A Conversation with Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh
Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh doesn’t mince words when talking about the challenges facing the Air National Guard.
The Air Guard, he says, has the skill and will to continue providing a substantial portion of the nation’s airpower — maybe even more. All it lacks is modern aircraft.
It’s the same situation he inherited in 2020 when he assumed responsibility for developing and implementing federal programs and policies affecting the Air Guard. His predecessors confronted the same issue.
The problem is the relevancy of the Air Guard fleet is declining fast when threats to the nation are on a steep rise. The solution is more resources, which aren’t in current budget plans, despite record defense appropriations.
What’s needed, Loh says, is a “brutal” prioritization of resources toward the National Defense Strategy to ensure the nation has the airpower required to deter aggression and fight and win if deterrence fails.
To all of this, he quotes Winston Churchill: “We have run out of money. Now we must think.”
Loh sat down with NATIONAL GUARD in late July in his Pentagon office to talk the about the force today and what it needs going forward.
The interview was edited for length.
To produce more dollars for aircraft modernization in the years ahead, the Air Force is looking to retire more aircraft next year than buy. This strategy is often referred to as “divest to invest.” But critics say it cuts aircraft capacity, especially fighters, at a critical time. What’s your take?
Resource allocation is a persistent challenge when you have competing objectives. We must brutally prioritize resources towards the National Defense Strategy. The homeland is our No. 1 priority. At the strategic level, the Air Force is faced with two competing objectives: Remain positioned to defend the homeland with a fight-tonight force that also effectively deters against strategic and regional attacks and prepare to fight tomorrow’s wars, which will look very different than today. The first requires a modern fleet of advanced fighters that we as the Guard don’t currently have; the second requires investments in programs to support the [Air Force] secretary’s operational imperatives.
The Air Force should take an innovative approach to how it structures the force to meet the National Defense objectives. In other words, with some creative thinking, we can have our cake and eat it too. For example, the Air Force has most of its fighters in the active component, where operating and personnel costs are significantly higher than they cost to operate in the Air National Guard. At the very least the Air Force shouldn’t be cutting Guard force structure as the low-cost producer of air power.
By shifting more fighter squadrons and other force structure into the Air National Guard, the Air Force can allocate more funds into fleet modernization and future weapons systems — thereby advancing both near- and long-term defense planning objectives without having to choose between them.
This concept was highlighted and recommended in the 2014 National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force. Maybe it’s time to dust off that document. The Air Guard can absorb this shift in force. The process of deliberately designing the force around a cost-effective structure is more than just Total Force integration — it’s Total Force optimization.
The American people won’t accept vulnerability today for protection tomorrow, or vice versa. In the words of Winston Churchill, “We have run out of money. Now we must think.”
Aircraft modernization has been a topic of conversation in and around the Air Force for many years. How did we get to where the need has become so dire?
This has been a long time in the making. The war on terror lasted for three decades — we never stopped after the first Gulf War — this profoundly reshaped how the Air Force wages war around the tactics and capabilities of violent extremist organizations. We spent approximately $66 billion a year fighting a ground war in CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command], first conducting counterinsurgency and now counterterror campaigns.
But America’s greatest adversary is now the People’s Republic of China, and the 2018 and 2022 National Defense Strategy directs a transformation in how we defend, deter and, if necessary, defeat our pacing challenges. The legacy aircraft and missile systems that were overused in the fight against terrorism are ill-equipped to deter and, if necessary, defeat adversaries like the PRC, Russia and even the DPRK [North Korea]. Our aging fleet has shrunk to dangerously low levels, and we need to shift funds once re-directed to ground combat during the fight against terrorism back to the Department of the Air Force to modernize and reconstitute our forces.
Modernization begins with the defense industrial base, where we need to invest more in both research, development, test and evaluation, or the RDT&E, as well as manufacturing and production. The Total Force — active duty and National Guard — must be concurrently and proportionately recapitalized with the weapons and equipment necessary to affect integrated deterrence and all aspects of the National Defense Strategy. It has been a long time in coming and we need to get there quickly.
Integration starts within the Department of the Air Force then extends across the Joint Force and ends with our allies and partners. These must occur simultaneously. Interoperable equipment is a baseline prerequisite to effective integration of operations and deterrence.
The Air National Guard is focused most heavily on fighter recapitalization to preserve our integrated fight-tonight capability and capacity to protect the homeland and project airpower, anytime, anywhere. This was grossly under-resourced during the fight against terrorism. But it also extends to tanker recapitalization, command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance modernization as well as the nuclear enterprise of bombers, ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] and nuclear command and control communications.
It’s an expensive proposition. What’s the cost of not doing it?
The cost of not doing it is a more unsecure United States. Remember, we have to defend our homeland. We have to be able to project airpower overseas, and we have to be able to do that with the resources that are given to us as a top line in the Department of Defense. Because we’re old, because we are not fully interoperable and because we lack the necessary technology and the investments in both the defense industrial base and the United States Air Force, we need to make sure we get the resources necessary to make this happen. That’ll make a safer world, as well as our ability to project airpower anytime and anywhere.
The Air Guard fighter community, the National Guard Bureau and NGAUS are all calling for the Air Force to maintain all 25 Guard fighter units, many of which fly aircraft the Air Force wants to retire. What does the nation stand to lose if the Guard is forced to cut fighter units?
First off, the Air National Guard supports the decision to retire legacy aircraft from the fleet that are not equipped to deter, and if necessary, defeat our pacing challenges. But the Air Force must preserve the capacity and capability to present a credible fight-tonight force. The Air National Guard is a critical contributor to the capacity of the Total Force with 27% of the fighter fleet. The Guard’s 25 fighter squadrons are also home to the most experienced and qualified pilots and maintainers, making them even greater contributors to the capability of the Total Force than the numbers alone. Experience matters.
Most urgently, the Air Force currently has no plans to recapitalize the capability provided by two of the Air Guard’s fighter squadrons that are scheduled for closure in the next few years — the 107th at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan and the 104th at Warfield Air National Guard Base in Maryland. Maryland is slated to lose its squadron in 2025 and Selfridge fighters will go in 2027. Four other fighter units face the same fate beginning in 2030 unless we take action.
Unlike active-duty squadrons, we can’t just execute a permanent change of station order. We can’t move people to the aircraft. The pilots and maintainers at these locations and the squadrons will be gone forever. That means America will lose the air power capability provided by the most combat-capable units in the Total Force. The Air Force will need to spend at least a decade and countless dollars to replace this experienced capability. We in the Air Guard require a modernization plan that acknowledges those facts.
How confident are you that the Air Guard will retain all 25 fighter units?
I feel confident that, looking at all the facts, the department will do the right thing and maintain all 25 fighter squadrons in the Air National Guard.
How does your priority for modernizing the Air Guard fighter fleet tie into the Air Force secretary’s operational imperatives?
Modernizing the Air Guard will maintain the necessary capability and capacity to deliver airpower anytime and anywhere, while freeing up resources to achieve the modernization goals represented by the secretary’s operational imperatives. As we’ve discussed, the Air National Guard, if fully leveraged, will enable the Total Force to invest in the operational imperatives while also maintaining a lethal fight-tonight force.
The Air National Guard is fully committed to delivering on the secretary’s operational imperatives and is already making contributions to their execution and identifying ways the Guard can further accelerate their development.
Specifically, for the first OI, Defining Resilient and Effective Space Order of Battle and Architectures, over 1,000 Air National Guard airmen across 16 Air Guard units currently perform space operations providing expertise to the space resiliency discussion. They’ve use NGREA [National Guard and Reserve Equipment Account] funds and our ANG Test enterprise to modernize the weapons systems.
For the second OI, Achieving Operationally Optimized Advanced Battle Management Systems, the Guard leverages our test center and NGREA resources to modernize our mobility, ISR and combat fleets with ABMS [Advanced Battle Management System] nodes bringing capability to the warfighters faster.
For the third OI, Defining the Next Generation Air Dominance System-of-Systems, the Guard also leverages its experienced operators, maintainers and engineers to develop and operationalize capabilities used for sixth-generation platforms.
For the fourth OI, Achieving Moving Target Engagement at Scale in a Challenging Operational Environment, the ANG is uniquely positioned to field and operate emerging technologies based on our track record of Battle Management, Combat-Proven Airborne Ground Moving Target Engagement and, after all, the Guard maintains the surveillance watch over North America with EADS [Eastern Air Defense Sector], WADS [Western Air Defense Sector] and PADS [Pacific Air Defense Sector].
For the fifth OI, Defining optimized resilient basing, sustainment and communications in a contested environment, Air Guard wings are actively developing and codifying concepts in support of the chief of staff of the Air Force’s agile combat employment tasking order. All of our bases demonstrate resilient basing today with their reduced footprint and distributed organization. The bases are both a sanctuary and a power projection platform, much like our combat readiness training centers, where we train collectively these concepts.
For the sixth OI, Defining the B-21 Long Range Strike Family-of-Systems, the Air Guard has an exceptional track record of experienced operators and maintainers at the B-2 classic association at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. This ought to be replicated for B-21 fielding. At Whiteman, the Guard squadron is nearly all instructor pilots and includes a disproportionately large number of weapons officers that the active component relies on to accomplish the mission, run the weapons school and conduct operational tests and we have the most seasoned maintainers.
For the seventh OI, Readiness of the Department of the Air Force to transition to a wartime posture against a peer competitor, the Air Guard is sourcing two lead wings for AFFORGEN [Air Force Force Generation] in 2024 and implementing the CSAF’s A-Staff or Air Staff construct.
The Air Guard operates nearly half of the Air Force’s KC-135 Stratotanker fleet, yet only one Air Guard refueling unit has been recapitalized with the KC-46A Pegasus tanker. When will additional Guard refueling units receive the new tanker?
The Air National Guard will recapitalize 16 total KC-135 aircraft fielding to KC-46 Main Operating Bases 7 and 8 with first aircraft arrival estimation of first quarter of fiscal year 2029 and the third quarter of fiscal year 2029, respectively. Directing all new tanker buys to the Guard is critical to ensure the fleet is concurrently and proportionally recapitalized. As you mentioned, nearly half of the tanker fleet currently resides in the Guard. Failure to preserve that ratio through recapitalization results in higher operating costs for the Air Force.
What do Air Guard officers need to know about the threat China poses to U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific area of operations?
The People’s Republic of China represents our nation’s pacing national security challenge. China is the strongest competitor with both the intent and capacity to reshape the international order. The need for strong American leadership on the global stage mirrors the need we have for strong leaders in the Air National Guard. Leadership matters.
Officers of all branches of our military need to understand that over the past two decades, China has evolved into a global competitor, adapting its military forces and capabilities to specifically neutralize U.S. and allies military advantages we’ve taken for granted since the end of the Cold War. These include the ability to move anywhere and employ decisive airpower across the globe, the formerly uncontested high ground of space and our ability to leverage cyberspace. Of specific concern to the Air National Guard are China’s advanced air defense systems, fifth-generation fighters, long-range precision-guided missiles and offensive cyber capabilities that would hold our aircraft, bases and homeland at risk in the event of an armed conflict.
Chinese advances across all the military domains, and across all the national instruments of power, directly threaten vital interests in maintaining global stability and the rules-based international order that has facilitated an unprecedented global period of prosperity since the end of the Cold War. Our nation requires a strong, modernized, well-equipped and highly trained National Guard, postured at a high level of readiness, to support the 2022 National Defense Strategy and meet any challenge at home or abroad.
How did China become so formidable and so threatening so fast?
From a Chinese perspective, their scholars, their deep thinkers looked at recent history. They looked at what we did in the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union and how that was won. They looked at how we waged an air war starting in 1991, the distinct advantage of airpower [during the first Persian Gulf War] and how realistically the ground war in 1991 was a cleanup action to eradicate Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. They’ve seen how we’ve waged war the last 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In that time frame, they’ve taken a new approach and they shifted money and force structure out of their ground forces into their air, space and nuclear forces. All of those challenge the international order. It’s the largest build-up of both conventional and nuclear forces we’ve seen in a relative period of calm around the world.
Air Defender 23 in Germany in June was the largest air exercise in NATO history. The Air Guard was a major player with 100 aircraft from units in 35 states. What were the lessons learned for the Guard?
Air Defender proved we truly are the combat-ready reserve of our U.S. Air Force, and we can rapidly mobilize airman and aircraft to any theater when needed. Air Defender was great, but the Guard also demonstrated it can support the largest NATO air exercise in history while still supporting Mobility Guardian, CENTCOM, NORAD/NORTHCOM [North American Aerospace Defense Command/U.S. Northern Command] alerts, STRATCOM [U.S. Strategic Command] alerts, rescue operations like the evacuation in Sudan, other exercises in South America and presidential movements, all simultaneously while still doing home station training to maintain readiness.
The Air Guard operates around the world, around the clock. Much of our work doesn’t make the headlines, but it is critical to executing the National Defense Strategy and ensuring the security of Americans both at home and abroad. The 25 nations and 250 aircraft that participated in Air Defender proved once again that we are stronger together and the Guard family was proud — and I saw it in their faces — to be a part of the largest exercise in NATO’s history.
What do you think NATO learned about the Air Guard from the exercise?
NATO learned that the Air National Guard is a professional military organization made up of airmen from all walks of life. While most Air National Guard members are drill-status Guardsmen, they bring a level of competency that far exceeds their active-duty counterparts thanks to years of experience and a strong and healthy esprit d’corps.
The Air Force continues to struggle with a pilot shortage. Officials say the service is short about 1,900 pilots. How is the shortage affecting the Air Guard, and what can be done to recruit more pilots?
The Air Guard continues to support the Air Force effort to resolve the Total Force pilot shortage. The challenge is really about retaining the pilots we’ve invested tens of millions of dollars in — the most experienced and capable pilots in the Air Force that have satisfied their commitments to the active-duty Air Force. The first step is to lower barriers to accession to the Air National Guard, providing members the opportunity to continue serving in their local communities. The process of transferring from the active component to the Guard is fraught with so much bureaucracy and paperwork, it adversely affects retention and results in the loss of substantial investments in time and money that can’t be replicated overnight.
We also need to address retention in economic terms. Like many Air Guard pilots, I was a commercial airline pilot and am explicitly aware of the pay gap between military and civilian service. Many want to be professional officers, but you simply can’t ignore the financial realities. We need to work harder to make that decision easier.
One way is the Aviation Bonus. Congress has been very good to us. The fiscal year NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] increased the statutory limit that the Aviation Bonus can offer from $35,000 to $50,000 annually. I think it should go higher. The ANG utilizes the maximum available Aviation Bonus to promote pilot retention. In support of the FY24 Aviation Bonus, we are seeking exceptions to policy to expand Aviation Bonus eligibility to more members on full-time orders, remove the Years of Aviation Service restriction and allow O-6s to enter into new Aviation Bonus agreements. We will continue to push for greater incentives to retain pilots until the shortage is resolved. It’s going to take years.
A high operations tempo has been the norm in the Air National Guard for the last 30 years. The times now dictate that Air Guard airmen must become nimbler with the operational doctrine of agile combat employment and more flexible with the concept of multicapable airmen. How tough of an ask is this of a force of drill-status Guardsmen?
The Air National Guard has produced and relied upon multicapable airmen for decades. By their very nature, drill-status Guardsmen bring with them their civilian job skills and education. By being a majority part-time force, most full-time Guardsmen fulfill multiple functions and jobs in order to ensure readiness and training. Our Guard members understand the strategic challenge detailed in the National Defense Strategy and are up for the challenge. There will be growing pains, but drill-status Guardsmen are inherently multicapable airmen.
Many of our members have civilian jobs that are not aligned with their military jobs. For example, I recently met a seven-level KC-135 crew chief who is also a civilian firefighter with their local fire department. There are stories like his throughout the Air National Guard. This brings both breadth and depth of experience the active component doesn’t have.
Here’s where the rub is though: The Guard has challenges with units’ ability to complete multicapable airmen, cross-utilization training — CUT training — during the regularly scheduled drill periods and annual training. Fortunately, the ready airmen training construct gives unit commanders the flexibility to allow drill-status Guardsmen the ability to complete the training they need throughout the 18 months of reset, prepare and certify phases of the AFFORGEN cycle. Not everyone is going to be CUT trained and the commander can choose those MCA who will provide the unit with increased flexibility to complete the mission. Over time, our Air National Guard will determine best practices, and excel with ACE and MCA without overtaxing our airmen’s time.
I know you get out and visit Air National Guard airmen and units. What are commanders and airmen sharing with you about the force and its utilization?
Air National Guard field commanders are the best in the world, carefully selected and empowered to not only execute their assigned mission in support of the National Defense Strategy, but also to train, equip and care for the airmen and the families who support them, they all tell me that they are eager to do more. Balancing these efforts is both challenging and rewarding, but our commanders are doing it. They also tell me that they are eager to do more and to do it faster. They are tired of some of the bureaucratic roadblocks that we’ve put in front of them. This requires additional resourcing, which brings us back to the budgetary discussions.
According to the Mitchell Institute, the Air Force is the least funded service in DoD, even below the Fourth Estate. So, how do we do a brutal prioritization of resources and how do we shift those resources into the United States Air Force? And by default, then how do we shift the United States Air Force’s resources into the most capable hands of our leaders who are out there trying to do more with less because they have the right experience level with the right sight picture to get after the National Defense Strategy? That is our challenge for the next several years.
Air Guard recruiting is running ahead of last year but still below mission. The Air Guard would seem to have a lot to offer tech-savvy young people. What, in your view, are the impediments today to recruiting?
First off, I say this every time I talk about recruiting: Go Guard. Serve your community, serve your country and be part of the best Air Force in the world. Go Guard. We are all recruiters. Working with the chief of staff of the United States Air Force and the headquarters of the Air Force, we have made significant changes to policy barriers that impede our ability to access members in the Air National Guard. These changes include loosening restrictions on tattoos, body weight and medical standards to name just a few. While we have adjusted our policy, our standards remain high to meet the needs of the National Defense Strategy. We still need a high-quality ready force.
However, there are impediments that are beyond our control that are impacting accessions. In 1995, nearly 40% of youth between the ages of 16-24 had someone in their family that served in the military. Think about that. Today, that figure is down to about 15%. Young people today don’t know the military. As a result, we have greater responsibility to educate the public on the benefits of joining the Air National Guard. Our Guardsman have done a great job of educating youth this year how the Air National Guard can fit into their lives. They are the primary reason why we have seen the increase in accessions this fiscal year. We are also grateful for the additional marketing funding provided by Congress to increase the awareness of the benefits of joining the Air National Guard.
If you look at all the stuff that is going on in the world, the Air National Guard is a true value proposition for America, and especially for the youth of America.
Loh, Son Take to the Skies During Air Defender 23
Some sons follow in their fathers’ footsteps — a few even fly. This is true for one Air Force family who has a pilot legacy that now spans three generations.
During Air Defender 2023, Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, the Air National Guard director, had the opportunity to fly over Germany in a two-seat F-16 belonging to the Minnesota Air Guard’s 148th Fighter Wing with his son, Capt. Michael Loh Jr., the chief of standardizations and evaluations for the 480th Fighter Squadron.
“The love of flying fighters runs deep in our family,” said Lt. Gen. Loh.
While flying together during NATO’s largest-ever air exercise was a unique opportunity, this was not the first time fathers and sons from the Loh family have flown together in the Air Force.
“I had the pleasure of flying my father, retired Air Force General John Loh, in an F-16 before he retired from the Air Force in 1995,” said Lt. Gen. Loh. “To now fly with my son, who is an F-16 pilot out of Spangdahlem Air Base, is very special and linked three generations of Air Force aviators.”
The father-son duo flew out of Laage Air Base alongside three Eurofighters and an additional U.S. Air Force F-15 Eagle, and landed at Holzdorf Air Base.
“This flight brought all the U.S. and German Air Force fighter aircraft to one location to meet other pilots as well as distinguished visitors that were in attendance,” said Capt. Loh. “This is a clear demonstration of our cooperation between our two countries, as well as within the fighter aircraft communities.”
Capt. Loh said he was extremely grateful for the opportunity to fly with his father and expressed his thanks to everyone who made it possible.
“This was the first time I have ever flown with my dad and will most likely be the only time in my career I will have this incredible opportunity,” said Capt. Loh. “From my grandfather helping to design the F-16, to my dad accruing more than 3,000 hours in the jet and now getting to fly with my dad in that same aircraft, there are truly no words to describe that feeling.”
From being a third-generation Air Force Academy graduate to flying fighters around the world, Capt. Loh knows he will have his father’s support throughout his Air Force journey.
“He always tells me he would trade places with me any day to be back flying as a tactical expert of his jet,” said Capt. Loh. “It is great to have the constant support from my family and for them to consistently remind me that I have the greatest job in the world.”
— By Senior Airman Jessica Sanchez-Chen
AT A GLANCE: Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh
BORN: Michael Anthony Loh, 1962 (Western Massachusetts)
FAMILY: Wife (Diane), two children
EDUCATION: U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo., B.S. Aeronautical Engineering, 1984; Trident University International, Cypress, Calif., M.B.A., 2011
COMMISSIONING SOURCE: U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo.
MILITARY SERVICE: U.S. Air Force, 1984-1991; Colorado Air National Guard, 1991-present
PREVIOUS ASSIGNMENTS: Adjutant general of Colorado, Centennial, Colo., 2017-2020; National Guard assistant to the commander, Air Combat Command, Langley Air Force Base, Va., 2016-2017; Mobilization assistant to the commander, North American Aerospace Defense Command, Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., 2013-2016; Assistant adjutant general-Air, Centennial, Colo., 2011-2013; Special assistant to the Air Force chief of staff, the Pentagon, Arlington, Va., 2010-2011
OVERSEAS OPERATIONS: Provide Comfort II (Iraq) and Iraqi Freedom
ALSO NOTABLE: A command pilot with more than 3,200 flight hours (including more than 120 in combat), most of them in the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Also, a civilian air transport pilot rated in the Boeing 727, 737, 747-400 and 777. He flew for United Airlines. He is the son of retired Gen. John Michael Loh, the commander of Air Combat Command from 1992 to 1995. His son is a captain on active duty who flies the F-16. He was on the NGAUS board of directors as the TAG representative for Area VI from 2018 until his nomination to be Air Guard director in 2020.
Source: National Guard Bureau