What if the next great military pilot has yet to step into an airplane?
As services like the U.S. Air Force look to increase their pilot ranks and stopgap losses, officials should remember that the future of aviation rests with the next generation, the "Generation Zers" and beyond, according to a former Air Force general.
What the aviation world needs to absorb that talent is more opportunity, said retired Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, a former F-15 Eagle pilot who led Air Combat Command between 2014 and 2017. "On a big scale, the challenge is getting people excited about aviation."
Carlisle, who retired from the service last year and is now president and chief executive officer of the National Defense Industrial Association, recently sat down with Military.com to talk about his perspective on the Air Force's challenges -- from pilot retention and training -- to new aircraft ideas such as the F-15X fighter concept.
"It's expensive to get people a private pilot's license. It's expensive to get people excited about it ... and then making it available for people," he said, stressing the service needs to pull from more diverse communities. "It's important to do that."
Carlisle discussed how the Air Force is progressing with pilot initiatives, where it can do better, and how additional cockpits play a role in boosting the ranks. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q. What's the Air Force doing at a grass-roots level to recruit the next wave of pilots?
A. There's a couple of things [the U.S.] is doing in that effort. We're working with the junior ROTC programs throughout the country -- all services -- to help generate a flight academy [of sorts], where, through donations and through money raising and universities, we can take junior ROTC high school students during the summer and send them out to aviation-accredited universities to go through an orientation, and potentially ... get all the way to private pilot licensing. It's called Flight Academy. And then pair that with Civil Air Patrol ... and the hope is, by sponsoring that kind of work, we can get more people into ROTC, the academies, or aviation-accredited universities.
Q. What is the Air Force doing better with technology to attract new or potential recruits?
A. [Within the Flight Academy], the Air Force has something called ... virtual flight, where you tie gaming to flying. And get kids interested and understand their aptitude at the high school and early college level ... A strength we have to take advantage of is that [this] gets the opportunities to a more diverse population ... to a broader swath of people interested in flying. Because many of them never have the opportunity, but they have huge aptitude to do this. And the idea that we could recruit those kind of folks and increase the diversity in the pilot force is another big draw.
Q. Is this like the Air Force's idea to create a game and identify potential recruits?
A. No. What [Air Education and Training Command commander] Lt. Gen. [Steven] Kwast is doing, is talking about, is that the gaming and flying combination, where we give these games out ... it's all anonymous. Where [the Air Force] sends a note back, 'Hey, you have an aptitude to fly airplanes ... and if you're interested call this number.' "
Q. Has the Air Force seen any progress from these programs, or is there enough data to evaluate if this is working?
A. These are very, very new initiatives. So we don't have anything [concrete yet]. But we have to do everything we can at this point.
Q. Do you believe initiatives like Pilot Training Next (in which trainees accelerate training with increased simulator time) could change how the Air Force trains its pilots?
A. It's absolutely critical ... It's taken a year to go through pilot training for decades. Decades. And if you think about how much we've learned in training and simulation and in augmented reality and in gaming, we know for a fact there's ways we can do this quicker and more efficiently. It's about ... how do we get more people through the training pipeline quicker?
Q. Why is training and retention the choke point for the service's pilot shortage process?
A. The big problem for the Air Force is the ability to train them, and then retain and experience them. So we need more pilot training bases ... and what [AETC leaders] will tell you is, we are reaching the max of our production capacity in pilot training. It's a resource right now we don't have. We're trying to buy T-X, we've had some problems with T-6 [Texan II], so that's a challenge. It's mainly the fighter world where the training is limited. And then we have to experience them and retain them. We drew down tons of airplanes in the Air Force -- too many.
And now trying to go back up, we don't have the cockpits to experience people. We don't have the cockpits to bring in more young guys and, at the same time, for the retaining [portion], we are burning them out because the deployment schedules are horrendous. They, and their families more importantly, have a hard time [with the high operational tempo schedules].
Q. What do you think would be the sustainable amount of combat-coded squadrons for what the Air Force is trying to achieve?
A. The easy answer to that is, 'To do what?' The question isn't, 'How much do you need?' It's, 'What us do you want us to do?'... Given the National Defense Strategy, whatever [the] paradigm is, [the question] is, 'How many squadrons do you need to be combat ready to go fight in the Far East, Korean Peninsula, South China Sea, as well as the Middle East, an Iran scenario, and then still maintain air superiority and training at home?'
Those numbers are dependent on how you want to do that. Right now, all the analysis will tell you that the Air Force needs ... 60 active-duty fighter squadrons. We also have to maintain the ... Guard and Reserve. We need to make sure they have the same equipment, the newest as the active, make sure they train like the active ... and make sure that they're operational [and ready when we work together] in normal ops tempo day-to-day.
Q. Would it make sense to procure light attack aircraft to help boost the cockpits and squadron numbers?
A. It's a great idea. It gives you capability, it's ... low cost to sustain and maintain. It gives folks a chance to fly, and so that's a very positive thing. And you can get capacity with light attack. As long we're engaged in the Middle East, which we are, as long as we're engaged in conflicts where the air defense capability is less-than-advanced, then a light attack makes sense.
The question becomes, as capability proliferates around the world, as [our] adversaries get better and better, light attack becomes less and less usable. And combatant commanders ultimately are going to tell us what they want to come do the missions they're asking us to do. ... It has great utility and opportunity. And what [Air Combat Commander] Gen. [Mike] Holmes and [Air Force Chief of Staff] Gen. [David] Goldfein are doing makes tons of sense. But there is a downside. Is it usable in the future threat environments?
Q. What about additional or modified fourth-generation fighters, such as the proposed F-15X?
A. I think we have to evaluate and look at them all. I think the fourth-plus-gen, the Super Hornets, the F-15X, that has utility too. That's numbers. And those now are getting [to the point] where they can do certainly the broader spectrum of conflict up to Syria and Iran and things like that. They're very capable. The question I have is, what is the difference between an F-15X cost and sustainment cost -- it can't just be procurement cost -- or the Super Hornet cost [versus] an F-35? Because an F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter] has more capability, it has stealth attributes, it has a fused sensor suite that's incredible. So that's a discussion. And of course, the future of penetrating counter-air, the next generation of being able to do counter-air at a high, high threat environment [like a] South China Sea [scenario], what's the cost of that? And what's the cost, and what's the sustainment of that? All of these things we have to have ... due diligence. [Based on the National Defense Strategy], we have to design the force structure ... based on what we're asked to do.
Q. As the Air Force looks to buy newer planes, even if it's fourth-generation technology, why can't the procurement and acquisition strategy match the speed that the service needs these planes? Can a plane like F-15X change that?
A. We've done it in the past. We did it back in the day with MQ-1 [Predator drones], which was an RQ-1 when it started. That was an incredibly rapid development. We did it with the F-117 [Nighthawk]. So we can do it. We just need authorities and the will [and] policy and go ahead and do it. And that will is there. We need more cockpits, as I've said. And I'm a big believer in how do we get more faster? And the Navy certainly believes in the Super Hornet. This very well could be the F-15X [initiative].
I'm an F-15 guy, so I'm a little bit biased. But what Boeing has done with the F-15X is pretty impressive. I got to fly the F-15SG in Singapore, which is the modern version. It's a little bit behind the F-15X, but that ... airplane is unbelievable. The avionics suite. Sustainability. The ordnance load. We've learned so much from [the F-15 overall] and were able to upgrade it with [new] capability and [better] sustainment over time. ... It's very impressive.
Q. On that same topic, does it make sense to retire F-15C/D models in favor of F-15X for the U.S. alert mission?
A. The study has to be done. The F-22 [Raptor] sitting alert [as part of the mission now] doesn't make a lot of sense. Even F-35s sitting alert doesn't make a lot of sense. But I think the F-15X and F-35 are getting closer and closer in cost point. Because the F-35 cost is coming down. F-15X may be cheaper, but when you upgrade that airplane, they're getting closer together. If I was king for a day, I would buy some of those new, fourth-gen-plus airplanes, and I think they would be great for air defense alert. I think they'd be great for surge capacity to go if we had a [larger-scale operation], and they would certainly be more than capable to rotate through the current missions that we have downrange.