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This article was Originally Published on Apr 19, 2006 in Volume: 5  Issue: 1

Aerial Innovator

Interview with General Ron E. Keys

Commander, Air Combat Command Air Component Commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command and U.S. Northern Command

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General Ronald E. Keys is Commander, Air Combat Command, with headquarters at Langley Air Force Base, Va., and Air Component Commander for U.S. Joint Forces Command and U.S. Northern Command. General Keys 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 1,100 aircraft, 25 wings, 15 bases and more than 200 operating locations worldwide with 105,000 active-duty and civilian personnel. When mobilized, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve contribute more than 800 aircraft and 57,000 people to Air Combat Command. 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, nuclear 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.

General Keys, a distinguished graduate of Kansas State University’s ROTC program, was commissioned in 1967 and is an outstanding graduate of undergraduate pilot training. He has commanded a fighter squadron, the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons School, an F-15 wing, an A/OA-10 and F-16 wing, the Combat Air Forces Operational Test and Evaluation Wing, a numbered air force, and Allied Air Forces Southern Europe. Additionally, General Keys was the first commander of the Air Force Doctrine Center, and he has served as an executive assistant to the Air Force Chief of Staff and to an Assistant Secretary of Defense. Prior to his current assignment, he was Deputy Chief of Staff for Air and Space Operations, Headquarters U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C.

General Keys is a command pilot with more than 4,000 flying hours, including more than 300 hours of combat time in Southeast Asia.

General Keys was interviewed by MAT Editor Rodney Pringle.

Q: The F-22 was recently declared operational. What do you see as the long-term significance of this system for the Air Force?

A: Well, the Raptor is really the wave of the future—it’s the leading edge. Airplanes like the Raptor and the Joint Strike Fighter give us the ability to go where we want, when we want, whenever we have to. It’s really a transformational capability that brings situational awareness, lethality, persistence and global reach to our fighting force. So we believe the F-22 is the absolute requirement for our kick-down-the-door force. We are very happy with the progress it has made. I think some of that progress is showcased by the fact we reached initial operational capability with just a 12-ship package. We’ve never accomplished initial operating capability (IOC) with a fighter with that small a number of airplanes before

Q: You have spoken about the challenge of defending the United States with a limited number of F-22s. At $133 million a plane, was this the best use of limited resources?

A: Oh, I believe it is. I believe I need more, but I’ve got what I’ve got, so I’ll have to develop that systems of systems, and the tactics, techniques, procedures and the strategy to use them in the best way. At the low end, I believe the Raptor is probably at least 15 times better than any other airplane we have. At the high end, it runs off the chart when we compared it in testing. So from a business perspective, it makes sense to buy an airplane that can do the job better than any other airplane in the world and, in fact, has the capability to do that for the next 30 years.

Q: You have compared the F-15 to an old car with high maintenance costs. How much longer does it make sense to keep these planes in service?

A: Well, that is sort of a moving target. The real answer is “it depends”—it depends on what sort of cracks we find in the airplane, what sort of wear we find on wire bundles and what sort of problems develop in engines. The uncertainty is the real challenge in airplanes like the F-15, B-52, B-1, or even the F-16. As those aircraft grow older, things start to break in unexpected ways and you don’t always have the parts on the shelf to fix them. Perhaps the vendor that makes a particular part has gone out of business, so it takes longer. You have to develop a new fix. Those are the risks you take, but numbers mean a lot, too. If you’ve got 126 combat Raptors, then you are going to need more of the legacy force to fill in for the numbers you don’t have. So you’ve got to strike that balance in your portfolio.

Q: Secretary Wynne has talked about the need to recapitalize across the board. How is ACC pursuing that?

A: The secretary is absolutely right. We have to recapitalize—and it is not just platforms. It is recapitalization of our infrastructure as well. We have buildings that are very, very old. They are difficult to repair. They are not wired for fiber optics. They are not efficient in heating and cooling. We have to, across our portfolio, start looking at things. We look at it three ways. Are there ways we can save enough money to do what I call the “new-new” approach, which is buying the most relevant platforms and most relevant infrastructure to last us another 20 or 30 years? Then, the next step is you look at the things you have and you say, could I go “old-new,” meaning I take an old platform but I inject into that old platform or old building the newest technologies so I can group more people, I can move more information, perhaps I can make my organization smaller? I can make my entire legacy force more net-centric, so I allow myself to modernize a part of my force by just adding things into basic structures that are still sound. Then finally, we get down into what I call “new-old,” where I buy new buys of old equipment. That would mean I would buy more F-15s. The advantage would be [that] they’d be new, they’d be more maintainable. The disadvantage would be that they are not going to be relevant to the fight 20 or 30 years from now. So, in my organization, when I look at recapitalization, I want to buy new things first. Then, I want to take old things and add new capabilities to those old things. And then finally, I buy new models of stuff that I already have.

Q: What are you doing to reduce the stress and long tours of duty facing airmen in key skill positions?

A: Well, there are a number of things. For example, our security forces airmen face a lot of stress. One of the things we have been successful in doing is getting approval to allow contract guards at our home station for a longer period of time, which then unburdens the force at home stations, and I can now have a larger number of people that I can put into the [deployment] rotation. That is one thing. Another thing is looking at where I can use technology. Again, in the security forces example, where can I make smart gates that require fewer people to man? I have more sensors along the outskirts of my bases, so I don’t need as many patrols, which again frees up manpower to put into the rotation in our air expeditionary force. And then finally, of course, is retraining people out of career fields where I have adequate numbers and [who] are not stressed and transferring them over into the career fields that are stressed. However, one of the problems we face is that because my airmen are so smart and do so well, that once we start doing some of these in lieu of taskings for our sister services, they then become the force of choice. And as fast as I make these changes to my force to make more people available to try and reduce the stress, I get additional taskings to send more of my people downrange. It becomes a constant rebalancing act.

Q: What is the role of electronic warfare in your command’s operations, and what changes would you like to see?

A: Well, of course, electronic warfare is part of that system of systems. When we go to war, we don’t go with just one airplane or one type of airplane. We go to war with a combination, which is designed against the threat that we are going to face. Electronic warfare, of course, is integral to that. Not only self-protection jamming, but also stand-off jamming, stand-in jamming, escort jamming, things that confuse and deceive the opponents and allow you that element of surprise and penetration before the enemy knows you are there. As we look at it, we believe the adversary’s combination of double-digit [surface-to-air missiles] and fifth-generation airplanes makes it wise we continue to look at what we do on the defensive side to make sure our electronic-warfare capability stays up to par with the threats we are going to face.

Q: As defense officials review the acquisition process, what issues will be most important for the Air Force and Air Combat Command?

A: Well, there is a lot of talk about the acquisition [process] being too slow. I certainly would agree with that. It takes a long time to field new weapons—and that long time, I believe, is because we have a lot of people reviewing our budget, and changing our budget, which in turn spurs stretch-outs of the program, which then increases the cost of the program. So, anything we can do from inception to requirement to actual production, anything that we can do to speed that up, I am heartily in favor of.

Q: Taking the long view, what are the key acquisition needs of ACC for the future?

A: Well, of course, relatively near-term is filling out the F-22—getting up to the 183 F-22s, so we’ve got that fleet on board. Then starting production of the JSF, and starting replacement of our F-16s and F-117s and some of our F-15s. Then beyond that, of course, is we’ve got to get working on our long-range strike because at some point the B-2, the B-52 and the B-1 will be so long in the tooth they will not be sustainable. We have to maintain that global reach kind of capability. Those are the major kinds of programs we would be looking at. Then, on top of that, you have the Predator. We are in the middle of wrapping up on the MQ-1 and are just about to finish the testing on MQ-9, the Predator B. We’ve got our first two operational Global Hawks down in the war finally. We’ve got about 4,000 hours actually on the ACTD bird in combat. We can fill out that buy making sure we have the sensors we need and the payload capability for the future in our UAVs. Then, as we work through a JUCAS-like [Joint-Unmanned Combat Air Systems] program, we start looking at where the combat air vehicles, unmanned air vehicles, come into the picture as we start supplanting some of our manned force with unmanned aerial vehicles.

Q: What is your role as commander of Air Combat Command, and also as Air Component Commander for U.S. Joint Forces Command and U.S. Northern Command?

A: Of course, Air Combat Command’s main job is as a force provider. Our job is to organize, train and equip forces for the combatant commanders and to make sure, as our air expeditionary forces come up on rotation, we have certified those people are trained, they have the equipment they are supposed to have, they’ve got the platforms, they’ve got the weapons and they are ready and schooled in the tactics and are ready to execute the mission. And really, I do that for all of the combatant commanders. I’ve got forces in Iraq and Afghanistan right now and, in fact, forces all around the world. And forces flying overhead in Operation Noble Eagle for NORTHCOM. We have AFNETCOM and some of our other capabilities working with STRATCOM today. That is my responsibility, to make sure the forces that are [sent] to the individual combatant commanders are in fact trained and ready to execute the mission.

Q: What are the key challenges facing ACC in the coming year?

A: Well, I think in a word, it is money. There are things we need to do with the base realignment and closure commission report. There are things we need to do coming out of the Quadrennial Defense Review [QDR]. And central to that is how we balance our portfolio so we have the capabilities we need—that system of systems we need in the time of shrinking budgets. We have a lot of recapitalization we absolutely have to do. Airplanes can fly only so long. We’re getting to the point where by the time we’re done with the B-52 and the B-1, they probably will be 50 or 60 years old. That is pretty old for an airplane. So we’ve got to start looking at how to make ourselves more efficient, how to organize ourselves for efficiencies and how to take that money we’ve saved so we can then recapitalize the force. And I think that is our biggest challenge—getting all the pieces and parts of BRAC and all the pieces and parts of the QDR interconnected and making sure we’re not making some unintended consequence happen out there that is going to impact our combat capability.

Q: What are your most important goals for the future?

A: I’m focused on five things here in Air Combat Command. One is our people. To make sure that in Air Combat Command, we are getting people to the fight with the best training, the best leadership, the best equipment and the best organization we possibly can. And that we keep that focus, that we are hired by our nation to go and fight our nation’s wars when called upon to do so and that we’re ready any time to do that. That is very important.

Expeditionary [operations] is the second focus area because, in fact, we want to fight the away game. We don’t want to fight the home game. We want to be able to pick up, pack up, go some place, plug in, operate efficiently, get the job done, pack up and come home. And there are a lot of [issues] that, as an expeditionary Air Force, we have to understand, so we are light, lean and lethal. And we are in a war now. In fact, we have been in wars for 15 years, since the first Gulf War. So, that sort of an understanding is extremely important to how we operate. We have people in harm’s way in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have people deployed all around the world in the global war on terrorism. We have got to keep focused on that in our expeditionary operations.

Along with that, the third thing of course that I have talked about is recapitalization. We can’t go forever with the equipment we have. And so, we have to develop a program that will allow us to recapitalize that force on an affordable basis.

Fourth is organization. As we try to do all of these things, taking care of our people, being an expeditionary force, recapitalizing our force, we’ve got to look at our organization and say, “If we were doing the things we’re doing and we just started today, would we do them as we are now?” Is this a carry-over organization? Are we organized as efficiently as we possibly could be? Are there better ways to do this that would require fewer people? Is there a way we could do this faster, better, cheaper? We need a lot of that focus. And of course, it is hard to change organization because people are comfortable in the organizations they have grown up in. We’ve got to look at the job we’re doing today and the best way to organize ourselves.

And finally, I sort of wrap all of those issues up in transformation, which is almost a cliché. But I think transformation is important for us to focus on so that we understand there are different ways of doing things that we need to look at. It is embracing a culture of change. Maybe we change the way we do business. Maybe there are things that we do right now that we are better at than anyone else in the world, but we just need to stop doing it because it’s not a high priority today and we can’t afford it. Now there are other kinds of challenges that can be transformational: taking old things and putting them together in new ways; taking old things and putting new stuff on them; continuing to pursue that leading edge of technology that has always been our birthright in the U.S. Air Force. We are a technology-rich organization. If it wasn’t for technology, we’d be walking. So we need to make sure that there is a transformation thread that goes through all of these things about people, expeditionary operations, recapitalization and organization.

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