The first two F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft assigned to the 354th Fighter Wing taxi on the flightline at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, April 21, 2020. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Karen Tomasik.
Photo Caption & Credits


Air Force Budget Seeks Addition By Subtraction

By John A. Tirpak

DOD is requesting $715 billion for defense in fiscal 2022, a modest adjustment compared to what Congress appropriated for 2021. But within the Department of the Air Force’s slice of that spending, numerous changes are in store. 

The department, which comprises the Air Force, Space Force, and a sizable “pass-through” account that goes directly to intelligence programs, is asking for $212.8 billion in fiscal 2022. That includes $173.7 billion for the Air Force, $17.4 billion for the Space Force, and $39 billion in pass-through funding for classified defense intelligence programs. The combined total represents an increase of $7.3 billion over the enacted 2021 budget of $205.5 billion, or about 3.3 percent. 

The overall defense strategy remains squarely focused on China as the pacing threat to U.S. security, emphasizing modernization and aiming to shed legacy systems that do not lend themselves to high-end conflicts with peer competitors. For the Air Force, that means planning to divest 201 aircraft in 2022 while investing in just 91 new airplanes. The short-term payoff is about $1.4 billion in 2022 savings that can be invested in developing new weapons and systems. 

Included is a 2.7 percent increase in military and civilian pay, and an increase in the Defense Department’s Total Force, which would grow by 3,400 to 515,300 in 2022. The Space Force would gain about 2,000 of those positions, while the Air Force would give up about 750, finishing the year with a force of around 328,300. 


Air Force leaders say they “fully funded” the nuclear enterprise, including the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent to replace the Minuteman III ICBM force, the National Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) infrastructure program, the Long-Range Standoff missile, and the B-21 bomber. Other priority development investments include the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), to succeed today’s fifth-generation fighters; boost-glide and air-breathing hypersonic missiles; and B-52 modernization, including new radar, engines, and communications connectivity. 

Munition purchases will decline in 2022, said Maj. Gen. James D. Peccia III, deputy assistant secretary for budget. He said both the Joint Direct Attack Munition and Small-Diameter Bomb “are at, or approaching, healthy inventory levels,” and the Air Force intends instead to invest in developing advanced systems like the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range, the stealthy conventional Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, and new hypersonic weapons, such as the AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon.

The budget invests $22.9 billion—or about 15 percent of its total—for new weapons. Those include just 48 new F-35A fighters, down from 60 approved by Congress the past three years; the Air Force did not include more F-35s on its unfunded priority list released a week later, as it has in the past, instead asking for an additional 12 F-15EX fighters on top of the 12 included in the proposed budget. The new-build F-15EX, a two-seat model that can be flown by a single pilot, is needed to replace aging F-15C/D models, the Air Force says, “to ensure near-term readiness.”

Air Force Budget

 Meanwhile, the Air Force will continue to update and improve the F-22 fighter, spending about $480 million on advanced sensors. 

The Advanced Battle Management System, new weapons systems like NGAD, and the rest of the research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) program add up to 18 percent of the Air Force budget, a total of $28.8 billion. 

Some 40 percent of the Air Force budget, or $63.2 billion, would fund operations and maintenance, with flying hours reduced slightly from $7.8 billion enacted in 2021, to $7.6 billion in 2022. In total, that’s a reduction of 87,000 hours. Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget Maj. Gen. James D. Peccia III, briefing the press on the budget, attributed the reduced flying hours to “the change in global posture overseas,” saying reduced operations in Afghanistan accounted for 66,000 of the 87,000 of the reduction. 

The remaining cut in hours “were really risk that we could take on peacetime flying,” Peccia said, noting that the Air Force had not spent down its full flying hour budget in recent years. 

The 2022 budget plan eliminates the Overseas Contingency Operations account, the separate war account known as OCO. Instead, USAF’s base budget absorbs those charges, including $7.9 billion in “Direct War and Enduring Costs” included under operations and maintenance. 

The pay raise adds $573 million for uniformed personnel and $361 million for civilians, plus another $183 million for civilian bonuses and awards. To keep up with the rising cost of housing, the department is asking for 3.8 percent more to fund the basic allowance for housing, at a cost of $221 million. Another $56 million would cover a 2.3 percent increase in the basic allowance for subsistence. 


The $28.8 billion requested for RDT&E represents an increase of less than 1 percent, up $200 million over the 2021 enacted amount. The B-21 represents the biggest R&D program, with $2.873 billion, up $30 million from the year before. The biggest increase is in funds for GBSD, which nearly doubles from $1.447 billion to $2.554 billion. USAF wants to increase investment in NGAD by more than 50 percent, from $902 million to $1.525 billion. 

RDT&E for the F-35 would increase from $816 million to $1.055 billion as Block 4 upgrades and Tech Refresh 3 advance. Development of B-52 upgrades would grow from $483 million to $716 million. Meanwhile, the much discussed Advanced Battle Management System, the centerpiece of USAF’s connectivity push, would grow by $46 million, to $204 million to fund “info sharing across fifth-gen [fighter] and [command and control] nodes.” 

Prototyping of the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment (SCIFIRE), and Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM) systems would also see increased investment, rising from $386 million to $438 million. 

Air Force procurement accounts drop from $26.1 billion in 2021 to $22.9 billion in 2022. The 48 F-35 fighters it wants would cost $5.095 billion, while 12 F-15EX fighters cost $1.335 billion. The Air Force also wants to acquire 14 more KC-46A tankers for $2.6 billion and 14 HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopters for $930 million.

The Fiscal 2022 budget request identifies these 201 aircraft to be divested:

USAF requested a steep drop in procurement of Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs, from 16,800 in 2021 to just 1,919 in 2022. Peccia said the service is “comfortable with where we are” on JDAM inventories and decided to reduce the buy and put the money toward developing new weapons. 

Purchases of Small Diameter Bomb 1 would likewise decrease from 2,462 in fiscal ’21 to 998 in ’22. The SDB II buy would grow slightly, from 743 in ’21 to 998 in ’22. The AGM-114 Hellfire, AIM-9 Sidewinder, and AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles all would see reductions, as well. 

Senior Pentagon leaders touted sharply increased production of the stealthy, long-range AGM-158 JASSM-ER, from 400 units in ’21 to 525 rounds in ’22, describing the missile as key to a counter-China strategy. 

For the first time, the Air Force gave procurement numbers for the AGM-183A ARRW hypersonic missile, saying USAF will buy 12 rounds in 2022 at a cost of $161 million, for a unit price of $13.4 million each. Pentagon officials said the objective price of the weapon will be much lower, but the Air Force did not offer any official out-years insight into its cost. 

One area of substantial growth is Air Force military construction. The service is pursuing projects worth $2.8 billion, up 75 percent from the $1.6 billion enacted in 2021 and more than double the $1.27 billion requested last year. It is the largest year-over-year increase in military construction and family housing for the department in more than a decade. USAF officials have cited a $30 billion maintenance and repair backlog that can no longer be deferred. 

Military construction investment is “almost double from the current level, but a lot of this is stuff that has been expected or long overdue,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “[Only] about $1.4 billion of it is for what they classify as new construction and facilities.” 

The Air Force would build two new dormitories for basic military training and fund $185 million in projects under the European Deterrence Initiative. It also invests $572 million for 13 projects in the Indo-Pacific region and $105 million for family housing projects around the world. 

Retired Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright, president of the Air Force Association, said Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. is “doing what he promised: accelerating change.” Congress and the Defense Department, he added, “need to do their part to ensure that capacity traded away today for capability tomorrow is not lost forever. They must be replaced with the capacity needed to deter any and all adversaries and to fight and win when needed.” 

One way the Pentagon and Congress can help, Wright said, would be to move the “pass-through” out of the Department of the Air Force budget and instead put it with other agency funding not included in the services’ budgets. Leaving it in the Air Force budget “deprives both the Air Force and Space Force of the funds they need to modernize and equip their forces.”                                                                                                              

Space Force Spending Starts to Grow 

Air Force Maj. Gen. James Peccia III, deputy assistant secretary for budget, briefs the news media on President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 defense budget on May 28. DOD

Growing the force and its capabilities is on the agenda, but funding is still tight.

By Amanda Miller

The Space Force budget would grow by 13 percent under the Pentagon’s fiscal 2022 budget plan. At $17.4 billion, it will account for $1 of every $10 spent by the Department of the Air Force on USAF programs in 2022, representing a $2 billion increase from the $15.4 billion Congress approved for 2021.

USSF would grow to 8,400 Guardians under the plan, acquire satellites from the Army and Navy, and invest $800 million in new classified programs. But it’s total investment is still dwarfed by the $39 billion in “non-blue” funding buried in the Department of the Air Force’s budget. Those so-called pass-through funds are neither controlled—nor even touched—by the department. 

Air Force Maj. Gen. James D. Peccia III, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, said much of the $2 billion increase simply funds operations and maintenance of USSF facilities that will cut over to USSF ownership and funding over the course of the next year. He estimated that transferring satellites and space missions, such as the Army’s Defense Wideband Enterprise SATCOM System and the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System, amount to about half of the increase. 

In addition, Peccia said, “there are well over $800 million in classified programs that went to the Space Force this year for new programs.” 

The Space Force proposes adding another 1,966 more Active-duty members in fiscal 2022, transferring in 900 Airmen, 302 soldiers, 17 sailors and officers, and 747 brand new Guardians. 

The Space Force’s 2022 budget also includes:

  • $37 million for the Space Warfighting Analysis Center to “generate new operational expertise with unique analytical tools, datasets, and intelligence to develop operational architecture options to fulfill space missions.” 
  • A $132 million increase to keep the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared missile warning system on schedule, so it can replace the Space-Based Infrared System in 2028 and “provide increased missile warning, missile defense, battlespace awareness, and technical intelligence capabilities with resilience and defensive features.” 
  •  $68 million for two more GPS III satellites and $64 million for “enhanced on-orbit management.” 
  • $341 million for five National Security Space Launch vehicles, up from three in fiscal 2021. 

Separately, the Defense Department budget proposes more than a threefold increase in research, development, test, and evaluation spending by the Space Development Agency. SDA would increase RDT&E spending from $267.1 million in fiscal 2021 to $808.8 million in fiscal 2022, as it seeks to create a constellation of low-cost, open-architecture, data-relay and missile-tracking satellites. 

SDA’s first-ever procurement request is also in the 2022 budget plan: $74.1 million. Established in 2019, SDA is part of the Office of the Secretary of Defense but is supposed to become part of the Space Force eventually.

Unfunded Priorities

The Space Force may be poised for a $2 billion budget boost, but there are other priorities on its list that aren’t yet funded. In a list of non-budgeted items it counts as priorities sent to Congress, it said it is seeking an additional $832 million to protect existing assets, make its space architecture more resilient, better train Guardians as warfighters, and support new missions, according to the service’s unfunded priorities list submitted to Congress.

The list details priorities not funded by the Space Force’s $17.4 billion budget request for 2022 and is in addition to $4.2 billion in Air Force unfunded priorities. This is the first year the Space Force has submitted its own UPL—last year the Department of the Air Force requested $4.2 billion, of which $3.2 billion was for the Air Force and $1 billion was for the fledging Space Force.

This year’s Space Force list includes $225 million “to protect and sustain what we have today,” including $122 million in weapons system sustainment to bring it up to a “moderate risk” at 83 percent funded, according to the UPL.

It also includes $66 million to fix space facilities and infrastructure. 

“Resilient and ‘right‐sized’ infrastructure is needed to effectively deliver capability to support the current and emerging contested space domain,” states the service’s UPL. The funding would address “critical blast door, water, ventilation, and sewer improvements at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado.”

More than half of the additional funding the Space Force wants—$431 million—is for developing a “warfighting punch.” It aims to invest $279 million in five classified programs for which no additional information was available, and $86 million to accelerate development of a unique Space Force professional military education program for 100 resident and 3,000 online students annually by fiscal 2023. Included in this training would be a new digital test prototype, undergraduate space training, and advanced warfighter courses, according to the unfunded priority list documents obtained by Air Force Magazine.

The Space Force also wants an additional $33.3 million to buy “Space Test and Training Range and Advanced Threat Simulation Environment support” and to “deliver multi-domain range integration of space, cyber, and air to the warfighter … and develop realistic network emulators and range control.” Another $1.8 million would modernize its space aggressor equipment to realistically replicate threats.

The Space Force is also asking for $113 million to “grow new missions,” including $28 million to expand the Blackjack radio frequency payloads for tactical surveillance, $70 million to accelerate an Air Force Research Laboratory program for cislunar operations and deep space domain awareness, $8 million to develop a Long Duration Propulsive EELV Secondary Payload Adapter, and $7 million to operationalize the Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing Observatory.

The Blackjack RF payload supports tactical surveillance, air domain awareness, and threat assessment for Air Combat Command. “Funding supports completion of nonrecurring engineering, initial hardware delivery, data processing, and space vehicle integration required to demonstrate on-orbit capability,” states the document. “If approved, funding would be applied to DARPA Blackjack contracts within one to two months. Space-to-surface ISR capability demonstration would occur in FY22/23 and will inform investment decisions by the Air Force and Space Force.” 

And finally, the Space Force wants $63 million to help it build more resilient architectures, including fixing procurement for space-rated crypto devices that support satellite launches and systems, such as GPS III, the Wideband Global Satellite Communications system, and next-generation space-based missile warning systems.                                    

Pentagon Budget Boosts R&D to Counter China 

By Brian W. Everstine

The Pentagon’s $715 billion budget request for fiscal 2022 seeks to increase research and development, focusing on the Indo-Pacific region and what it will take to win there. 

The Biden administration’s first budget request, released May 28, includes the biggest research budget in Defense Department history—$112 billion, up 5.1 percent over the 2021 request. The services need new weapons and technology to “meet the array of security challenges that we face today and in the future,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen H. Hicks. 

“To deter aggression, the U.S. military will need to be ready,” Hicks said at a roll-out briefing on the new budget plan. “The FY 2022 request provides the resources necessary to ensure that DOD maintains that credible deterrent by sustaining readiness and protecting investments in critical capabilities. The budget also documents some of the tough choices we had to make. We lessen our reliance on vulnerable systems that are no longer suited for today’s advanced threat environment or are too costly to sustain.” 

As previewed in the “skinny budget” announcement released in April, the 2022 request does away with the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, moving $42.1 billion in “enduring” operations funding into the base budget. Compared to the former OCO account, that’s down 22 percent from 2021, showing the savings as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan and draws down in Iraq and Syria. 

A new $5.1 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) seeks to invest in long-range strike capability, new ships, and more exercises to help the U.S. expand its influence in the region. Similarly, the Pentagon continues to invest in its European Deterrence Initiative, now several years old, seeking $3.7 billion to continue programs there intended to secure Europe and counter Russian aggression toward its neighbors.

“To defend the nation, the department in this budget takes a clear-eyed approach to Beijing and provides the investments to prioritize China as our pacing challenge,” Hicks said. “The [People’s Republic of China] has become increasingly competitive in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world. It has the economic, military, and technological capability to change the international system and American interests within it.” 

The request includes $617 million for climate-related spending, largely for strengthening installation resilience in the aftermath of major damage to bases such as Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., from natural disasters. The spending also includes science and technology investments aimed at reducing the department’s energy demand and research to improve energy efficiency of current platforms.                                            

F-15EX Wins Some, Loses Some in Northern Edge

An F-15EX Eagle supports Northern Edge 21 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, May 12, in its first appearance in a major force exercise. Statistics on the airplanes’ performance have not been tabulated, but the fighters flew 33 sorties and tallied both kills and losses. Alejandro Peña/USAF

Far from disappointed, USAF says the exercise was not designed for “zero losses.”

By John A. Tirpak

The F-15EX both shot down somººe adversaries and was shot down itself during the recent Northern Edge wargame in Alaska, and work is underway to analyze the results of its first appearance in the major force exercise, according to a test pilot who participated.

Statistics such as the mission capable rates of the aircraft have not yet been tabulated, but the jets flew a combined 33 sorties during the exercise from April 28 through May 14. 

The two first-of-their-kind F-15EXs—being used for concurrent operational and developmental test—played in Northern Edge only two weeks after they were delivered to the Air Force. The goal was to see if they could play the part now met in the Combat Air Forces by the F-15C, plus add some capability to that mission, according to Lt. Col. John O’Rear of the 84th Test and Evaluation Squadron. 

Among the test points were how the F-15EXs could integrate with F-15Cs as well as larger forces, including fifth-generation F-22s and F-35s, O’Rear said. 

“We flew them with two-ships of F-15C models, two-ships of F-15E models, … two-ships of EXs supporting other fourth-gen [flights], and integrating with the F-22 and F-35,” he said.

Though the F-15EXs “tallied some kills while they were up there,” O’Rear acknowledged there were also some losses.

The more clutter, the more electronic attack you have out there, the more difficult it is for enemy sensors to work through that.

Lt. Col. John O’Rear, 84th Test and Evaluation Squadron

“If you go into any large force exercise and you come back with everybody—with no blue losses—I would probably say that your threat is not as robust as it needs to be, in order to get the learning,” he said. Northern Edge was meant to be a multi-service exercise against a near-peer threat having some low-observable capabilities. 

Although O’Rear couldn’t speak to the incidents where the F-15EXs were shot down, “in this kind of environment, most of your blue ‘deaths’ are probably going to be outside of visual range, just because of the threat we’re replicating,” he said. Visual-range dogfights are “not something that happens a whole bunch.”

The jets also exercised the Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS), an electronic warfare suite meant to buy the jet more survivability against modern threats. It was the second wargame outing for the EPAWSS, after a Black Flag exercise in December 2020 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. 

“We’re still gathering data” on how the EPAWSS performed, but the initial, “anecdotal” results “look promising,” O’Rear said. “In general, it’s looking like it was on track for what we were expecting to see” at Northern Edge. 

The exercises pitted about 50 Red team aircraft against a like number of Blue forces, he said. The EPAWSS “was able to integrate in a large force environment with multiple sources of … radio frequency being transmitted across the airspace. … It was able to process that.” 

In addition to the self-protection features of EPAWSS, a test point was to see if it could help stealthy F-22 and F-35s operating in proximity. The additional jamming “can help the F-35 get closer to the adversary,” O’Rear said. “The more clutter, the more electronic attack you have out there, the more difficult it is for enemy sensors to work through that.” The EPAWSS was able to integrate with “a coordinated electronic attack throughout the force package.”

The exercise also imposed severe jamming of communications and Global Positioning System data, compelling pilots to operate around those limitations and rely on “contracts” with other USAF aircraft, aircraft from other services, and ground fires to “be where they’re supposed to be” at the appointed time, O’Rear said.

The F-15EX has “full air-to-ground capabilities,” but those were not exercised in the wargame, he said. “The EX’s primary goal was to go up there and execute the current C-model mission.” It performed air dominance as well as homeland defense missions, he said.

The threat was meant to be one “where we don’t have the ability to go out … and take zero losses,” he said.

The point “is not winning every match. It’s to learn where our weaknesses are and how we mitigate those capability gaps,” added O’Rear.

In connecting with other-service assets in a “degraded ops environment,” he said, “we saw a lot of places where we’re doing really well, and places where we need some work.” Alternative communication methods included Link 16 and “gateway options” in which an interpreter aircraft translates the special waveforms of stealth aircraft to each other and fourth-gen aircraft. There was “redundancy and effectiveness across the entire force package,” he said. 

Capabilities that the F-15EX adds to the F-15C are its fly-by-wire system; two extra weapon stations—which O’Rear said was “pretty impressive” in the overall mix—an updated cockpit with touch-screen color displays; EPAWSS and advanced radar capabilities.

“I’m a big fan of the touch screen,” he said. 

Planning for the F-15EX’s participation in Northern Edge started more than a year ahead of time, he said—long before the aircraft were delivered, or even built.

“We set the milestones” for the EX test program “over a year ago,” he said. The test team looked at whether they thought they could be ready in time, but inserting the EX into a large force exercise—the next one won’t happen for two years—was an opportunity too valuable to pass up, he said. The EXs were used to evaluate new tactics and techniques, as well as being put through their paces.

 Northern Edge is different from a Red Flag, O’Rear explained. 

“You have the option to use baseline tactics, but the emphasis is not just getting upgrades for [Combat Air Forces] wingmen and flight leads. It’s to go out there and do high-end tests in a high-end, highly contested, and degraded environment, and to see if the new tactics we’re developing are helpful—or a hindrance.”

The F-15EX has been touted as being capable of carrying and launching “outsize” air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, but none of these was exercised, even in simulated form, during the event. However, a B-52 involved in the wargame launched a simulated AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response hypersonic missile during the exercise. 

Another lesson relearned, O’Rear said, is that the various services have a different language that must be learned to properly coordinate. “Everybody has their own doctrinal language,” he said.                                       

An F-15EX Eagle II takes flight for the first time out of Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., April 26, before departing for Northern Edge 2021. USAF officials say they are not disappointed by the aircraft’s performance, despite some losses in beyond-visual-range dogfights. 1st Lt. Savanah Bray

First Peak at USAF’s Fighter Road Map: Fewer Jets and Types

The Air Force continues to invest in upgrades for the F-22 Raptor, including new sensors in 2022, but long-term plans suggest the F-22 will be retired sometime in the 2030s. Airman 1st Class Jayden Ford

By John A. Tirpak and Tobias Naegele

The Biden administration’s fiscal 2022 budget plan came without the typical projection for the next five years of spending contained in the Future Year Defense Program (FYDP), giving budget watchers in Congress and industry less insight than normal on where the force is headed. 

But hints from Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. and talking points obtained by the Air Force—that officials later called “pre-decisional”—point to controversial decisions coming down the pike. These include retiring the F-22 in the 2030s and cutting back near-term purchases of F-35 fighters while waiting for the much anticipated Block 4 update to come online and sustainment costs to come down. 

Brown said May 12, two weeks before the budget release, that his pending tactical aviation study, launched earlier this year, aims to settle on a plan to have a range of options that can shift as the threat does. “What I’m looking for,” Brown said, is not necessarily “the exact answer of what is the exact mix” of combat aircraft for the future, but rather, “I’m really looking for a window of options.” 

The point, he said, is “the facts and assumptions based on the threat will change over time.”

While the budget seeks permission to retire 201 aircraft in fiscal 2022, the talking points go further, defining a plan to retire 421 legacy fighters over the next five years while acquiring just 304 new F-35As and F-15EXs. The Air Force would then invest its savings in developing and fielding the Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter in eight to 15 years, and building a future Multi-Role fighter, called MR-X, in the 2030s.

The Air Force would phase out its 234 F-15C/Ds by October 2026 and retire 124 pre-Block F-16s in the same time frame. It would also retire 63 A-10s between now and October 2023. Meanwhile, 84 new F-15EX and 220 F-35A fighters would join the force, for a net reduction of 117 jets over five years. 

Brown called his tac-air study an “internal document” for the service, rather than the public. “It’s really designed to help me shape the ’23 [budget],” Brown said. The Joint Staff and the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office are contributing to the review.

But if the study isn’t complete, a picture is emerging of where the force is heading. The extant seven-fleet mix of fighters will eventually be reduced to “four … plus one,” Brown said, with the F-35A as the heart of the fleet, supplemented by the F-15EX, the F-16 or its successor, the Next -Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) family of systems and, for the time being, the A-10. 

NGAD will be the “air superiority fighter of the future,” Brown said, adding that he’s counting on digital design and acquisition to provide system flexibility to evolve the capability as the threats change. 

The long-term plan means the Air Force does not expect to get more than another 15 or 18 years out of the F-22, and that the F-15E will also be phased out in the 2030s. The last F-15Es were bought in the late 1990s, but the bulk of the force is much older. The F-15EX is more like a new-build F-15E than the C/D models it is replacing, and Air Force contract with Boeing allows for acquiring as many as 200 EX models.

Final decisions on how many of each of the four-plus-one fighters in the plan are needed may not be finalized for another eight years or so, Brown said. “But you need to start shaping the thought process,” he added. “I can’t do all this in one year. This is why the collaboration with Congress is so important. I’ve got to lay this out with some analysis and then have a conversation [about] where we’re headed.

Accelerate Change or Lose

Since becoming Chief last August, Brown has pounded on his bumper-sticker objective to “accelerate change, or lose,” applying the concept to operations, people, and weapons development. Software and its capacity for updates and shifts is changing the way he and others look at hardware design. They want open architectures that can be more flexible and allow for new capabilities to roll out over time, just as new apps and operating system enhancements are rolled out on mobile phones and computers. 

“It is a different mindset,” Brown said later in May. “It’s a different approach. And as we’ve worked with our industry partners, I’m seeing that we are moving in that direction. And we’ve got to continue moving in that direction.” 

All that entails risk, which is OK with him. “You can’t be innovative and risk-averse at the same time,” Brown added. “We’ve got to be able to take a little bit of risk, and some things are not going to work. But as long as we’re failing forward, that’s [what] we need to be, so we can accelerate change. So we don’t lose.”

F-35 Purchases

Curiously, the Air Force’s pre-decisional talking points don’t accelerate F-35 purchases. Not only did the Air Force ask for just 48 in 2022, but it left the aircraft off its unfunded priority list. More surprising to many: USAF’s proposed buying plan drops annual F-35 purchases to 43 in the out-years. Whether this is a serious plan or more of a warning to its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, because of soaring sustainment costs, remains to be seen. But the budget talking points obtained by Air Force Magazine appear to offer Lockheed an ultimatum: Bring those costs down in the coming years or expect sharply reduced purchases. Ironically, perhaps, incoming Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who was not involved in preparing these plans, testified an opposing view. He suggested the route to lower operating costs is faster acquisition. Where the service comes out may not be known until the 2023 plan—and its Future Years Defense Program—is published.

Early in the program, the Air Force set an operating cost goal of $4.1 million per airplane per year. That plan, in constant 2012 dollars, based those projections on F-16 operating costs. But the F-16 is a far less sophisticated aircraft, lacking the stealth coatings and materials and advanced sensors and electronics on the F-35. Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mark D. Kelly said in February he was not “brimming with confidence” that actual F-35 support costs could match those levels. 

In fact, according to the USAF talking points, the service expects sustainment cost per tail per year to be $7.8 million in 2036 (again, in 2012 base year dollars). 

“This is an unaffordable sustainability model,” the talking points conclude. “The Air Force needs the F-35’s advanced capabilities, [but] in affordable capacity.”                                 

China Accelerates its Nuclear Rise  

By John A. Tirpak

China’s strategic portfolio is advancing at a “breathtaking” pace, even faster than the U.S. anticipated, said Air Force Global Strike Command boss Gen. Timothy M. Ray. 

Multiple times over the past six months China demonstrated capabilities that the U.S. intelligence assessment had failed to see. Those assessments fell far “short of what they were accomplishing,” Ray said during an AFA Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies streaming event June 3. 

As China works to secure its regional sphere of influence, U.S. allies and partners “need to know we’re there for them,” Ray said. China’s capabilities are growing, he added. “I think [China is] thinking very clearly about the regional and global problem set. I think they’re building the arsenal to address it.” 

China’s nuclear prowess is “pretty intimidating,” Ray said. “They’re working through the problem—warheads, delivery systems, command and control, warning—how fast, and how you field it.” The pace of China’s progress, and the “diversity of their approach … commands respect.” 

This is why the U.S. Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missile program is so essential. Building GBSD will be $38 billion less costly than upgrading and extending the life of the Minuteman III missiles now on standby, and every time the program is pushed out or delayed “the price tag has gotten bigger.” 

Giving up the land-based missile leg of the nuclear triad doesn’t eliminate the threat; the U.S. would need other ways to deter potential aggression. “We’ll need more bombers, tankers, crews,” he said. They will have to be on constant alert, and that would be a new “bill to pay that would come at the expense of other things.” 

Meanwhile, bombers are needed for other requirements. Ray said AFGSC has “tripled the number” of bomber task force deployments over the last year, a pace that cannot be sustained indefinitely. 

B-52s were simultaneously deployed in Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific in April. Following a year in which AFGSC conducted 18 bomber task force deployments, the rate is now “about 50 percent higher this year,” Ray said. That’s “a fourfold increase from ’19 to ’21.” 

This is a pace “that we can keep up just a little bit longer, but then I think we need to slow down just a touch, and get a little bit better at what we do,” Ray said. While the rest of the force scaled back its operating tempo during the COVID-19 pandemic, “we got better,” he said. “We had the best bomber readiness in the history of the command . … The B-1s slowed me down a little bit recently, [but] … nuclear readiness stayed high.”                             

ABMS, in New Phase, Prepares to Start Fielding

A communications pod installed in a KC-46 Pegasus will allow the F-35 Lightning II and F-22 Raptor to connect and instantly receive and transmit the most up-to-date information to try to ensure decision superiority. This concept is known as Capability Release #1 under the Advanced Battle Management System framework, which the USAF announced on May 21 is entering a new phase. U.S. Air Force graphic.

It’s time to move ABMS forward.

By Amy McCullough

The Air Force is ready to start buying some of the technology that will make up the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), moving the program from theory into development.

“Nearly two years of rigorous development and experimentation have shown beyond a doubt the promise of ABMS,” USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said in a May 21 press release. “We’ve demonstrated that our ABMS efforts can collect vast amounts of data from air, land, sea, space, and cyber domains; process that information; and share it in a way that allows for faster and better decisions.” 

ABMS, which was conceived as a replacement for the canceled E-8 Joint STARS recapitalization program, is envisioned as a network of sensors and connected technologies intended to promote rapid data sharing among a plethora of weapon systems. ABMS is really a new way of fighting that will provide the “backbone of a network-centric approach to battle management.” 

Brig. Gen. Jeffery D. Valenzia is director of Joint Force Integration and head of the cross-functional team responsible for establishing the manpower, resources, and doctrinal infrastructure for the ABMS program. “Command and control (C2) is as timeless as warfare,” Valenzia said. “As the character of war changes, so, too, does the art and science of C2. In a data-dependent and data-saturated world, victory belongs to the side with decision superiority—the ability to … make sense of a complex and adaptive environment, and act smarter, faster, and better.” 

It’s time to move ABMS forward so we can realize—and ultimately use—the power and capability.CSAF Gen. Charles Q.  Brown Jr.

Under this next ABMS phase, the Department of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office will begin to field and install equipment and software on existing military aircraft, beginning with new communications pods for the KC-46 Pegasus tanker. In effect, these will become an airborne hotspot connecting USAF’s fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 fighters so they can communicate with each other in real time. 

Will Roper, who was then USAF’s assistant secretary of acquisition, predicted in December that the KC-46 pod was the most likely ABMS capability to be deployed soon. And Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost alluded to a new concept of operations for tankers, now dubbed “Capability Release No 1,” during an April virtual event hosted by AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “Why wouldn’t we change the calculus by doing different things, moving away from the antiquated view that AMC just brings stuff when they’re called … to be a maneuver force inside the threat ring?” Van Ovost asked.

In addition to outfitting the KC-46 with the communications pod, Randy Walden, program executive officer for the Rapid Capabilities Office, said the department is gearing up a host of other new digital capabilities. 

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.
PACAF Gen. Charles Brown Jr., speaks during a panel discussion at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 27, 2020. Staff photo by Mike Tsukamoto

“To build ABMS, you must first build the digital structures and pathways over which critical data is stored, computed, and moved,” he said in a press release. “The Department of the Air Force needs a smart, fast, and resilient ‘system of systems’ to establish information and decision superiority, and ABMS will be that solution.”

The Air Force requested $203.8 million for ABMS in its fiscal 2022 budget request, released in late May, a $45.4 million increase over the 2021 enacted funds. 

The Air Force actually requested $302.3 million in fiscal 2021, but lawmakers remain skeptical, effectively slashing the ABMS budget in half. “While the committee continues to support the Air Force’s new approach to command and control, the committee notes that the ABMS requirements and acquisition strategy remain unclear,” wrote members of the Senate Appropriations Committee in November 2020.

The Air Force has said the first phase of the ABMS program would last into the early 2020s, but Congress also wants a more specific timeline for when the program will reach initial operational capability. 

Program managers emphasized in the May 21 release that “the goal is speed and utility,” falling in line with Brown’s directive to “accelerate change or lose.” As such, whenever possible, components of ABMS will be derived from commercially available technology, requiring a close working relationship with industry. As of late last year, there were nearly 100 companies involved in the program. 

“This ability gives us a clear advantage, and it’s time to move ABMS forward so we can realize and ultimately use the power and capability it will provide,” Brown said in the release.   

Scoring Charts for the Air Force’s New Fitness Test

Air Force Basic Military Training trainee Chris-Ann Wilmoth (center), and others participate in a physical training session as part of the first female flight to complete the six-week BMT course at at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., July 1, 2020. Kemberly Groue/USAF

By Greg Hadley

As Airmen prepare for the return of physical fitness tests July 1, the Air Force released updated scoring charts May 26 to reflect the changes to those tests.

As previously announced, PT tests will no longer include the controversial waist measurement as a scored component, though Airmen will still be tape-tested once a year. Without the waist measurement, the maximum point value of the sit-up and push-up components will increase from 10 each to 20. The 1.5-mile run will remain at 60 points. 

Airmen will now be scored in five-year age groups, instead of 10-year cohorts like the previous test. The new age ranges start with all Airmen younger than 25 and then increase every five years until reaching 60 years or older. In order to pass, Airmen need to accumulate 75 total points and meet the minimum requirements for their age and sex in each individual component. 

The minimum requirements in the new scoring charts are lower across every age category for both men and women, while the standards for a maximum score were lowered for those who now are in the 25 to 29, 35 to 39, 45 to 49, and 55 to 59 age ranges. 

“Physical fitness is an important part of our everyday lives. It’s more than just a test—it’s a way of life, our readiness, and ultimately our future success,” Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass said in a press release. “July 1 is a chance to refocus on building a lifestyle of fitness and health, and I know our Airmen will be ready.” 

The Space Force will continue to follow these new guidelines until service-specific fitness policies are developed and fielded. 

The Air Force also has developed alternative “strength and cardiovascular testing exercise options” and plans to release them in the coming weeks, with the aim of Airmen being able to select which testing option is best for them, according to the release.

Those new testing options, however, won’t be available until January 2022. While the May 26 announcement didn’t detail what new exercises would be included, some of the options explored by the Air Force Fitness Working Group included a 20-meter shuttle run, row ergometry, planks, and burpees. 

NATO Buys, Operates Kessel Run’s Tanker Planning AP 

By Brian W. Everstine

NATO has bought and already used an application known as Jigsaw, which was developed by the Air Force’s in-house software development team, Kessel Run, to handle refueling tanker planning in the Middle East.

The alliance used Jigsaw to plan air-to-air refueling operations during the two-week exercise Ramstein Ambition 21, according to a press release.

“The use of the application during the NATO exercise showcases how far reaching and influential the modernization efforts of Kessel Run have become,” said Col. Brian Beachkofski, commander of Kessel Run, in the press release. “Our efforts to enhance our AOC Weapon Systems, now seem to be positively enhancing the abilities of our allies as well.”

NATO used the Jigsaw app, developed by the U.S. Air Force’s in-house software development team Kessel Run, to plan air-to-air refueling operations during Ramstein Ambition 21. OR-9 Sebastien Raffin/French Army/NATO

Jigsaw first rolled out in 2017 at the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, and NATO purchased the application in late 2020. The program brings together data from current, previous, and planned tanker operations to plan the most effective missions for deployed aircraft. It replaced a previous process in which five or six people would to spend up to eight hours each day drawing tanker plans on a whiteboard. USAF officials told Air Force Magazine in 2018 that they estimate the application has saved 400,000 to 500,000 pounds of fuel each week.

Kessel Run said the program has saved the Pentagon more than $500 million in fuel costs and “has provided the DOD with enhanced combat capabilities through its increased coordination in the planning of refueling missions,” according to the release.

NATO’s Allied Command Transformation also wanted Jigsaw to alleviate its “manpower intensive” refueling planning process. The software will be in use at NATO Air Operations Centers around the world.

“To keep our nations safe in such an unpredictable environment, we need to keep our Alliance strong,” said project lead Lt. Col. Jonathan Clow in the release. “Innovation and experimentation are critical components of NATO’s future defense, security, and deterrence.”                                                             

Contract Red Air Jet Crashes at Nellis, Killing Pilot                                                                              

By Amy McCullough

A Draken Mirage F1 conducts its first adversary air flight against Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., in 2020. A Draken F1 crashed, killing the pilot, during Red Air exercises at the base in May. Draken International

A contract-owned and -operated Mirage F1 crashed on the south side of Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., around 2:30 p.m. May 24. The pilot, who worked for Florida-based Draken International, was killed in the crash.

The pilot’s name has not yet been released. No one else was on board at the time of the crash, according to a release.

“Draken has received news of a downed aircraft out of Nellis … and the tragic loss of one of our pilots,” the company said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people and families affected by this event. We are doing everything in our power to assist them in this time of need, and we are working closely with federal, state, and local authorities. Draken U.S. is also cooperating with investigating agencies to determine what led to this tragic accident.” 

An Air Combat Command spokesperson told Air Force Magazine, “there’s no immediate operational impacts that we’re aware of,” and referred any addition questions to Draken. A company spokesperson said no additional information is available at this time. 

Draken originally started flying so-called “Red Air” missions at Nellis in 2015, using L-159 Honey Badgers and A-4 Skyhawks. The company recently started introducing French-built Mirage F1s, acquired from the Spanish air force, and Atlas Cheetahs, acquired from South Africa. The first F1 adversary air flight was just over a year ago, when F1s challenged USAF F-15E Strike Eagles on March 18, 2020. 

In June 2018, Draken won a $280 million contract, which runs through December 2023, to continue flying at Nellis. Draken contractors fly from 18 to 24 adversary air sorties a day at the base, “supporting the USAF Weapons School, operational test missions, Red Flag exercises, Formal Training Unit (FTU) syllabus rides from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., as well as combat readiness training out of Hill Air Force Base, Utah,” according to a 2018 release. 

In addition, the Draken is under contract to provide adversary air in support of the F-15E FTU at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., and the F-16 FTU at Kelly Field, Texas. They also support exercises at locations such as Holloman Air Force Base, N. M.; Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.; Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.; MCAS Cherry Point, N.C.; MCAS Miramar, Calif.; and Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

At the time of the crash, Draken aircraft were assigned to provide Red Air support for Air Mobility Command’s Mobility Guardian 2021 exercise in Michigan. They flew on May 24, but did not fly the day after the crash. Air Force Magazine was embedded with USAF forces during the exercise. 

The company owns 22 F1s, 12 supersonic Cheetahs, nine Aermacchi MB-339s, 27 MiG-21s, 21 L-159s, 13 A-4s, five L-39s, and one T-33, a company official previously told Air Force Magazine.

The last time a contractor-owned and operated adversary aircraft crashed while supporting USAF operations was in February at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. Two Airborne Tactical Advantage Company (ATAC) Mirage F1 pilots were treated for non-life-threatening injuries at the time. In 2018, the Hawaii Air National Guard also temporarily suspended Exercise Sentry Aloha after an ATAC Hawker Hunter crashed in the water a few miles off the coast. The pilot safely ejected and was rescued by a civilian sailboat. 

Draken and ATAC were among three companies awarded contracts in July 2020 worth up to $433.6 million to provide 5,418 annual sorties of adversary air at five bases. Tactical Air Support also received a contract. The awards are part of a potential $6.4 billion Combat Air Force/Contracted Air Support (CAF/CAS) indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract that could include up to 40,000 hours of adversary air at 12 fighter bases, plus 10,000 hours of close air support at nine bases. 

The service has authorized a total of seven companies to bid on contracts, and Nellis is expected to be the next big award. In addition to Draken, ATAC, and Tactical Air Support, other companies include Top Aces Corp., Air USA, Blue Air Training, and Coastal Defense. 

“The CAF/CAS contract remains in the base year execution phase, with requirement adaptations ongoing as anticipated,” an ACC spokesperson said. “However, any mishap of this magnitude always has an impact on the flying community. Our thoughts and deepest condolences are with the family, friends, and our partners at Draken during this time.”        

Airmen, Guardians Could Work Remotely Full Time Under New Guidance

An Airman in the 102nd Intelligence Wing works in the Mission Support Group staff office at Otis Air National Guard Base, Mass., April 11. Airmen returned to full, in-person drilling for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation. Airman Francesca Skridulis/ANG

By Brian W. Everstine

Uniformed Total Force Airmen and Guardians can telework and work remotely under new guidance from the Department of the Air Force, building on lessons learned from the past year. 

The Air Force on May 18 released updated guidance on telework, which gives service members the chance to work from a location other than their unit’s duty station—provided their job allows for it and commanders sign off on it. The new guidance also includes guidelines for civilian personnel. 

“The Department of the Air Force is using lessons learned about teleworking and remote work during the pandemic as an opportunity to grow,” said John A. Fedrigo, acting assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs, in a release. “The pandemic has shown we can be successful using telework in many areas of our mission, and it helps to bridge our current force structure to the force we need for the future.” 

The new guidance opens the door for an Airman or Guardian to work remotely if the squadron commander or equivalent, with input from supervisors, allows it. The ultimate decision will depend on the nature of work performed and whether allowing telework or remote work would diminish the service member’s ability to perform the work successfully or negatively impact the mission, according to the release. Even if a position is deemed to be ineligible for remote work or telework, there could be circumstances in which it can be considered “on an emergency or situational basis,” according to the Air Force. 

Remote work refers to personnel working permanently from an operating location other than their unit’s station. Telework, by contrast, is establishing a regular schedule to periodically work from home or another location, though that individual is still assigned to the unit’s location, according to the guidance.

If a service member is approved for full remote work, there will be arrangements made to get support from the nearest installation, such as access to health care and a commissary. 

Air Force officials said the new policy can help recruit and retain more personnel who may have avoided working with the service or staying in uniform because of the requirements to work at a base.

“With remote work, we can now attract someone with the specialized skills we need and not require them to relocate when it makes sense for the mission, the individual, and a member’s development,” said Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, the deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services. “We recognize the value these flexible work arrangements can have, in some circumstances, to enhance work-life balance and maximize organizational productivity.”

The Air Force released an extensive 27-page document detailing the new rules, including how to pursue the opportunity. Because each decision is made on a case-by-case basis, the Air Force does not have an estimate of how many personnel might eventually telework or work from home.

Next Round of Active, Reserve

KC-46 Bases Picked

By Brian W. Everstine

The Air Force is considering two bases for the next Active-duty KC-46 component and six bases for the next Pegasus Reserve unit, with a decision expected this fall.

The service announced May 13 it is looking at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., and MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., as candidate locations. One of the bases will be selected to host 24 KC-46s. The USAF is also looking at Beale Air Force Base, Calif.; Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind.; Joint Base Andrews, Md.; March Air Reserve Base, Calif.; Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, N.Y.; and Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., as candidate bases. One of the six will be chosen to host 12 KC-46s.

All the bases currently fly the KC-135 Stratotanker, which the KC-46 is slated to replace. The Air Force will now conduct site surveys at each location over the summer, which “will be assessed against operational requirements, potential impacts to existing missions, housing, infrastructure, and manpower,” the Air Force said in a release 

The Air Force already bases Active-duty KC-46s at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.; Reserve tankers at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, S. C.; and Air National Guard aircraft at Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H. Air Education and Training Command hosts KC-46 training at Altus Air Force Base, Okla. Construction for future operations is underway at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., and Travis Air Force Base, Calif. Tinker will also host maintenance for the aircraft. 

Fairchild recently became a “super” tanker wing as it received 12 more KC-135s in 2019 and reactivated the 97th Air Refueling Squadron. “Super” tanker wings include four squadrons, and the base was expected to operate a total of 60 of the tankers. MacDill’s 6th Air Refueling Wing and Reserve 927th Air Refueling Wing operate 24 KC-135s.

The Air Force recently received its 45th KC-46, as deliveries have slowed in recent months.

Air Mobility Command and U.S. Transportation Command are working to free up KC-46s to fly some limited operational missions, in a step to alleviate stress on the legacy KC-135 and KC-10 fleets.              

C-130 Crew Receives DFC, Air Medals for Afghanistan Mission

Col. John Schutte, 19th Airlift Wing commander, presents the Distinguished Flying Cross to Maj. Christopher Richardson, a 61st Airlift Squadron pilot, at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., May 10. Senior Airman Aaron Irvin

By Brian W. Everstine

A C-130J pilot received the Distinguished Flying Cross while another pilot and two loadmasters received Air Medals on May 10 for their actions last September in Afghanistan, when their aircraft took enemy fire, injuring one on board and damaging the aircraft’s controls. 

After getting hit, the team returned to base, loaded another C-130J, and the remaining aircrew finished the mission.

“Receiving the DFC was extremely humbling,” said Maj. Christopher Richardson, 61st Airlift Squadron pilot, in a release. “As aviators, we put a lot of time and effort into making sure everything goes as planned—sometimes that isn’t how it works out.”

On Sept. 19, 2020, the team was deployed from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., to Bagram Airfield where they were supporting the ingress of a Theater Response Force to a forward operating base (FOB) in Afghanistan. During the approach, the C-130 received effective enemy fire, which injured one of the aircrew.

Senior Airman Dimitrious Carden, the loadmaster on the flight, worked with the onboard combat control team to apply self-aid buddy care. 

“I knew what I needed to do and how to do it,” Carden said in the release. “I remember quite clearly being able to think back to times spent practicing for these types of events and using that to guide my actions.” 

Richardson tried to make another approach to the FOB, but the aircraft’s flight controls malfunctioned because of the small arms fire, and he decided to return to Bagram. 

“For me, it was a continual balancing of priorities,” Richardson said in the release. “First, was to get the crew and the plane out of harm’s way. Second, was assessing if the mission was worth the risk. If you are an expert at your job, you’ll know what to do in a stressful situation. Knowing where your efforts fit into the mission allows you to assess the risk of what’s happening and work as a team to get the job done.” 

At the May 10 ceremony at Little Rock, Richardson received the DFC, while his fellow pilot, 1st Lt. Christian Grochowski, and two loadmastsers, Carden and Staff Sgt. Jade Morin, received Air Medals.

“I certainly would not have succeeded alone. We all worked together and relied on each other that night,” Carden said. “Everybody on that plane played a significant role in carrying out the mission and bringing everyone home safely.”                  

Al-Udeid Operating New Counter-drone System Amid Growing UAS Threat

By Brian W. Everstine

The Air Force’s key operating base in the Middle East has adopted a new counter-drone system, first deployed to the nation’s nuclear bases to protect them from the growing threat of unmanned aerial systems.

Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar, recently deployed the counter-small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) tool to protect the sprawling base, which is home to the nerve center of Middle East air operations, mobility and refueling, and strike aircraft including B-52s. The new system lets its operators identify incoming threats and sever the connection between drone and operator, according to an Air Forces Central Command release. 

“The goal of the program is to build countermeasures for Al-Udeid AB that would pose as a last line of defense against all small UAS threats,” said Staff Sgt. Ryan Walters, the 379th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron’s noncommissioned officer in charge of the C-UAS program. 

Air Force Global Strike Command and U.S. Strategic Command first deployed the system to an undisclosed number of sites in 2019. The service said at the time that the system uses command and control, detection, and jamming to counter drones. 

At Al-Udeid, operators take a 40-hour course, which includes hands-on work, before they can operate the system, which is “tailored” to threats specific to the region.

“We are able to showcase our defensive capabilities and tailor the C-UAS briefings with a historical background to threats in the region,” said Maj. Shawna Rogers, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing senior intelligence officer, in a release. 

U.S. Central Command boss USMC Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. told lawmakers in April that drones represent the most “persistent and dangerous” threat to troops and countering them is a top priority. 

“These small- and medium-sized UAS proliferating across the [area of operations] present a new and complex threat to our forces and those of our partners and allies,” McKenzie said. “For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority.”                                   

Components of the counter-small unmanned aerial systems program are flown during a test demonstration March 9, at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Staff Sgt. Greg Erwin

Small Diameter Bombs Collaborate in Golden Horde Test

An F-16D Fighting Falcon prepares to drop four Collaborative SDBs during the second Golden Horde test mission near Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Feb. 19. Tech. Sgt. John Raven

By John A. Tirpak

Six GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs dropped from two F-16s set up their own network, changed their targets in flight, and synchronized their strikes in a multifaceted final flight test of the current phase of the Golden Horde collaborative weapon technology, said the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Two F-16s from the 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., flying over White Sands Missile Range, N.M., dropped a total of six Boeing-made Small Diameter Bombs—four from one of the fighters and two from the other—in the May 25 test. The munitions established communications with each other and a ground station using the L3Harris Banshee 2 radio network and then reacted to a new high-priority target. 

The In-Flight Target Update demonstrated “the ability of Golden Horde weapons to interface with the larger joint all-domain command and control network,” AFRL said. This capability is key to developing future “networked, collaborative, and autonomous,” or NCA weapons, according to a press release. 

The new mission called for two of the weapons to make a synchronized time-on-target attack on a single location, while two other munitions made synchronized attacks on two targets, something that had previously been tested. 

The synchronized time-on-target algorithm, supplied by Georgia Tech Research Institute, “was able to flexibly support the new target requirement without any software changes,” the AFRL said. 

AFRL Commander Maj. Gen. Heather L. Pringle said the test is a technological leap not unlike the advent of laser-guided bombs in the 1960s. 

“These technologies are completely changing the way we think about weapon capabilities,” she said in a press release. 

Golden Horde is one of the Air Force’s Vanguard programs—technology demonstrations that will pave the way for new applications of weapons technology and manned/unmanned teaming. 

The successful test will lead into “Colosseum,” the next phase of Golden Horde development, which will implement “digital engineering, hardware-in-the-loop, and surrogate [unmanned aerial vehicle] testing to rapidly integrate, develop, and test transformational NCA weapon technologies,” AFRL stated.            

2 Key Defense Studies Focus on Science, Tech, and Diversity

By Amy McCullough

The Defense Department must invest in its science and technology enterprise if it hopes to maintain an advantage over peer adversaries, and two reports due out this summer will outline exactly how it plans to accomplish that, DOD’s chief technology officer told House legislators.

The master plan for research, development, test, and evaluation infrastructure is due to Congress by June 30. It will include a summary of science and technology infrastructure across the department and highlight existing and emerging military RDT&E missions and the modernization investments needed for each.

The second report, due Aug. 31, will assess diversity in the department’s research and engineering workforce, said Barbara McQuiston, acting undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, during a May 20 House Armed Services cyber, innovative technologies, and information systems subcommittee. 

Both reports were mandated by the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which directed the Defense Secretary to work with the services to compile the scopes of work, cost, priority level, schedule, and plan for each project. Congress also sought answers on what policy barriers could be holding back RDT&E plans.

In assessing  DOD’s research and engineering workforce, Congress wants to understand the proportion of women and minorities currently employed; the effectiveness of existing hiring, recruitment, and retention incentives for women and minorities; and the effectiveness of recruiting and retention programs in DOD labs once those individuals have completed initial DOD-funded “research, programs, grant projects, fellowships, and STEM programs,” according to the legislation. 

Great power competition, in particularly with China, is driving Congress’ and the Pentagon’s interest in research and development, covering a range of technologies from energy and microelectronics to hypersonic weapons and digital engineering. One technology of particular interest to all is artificial intelligence (AI), which was the subject of a massive study completed late last year by the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. McQuiston said DOD is still reviewing the recommendations, which include creating programs for developing DOD’s own AI specialists, but also enabling those in the private sector to become involved in part-time service, along the lines of the National Guard or Air Force Reserve.

“There is a lot more work that needs to be done, especially in STEM, [and] in science education and in recruitment and diversity of the workforce,” said McQuiston.              

(IMAGE FROM TV)—An F-15 in the configuration and markings of a Qatari F-15QA suffered a mishap at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Ill., the morning of May 18.

F-15QA Involved in Mishap Near St. Louis

By John A. Tirpak

Two Active-duty U.S. Air Force pilots ejected from an F-15QA aircraft at MidAmerica airport near St. Louis after the jet departed the runway May 18, the service said. Both pilots received minor injuries.

The cause of the accident is under investigation, but the Air Force has not grounded its own two F-15EX jets, which are based on the F-15QA, nor has it issued a safety grounding on the F-15QA or similar aircraft.

The jet departed the runway upon landing, ending up on an adjacent grass strip. The Air Force did not disclose why the pilots ejected. The mishap occurred just after 7:00 a.m. local time in overcast conditions with some rain.   

The F-15QA had recently been accepted by the Air Force and was to be transferred to Qatar under the Foreign Military Sales program. Images of the aircraft taken by local news media showed the aircraft with the canopy and both ejection seats missing. There appeared to be no other damage to the factory-fresh fighter. 

Initial reports indicated only one crewmember ejected from the aircraft.

 Boeing uses MidAmerica, located in Mascoutah, Ill., for some F-15QA training functions. It builds the F-15 series at its plant adjacent to Lambert Field, St. Louis. 

The Air Force recently took delivery of its first two F-15EX aircraft, which flew in the Northern Edge exercise in Alaska, which ended in May. The F-15QA, EX, and SA—for Saudi Arabia—all have a new fly-by-wire control system. The F-15EX is undergoing a streamlined and concurrent developmental/operational test program at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., made possible by extensive USAF testing of the F-15SA.            

SOCOM Selects 5 Armed Overwatch Prototypes

By Brian W. Everstine

U.S. Special Operations Command has awarded a total of $19.2 million to five companies for prototype demonstrations as part of the Armed Overwatch effort to buy a low-cost aircraft to fly surveillance and strikes in austere locations. 

According to a May 14 award notice, the aircraft selected to proceed are:

  • Leidos Inc.’s Bronco II
  • MAG Aerospace’s MC-208 Guardian
  • Textron Aviation Defense’s AT-6E Wolverine
  • L-3 Communications Integrated Systems’ AT-802U Sky Warden
  • Sierra Nevada Corp.’s MC-145B Wily Coyote. 

The prototype demonstration will take place at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and is expected to be completed by March 2022, the notice states. If the prototype project is successful, a company could be requested to provide a proposal for a follow-on production award. 

SOCOM proposed the Armed Overwatch program in the aftermath of the Air Force’s light attack experiment and plans for the selection to replace the current U-28 Draco fleet. The command wants to buy about 75 of the aircraft to fly close air support, precision strike, and special operations ISR in austere and permissive environments. 

 I think Congress is appropriately and prudently exercising their oversight role.Lt. Col, James  “Jim” Slife

Air Force Special Operations Command boss Lt. Gen. James C. “Jim” Slife said in February that he wants procurement in fiscal 2022. “We can do that at relatively low risk, based on what we’ve seen from the vendors who have indicated that they intend to bring platforms to demonstrate for us in the coming months,” he said at the time. 

Congress in the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill blocked SOCOM from buying aircraft, but allowed the command to move forward for the flying demonstration. 

“I think Congress is appropriately and prudently exercising their oversight role,” Slife said. “I would view this as a lower-risk enterprise than perhaps some charged with oversight do, but the fact that we see it differently doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.” 

SOCOM boss Gen. Richard D. Clarke told the Senate Armed  Services Committee in March that armed overwatch is needed because in “many remote areas, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and close air support assets are stretched thin and come at a high cost.”        

Armed Overwatch prototypes
Top row, left to right: L-3 Communications Integrated Systems’ AT-802U Sky Warden; Textron Aviation Defense’s AT-6E Wolverine; MAG Aerospace’s MC-208 Guardian. Bottom row, left to right: Leidos Inc.’s Bronco II; Sierra Nevada Corp.’s C-145. (Aircraft not to scale) Staff illustration by Mike Tsukamoto.