Hobbins: White board manager

Senior Air Force official has managed business, warfighting IT convergence

Air Force Lt. Gen. William "Tom" Hobbins knows that better data makes pilots more aware -- and more lethal. During a mission over the Arctic Circle in 1989, Hobbins intercepted a Soviet reconnaissance aircraft in bad weather, relying on inadequate information that did not include the craft's speed or precise location.

Now a senior Air Force information technology official, Hobbins commanded Air Forces Iceland during the last days of the Cold War. Soviet military aircraft frequently penetrated Icelandic airspace.

On the 1989 mission, Hobbins scrambled an F-15C Strike Eagle out of Keflavik Naval Air Station, Iceland, and flew 400 miles north. With only his onboard radar and radio to link him to a nearby NATO surveillance/communications aircraft, he located the bogey and planned his intercept.

Descending 1,000 feet in blinding rain and snow to position himself behind the Soviet Bear aircraft, Hobbins then did his job: identify — but don't provoke — the Bear and safely escort the interloper through and out of the airspace.

Hobbins cites the encounter when he explains why a data link system can improve efficiency and safety. If he had been able to access a data link system when approaching the Bear, he could have received enough data to form a 3-D image of the airspace. He then would have been able to identify the Soviet Bear sooner and would have been safer while intercepting it.

About 700 of the Air Force's fleet of 4,400 aircraft have data link systems, which enable communication with nearby aircraft, even in the absence of radio communication. The service wants to double the number of data link systems on aircraft by 2009.

But adding more data links creates another problem for Air Force pilots: too much information that needs to be sorted in the cockpit. Single-seat fighter pilots call it "having a helmet fire at 500 knots."

As acting chief of the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, Chief of Warfighting Integration and Chief Information Officer (SAF/XC), Hobbins is leading efforts to form the service's new IT organization. One of its purposes will be to better organize and present information to pilots.

"Gen. Hobbins has created a tremendous organization," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Croom, the new director of the Defense Information Systems Agency and commander of the Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations. Croom directed an office within SAF/XC before becoming the military's top systems official July 8.

Air Force leaders established SAF/XC in May to consolidate policy formulation and execution, acquisition and resources, and workforce governance for business and warfighting IT. Last December they announced plans to create a new IT headquarters by merging the former offices of the CIO, deputy chief of staff for warfighting integration — the position that Hobbins previously held — and deputy chief of staff for installations and logistics.

"This is a natural evolution that links warfighting systems with business systems," Hobbins said.

Air Force IT officials should coordinate and manage acquisitions as widely across the service as possible, he said. "We have a good handle on what we're investing in IT. But we need to get away from islands of automation to an enterprise approach."

Hobbins speaks highly of the SAF/XC staff. During the six months prior to the creation of the new organization, staff members brainstormed what its hierarchy should look like, how it should operate and what its responsibilities should be.

"I like to have discussion sessions where I put forth ideas, people comment on them and they share their ideas," he said.

In creating SAF/XC, Air Force officials needed to understand the culture and functions of all three organizations before they could develop objectives for a unified office.

Hobbins manages with the aid of a white board and keeps a large one near the desk in his office on the fourth floor of the Pentagon's E-ring hallway.

"I generate ideas with pictures," he said, joking that a white board allows him to easily erase his bad ideas.

Hobbins is busy warding off speculation about his future. Last month, President Bush nominated Maj. Gen. Michael Peterson, director of the Air Forces Strategic Command and Air Component Coordination Element in U.S. Strategic Command, to become permanent director of the service's new IT organization.

With Peterson's nomination, Hobbins' future is up in the air. Some industry officials speculate that another Air Force or U.S. military position awaits Hobbins. All that he will say is that he can continue to serve or retire.

In the meantime, Hobbins will work with Peterson, who took over for Croom July 8 as the Air Force's director of information, services and integration.

Hobbins said he will help Peterson prepare for becoming director of SAF/XC upon his Senate confirmation.

The Lt. Gen. William 'Tom' Hobbins file

Position: Acting chief of the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, Chief of Warfighting Integration and Chief Information Officer.

Career highlights: Hobbins entered the Air Force in 1969 after completing Officer Candidate School. He logged more than 4,275 flight hours flying the T-38 Talon, AT-28 Trojan, A-10 Warthog attack-and-tank-killer aircraft, and the F-15C/E Eagle jetfighter. He has commanded five Air Force organizations, most recently the 12th Air Force and U.S. Southern Command Air Forces at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. Hobbins became deputy chief of staff for warfighting integration in 2003 and was chosen acting chief of the Air Force's new information technology organization this year.

Education: Bachelor of science degree in business finance from the University of Colorado and master's degree in business administration from Troy State University in Alabama. Pilot and leadership training at Squadron Officer School, Armed Forces Staff College, Air War College, Joint Flag Officer Warfighting Course, Joint Force Air Component Commander Course and National Security Leadership Course.

Family: Wife Robbin, three sons, two daughters and five grandchildren. Two of Hobbins' sons are active-duty pilots in the Air Force and the other is entering the Marine Corps.

Hobbies: Building large radio-controlled model airplanes and flying them with fellow enthusiasts in the Charles County, Md., Radio Controller Club.

Last book read: "It's All About Service: How to Lead Your People to Care for Your Customers" by Ray Pelletier. "It's inspiring. It's about coaching," Hobbins said.


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