8th AF Boss on Hypersonics, B-21, Long-Range Strike, and B-52 Re-Engining

The AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, likely to be the Air Force’s first operational hypersonic missile, could be a temporary measure until more advanced types come along, said 8th Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Mark E. Weatherington.

On a livestream event with AFA’s Mitchell Institute, Weatherington, who is also the commander of the Joint Global Strike Operations Center at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., said the service plans to try out “a range of capabilities” in hypersonics, and industry is competing for those programs right now.

Video: The Mitchell Institute on YouTube

“I think we’ll see kind of an uneven development,” he said of hypersonics. “We’ll see some systems that are early to the fight, and ARRW may be one of those.” Being early, it will “demonstrate some capability” and give Global Strike Command a chance to experiment with concepts of operation for hypersonic systems. It will help the command decide: “What are our considerations for planning and executing and integrating them into the fight?” Weatherington said.

But there will also be “room for … a range of weapons” in different size categories, he said.

“If you’re talking something really large, it’s probably going to be on a bomber aircraft. But you’re also going to want to develop some that are a little bit smaller, that are hypersonic, [with] maybe less range … or payload” that could fit on bombers or fighters. Key to their development, he said, will be understanding “the target, where it’s at, where it’s going, how do we provide updates if there is a longer time of flight, even though it’s hypersonic.”

The Air Force recently asked industry leaders to answer a request for information on an air-breathing hypersonic missile that would be smaller than the boost-glide ARRW. That new system is known as Mayhem, and it builds at least somewhat on the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC, the Air Force has been exploring with DARPA. 

On the B-21, Weatherington said the first bomber, which is now under construction, will fly “no earlier than ’22,” which is slightly beyond a late 2021 estimate offered by Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson last year. Otherwise, though, he said the new secret bomber is “on track, on schedule,” and coming in at “a little less” than the predicted unit cost.

He confirmed that the Air Force is considering accelerating the program—not its development, but the rate at which the service buys the airplane. That would allow the Air Force to more quickly eliminate the B-2 and B-1 bombers, reducing the logistics and training footprint of the bomber force and helping it become more efficient.

“If we get a steeper ramp, then you’ll see an earlier IOC,” or initial operational capability date, he said.

Weatherington said it’s likely the bomber force will contract before it begins to grow again. That will create a challenge for building a seasoned bomber pilot force, so Global Strike Command is working with Air Education and Training Command to push more B-1 Weapon System Officers into pilot training. There were two B-1 WSOs in the first Pilot Training Next class last year, he noted.

“We have to leverage the talent” already in the force, he said.

The arrival of the B-21 will change the complexion of the bomber fleet considerably, Weatherington noted. “Your bomber force will become two-thirds low observable, from one that is only 20 percent LO today.” This is a “big change” and affects “how we plan, operate, the facilities we use, everything.” Spreading the stealth enterprise “across multiple bases instead of just one base, currently at Whiteman (Air Force Base, Mo.), will force us to organize and operate differently than we do now,” he said.

While he’s aware of calls to cancel the Long Range Standoff missile on the grounds that a cruise missile with either conventional or nuclear warheads would be destabilizing, Weatherington said it has been that way for decades with the Air-Launched Cruise Missile. Adversaries also seem to “embrace ambiguity” in capabilities, “from ‘little green men’ to cruise missiles to ballistic missiles,” he said. The LRSO is “not escalatory.”

“I’m sure they would be delighted” if the U.S. unilaterally moved to limit its bomber capabilities, Weatherington asserted. Cruise missiles, he said, “are not new,” and he lamented that “we get trapped in these intense theoretical debates” that limit U.S. capabilities needlessly.

As for the escalatory nature of cruise missiles, “we message intentions. We monitor telltale signs” of adversary movements toward a first strike, he said.

The LRSO program downselected from two contractors to one earlier this year, and that step was also early. This in turn means the program could be accelerated, Weatherington pointed out.

“The sole source [decision] in April provided an opportunity to accelerate some of the milestones; Milestone B or IOC by about a year each,” he said. “Global Strike Command … will look for opportunities to accelerate it.” He said the missile has “good funding and support.”

While the idea of an Arsenal Plane has been around for decades, Weatherington said, there are problems with two ideas recently getting attention: The idea of adapting a commercial airliner as cruise missile or standoff weapon carrier, or of using airlift aircraft to carry “palletized munitions.”

“I think when you do the analysis you find that it’s actually cheaper and more effective to purpose-build an airplane that does all this,” he said, acknowledging that the B-52 already is an “Arsenal Plane,” but not answering a question on why another platform might be needed to supplement it in such a role.

“If there was a way to rapidly and easily convert” an existing platform for such a role, it would be “a neat route to go,” he said.

Before pursuing palletized munitions, he said, planners should think about “how much excess airlift capacity they think we have” and then weigh that against strategies requiring sudden, heavy movement of people, vehicles, and equipment.

“You may not have as much excess airlift [as] you think you have … for delivery of those palletized munitions,” he said, but it’s “something to watch.”

Weatherington said that when the B-52 engine replacement program gets going, the fleet will see some “30-40 refurbs per year” of their powerplants, suggesting the installation program could happen over a period of three or so years instead of the 10 that AFGSC has previously mentioned. However, he noted the B-52 will also be getting a new radar, is finishing a connectivity upgrade, and will see improvements to its internal weapon carriage capability. The latter could provide the capacity equivalent of 20 additional bombers, he said.

The 8th Air Force leader also said there should be some joint analysis about how much long-range strike capabilities the other services require.

“I’m not surprised, given the capabilities that near-peer adversaries possess—and are developing—that all the services are looking for ways to influence warfighting outcomes from a greater range. And to some degree, this exploration of diversity in capabilities is vital” to building a competitive force.

However, the Pentagon “should absolutely conduct some sort of joint analysis of different long-range strike capabilities. Some redundancy … may be needed. Some differentiation is essential.”