This past April, Over the Horizon Senior Editors Mark Nexon and Isaiah Oppelaar interviewed the Commander of Air Mobility Command, General Carlton D. Everhart II. They discussed the future of the Mobility Air Force (MAF), its role in multi-domain operations, and the future technologies that the MAF needs to pursue to remain effective in the operational environments of the future.
The views expressed herein are those solely of the interviewers and interviewee, and do not necessarily represent the official views of the United States Air Force.
Over the Horizon (OTH): Good afternoon, General and thank you for taking time today to discuss multi-domain operations and the Mobility Air Force of the future.
General Everhart (GE): Good afternoon, gentlemen. I suspect you two already know the answers to these questions!
OTH: From the multi-domain perspective, specific to your perspective as the senior Mobility Air Forces officer, as the Air Force pushes forward with the Chief of Staff’s vision of an advanced integrated C4ISR network, how do you see interoperable C2 for MAF aircraft, specifically the tanker aircraft, as a priority?
GE: In the multi-domain space, I need it to be a seamless, dynamic, and continuous presence, which allows us to have an evolution as this thing continues to grow out. As you look at this, we need to be able to move at the speed of electrons and to be able to do C2 over the horizon, and know where we are with precision navigation and timing inside a multi-domain space. We are developing a multi-domain campaign plan that will incorporate emerging concepts developed by the Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team within AMC itself. What technologies do we need to have? We know what exists on our aircraft now, but what we can we do to enhance those capabilities, evolve those capabilities, and improve our interoperability so that when a 1st generation aircraft and a 5th generation aircraft operate together their respective capabilities complement and not hinder one another. We are increasing partnerships with industry to determine what is in the realm of the possible in the present, what is possible in the future, and with the limited dollars we have today, what can we invest in to help tackle one of the Chief’s (CSAF) number one focus areas.
OTH: As a follow-up, sir, do you have a sense for how far AMC is from some sort of interoperable, multi-domain C2?
GE: I think we are there right now, however in a very limited, unsecure fashion. That command and control is done through Tanker Airlift Control Center. We are not there in terms of secure, beyond line of sight C2, because we simply do not have the necessary equipment onboard our aircraft. I would say we are within a couple of years of attaining that sort of capability. We are driving towards that capability, with the limited funds we have, with baseline investment in equipment and capabilities. The Enterprise Capability Collaboration Team is defining those requirements so that AMC and the Air Force can get those included in the POM [Program Objective Memorandum] that will provide the necessary common architecture on our aircraft. I am expecting my enterprise team to provide inputs to me no later than the fall of this year.
OTH: Regarding these future C2 systems, specifically data-link, do you see the MAF moving towards existing data-link systems onboard other Air Force aircraft or do you see the MAF seeking to procure cutting-edge data-link systems?
GE: I certainly cannot keep operating first generation aircraft with a fighter community that is operating fifth generation aircraft. AMC is working hard with industry to seek better connectivity options. Can we use a common radio that delivers secure communications across a broad spectrum? Do we need to install LINK-16 on our airplanes? Standardizing our fleet is absolutely vital. Our aircraft need common equipment so that we can effectively communicate aircraft status, mission data, threats, and C2 activities across multiple domains. If we have proper investment, we can leverage the enhanced communications capabilities of our tankers, as well as my entire fleet, all 1,164 aircraft. In the future, we need our aircraft to be sensor platforms that can operate in a multi-domain operation, gathering and securely communicating information. And, I don’t mean only low-density assets. That may mean that our platforms are able to push information to a “Combat Cloud” so that decision authorities can access the information as needed to effect appropriate, timely decisions. Bottom line, I need a more resilient airborne command and control system. If there are existing capabilities at large that AMC can exploit, I will do so. Existing capabilities on our aircraft that can modified to suit our needs are just as useful in my opinion. AMC continues to explore both sides of the equation with our industry partners.
OTH: Sir, you recently did an interview with Bloomberg News, where you call on industry to provide solutions to reduce the radar cross section and other vulnerabilities of existing MAF aircraft. Have you explored utilizing existing or developing low-observable Air Force platforms and technology for a new tanker variant, like the B-21, to provide cargo and tanker aircraft with the desired survivability in highly-contested environments?
GE: The short answer to your question is yes. I am engaging with industry to leverage any and all technologies that exist or are in research and development. In the broadest sense, can we enhance our survivability through shapes, appliques, or engine technology? This is important to the entire mobility fleet. All of our aircraft are highly visible, tube design, large wing platforms. I need to reduce an adversary’s ability to engage our aircraft, or even better, to delay or deny his or her decision to fire a missile based on how an aircraft appears on a radar screen. Is that by interfering with the ones and zeros in a radar system or a launched missile? Are swarm techniques an option? We are working with industry, Air Force Research Laboratories (AFRL), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to understand the full range of possibilities and what is even discoverable. We can go a long way by changing our current aircraft and even further by determining what our future aircraft ought to look like.
OTH: When you spoke earlier this year at Air University, you mentioned your intent to automate substantial parts of the flight-line. In terms of improving ramp efficiency, is AMC considering how standardizing cargo could improve origination and in-transit flexibility of movement between aircraft and destinations?
GE: Absolutely. I just visited Amazon, UPS, and FEDEX to get a feel for how they manage their shipping processes. What are industry standards that we can easily translate into the US Air Force, particularly with regard to logistics. I’ve asked wings to work with Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) to find ways to accelerate the flight line. Aerial Port Next is already in work. There are numerous projects in work that will help us automate the flight line. I do not think an automated flight line is a far-fetched concept. Industry is nearly there; we just need to piggy-back on their capabilities and fit them to military requirements. Now, this concept may not be a good fit for every port or hub, particularly when considering tactical bases in the adaptive basing construct. However, at main operating base aerial ports, we can make a lot of headway by optimizing the capabilities of men and machines. With investment, an automated flight line is in the realm of the very, very possible. Together with Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), I think we can make this a reality. Right now, we are in the nascent stages of this concept.
OTH: Along the same vein of automation, is there any movement towards standardizing future Mobility Air Force aircraft to achieve a force that is qualified to crew and maintain multiple aircraft?
GE: We are doing a capabilities assessment right now to identify what the tanker of the future is going to look like. Is it going to be KC-Y, a KC-Z, a pure aerial refueling platform, or a shared airlift / air refueling platform? This study will also inform the replacement of the C-130, C-17, and C-5. I love this idea. If I have crews with dual qualifications, like with the Boeing 757 and 767, for instance. Crews are qualified in both. They are different airframes, but the dual qualification drives important economies of scale. I think initially the airframes will remain specific to airlift or air refueling. Once automated air refueling is online, front-end qualifications will be less stove-piped. With a common flight deck, I can certify crews for special mission sets like short-field operations. However, the baseline qualification may be broader and more standardized. In this case, the mission qualification will drive our crews instead of airframes and mission sets. This could help with our pilot and maintainer shortages. In the nearer term, a common airlift and common air refueling flight deck allows more common qualification of crews in which the mass of the aircraft is the major difference.
We are also following industry’s exploration of partially automating the flight deck to allow for a single pilot on the flight deck. Basically, this vision allows routine en route operations to be managed by an RPA-like ground system, with the pilot on board focused on takeoff, landing, emergencies, or a specific mission set.
OTH: With regard to the dual qualifications and manning in general, do you feel you have the right balance of active-duty and reserve component aircrew and aircraft right now and do you see any changes in the next ten years?
GE: I do see that mix changing. If you look at any number of studies from organizations like RAND and from the ARC [Air Reserve Component] itself, they tell us that we have too much and are too reliant on our reserve component. That is largely because of budget decisions we had to make in the past, but ultimately how we got here is not important. We are slowly working to bring access to iron back to the active-duty and make it easier on the ARC, with some classic associate relationships. As you know, demand for tankers is extremely high and reservists and guardsmen carry a lot of that burden. We are working through the active-duty and ARC aircraft balance and managing the current imbalance that is burdening the total force. We are working define what that correct mix looks like. It definitely is not the 70% ARC to 30% active duty mix that we have now. I cannot tell you yet if it needs to be 65:45 or 60:40, but as we slowly tweak those back, does it increase access to the iron, increase the availability for the warfighter, and ease the demand that we have on the ARC currently? We will have to see how that works out and find the right balance.
OTH: General, thank you for taking the time to share your valuable insights today.
GE: Thank you gentlemen. Take care, thank you for your service.
General Carlton D. Everhart, III is the Commander, Air Mobility Command and a Command Pilot with over 4,500 hours in various aircraft including the C-130, C-17, and KC-135. General Everhart is a prior Numbered Air Force Commander, Wing Commander, Group Commander, and Squadron Commander. He resides at Scott Air Force Base, IL, with his family.
Mark Nexon is an Evaluator Pilot and Air Mobility Command Phoenix Reach Graduate, with 3,000 hours of flight time in the KC-135 and C-130. Isaiah “Chaff” Oppelaar is an Evaluator Pilot and KC-135 Weapons Officer with over 2,500 hours of flight time. Both are members of the Multi-Domain Operations Strategist editorial staff at Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.