couple of times where we thought we were almost done, but we were not, and we’re going to continue to fight. I think what we’ve learned it is a generational struggle, and we’re not a generation into it. If we had known that we would still be fighting in a counterinsurgency environment 15 years later, we might have chosen to acquire an airframe that was cheaper to operate, had just enough capability for the threat environment, and allowed us to preserve the readiness of our more expensive forces to counter conventional enemies.
The question now is, how much longer will we be in this? I think the answer is: for another half a generation or another generation. We’re considering whether we should acquire a weapons system that’s good enough to take on the threat that operates at a very low cost per flying hour. Doing that would give us opportunities to support training operations in the United States, beyond the training that an F-35 needs to do with the tactical air control party or with the maneuver unit that’s training, and preserve time for our high-end forces to train against high-end threats and deter those threats while continuing to provide the same quality support that we’ve been able to give to our joint partners in counterinsurgency.
We’re going to conduct an experiment this fall. The purpose of the experiment is to see if there’s a portion of what we’re doing every day in the Middle East which could be done by a light attack aircraft. If so, are there one or more off-the-shelf airplanes available that could fill that role? After we’ve done that experiment and answered those questions, we’ll come back and take a look and see if we want to go forward with acquiring something new.
Airman Magazine: Explain the necessity of developing new penetrating counter air capabilities and technology?
Gen. Holmes: As we looked at the future of our counter-air capability, the temptation was to jump straight into the analysis of alternatives for a new airplane to follow the F-22. That’s what history would tell us to do. Because we’re entering into a world with multi-domain threats and multi-domain capabilities, we decided to take a step back and spend a year studying the problem from all the angles. Industry, think tanks and Airmen – we asked for all their suggestions and ideas.
Ultimately, we decided for the foreseeable future that we’re going to have to have a capability to penetrate, to go into that ring with the sensors and the weapons systems to hold targets at risk. We’re very comfortable with the requirement set for what that aircraft would be. The technology is there to be able to go build that penetrating counter-air aircraft.”]
Airman Magazine: What is it about the modern-day Airmen, even with all the current manning challenges, that enables them to get the job done, no matter what?
Gen. Holmes: The U.S. Air Force has spent the last 25-plus years engaged in combat every day. Not fighting campaigns and then stopping, not taking resets and taking a knee and coming back. There may have been a month or two in between Desert Storm and Southern Watch where we weren’t engaged in combat, but almost every month since then, we’ve been engaged in continuous combat. That means that our Airmen are the most experienced Air Force in the history of the world in combat operations. They have deployed more, they have endured more than we have ever asked of an Air Force. There’s a plus side to that in the experience that they’ve gained. But there’s a downside in the sacrifices that we ask our Airmen and their families to make, and that we’ll continue to ask them to make to keep us safe here in the United States.
So they have learned as Airmen to be able to manage the away time and the home time, to be able to manage their work-life balance when they’re at home so that they can stay in this fight and stay in the Air Force. Our job as leaders of the Air Force is to try to help them continue to do that. So in ACC when we talk about improving the readiness of our squadrons through ready Airmen, ready families, and ready weapons systems, we need to make sure we focus on the total resilience of our Airmen, make sure that we give them the tools to be mentally capable of their job, to be physically able to take it, and to be emotionally, mentally, and spiritually ready to be able to handle the demands that we place on them over time.
But there are no illusions. This is hard work. It will continue to be hard work. Our Airmen are one percent of the population that has answered the call that there country has made in its time of need. They’ve continued to do it for 25 years. So I couldn’t be any prouder than I am of the Airmen and their Air Combat Command, and the desire, and the dedication, and the service and sacrifice that they bring to their job.
Airman Magazine: What does ACC do to encourage Airmen to come forward and propose innovative ideas?
Gen. Holmes: So our Airmen are really, really skilled at finding innovative solutions to tactical problems. If you ask a guy to find a better way to change a tire, or a better way to hit a target, our young Airmen and our young officers will find a better way to do that. And they’ll surprise you with what they come up with. As an Air Force, we need to make sure that they have that same comfort level in bringing us suggestions on how we run the Air Force, and how we build it, and how we think about the future.
What I found is that if you want people to bring those ideas to you, the fundamental requirement is trust. They have to believe that you mean it, they have to believe that you’ll listen when they bring their ideas, and they have to believe that if they have a better idea, that you’ll act on it and move on. We want to build that trust with the Airmen in Air Combat Command.
Airman Magazine: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job as the commander of ACC?
Gen. Holmes: So, ultimately I love being the Commander of Air Combat Command. And, as I like to say, everything that I complained about throughout my career is now my problem to solve. It’s a great job. I am surrounded by capable and motivated people who never give up trying to solve problems – that’s here and also when I travel around and visit with Airmen. I see Airmen that are continuing to get the job done in spite of the fact that we’ve been in 25 years of uninterrupted conflict. We’ve had to operate for the last several years without a budget, with a continuing resolution and without knowing exactly how much money we’d have and where we’d be able to spend it. So I couldn’t be any prouder of them. I couldn’t be any happier to be in this job, and I look forward to working with them to find our way into the future.