Lt. Gen. Jim Slife and the AFSOC we need

In the halls of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) headquarters building there is a memorial capturing the history of OPERATION RICE BOWL, at Hurlburt Field, Florida. During the interview, Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, AFSOC commander, talked about the importance of this first ‘inflection’ point in special forces history and how the failure of this mission highlighted the need for AFSOC. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

In the halls of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) headquarters building there is a memorial capturing the history of OPERATION RICE BOWL, at Hurlburt Field, Florida. During the interview, Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, AFSOC commander, talked about the importance of this first ‘inflection’ point in special forces history and how the failure of this mission highlighted the need for AFSOC. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

A portion of Hurlburt Field’s C-130 fleet rests on the flightline at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 22, 2021. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) uses several specialized C-130s to accomplish their mission, but they’re all maintained by the 1st Special Operations Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

A portion of Hurlburt Field’s C-130 fleet rests on the flightline at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 22, 2021. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) uses several specialized C-130s to accomplish their mission, but they’re all maintained by the 1st Special Operations Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

(Left) General Arnold Bunch Jr., Air Force Materiel Command commander, and Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command commander, discuss AFSOC’s capabilities during a Forward Area Refueling Point demonstration with two USMC F-35B Lightning II’s during  AFSOC’s Technology, Acquisition, and Sustainment Review at Duke Field, Florida, July 21, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

(Left) General Arnold Bunch Jr., Air Force Materiel Command commander, and Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command commander, discuss AFSOC’s capabilities during a Forward Area Refueling Point demonstration with two USMC F-35B Lightning II’s during AFSOC’s Technology, Acquisition, and Sustainment Review at Duke Field, Florida, July 21, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Cervantes, 1st Special Operations Wing NCOIC of Project Integrations, gives Airman Magazine a tour of the HSU Innovation Institute, near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Cervantes, 1st Special Operations Wing NCOIC of Project Integrations, gives Airman Magazine a tour of the HSU Innovation Institute, near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

A conference room at the HSU Innovation Institute displays pictures of Mr. Paul Hsu, his family and various milestones in his life, near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021.  Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

A conference room at the HSU Innovation Institute displays pictures of Mr. Paul Hsu, his family and various milestones in his life, near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

A CV-22 Osprey model rests on a table at the HSU Innovation Institute near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

A CV-22 Osprey model rests on a table at the HSU Innovation Institute near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

Lieutenant General Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) commander, poses for a photo at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 22, 2021. Slife has had six assignments in and around AFSOC during his 32-year career and sat down with Airman Magazine to discuss the changes AFSOC must implement to stay relevant in the next operating environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

Lieutenant General Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) commander, poses for a photo at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 22, 2021. Slife has had six assignments in and around AFSOC during his 32-year career and sat down with Airman Magazine to discuss the changes AFSOC must implement to stay relevant in the next operating environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)

Lt. Gen. James Slife, commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command, discusses the challenges AFSOC is facing to shift from the counter violent extremist mission to great power competition against peer adversaries.

Lt. Gen. James Slife, commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command, discusses the challenges AFSOC is facing to shift from the counter violent extremist mission to great power competition against peer adversaries.

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. --

 

Lt. Gen. James Slife, commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command, discusses the challenges AFSOC is facing to shift from the counter violent extremist mission to great power competition against peer adversaries.




Airman Magazine: So, first, I want you to introduce yourself.

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: My name is Lieutenant General Jim Slife; I'm the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. This is where I've spent most of my career; if I have a MAJCOM home, it is AFSOC. I had my first assignment here in the summer of 1992, and I've been in and out of AFSOC pretty much my whole career since then. AFSOC was founded in 1990, and all my predecessors kind of lived a career where part of it was before there was even such a thing as an AFSOC. In my career, there's always been an AFSOC, and so I'm privileged to have the opportunity to serve here.

Airman Magazine: You mentioned that AFSOC was formed in the 1990s. How did AFSOC come to be?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: The story of AFSOC's existence really starts in the years kind of following the close of the Vietnam War. So in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, AFSOC or AFSOF, the Air Force Special Operations Forces, drew down similar to what was happening in other parts of the military as well. We really didn't have a great capacity of special operations forces by the time we got to 1980. In April of 1980, we had this catastrophic event that occurred in the deserts of Iran at a place that is kind of known as Desert One. It was a landing site in the middle of Iran, south of Tehran, where a rescue force was going to stage in order to conduct a rescue mission for American hostages that had been taken during the Iranian revolution in 1979. That mission failed, and in the aftermath of that failure, there were some observations that we had about our special operations force. One of the main observations that we had was we didn't have a force of specialized capabilities that were poised for crisis response operations around the globe. We didn't have that capability, and we didn't have a force that routinely operated with the other services, jointly interoperable to do a mission like that. So, what we had found in this failed mission to rescue hostages was that it was a cobbled-together team that didn't have any experience working together. They didn't know each other's training standards, their equipment wasn't interoperable, and so we needed a special operations force that was interoperable there. After April of 1980, we began to build that force, and by 1990, AFSOC was created both as an Air Force Major Air Command, but also as the Air Force Component of the newly established U.S. Special Operations Command.

Airman Magazine: Can you define gray-zone warfare and how it applies to AFSOC today?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: So, I think gray-zone warfare is kind of a term of art. I don't think if you were to open up the [Department of Defense] dictionary, you would find the term “gray-zone warfare” defined precisely, but I think it is generally accepted to mean operations that take place with ambiguity in regards to attribution. In other words, it's not precisely clear who's doing the action, whether it's state-sanctioned or whether it's something other than state-sanctioned activities that are taking place that essentially either changes the facts on the ground or create enough uncertainty and dilemmas about what's going on that you buy time until some set of circumstances come about that become hard to wind back. So, if you look at what Russia did in the Eastern part of Ukraine, in the Crimea region, they had these so-called "little green men," but basically, they were mercenary forces, para-military forces that were not readily identifiable as Russian state-sponsored. Everybody expected it, but nobody was sure enough to be able to take immediate action against Russia until the facts on the ground had already been established. That's an example of gray-zone warfare, but it deals with ambiguity and misattribution of what's happening on the ground until you get some outcome that is too hard to unwind.

Lieutenant General Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) commander, poses for a photo at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 22, 2021. Slife has had six assignments in and around AFSOC during his 32-year career and sat down with Airman Magazine to discuss the changes AFSOC must implement to stay relevant in the next operating environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
Lieutenant General Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) commander, poses for a photo at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 22, 2021. Slife has had six assignments in and around AFSOC during his 32-year career and sat down with Airman Magazine to discuss the changes AFSOC must implement to stay relevant in the next operating environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
Lieutenant General Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) commander, poses for a photo at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 22, 2021. Slife has had six assignments in and around AFSOC during his 32-year career and sat down with Airman Magazine to discuss the changes AFSOC must implement to stay relevant in the next operating environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
L.T. Gen. Jim Slife and the AFSOC we need
Lieutenant General Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) commander, poses for a photo at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 22, 2021. Slife has had six assignments in and around AFSOC during his 32-year career and sat down with Airman Magazine to discuss the changes AFSOC must implement to stay relevant in the next operating environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
Photo By: .Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson
VIRIN: 210722-F-LM051-0193

Airman Magazine: How does knowing about that translate to the AFSOC mission?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: I think the special operations forces, in general, are ideally postured to engage in gray-zone activities. The special operations forces of all the services, not just AFSOC, operate across a spectrum of visibility and attribution. So, there are some things that we do that are very visible and very attributable. You know when an AC-130 gunship shows up somewhere, there's really no question where it comes from, right? There's only one place where big gray airplanes with 105-millimeter cannons sticking out of the side come from, so it's not hard to figure that out, but there are other capabilities that we have that are less visible or less attributable. That posture allows the special operations forces to be able to change the facts on the ground and create dilemmas and uncertainty for our adversaries.

Airman Magazine: Gotcha, so the recently published interim national security strategic guidance prioritizes being technologically superior to China and Russia, and it specifically outlines how to combat disinformation campaigns. Can you describe the specific types of threats the U.S. should be the most concerned about from those adversaries?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: Well, I think every nation's form of governance creates both opportunities and risks. In a democracy, of course, the strength of our form of governance is in the people. Our government is created by the people, for the people. So the population of any democracy, the United States certainly, is both the strength, but also an opportunity for an adversary to exploit that form of government. For the United States, I think our populace is at risk of being fed disinformation that perhaps turns us against one another, turns us against a particular political party, and sows discord in our nation. Those are the types of things that I think we are at greatest risk of, and so disinformation is certainly one of those things that we need to be cautious of, but I think there are lots of other places where we need to be on our guard for adversaries that wish to do us harm or challenge our interests. Certainly, the proliferation of mobile devices makes every one of us easier to find, makes our activities easier to track and they reveal information about us. There are lots of cyber opportunities in our personal lives, but also in our infrastructure in the United States. So, whether it's gas pipelines and transportation infrastructure, our energy infrastructure, all of those things are vulnerable to things like cyber attacks. Disinformation is certainly one, but I think a cyber attack is another area where we, and frankly, every other nation are at great risk because those pieces of infrastructure are not typically as well hardened as military capabilities are.

Airman Magazine: Would you say those threats are undermining our democracy and if so, how?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: I think when you hear questions about the legitimacy of the election results, for example, or when you see the heavily partisan nature of everything from domestic politics to the way news is reported, the slant that various news organizations will put on a story to appeal to a particular constituency. These types of divisions in our society are unhelpful, and I think social media has exacerbated this in many ways. I have a Facebook account. I'm not sure anybody under the age of about 45 has a Facebook account, but I do and what I've found is that there are people on there that I went to high school with that I haven't really seen in many, many years. When I read some of the stuff that they post, I find I don't agree with that, and it irritates me to hear that. So I can just unfollow that, right? I can tune my social media feed to the point where it's just feeding me things that I already agree with. That actually serves a very unhelpful purpose because I'm not being exposed to other sides of an argument; what I'm actually being exposed to are ideas that just reinforce what I already think. I think the confluence of these things, whether it's disinformation, a heavily politicized environment that we're living in domestically, the advent of social media that is tuned to whatever your particular views are. I think those things all really serve to be threats to our ability to act civilly toward one another as citizens.

Airman Magazine: I would like you to know that I do have a Facebook, and I've had one for quite some time, so I'm with it. I'm still cool.

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: Are you?

Airman Magazine: I think so.

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: Well, good. Yeah, I'm not sure any of us know when we cease being cool, I'm pretty sure I'm already there, but I have a hard time believing it.

Airman Magazine: My mom tells me I'm cool; that's enough, right? So competitors seek to outpace the Special Operations Command enterprise in these areas; you actually just mentioned a lot of them, electromagnetic spectrum, cyber domain operations in the information environment and space. Where does AFSOC stand in defense of these emerging threats? How do you plan to defend against them?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: With respect to where we stand in defense against these emerging threats, I mean, for every action, there is some counteraction that we can take. So, certainly, we're trying to protect ourselves against threats in those domains, but I don't think we would be good special operators in AFSOC if we weren't thinking about how we can use those things to actually exploit our adversaries’ weaknesses. Many of these areas, the electromagnetic spectrum, the cyber domain, certainly all the attention that's being put on the space domain these days, all of those things are very technically complex. I'm serving now in my sixth assignment on the Gulf Coast of Florida, four times at Hurlburt and twice in Tampa, and one thing that I've learned in six assignments on the Gulf Coast of Florida is that the only thing better than owning a boat, is having a friend that owns a boat. So, as I think about things like cyber capability and electromagnetic attack, I'm not sure we have to become the experts in that in AFSOC, but we need relationships with the people that are the experts in that. So I need those friends that have those boats so that from time to time, I can call on my counterparts around the Air Force and the joint force to bring those capabilities to bear in support of SOF operations.

A portion of Hurlburt Field’s C-130 fleet rests on the flightline at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 22, 2021. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) uses several specialized C-130s to accomplish their mission, but they’re all maintained by the 1st Special Operations Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
A portion of Hurlburt Field’s C-130 fleet rests on the flightline at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 22, 2021. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) uses several specialized C-130s to accomplish their mission, but they’re all maintained by the 1st Special Operations Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
A portion of Hurlburt Field’s C-130 fleet rests on the flightline at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 22, 2021. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) uses several specialized C-130s to accomplish their mission, but they’re all maintained by the 1st Special Operations Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
L.T. Gen. Jim Slife and the AFSOC we need
A portion of Hurlburt Field’s C-130 fleet rests on the flightline at Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 22, 2021. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) uses several specialized C-130s to accomplish their mission, but they’re all maintained by the 1st Special Operations Maintenance Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
Photo By: .Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson
VIRIN: 210722-F-LM051-0073

Airman Magazine: Who are friends with the boats?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: The friends with the boats are the people that have those capabilities and authority. So when you think about space, for example, the U.S. Space Force and, operationally, the United States Space Command has a tremendous capability. We just need the relationships to be able to leverage those capabilities and to support their operations with special operations capabilities. It's very much a two-way street. It's the same thing in the cyber spectrum, there is an Air Force component to the U.S. Cyber Command 16th Air Force, and we've got a great and enduring relationship with the 16th Air Force. Those are the relationships that I value because we can be valuable to them, and they can be valuable to us in our respective mission areas.

Airman Magazine: How will the drawdown in the middle east affect changes in AFSOC? How are you guys adapting to be somewhere else?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: I think the drawdown in the middle east is actually providing us some breathing space to make the changes that the interim national security strategic guidance tells us we need to make, the things we need to be focused on for the future. So, while we'll have to continue to maintain an ability to prosecute the counter-violent extremist fight on behalf of the nation, that's not the only thing that we'll be doing going forward. I think as we reduce our footprint in areas that we've been operating for quite a number of years, that will give us some breathing space to be able to orient on places that we may have wanted to be present over the last several years, but we simply didn't have the capacity to do it. So, it's going to give us the ability to focus on more global threats.

Airman Magazine: During the opening statements at the emerging threats and capabilities meeting, the Air force recognized and outlined a major shift in their special forces, command tactics and procedures. Is there a consensus among the services for major changes in the SOCOM community, and if so, are these ideas talked about and acted on as a joint team?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: Yes, there is a consensus, and yes, they are talked about and acted on as a joint team. I think all the component commanders, the operational commanders inside of the U.S. Special Operations Command, all acknowledge what the future operating environment will require from us, and we all have a very consistent view of what that future looks like and how we jointly have to adapt ourselves to meet it. But, how the individual service components have to adapt themselves is going to vary from component to component. So, for example, in AFSOC, we recognize that we have some substantial changes that we have to undertake in order to posture ourselves for that future. Other components may not have as substantial a change because the stuff that they have been doing is actually very well-aligned to their role in the future operating environment. The scope and scale of change within the U.S. Special Operations Command will probably vary from component to component, but I think we all clearly see the future operating environment in a consistent way.

(Left) General Arnold Bunch Jr., Air Force Materiel Command commander, and Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command commander, discuss AFSOC’s capabilities during a Forward Area Refueling Point demonstration with two USMC F-35B Lightning II’s during  AFSOC’s Technology, Acquisition, and Sustainment Review at Duke Field, Florida, July 21, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
(Left) General Arnold Bunch Jr., Air Force Materiel Command commander, and Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command commander, discuss AFSOC’s capabilities during a Forward Area Refueling Point demonstration with two USMC F-35B Lightning II’s during AFSOC’s Technology, Acquisition, and Sustainment Review at Duke Field, Florida, July 21, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
(Left) General Arnold Bunch Jr., Air Force Materiel Command commander, and Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command commander, discuss AFSOC’s capabilities during a Forward Area Refueling Point demonstration with two USMC F-35B Lightning II’s during  AFSOC’s Technology, Acquisition, and Sustainment Review at Duke Field, Florida, July 21, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
L.T. Gen. Jim Slife and the AFSOC we need
(Left) General Arnold Bunch Jr., Air Force Materiel Command commander, and Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, Air Force Special Operations Command commander, discuss AFSOC’s capabilities during a Forward Area Refueling Point demonstration with two USMC F-35B Lightning II’s during AFSOC’s Technology, Acquisition, and Sustainment Review at Duke Field, Florida, July 21, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
Photo By: .Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson
VIRIN: 210721-F-LM051-0184

Airman Magazine: AFSOC executes tons of joint training missions with NATO partners and ally nations annually. Now that the AFSOC mission is changing from counter-terrorism to irregular warfare, how will training with some of those countries change, if there's any change at all, and what will maintaining those partnerships look like?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: I think they'll change based on the shared interests that we have with those countries. We do have an enduring interest in making sure that violent extremists don't have the ability to reach the United States, so we are going to continue to train with partners that may have an interest in counter-violent extremism. We will continue to do those types of things, but we'll also train with partners that have an interest in other global challenges that the U.S. is dealing with. What this change in the operating environment is doing for us is expanding the number of possible partners that we have around the globe. AFSOC, last year alone, engaged with somewhere between 80 and 90 foreign countries, and we actually see that growing in the future as the number of places where we have shared interests expands.

Airman Magazine: You mentioned that there would be other global challenges and that countries that weren't necessarily our partners would help us with those other global challenges. Can you expand on that at all?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: Well, our National Defense Strategy that we had several years ago, as well as the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance from the current administration, identify the same global challenges. I mean, we see China and Russia challenging U.S. interests at home and abroad. We have other challenges around the globe that we're certainly attentive to; the North Korean development of nuclear weapons, for example. There are a number of these challenges, and as the U.S. becomes more focused on things that are perhaps less directly tied to the counter-violent extremism types of operations that we've been doing for the last 20 years, I think a new set of partners will emerge. So, perhaps there are countries in Southeast Asia that have found their own interests threatened by Chinese activities in the South China Sea, for example. The U.S. may find more willing partners in that part of the world. There are Chinese investments in Africa, for example, and South America that may drive neighbors in those parts of the world closer to the United States as they seek a security partner that isn't trying to exploit them in the way that China does. I think there are just lots of opportunities for increased security cooperation as we go forward.

Airman Magazine: Gotcha. Thank you. The term, “great power competition” describes the current affairs with Russia and China as having constant changes and advancements between superpowers over time. Do you foresee this competition being endless? Why or why not?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: I think we have to approach it as if it was endless, but any cursory study of history would suggest that no competition is endless. Sooner or later, the strategic environment, once again, will change. I think that the most important part is how we approach the competition and I don't think we can approach it as if we are trying to win. I just think we have to approach it like we're trying to gain the advantage and sustain that advantage over time. I think we have to approach it like it's endless, but I don't believe it's endless.

Airman Magazine: And this is my final question, and it is pretty simple. Is there anything you would like to add?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: I guess what I would say is we are in a time of what is a literally unprecedented change inside of AFSOC, and it's exciting. I mean, change is hard, it is sometimes uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, it's exciting. One of the things that we frequently talk about here is 'if you don't like change, wait until you try irrelevance,' right? As hard as change is, irrelevance is worse. So we have to undertake this change so that ten years from now, when those middle school kids of today join the Air Force and put on an AFSOC patch, I want to make sure that those middle school kids of today join an AFSOC that is indispensable for the nation. I want them to know that the command that they're joining matters, that they are going to find themselves doing things that are critically important to the United States and that they're relevant. As relevant as we have been for the last 20 years, we have to accelerate change in order to make sure those middle school kids are going to be relevant ten years from now when they put on our patch.

Airman Magazine: Earlier, you mentioned that you wanted the middle-schoolers who put on the patch to know that they're indispensable. How does that correlate with the inflection points, and what is different about the inflection point that we're currently in?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: When you talk about inflection points, one of the things that I talk to our force about is that we have to have a long view of where we've come from. I think that in the post-Vietnam era, the Air Force Special Operations Forces have had three of these inflection points and when I describe an inflection point, what I'm talking about is a point in time where the thing that we have been doing is not actually the thing that we have to do in the future. I mentioned the first one of those inflection points earlier, which was in April of 1980, in the deserts of Iran, when we realized that we did not have a force that maintained a high state of readiness, was jointly interoperable, and was built for crisis and contingency response. We didn't have that force, and so we had to build that force. We became something that we weren't after Vietnam in response to this kind of moment in time. The second one of those moments in time, of course, was in September of 2001. We had this highly trained, jointly interoperable, high state of readiness force that was poised for crisis and contingency response, and what we found after 9/11 was that we had to become a force that could deploy and just stay deployed. That was not the force that we had built after April of 1980, so we had to build that after September of 2001. After that, AFSOC became the most deployed MAJCOM in the Air Force. The installations that are our power projection platforms at Hurlburt and Cannon are the most deployed installations in the Air Force. Over the last decade, that was the force we had to become. There was a lot of investment, there was a lot of change that took place to become that, but I say we are at a third inflection point. So we're at another one of these moments where when we look at the future and where we are today, we realize that the force that we've built over the last 20 years that has served us extraordinarily well, doing the things that we've asked it to do for the last 20 years, is not actually the force we're going to need in the future operating environment. When I say that, I don't mean to suggest that we need to throw away all the airplanes and go buy new airplanes; that's not what I'm talking about. The heart of our force is our Airmen, which is our competitive advantage in AFSOC, the Airman of the command. What we have to do is, we have to equip, develop and organize the Airmen of the command for that future operating environment. So, when I say we have to become something different, what I mean is we have to help our Airmen become what the nation is going to need them to be over the coming years.

Airman Magazine: How will things like the evil genius competition and the HSU Innovation Institute help those Airmen get there?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: The evil genius competition was something we did last year. In fact, it was so successful, we decided to do it again this year, but it was a classified competition, so we ran it all on classified networks, where we took a particular competitor in a particular theater, and we asked our Airmen to help us think of ways that we could cause dilemmas and challenges for those adversaries. Our Airmen came back with a number of really clever and disruptive ideas about things that we do to create dilemmas and uncertainty for our adversaries. We went through a kind of a down-select process, and we ended up with five finalists that the assistant secretary of the Air Force and I sat down and listened to, and we decided to apply funding and advocacy to each one of those five to actually continue to develop the ideas and make them operational. We're doing the same thing again this year, and it started with the assistant secretary kind of lamenting to me that it's too bad that we couldn't have some kind of an evil genius competition inside the Air Force to think about how we could create problems for our adversaries. I said, why can't we? I've got 21,000 evil geniuses in AFSOC that would love to help us think of ways to do that. So that's where that idea came from; it's very successful. The HSU Innovation Institute, that's an interesting one. That's locally at Hurlburt field; one of the local business people is a fellow named Paul Hsu, and Mr. Hsu has a very compelling life story. It's kind of the American dream. He was an immigrant from Taiwan, became a businessman in the United States, didn't come from a family of wealth or anything and built a number of businesses, became very successful, and he wants to give back to the country that adopted him; the United States. So one of the ways that he's done that is by founding this innovation Institute where he’s raised money, and we've engaged in a partnership with him where our Airmen are allowed to go to this facility that's not too far away from Hurlburt, and they learn about things like coding and drones and A.I. They have this space for additive manufacturing, 3D printing, that type of thing, and Airmen can go over there, learn these skills and essentially solve problems that they may be dealing with in their own workplace. An Airman says, “I've got this problem in my squadron, and I want to be able to solve it.” We have some experts over at the HSU Institute that can help Airmen learn the skills needed to go solve the problem inside their squadron. It essentially is an empowering tool for our Airmen to use modern technologies to solve their own problems. It's a really fascinating case study in a public-private partnership.

A conference room at the HSU Innovation Institute displays pictures of Mr. Paul Hsu, his family and various milestones in his life, near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021.  Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
A conference room at the HSU Innovation Institute displays pictures of Mr. Paul Hsu, his family and various milestones in his life, near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
A conference room at the HSU Innovation Institute displays pictures of Mr. Paul Hsu, his family and various milestones in his life, near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021.  Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
L.T. Gen. Jim Slife and the AFSOC we need
A conference room at the HSU Innovation Institute displays pictures of Mr. Paul Hsu, his family and various milestones in his life, near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
Photo By: .Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson
VIRIN: 210719-F-LM051-0175

Airman Magazine: We got a chance to visit over there, and we actually met some of the COMMANDOS. They were very excited that they got a chance to meet you. Did you have anything that you wanted to say about that and how they're going to help with the AFSOC mission?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: The COMMANDOS is a neat little program that some of our Airmen have decided to start, and of course, we at the headquarters at AFSOC decided to get behind it and provide support and resourcing to help them get that off the ground. It essentially started in an intelligence squadron, and these Airmen in this intelligence squadron found themselves doing repetitive tasks. There was no analysis involved, they were just repetitively pointing and clicking on their computers, pointing and clicking, pointing, and clicking, and they said, “surely there's a better way to do this.” They essentially taught themselves how to code, and they started off building scripts, and those turned into apps that they were coding that would allow them to automate many of these repetitive things that they were doing. They really increased the efficiency of their workflow in the intelligence squadron. That has actually grown, and they've got an app store. They're generating apps that actually automate or help them with the analytic tasks that they have, and we have now gotten behind them to help them actually teach that to other Airmen in other squadrons that also want to solve whatever problem they're dealing with in their squadron. It's kind of a spinoff of the term commandos. They're CODEMANDOS, and they're making life easier for a lot of Airmen inside of AFSOC.

Airman Magazine: So, in addition to making life easier, how will artificial intelligence and coding and other things of that nature help AFSOC become the AFSOC that we need?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: So I think part of what we have to do with artificial intelligence is figuring out what the use cases for that are. There are some that are very obvious. Things like predictive maintenance on some of our platforms, of course, the airplanes that we fly are high-tech pieces of machinery with a lot of moving parts, and a lot of times, we predict how many spare parts we're going to need of a particular type based on how many flying hours we have. So you might need to change a propeller every 500 flying hours, so you predict how many spare propellers you need to buy based on how much you're flying the airplane. But, what we find is that maybe when we actually collect the data on how frequently we're going through propellers, we may find that 500 hours is not the right number, and we may actually be able to predict the conditions under which we're likely to have to change your propeller, for example. Having predictive maintenance allows us to move away from things like time-based maintenance or calendar-based maintenance, and move to a predictive model where you do the maintenance when the maintenance is required and not just because it's the third Thursday of the month and that's when you're supposed to do the maintenance. Things like that would be a place where artificial intelligence will be really valuable for us and help us cut down on the workload that we're asking of our Airmen, as well as cut down on the expenses that we spend in our supply system—maybe changing a propeller that we didn't have to change, for example. Another place where artificial intelligence could be really useful for us, as I mentioned earlier, part of what the special operations forces bring is the ability to operate across a spectrum of visibility and attribution, and our Airmen need the ability to operate with a lower signature than perhaps they're used to over the last number of years. We need to lower their signature, and what does lowering your signature mean? Well, it may mean lowering your social media signature, lowering your electronic footprint, making it harder for an adversary to see you, know what you're doing and so forth. Artificial intelligence is one of the tools that we can use to help with what we call inside of AFSOC, our identity management, which is 'how do I pay attention to my online persona and my identity to make sure that I don't become too predictable as an individual for our adversaries.' So these are areas where I think A.I. can be really valuable to us.

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Cervantes, 1st Special Operations Wing NCOIC of Project Integrations, gives Airman Magazine a tour of the HSU Innovation Institute, near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
Staff Sgt. Nicholas Cervantes, 1st Special Operations Wing NCOIC of Project Integrations, gives Airman Magazine a tour of the HSU Innovation Institute, near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
Staff Sgt. Nicholas Cervantes, 1st Special Operations Wing NCOIC of Project Integrations, gives Airman Magazine a tour of the HSU Innovation Institute, near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
L.T. Gen. Jim Slife and the AFSOC we need
Staff Sgt. Nicholas Cervantes, 1st Special Operations Wing NCOIC of Project Integrations, gives Airman Magazine a tour of the HSU Innovation Institute, near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
Photo By: .Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson
VIRIN: 210719-F-LM051-0196

Airman Magazine: So each country has guidelines for the ethical use of A.I. How do we make sure that we're ethical within our own standards?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: I think that, fortunately for us, the United States has a pretty clearly defined set of rules about ethical behavior for things like A.I. or intelligence collection, more broadly that protect the citizens of the United States from intrusive action by its own government. We are not allowed to collect intelligence on American citizens, there are lots of safeguards in place that prevent us from doing that, and all of that is built into the A.I. tools that we have available to kind of help us steer clear of those ethical boundary areas. I think as long as the tools that we build have those ethical boundaries built into them; we'll be able to abide by that without too much trouble.

Airman Magazine: So in reference to those tools, are any of them being used to help AFSOC recruit, and how is the recruiting changing based on what we'll need Airmen to do in the future?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: When we talk about the AFSOC that we're going to need in the future, I think, as I said before, our Airmen are our competitive advantage. So, the question is, for the future, what is the combination of attributes and experiences that our Airmen are going to need to have to be successful in that environment? This is a place where A.I. can help us understand what attributes are the best predictors of success in the future. Some attributes are physical attributes, for example, so if we were running an A.I. tool that was going to predict who might be most successful as an NBA center, it's unlikely that it would identify me as a likely candidate to be a successful NBA center. I don't have the right attributes for that. Or maybe for certain operations, we need a high degree of regional or cultural familiarity, so there are parts of the world where I just stand out because I don't look like the local population; I don't speak the language, I don't understand the customs of the local population. So there's a set of attributes that an Airman might need to have in order to be successful in that particular mission. One of the things that we're really focused on at AFSOC is moving more toward an attributes-based recruiting model that allows us to get the Airmen that are going to be most successful in the future operating environment and less of a recruiting model that replicates what we currently have. I don't want a recruiting model that recruits more of me if I am not what's going to be successful in the future. So, just because my career has been successful to some degree doesn't necessarily mean that model would work for the future.

Airman Magazine: I've heard the term "multi-capable Airman" be thrown around a lot. Do you feel that there's a risk that we'll have a bunch of masters of nothing?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: So that's a good question. I think this, once again, goes back to the attributes thing. When we talk about multi-capable Airmen, typically, what we're talking about is skills, right? So if I'm a power production civil engineering Airman and my specialty is getting generators up and running, and running power cables and that kind of stuff and somebody else is a logistician, and their specialty is forklifts and large trucks and that type of thing, there are probably some attributes that would allow you to predict whether I could expand beyond being nothing but power production into being able to operate heavy equipment as well. I think all those things are very measurable, and I would say that part of what we need to do is we need to move away from a model where we define what we do by our AFSCs and define what we do by what the mission requires. I think most of the Airmen that we have, certainly the Airmen that we have in AFSOC, are capable of doing more than one thing. We just have to find where their attributes and passions lie and then let them do those things. Some of the most fulfilling roles that we have in AFSOC, we have a number of places where we have these so-called multi-functional Airmen; Airmen that do a little bit of everything, and those are places where we see some of the highest job satisfaction because they're busy, they know that what they do matters, every day it's something different; it's not repetitive or boring. Those are places where I think Airmen find a lot of fulfillment, and we're looking to expand on that.

A CV-22 Osprey model rests on a table at the HSU Innovation Institute near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
A CV-22 Osprey model rests on a table at the HSU Innovation Institute near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
A CV-22 Osprey model rests on a table at the HSU Innovation Institute near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
L.T. Gen. Jim Slife and the AFSOC we need
A CV-22 Osprey model rests on a table at the HSU Innovation Institute near Hurlburt Field, Florida, July 19, 2021. Airmen from Hurlburt are encouraged to visit the Airmen who work at the HSU Innovation Institute and relay inefficiencies so the experts can implement and experiment with new technology to create solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
Photo By: .Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson
VIRIN: 210719-F-LM051-0171

Airman Magazine: You've been in AFSOC a long time, you talk about job satisfaction and things like that, and SSgt Voigt mentioned earlier the Memorial that you guys have downstairs. I know that you've been here a long time, but you walk by that Memorial every day. If you don't mind, could you just explain a little bit about what that means to you?

Lt. Gen Jim Slife: I think the Memorial that you're talking about is really where we captured some of the history of that first strategic inflection point, the mission to rescue the hostages in Iran in 1980. We have the pictures of the crews and combat controllers that were part of that mission to rescue those hostages on the wall. After that mission failed, we left a C-130 and a helicopter behind in Iran. We had killed eight service members as part of that mission, and the team that came out of Iran after that failure went back to Masirah Island, Oman. It's a small Omani air base on an island off the coast, and these folks were absolutely devastated. They're regrouping; they've just failed on a mission of national importance; they've embarrassed the United States; they're feeling they left eight of their teammates who died in this mishap; they're absolutely dejected. At the lowest moment, as they realized the scope of this failed mission, there were some British contractors on the other end of the airfield that were maintaining portions of the airfield on behalf of the Omanis. These Brits were smart enough to kind of figure out what had happened, right? I mean, it doesn't take a genius. They're watching these airplanes take off; they see the news, they see the airplanes; I mean, they know what's happening. So they sent two cases of beer down to the other end of the runway where the Americans were, and on the top of one of those cases of beer was written in pencil 'To you all from us all, for having the guts to try.’ That box top is on the wall downstairs, and I think you had an opportunity to look at it, and to me, that's what it's all about. The United States needs a group of Airmen with the guts to try. I've spent my whole career in and around AFSOC, and I can't imagine anything that I could have done with my adult life that would have been more fulfilling than being able to come to work every day and serve with people that have the guts to try.

In the halls of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) headquarters building there is a memorial capturing the history of OPERATION RICE BOWL, at Hurlburt Field, Florida. During the interview, Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, AFSOC commander, talked about the importance of this first ‘inflection’ point in special forces history and how the failure of this mission highlighted the need for AFSOC. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
In the halls of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) headquarters building there is a memorial capturing the history of OPERATION RICE BOWL, at Hurlburt Field, Florida. During the interview, Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, AFSOC commander, talked about the importance of this first ‘inflection’ point in special forces history and how the failure of this mission highlighted the need for AFSOC. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
In the halls of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) headquarters building there is a memorial capturing the history of OPERATION RICE BOWL, at Hurlburt Field, Florida. During the interview, Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, AFSOC commander, talked about the importance of this first ‘inflection’ point in special forces history and how the failure of this mission highlighted the need for AFSOC. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
L.T. Gen. Jim Slife and the AFSOC we need
In the halls of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) headquarters building there is a memorial capturing the history of OPERATION RICE BOWL, at Hurlburt Field, Florida. During the interview, Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, AFSOC commander, talked about the importance of this first ‘inflection’ point in special forces history and how the failure of this mission highlighted the need for AFSOC. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson)
Photo By: Staff Sgt. Janiqua P. Robinson
VIRIN: 210722-F-LM051-0301


 

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