Battlespace tech

Carlisle: Overworked airmen can't train for future threats

AF Gen. Carlisle at CSIS

At CSIS, Carlisle noted that the Air Force is the smallest it’s been since became the Air Force.


Reduced force levels and a full plate of missions are preventing the Air Force from training for the next wave of likely threats, the service’s combat commander said Friday.

“We’ve been in surges continuously for the last eight years – we went from 21 CAPs [combat air patrols] in 2008 to 65 CAPs” Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of Air Force Air Combat Command, told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in reference to missions carried out by the Air Force’s fleet of remotely piloted aircraft. 

It’s no secret that this increase, compounded with budgetary restraints, has taken a toll on the workforce.  “We’re the smallest Air Force we’ve been in the history since we became a separate service in 1947 – we’re smallest in the number of people, we’re smallest in the number of aircraft,” Carlisle said. The capacity issue is one of the biggest problems the Air Force faces currently according to Carlisle.

“One of the challenges we’re having with respect to the RPA enterprise is we can’t get breathing room to do anything,” he said. “We’re doing, unfortunately, zero continuation training because they’re all engaged in the fight.” Carlisle did touch on initiatives to address the problems facing airmen and maintain stability of the force, such as the Culture and Process Improvement Program, but those programs are just getting underway.

In the current mission for RPA airmen, mainly counterterrorism, high-value targeting and ISR in Iraq and Afghanistan, airmen pass with flying colors, Carlisle said. However, “the other missions, in the contested environment, the other mission sets, they don’t get to practice their entire mission sets because there’s no focus on what they’re doing…So that’s the part that I’m looking at: How do I get back to that continuation training so I can make this enterprise healthy?”

Despite these concerns, Carlisle noted that RPAs are “in our DNA, [they’ll] be in our DNA forever.”

With some free time with weapons school personnel recently, Carlisle described how the force decided to really put some of its most trusted RPAs to the test at the Red Flag exercises, which provide a realistic battlefield environment.

“We put a couple MQ-9s into a high-end Red Flag fight,” he said, referring to the high-altitude, long-endurance Reaper RPA. “We always talk about MQ-9s and the medium altitude RPAs in contested and degraded environments; it’s a challenge for that aircraft to participate in that. But there’s also some innovative ways you can take advantage of that technology and MQ-9s in a high-end Red Flag with a high threat level – not necessarily the highest threat level by any stretch of the imagination or that we would see from Russia or China – but in a very highly contested environment, an MQ-9 was amazingly successful.”

Carlisle also touched on the future threats of advanced capabilities from adversaries, such as electronic warfare. “If you look at what our adversaries are doing, our potential adversaries are doing out there, electronic warfare is a key component of what they’re trying to do to us.”

Not that the Navy doesn’t have EW weapons of its own. The Navy’s E/A 18G Growler, the F-22 and the forthcoming F-35 fighter provide substantial capabilities in contested environments and in EW, Carlisle said.      

“We did not put enough emphasis on it [EW] for a period of time because it really was, in the air domain, it was less of a factor in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “We didn’t need to. If you look at the potential adversaries out there who are in environments we may be in, it is increasingly a challenge and it is the same thing with cyber.” Carlisle noted that cyber is another area that should merit intense focus given what adversaries and potential adversaries are doing in that space. 

 “I think about [EW] in every one of my mission sets.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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