USAF’s CCA Strategy Takes Shape
By John A. Tirpak
he autonomous Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) the Air Force is developing to bulk up its combat inventory and complement the capabilities of its crewed fighter force—will be developed in two increments, USAF officials revealed at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September.
The first increment seeks to put capability on the ramp as quickly as possible to deter China by multiplying the number of aerial targets its People’s Liberation Army Air Forces would have to confront in a potential conflict.
The second aims to deliver more sophisticated aircraft that can take on more challenging missions. While officials kept their descriptions veiled due to the classified nature of the developments, they suggested that both iterations could be variants of the same aircraft. The exact nature of the acquisition strategy for CCA also remains shrouded in secrecy, but acquirers said that after a demonstration and prototype stage involving multiple vendors, they expect at least two contractors to proceed into a final competition.
“What we’re trying to get industry to do is to mature technology and be creative,” said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall at a press conference. Contractors will then “demonstrate to us what kind of capabilities they can provide, and [show] why it’s cost-effective,” he added. “And that’s how we’re going to be selecting which ones we carry to the next phase of competition.”
Kendall, Air Force acquisition executive Andrew Hunter, and Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, all said that CCA development will involve competition in every aspect, from their artificial intelligence-enabled brains to their planforms, mission packages, and “producibility.” Competition will continue as long as possible, they said, without offering a target date for a final request for proposals from industry.
“It’s going to be a while before we can have CCAs in large numbers,” Kendall said, “although I expect to have a significant number within the next five years.”
In order to achieve “affordable mass,” Hunter said CCAs will have to be built on “an entirely different scale” than has been the case for manned fighters in recent decades. “They must be designed from the outset with mass-production in mind,” he said.
White, in a press conference, said the initial focus for CCAs “will be on the air dominance piece, the air-to-air capability piece.” Specific mission sets will be determined by operators—”the captains” that experiment with the technology and decide how best to employ it. He also quoted Lt. Gen. James C. Slife, nominated for promotion to general and become the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, as saying autonomous aircraft will eventually provide “other functions inside the Air Force,” such as mobility.
Hunter told reporters that the CCA program will leverage the same “advanced mission systems government reference architecture developed through the NGAD [Next Generation Air Dominance] program.” That, he added, will enable a more modular open systems architecture with shared capabilities and potentially components across the platforms, drawn “from a wide variety of sources” and able to be upgraded over time.
“That is a key part of our approach to CCA as well,” Hunter said.
Kendall has said CCAs are meant to cost only “a fraction” of the cost of an F-35A, which now priced around $80 million a copy. But he rejected language in the House Armed Services Committee’s version of the fiscal 2024 defense bill that sought to bracket CCAs in cost categories of $3 million for “expendable” versions, $10 million for “attritable” models, and $25 million for “exquisite” aircraft.
“I don’t know where those categories come from, but they’re not what we’re doing,” Kendall said
White said USAF has no specific cost goal for CCAs yet. “There are absolutely some different cost points. But those cost points also represent capability,” as well as size, range, and other attributes. The Air Force will seek to trade off these variables to find “the sweet spot” combination, he said.
Kendall, who earlier this year said USAF envisions “two to five” CCAs accompanying each crewed aircraft, said in September that “we’d like to have at least two [per fighter], but more is better: you can get more cost-effectiveness if you can do more.”
The challenge he said is that “you’ve got to have technology that can allow the crewed aircraft to control that number, and do it effectively.”
Gen. Mark D. Kelly, who has extended his tour as head of Air Combat Command while the Air Force awaits confirmation of his successor, said at the conference that range is the crucial challenge in the Indo-Pacific region.
“We have a non-trivial range problem,” he said. One strategy could be to send crewed fighters “about three-fourths of the way” to the limit of their range and then have CCAs go in closer to look for targets.
“That would be helpful,” Kelly said. “It helps with risk. I’ve got less chance of a ‘swimmer’ if I have [CCAs] forward and keep the crewed platforms back.”
CCAs also help “pay the sensing bill I have,” he said. “The more sensors I have forward, the more they can contribute.”
One driving factor in the development of CCAs, noted Kelly’s Director of Plans, Programs and Requirements, Brig. Gen. Chris Niemi, is the threat of losses.
The Air Force expects to take far more attrition in a conflict with a peer adversary than has been experienced in the decades since the Vietnam War. While he said he’d “love to be able to maintain” the kind of lopsided dominance enjoyed by the F-15, which has a career 104-to-0 kill ratio, “that’s just not the threat environment that we see.” Kendall also made a point of distinguishing between CCAs and the “Replicator” initiative announced by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks in early September. Replicator calls for mass production of expendable or “attritable” drones.
“Replicator is a completely separate program,” Kendall noted. Hicks “has indicated she has some funds at the DOD level” for Replicator, he said, “and she’s indicated the Defense Innovation Steering Group will be making decisions about what systems to pursue.”
The Air Force has candidates “that we will be offering,” Kendall said, and Hicks has suggested to him that “she looks … very positively” on some of them, “but we haven’t resolved all that yet.”
Hunter told Congress in budget testimony earlier this year that CCAs should be in service in the 2029-2030 time frame, and the Air Force forecasts spending $5.8 billion on them across the five-year future years defense program. Kendall has offered a notional requirement for at least 1,000 CCAs, but the ultimate number could be much higher.
White said that even as the Air Force holds competitions for the various components of the CCA platform, it will eventually choose a single contractor to integrate the selected elements.
“We will always have a continuous competition piece of this, but the government will not be” the integrator, he said.
The goal, he said, is “not to have multiple variants that we have to try to maintain or sustain.”
Kendall said he is “absolutely” focused on keeping software for CCAs moving quickly, as software “for decades, has been the thing that slows programs down.”
As computers have gotten more powerful and “software languages have gotten more efficient,” the military has added “more and more functionality to software, to make products more complicated,” Kendall noted.
“One of the things we’re going to try to do in CCAs is avoid that tendency: limit the functionality we want to what we really need, to get an advantage and get that fielded. Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
For CCAs, “the platform will not be the critical piece,” Kendall said. That “will be what we put into it.” He’s asked the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board to help determine “how much autonomy can we really—with confidence—get into the first increment of the CCAs we field … so we don’t undershoot or overshoot, so we go to a reasonable place in terms of what we can actually code and design and test, and have it be reliable.”
Unlike crewed fighter makers, where few have the capability to compete, Hunter said the pool of suppliers needed to make CCAs at scale “is pretty robust today … there’s a lot of capability out there.” The program will allow participation by companies that may be good at software but not platforms, and vice versa, he said.
“That leads us to the feeling that we will be able to make rapid progress on CCA … subject to the caveat that, if there’s a big delay in the ‘24 budget, that’s going to slow us down,” he said.
In the conference exhibit hall, Kratos showed a full-scale model of its XQ-58A Valkyrie that has been used in tests of the Skyborg flight control algorithm, while Blue Force Technologies—now part of Anduril—presented a half-scale version of its “Fury,” a stealthy sparring partner for use in wargames.
General Atomics showed off a video of its “Gambit” concept, in which a core fuselage section, replete with engines, avionics, and landing gear, can be adapted within four aerodynamic planforms optimized for different missions: long-endurance sensing, as a munitions platform, as an “aggressor” training adversary, or as a stealthy penetrating intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft.
Other vendors promoted small- to medium-size uninhabited craft, software, munitions, and other CCA-enabling capabilities.
Kendall said CCAs must be “militarily meaningful,” which Hunter said was a phrase loaded with meaning.
“We’re looking very specifically at being able to deter, or, if necessary, execute a conflict in the Indo-Pacific region,” he said. That has “a lot of implications in terms of what you have to be able to do. It’s a large theater. … A very contested security environment and growing increasingly so by the year. So … a CCA that wasn’t optimized for the Indo-Pacific would be substantially less attractive to us … and that has clear implications for requirements.”
The Navy is pursuing its own CCAs and White said the Air Force has been working “very, very closely” with its sister service; the two branches expect to coordinate with each other on how CCAs are developed, tested, acquired, fielded, and operated, and have established a common frame of reference for “aircraft architecture, autonomy architecture … comm links … and then, the ground segment.”
These “four pillars” of collaboration will ensure the services can fully exploit autonomous aircraft and “allow us to leverage the interoperability we think we need on CCAs, because this is just not a single-service issue,” White said.
AcQuisition, Test, and Sustainment
Air Force Materiel Command leaders said they’re already well into the planning stages for acquiring, testing, sustaining, and fielding CCAs.
Brig. Gen. Scott A. Cain, head of Air Force Research Laboratory, said his organization has partnered with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center and the Air Force Test Center to be ready to move out quickly once CCAs reach the next stage.
AFRL developed the “Skyborg” piloting algorithm—which applies agnostically across CCAs—in just four years, Cain said. Skyborg is now “graduating” its development program and is transitioning to CCAs “to make that program a reality.”
“We will … continue to keep connected” with the other developing and sustaining organizations “by, in a lot of cases, literally sitting in the same spaces, working on the same digital thread, and continue to inject technology and to prepare for what that particular program needs in the future,” Cain told reporters in a press conference.
“I think that’s an exemplar as we look at capability development, and how we’re going to continue to do this better and faster, for the Department of the Air Force.”
Lt. Gen. Shaun Q. Morris, commander of AFLCMC and program executive officer of the Rapid Sustainment Office, said the preparation for CCAs starts with “having the right workforce.”
The personnel needed to successfully execute Kendall’s seven operational imperatives—”which are ‘no-fail’ missions for us”—already exist within AFMC’s ranks, Morris said. The experts needed to make CCAs work are not “generally sitting outside the fence line waiting for us to invite them in,” he said.
“So we have a pretty robust strategy right now to look at where our experts are that have the ability to do things like CCAs,” he said. Also in the planning stage is “How do we realign them internally … and how we hire behind them, bringing … new folks into the organization,” followed by “a very deliberate process [regarding] where we place them in the organization, recognizing that they will have less experience, and where can we accept risk in other places to ensure that programs like CCA are successful,” he said.
In parallel with the manpower preparation is “making sure we actually have a place for them to go,” Morris said. Developing and fielding CCAs will be highly classified and require secure workspaces, as well as secure connections within government and to industry for digital collaboration.
“We currently have a deficiency in secure workspaces,” Morris said, and the LCMC is working with Maj. Gen. John J. Allen Jr.’s Installation and Mission Support Center to make sure those workspaces and connections are ready when needed. Secure networking with the Test Center, AFRL “and all our industry partners” is “not an insignificant IT … challenge,” Morris said.
The Air Force’s test enterprise is already confronting a tidal wave of new programs to evaluate—including the B-21 bomber, the Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter, multiple B-52 upgrades and hypersonic weapons, to name just a few. Maj. Gen. Evan C. Dertien, commander of the Air Force Test Center, said his organization is already busy assigning test ranges and assets to the CCA program, even though “we don’t have a CCA to test, yet.”
Evaluating the technologies and even tactics that will underwrite CCAs is already well along, he said, thanks to the XQ-58 Valkyrie autonomous platform. The X-62 VISTA aircraft—an F-16D fitted with the Skyborg flight algorithm—is in test, and the Air Force Test Pilot School is helping develop its autonomy, he said.
Dertien described an “upcoming VENOM (Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Mode)” program comprising a half-dozen F-16s that will explore manned-unmanned teaming concepts, technologies, and tactics. That effort will be getting started soon, he said.
Besides helping to mature CCA technologies, the Test Center, will also “mature our workforce to make sure we’re ready—in our processes and procedures—to test and develop autonomy, and also when the first CCA arrives on the ramp for testing and capability development, that we’re ready to do that.”
Lt. Gen. Stacey T. Hawkins, head of the Air Force Sustainment Center, said he recently had a daylong meeting with White “about how to sustain a particular CCA but also other advanced technologies.” His efforts will also depend on “posturing our Sustainment Center enterprise to become more digital,” as well as on advanced manufacturing technologies—as CCAs are intended to be built in large numbers—and “what’s going to be needed as this operational concept develops” so that “we are able to sustain it for the entire life cycle.”
Allen, head of the Installations and Mission Support Center, said his organization will start working on CCA basing “when we understand what the CCA will be.”
Gen. Duke Z. Richardson, head of Air Force Materiel Command, said AFRL is “identifying” areas of risk in bringing CCAs to fruition, and focusing on areas “where they need some invention.”
Congress has warmed to the idea of CCAs, and many members are convinced it will solve the Air Force’s capacity and cost problems in one fell swoop. That has some officials concerned that members and staffers are “drunk” on the concept and the hype surrounding it.
“The more we learn about the idea of the CCA and how it can fit into our operational context, the more interesting and appealing it becomes,” Kendall said. “There’s reason to be excited about it. It offers a lot of really interesting tactical possibilities.”
But with that excitement comes sobering challenges. “I share the enthusiasm that the Hill has, up to a point,” Kendall said. But until CCAs are fielded at scale, they offer only promise, not proven capability.
“This doesn’t get us out of the woods entirely, on long-term affordability, for example,” Kendall said. “But it’s going to be a much more cost-effective mix once we get the CCAs [and] combine them with our with our crewed aircraft.”
Modernizing the Battle Network
By Greg Hadley
Two years after Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall highlighted his concerns about the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) at his first AFA Air, Space & Cyber Conference as Secretary, the backbone for how the Department of the Air Force will do command, control, communications and battle management (C3BM) has a new name—the DAF Battle Network—and fresh momentum.
“The modernization of [C3] isn’t tomorrow, it’s today,” said Brig. Gen. Luke C.G. Cropsey, integrating program executive officer for command, control, communications, and battle networks. “We’re deploying capability starting now. It will obviously continue to happen in the future. But this isn’t something that’s five years away. This is today. So we’re putting capability out in the field.”
Kendall’s concerns two years ago—“this program has not been adequately focused on achieving and fielding specific, measurable improvements in operational outcomes”—are now in the past. Throughout this year’s edition of Air, Space & Cyber, leaders appearing on panels and at media roundtables detailed the progress made so far and the work still to come.
Kendall installed Cropsey to oversee all things ABMS/DAF Battle Network a year ago, and Cropsey has repeatedly echoed Kendall’s operational focus. Work started with an analysis of the overall Air Force command and control architecture, led by C3BM chief of architecture and engineering Bryan Tipton, and classified briefings on their conclusions followed in recent months. Now comes the hard part, Cropsey said:
“We’re going to drive and we’’re going to drive it hard and we’re going to drive it in the detail—because otherwise you’re going to end up collapsing under your own weight.”
Brig. Gen. Daniel C. Clayton, director of the ABMS Cross-Functional Team and the Air Force’s operational lead on the DAF Battle Network said the analysis began with the geographic combatant commands, ensuring the analysts understood “what operational problems are they trying to solve.” Clayton said.
Clearly articulating specific desired outcomes is critical, added Doug Beck, director of the Defense Innovation Unit, citing historic banking experience from the 1990s and 2000s when the Pentagon sought to unify disparate databases and networks to present a single information system to customers.
“In order to solve that problem, they had to get very, very, very, very clear about the experience that they were trying to create,” Beck said.
Operational tests have moved from experiments to exercises, like the Air Force’s Northern Edge, to “really [see] how the technology is or is not operationally relevant,” said Elaine Bitonti, vice president and general manager for the connected battlespace and emerging capabilities at Collins Aerospace. “And we’ve gotten some very great feedback. We’ve had real-time examples of how we can change things or make them different to close operational gaps. And I think it’s also allowed the DOD customer to see, is there technology that is ready now that can help make incremental progress towards closing our gap.”
Nowhere has that focus on detail, specific outcomes, and collaboration with combatant commands been more clear than with deploying Cloud-Based Command and Control (CBC2) for U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command. One of the first deliverables under the DAF Battle Network is the ability to aggregate and integrate military and commercial air defense data sources into a common picture to support homeland defense. Cropsey announced it will reach initial operational capability in October.
More will follow. Lockheed Martin’s Tactical Operations Center-Light, a lightweight, scalable battle management system that enables tactical C2 elements to quickly relocate and reconnect in a contested environment debuted at Northern Edge this year, said Lockheed Martin’s senior operational ABMS lead Tyler VanSant.
“I think we learn the most when we’re in the field with the capability on size, weight, and power requirements,” VanSant said.
Agility and Scale
Already, Cropsey said he is thinking about ways to extend CBC2 to other combatant commands, requiring the system to scale up—and do so quickly.
“So much of what we’re doing as a department and as a nation will deliver results sometime in the 2030s—but we don’t have to the 2030s,” said Beck. “We have now, and we have the next few years. And commercial technology in many cases, has the benefit both of speed—because in some cases it’s ready right there—and in some cases, there are capabilities … that are just going to move faster in places that are driven by the relentless needs of billions of consumers and the enterprises that serve them.”
To tap into commercial tech, industry experts said the Air Force will have to learn to make do with what’s available and make minimal adjustments, rather than requiring a lot of customization.
“We’re producing tens of thousands of displays for commercial aircraft, and we would get a bezel change for the military,” said Bitonti. “Well, that requires a [modification] to the line, a modification to everything.” If the focus instead is on what exists, what can be leveraged, what is absolutely essential operationally, he added, “I think we could leverage a lot more to scale.”
Joe Sublousky, SAIC’s vice president for joint all-domain command and control, said CBC2 has been a valuable pathfinder to that approach. SAIC is the CBC2 network integrator, working as a go-between for the tech vendors and the Pentagon when requirements and capabilities aren’t perfectly matched, he said.
“That relationship that says, ‘We need [this], you go figure out how to get it,’ we can actually start changing … those things, because commercial companies, they ultimately want to support and want to work toward a transformational C2 architecture,” Sublousky said.
CBC2 also highlighted another major change that must occur for the DAF Battle Network to succeed, experts noted. Because the system supports NORAD, Canadian operators must have access to data that has typically been walled off.
“You think about C2 today, a traditional command and control platform is not even allowed into the fighter-to-fighter net, and that’s a U.S.-only network,” VanSant pointed out. “So how do we now take all these exquisite targeting things, protect them certainly, to where you wouldn’t know where they came from, but then release that not only to Five Eyes, but then to outside of Five Eyes [partners].”
Cropsey and others say this is less a technology hurdle than a policy requirement.
The solution, suggested Sublousky, goes back to the need to focus on specific outcomes. “I would say your requirement for specificity is critical to get to the policy decisions that have to be made,” Sublousky said. “It cannot be one, over-the-world, ‘I need’ blanket policy. There’s no such thing as blanket policy. There’s no single approach that will solve a secret releasable environment.”
Developing the Pentagon’s broader efforts to reframe joint all-domain command and control as combined, or CJADC2, is part of that focus. The aim is to make it possible to easily share data across a seamless environment and control who accesses what based on who that user is.
“For a long time, it’s been Air Force only. It’s not likely to be that way anymore,” said Michael “Willy” Andersen, vice president at Boeing’s Phantom Works for multi-domain special programs and capabilities. “So you need to plan for that joint fight. That means the architectures have to integrate together. We need to be able to depend on our international allies.”
Clayton said the Air Force has been working with traditional intelligence-sharing partners such as the Five Eyes—the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—as well as Japan and South Korea and NATO partners. On top of that, he pointed to the need to break down “doctrinal and maybe some parochial service cultures” within the U.S. military.
“We’re trying to get after the integrated by design part,” he said, echoing a phrase championed by incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. when he was still the Air Force Chief. “In order for us to be more interoperable in the future, it starts with architecture and the design today,” said Clayton. Systems designed years or decades ago are harder to re-engineer to share and connect later. That’s why it’ important to thin about “designing an architecture on the front end, so that they could actually be interoperable and connect from the beginning.”
Combining all that information will present other challenges, including the potential for information overload. That’s where artificial intelligence can help.
“One thing is clear: machine-to-machine speed, and doing so at the speed of relevance in a highly contested, degraded environment is going to be paramount,” said Maj. Gen. John M. Olson, the Space Force lead for ABMS and JADC2. “So data and AI underpin that.”
Artificial intelligence “can crunch hundreds of millions of bits of data a second and you can use them to look at historical patterns, this could be weather, this could be enemy patterns of operation,” said Mark Brunner, president of PrimerAI’s federal division. “So this is where AI takes the workload off of the operator and the analyst.”
Actually incorporating AI into the DAF Battle Network will depend on focusing on specific outcomes and tasks, Cropsey said—otherwise it will merely be a buzzword.
“I think if we don’t understand AI as trusted tools that we use to get useful things accomplished, then what we end up doing is we end up talking about it in an abstract,” Cropsey warned. “From my perspective, it’s pretty simple: I have to be able to connect things, I have to be able to expose the data, and I have to be able to exploit it.”
That makes trust a central concern, Cropsey said, because without it there is no buy-in from operators and users. And to get to that trust, he’s once again going to those “specific, measurable … outcomes” Kendall stressed two years ago.
“I think we have to neck down to a use case to the point where a human brain can look at the results that are coming out of it and say, ‘Yeah, I can actually understand where and how I got to this point,’ Cropsey said. “And if we don’t get specific around what that looks like, I don’t know how we can get the trust factor.”
Keeping the New Nukes On Schedule
By Chris Gordon
The nation’s nuclear modernization program is undertaking one of the most ambitious efforts since the Manhattan Project: simultaneously upgrading all three legs of the nuclear triad.
Throughout the U.S., the engineering and construction needed to upgrade America’s arsenal of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) has been likened to the construction of the interstate highway system. And that is just the missile leg of the nuclear triad.
Also known as the Sentinel missile system, the project is long overdue, given the half-century age of the Minuteman III missiles, silos, and systems that it will replace. Over the next 10 years, the cost of modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent will exceed $750 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Replacing the missile systems is among the most challenging projects ever.
Not only is the U.S. arsenal overdue for upgrades, but the threat the U.S. faces is about to enter uncharted territory, with not one but two nuclear peers, with both Russia and China posing major threats, according to senior defense officials speaking at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September.
“This is the first time that’s ever happened,” Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William A. LaPlante said. “We must—must—have a credible deterrent.”
The Pentagon’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) outlined the challenges the U.S. faces as Russia and China have built up their nuclear forces. China, which has so far shut the door on arms control talks, appears intent to have at least 1,000 deliverable nuclear warheads by the end of the decade, the NPR says, supplemented with a nuclear stockpile of 1,500 by 2035, according to other Pentagon projections.
Russia, constrained by the New START treaty limiting both Moscow and Washington to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, has signaled its intent to exit the treaty, which expires in February 2026. The treaty does not cover tactical nuclear weapons, and no new arms control talks between the U.S. and Russia are underway
This is hardly the world the Obama administration hoped for when the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review was drafted and the goal was to use arms control deals to set progressively lower limits on strategic nuclear warheads in order to gradually reduce the role that nuclear forces play in world affairs.
“There were conversations about, ‘OK, this is just one point on a glide path to not having nuclear weapons,’” said Michael R. Shoults, the Air Force’s assistant deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, of that document. “That strategic environment completely changed.”
“Thankfully, there were enough people who saw the need to continue on with our modernization efforts despite the pressure and the trend to go lower because they knew that the strategic environment was uncertain,” Shoults added.
That modernization program, largely conceived during the Obama administration, has been carried forward under Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Each administration has dabbled at the edges: The Trump administration opted to develop a low-yield warhead for the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile. The Biden administration canceled plans to develop a new nuclear-tipped sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N). But overall, the main elements of the program remain the same.
“For the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons will continue to provide unique deterrence effects that no other element of U.S. military power can replace,” the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review states.
A looming question, which the Biden administration has yet to answer, is whether the U.S. will need to expand its strategic nuclear force beyond 1,550 warheads to respond to the Russian and Chinese nuclear programs. Those countries, the NPR says, have “little interest in reducing their reliance on nuclear weapons” and are pursuing advanced technologies as well as exotic delivery systems.
Russian President Vladimir Putin touts his country’s nuclear-capable Poseidon torpedo that could be targeted at Western ports. And China surprised the U.S. by testing a hypersonic fractional orbital bombardment weapons system in 2021 that travels through low-Earth orbit before steering back into the atmosphere to deliver weapons at high speed.
“Our principal competitors continue to expand and diversify their nuclear capabilities, to include novel and destabilizing systems,” Biden’s NPR says. “By contrast, the United States is focused on the timely replacement of legacy fielded systems that are rapidly approaching their end of service life.”
The White House position is that the U.S. does not need a nuclear force that outnumbers the combined total of the Chinese and Russian arsenals in order to deter them.
“Nuclear deterrence isn’t just a numbers game,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said last December. “In fact, that sort of thinking can spur a dangerous arms race.”
But the White House has also acknowledged that the sort of limits the U.S. can agree to after New START expires will be affected by the size and scale of China’s nuclear buildup.
“The threat is different—that’s not just hyperbole—and it’s even different from five to 10 years ago,” LaPlante said. “The nuclear deterrent remains DOD’s number one priority mission.”
North Korea’s steadfast commitment to developing its missile and nuclear program has also prompted Washington to reaffirm its commitment to extended deterrence—covering nations under its nuclear umbrella—to South Korea and Japan.
As America modernizes its nuclear arsenal, it is moving to simultaneously upgrade the full range of its air, land, and sea nuclear capabilities. Carrying out the modernization on schedule is the hard part, according to the head of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), Air Force Gen. Anthony J. Cotton.
Every day, “the margin thins,” Cotton said, to ensure the programs are “as close to on time as we can” so the U.S. does not “develop a gap in abilities and capabilities.”
“I’m pretty simple as the STRATCOM commander,” he added. “Just deliver me the program of record. I mean, it really is that simple.”
Perhaps the most ambitious element of America’s simultaneous nuclear modernization effort is the Sentinel ICBM, which is intended to last 70 years and replace hundreds of LGM-30 Minuteman III missiles. The Sentinel is a so-called “modular” design, which the Air Force claims will help make it easier to maintain and upgrade in the future.
The Minutemen III missiles, which each carry one warhead, were not originally intended to still be in service in 2023. The antiquated launch facilities are a product of the Cold War—and look like it, complete with aging beige consoles in underground Launch Control Centers.
“All three of the legacy platforms have been extended beyond anyone’s dream,” LaPlante said of the bomber, submarine, and ICBM fleets.
Air Force Global Strike Command, which controls two-thirds of the nation’s triad with U.S. bombers and ICBMs under the command of Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, has found evidence of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at a small number of missile facilities, uncovered during environmental testing for possible causes of cancer among missileers. PCBs were banned in the U.S. in 1979—a stark reminder of the age of America’s land-based missile force and infrastructure.
“There is no backup plan for not having Sentinel,” Shoults said.
As vital as the Sentinel program is, keeping it on schedule has not been easy. The GAO has assessed the program is around a year behind schedule and will struggle to meet the Pentagon’s September 2030 deadline for initial operational capability (IOC).
To expedite the program, LaPlante has directed an integrated master schedule to better ensure that the missiles, silos, and command and control network are developed on time.
To grapple with troublesome supply chain issues, LaPlante granted permission to purchase some long-lead items now, rather than risk delay by waiting. “I gave them authority to purchase them now,” LaPlante said. Similarly, prototype Sentinel launch control centers are under development so the government and its contractors can identify problems “now, earlier, so we can learn the lessons rather than wait.”
Air Force Maj. Gen John P. Newberry, program executive officer for strategic systems, said that Sentinel prime contractor Northrop Grumman has been building replica Minuteman III silos and systems to smooth and accelerate the upgrade process.
“Currently, we have 450 launch facilities today in Minuteman,” Newberry said. “The intent is to refurbish them—all of them.” The U.S. has 400 deployed ICBMs spread across five states—Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana—with another 50 silos kept ready to store missiles if necessary.
Fielding the Sentinel will be a massive civil engineering undertaking. The work on silos and even “utility corridors” needs to take into account the different geography and soil of each of the locations.
“It is a huge challenge,” Newberry said. “You think about weather, you think about roads—it is a huge civil engineering challenge. I’m not trying to downplay that. This will be a sizable construction effort.”
Maj. Gen. John Allen, head of the Air Force installations and mission support center, said the effort will require the establishment of a “construction task force,” which will involve a partnership between the Air Force’s Nuclear Weapons Center, Northrop Grumman, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
“It is considerably different than the 30 years that I’ve been watching construction in the Air Force,” Allen said. “It is a big, big deal.”
In practical terms, that means that “a missile silo a week,” is due to be refurbished and rebuilt until all Minuteman IIIs silos have been updated to Sentinel by the mid-2030s, according to Allen—an assessment echoed by independent experts.
The bomber leg of the nuclear triad appears to face fewer challenges. The first B-21, which, according to military officials, has already undergone engine runs and is scheduled to fly before the end of 2023, reflects the plan to test the plane as production airframes are being constructed.
“You have to check the validity of your designs, you have to test,” said LaPlante. “None of that goes away. But now there’s potential for all of that to collapse and collapse in time.”
The B-21’s predecessor, B-2 Spirit, the stealthy flying wing it is due to replace, achieved initial operational capability roughly eight years after its first flight. The B-21 program is aiming to slash that, and produce at least 100 bombers in about a decade.
The Air Force plans to retire both its 20 remaining B-2s and all its B-1 Lancer bombers, probably before the B-21 is fully operational.
“The processes and the milestones that we’re paying attention to in the B-21 program are important, but they’re only important because we have an actual operational need to field this exquisite capability,” Bussiere said.
The B-21 will carry modernized weapons, with the AGM-181 Long-Range Standoff missile (LRSO), a stealthy missile, replacing the 1980s-era AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), which LaPlante cited as among the nuclear weapons that has surpassed its original sell-by date.
The service expects to be spending over $1 billion a year to purchase LRSOs by fiscal 2027. The B-2 carries only nuclear gravity bombs, while the B-52 can carry ALCMs. The plan is for LRSO to be integrated into the B-21 and the B-52, which will remain in service until the 2050s, thanks to new engines and a range of other upgrades, including a new radar and cockpit, that will result in a new B-52J variant.
NUKES BENEATH THE WAVES
The mainstay of the sea-based leg of the triad is the program to build 12 new Columbia-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines to replace the Navy’s current fleet of aging Ohio-class strategic submarines. “Boomers” are generally thought to be the most survivable leg of the nuclear triad. The Navy calls the Columbia is its top priority program, but it is struggling with schedule delays due to technical, manpower, and industrial base challenges.
Cotton’s predecessor, Adm. Charles “Chas” Richard, advocated for a lower-yield, sea-launched cruise missile, and while Cotton has been less specific, he has floated the prospect of a low-yield, non-ballistic weapon that could be deployed in the Pacific or European theater, which could increase the President’s options in case of a crisis.
For now, keeping the existing ICBM, bomber, and ballistic missile submarine programs on pace is the big challenge.
“Produce, produce, produce,” Cotton said. “That’s going to be key for us as we make the transition to a modernized force.”
Solving the Recruiting Crisis
By David Roza
The Air Force missed its recruiting goal in fiscal 2023 for the first time since 1999 but the Air Force Recruiting Service commander Brig. Gen. Christopher Amrhein says he’s bullish on the future, with special emphasis on removing administrative burdens from his recruiters so they can get out and tell the Air Force and Space Force story.
“The administrative workload takes away from the ability to get out and about,” Amrhein told reporters at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference. “When we peeled the onion back, it was actually the medical administrative processing piece that was taking most of their time. So that’s where we focused our energy and our effort.”
Overall, the Air Force missed its goal of 26,877 recruits by about 10 percent, while the Space Force exceeded its goal of 472 enlisted Guardians by 110 percent.
AFRS is hiring about 60 contractors to work in and around Military Entrance Processing Stations to help with the medical accessions paperwork, buying some two or three hours a week back for every recruiter. That may not sound like much, but “when you ask them, ‘What does a couple more hours a week give you,’ you should see the look on their face,” Amrhein said.
The service also wants to streamline the medical records process, which complements a larger revamp of AFRS’ IT backbone. The new system is on contract and due to be rolled out over the next two to three years, a gradual process to work out bugs before going fully operational. In the meantime, Amrhein’s team is analyzing the most commonly issued medical waivers, such as for one-off eye surgeries, to see if it makes operational sense to “expand” them.
AFRS isn’t stopping there. It will add 91 new recruiters who should be in the field between February and June 2024 and expand its force of 16 E-recruiters—retired Air Force recruiters who use virtual platforms to reach a nationwide talent pool—to 21 at the same time.
These manpower and workload changes accompany a range of new incentives for recruits and an effort to reduce barriers to service, summarized below:
- Give qualified applicants an option to retest should they test positive for marijuana use (That change enabled about 165 Airmen to join in fiscal 2023).
- Allow small hand and neck tattoos (made in February, the change has allowed nearly 150 Airmen to join so far).
- Align Air Force body fat composition rules with Defense Department standards (this change, made in February, allowed nearly 700 Airmen to join in fiscal 2023).
- Streamlined the naturalization process for trainees to become both citizens and Airmen upon graduating Basic Military Training (200 Airmen became citizens through this process in 2023).
- Reinstate the enlisted college loan repayment program (since making the change in March, more than 200 Airmen have taken part so far).
- Increased enlistment bonuses. The addition of $32 million helped bring in more than 3,800 future Airmen in fiscal 2023.
- Offer a quick-ship bonus, for leaving for Basic Training as openings arise, ensuring training spaces aren’t wasted. More than 1,400 future Airmen took advantage of fiscal 23.
Without those changes, the Air Force recruiting shortfall would have been much worse, but with them, recruiters enjoyed an “extremely strong” last quarter, Amrhein said. That included building up the Delayed Entry Pool (DEP), adding 3,300 prospective recruits, 600 over goal. The DEP is still smaller than normal, but three times greater than at the start of fiscal 2023.
Amrhein credited recruiters’ 2023 successes to “almost a deployed operational battlefield sprint” over the summer, a pace he acknowledged is not sustainable in the long-term. But the sprint’s success has him “cautiously optimistic” for fiscal 2024, despite systemic challenges that have 23 percent of incoming recruits receiving waivers under existing rules and an overall propensity to join the military at 10 percent, a historic low.
“Their unfamiliarity with military service and what it really entails means they often rely on the stereotypes and misperceptions they see in TV, movies, or the internet,” according to Amrhein.
Changing that perception can’t be the job of recruiters alone, he said. Air and Space Force leaders continue to prod Airmen and Guardians—and veterans, as well—to proactively share their stories to promote the personal and professional benefits of military service.
“Every single one of us in this room has an opportunity to share our stories, to reflect on why we serve, and appreciate the richness of being part of this military family,” said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass in a keynote address.
Programs encouraging commanders to open their installations to community visits, foster connections with underrepresented groups, and set up aviation- or STEM-inspiration programs can make a difference, Amrhein noted. Many such efforts faltered after 9/11, as base gates were shuttered, and defenses increased. The result was increased separation from the public. Now bases are opening back up, Amrhein said.
The Air Force has fewer recruiters per new recruit than the other services, and in some cases, recruiters are spread so thin that in rural areas, there may be just two recruiters to service an entire state. But efforts like a recent “Zone Blitz,” where Airmen visited remote areas of Alaska in early September, and “Detachment 1,” the tactical execution arm of the service’s Rated Diversity Improvement initiative to help identify minority Americans to become pilots, combat systems officers, and air battle managers, can make a difference. Even though the exact impact of these efforts can be difficult to quantify, they all contribute to the end goal of finding candidates to join the force.
“The data shows that it takes in excess of 22 touchpoints for someone to go ‘Man, I think I’m really considering this,’” Amrhein said. “That could be sitting in a roundtable, talking to somebody in the grocery store, going to an open house, [or] having Det. 1 come to them.”
But that can’t be left only to recruiters. Every Airman, every Guardian, every civilian employee can contribute to those touchpoints, he said. Simply having the tools in hand—the Air Force’s Aim High app, for example, preloaded on one’s phone—and the confidence to speak positively about one’s military experience can be a force multiplier for the rest of the recruiting force. The app includes the ability to enter a potential recruit’s name and email address, ensuring an E-recruiter will reach out to them. And a positive word and example can help shift perceptions and increase interest in the service.
Telling personal stories can and will help inspire the next generation, Amrhein said.
“What was your ‘why’? Why did you join the Air Force, and what do you do every day?” he asked. “It’s important. Tell your story.” For every Airman and Guardian, he said, remember: “You are an influencer just as much as you are a recruiter.”
Towberman, the First CMSSF, Closes Out Historic Tenure
By Unshin Lee Harpley
Roger “Tobey” Towberman might have seemed like an unlikely candidate to become the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force. Never a space operator, he nevertheless was just the second person ever to become a member of the Space Force and its first enlisted Guardian, though at the time the nascent service was still using the makeshift title “space professional” as almost every detail describing the new force was still being worked out.
Not quite four years later, Towberman handed over his title and responsibilities to the new CMSSF, John F. Bentivegna, Sept. 15 at a change of responsibility ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, Md. He had completed a historic tenure, and he offered clear advice to every Guardian serving around the world: “Be who you are.”
“You need to be you. You need to remember what you’re moving toward, because that is the Space Force we’re supposed to have,” he said during the ceremony. “And if you let what we did yesterday keep that from you, that’s on you. Move toward the meaning that you already know exists.”
Towberman was in line to be the first Space Force senior enlisted adviser as soon as the force was established on Dec. 19, 2019. He described the waiting game—would Congress back the new service or not—in a video-recorded “exit interview” posted on YouTube on the eve of his retirement. But he would not officially become the Space Force’s top enlisted member until April 3, 2020, when he became the service’s second member, after then-Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond.
His impact was immediate. Towberman bought passion, and optimism, and focus to the role, and in some ways became the service’s best spokesman in those early days. Barely three months after the Space Force was born, the COVID-19 pandemic was declared and the global shutdown that followed added unexpected wrinkles to what was already going to be a challenging, unprecedented transition.
“The whole world was in chaos,” he recalled, noting “we were wearing three hats” as heads of the Space Force, Air Force Space Command, and U.S. Space Command at the time. “I’ll be honest, we would pause sometimes to be present in the details … but most days, it was just a lot of work. What Guardians have pulled off in the past four years is impossible.”
By the time Gen. B. Chance Saltzman succeeded Raymond as CSO, Towberman was as much a fixture in the Space Force as his two distinctive—and quite different—bosses. He was the face of the enlisted force, but also of the “anything-is-possible” optimism that came with creating a new service almost from scratch. He floated—not quite successfully—the notion that there need not be much distinction between officers and enlisted members.
“They both gave deference to me, always heard me out, always listened to my crazy ideas,” he recalled. “They’re both skilled communicators, both skilled team leaders, they’ve both been awesome.”
His inputs were central in defining the culture and character of the nascent force, from its ranks and traditions to personnel policies and its Guardian Ideal. He was the one who unfurled the Space Force flag in the White House, who shared the new Space Force uniform, and who introduced new ranks, new insignia, and the Space Force song, Semper Supra—elements that make a military service unique, that draw it together, and that define its particular identity to others.
It was like a marathon, a nonstop race to get to a goal that Towberman himself would agree has not yet been achieved.
“When you talk about mantras, in my office, in the office of the Chief Master of the Space Force, we say, ‘We’re not coming to work to get things done, we’re coming to work to change the world,’” Towberman said in that final YouTube video.
Creating a new service was indeed a world-changing endeavor, setting off a series of strategic decisions to re-emphasize space among U.S. allies and in realigning the way the military services related to the space domain. As its senior enlisted leader, Towberman welcomed in hundreds of transfers from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, along with thousands of former Airmen, and hundreds of new officers and recruits who arrived with no prior military experience. Blending those diverse experiences, cultures, and perspectives into a single force was in many ways his singular mission.
Towberman contributed to the Space Force’s first-ever human capital plan, “The Guardian Ideal,” a comprehensive strategy that defined the core values and principles the Space Force stands for, including qualities like innovation, adaptability, and resilience.
When it was first shared publicly, Raymond said the heart of the concept “is the commitment between the leader and the led, founded upon our core values.”
For Towberman, it was about taking a modern, holistic approach to talent management, incorporating work-life balance, resiliency, training, education and individualized development into the Guardian Ideal.
“Caring for Guardians and their loved ones will never be one thing, but all things,” he said at the time. “We exist in an ecosystem and our focus will be to always remember the interconnected and interdependent relationship of those things. The Guardian Ideal matters because Guardians matter. They are the weapon system.”
As a champion of enlisted members, he expanded promotion boards to include the junior enlisted ranks and emphasized the value of hard work and commitment. He also advocated for a new kind of military physical fitness program, one that better aligned with the new force and that could take advantage of the service’s smaller size. In place of one-size-fits-all fitness requirements,
Towberman helped establish a Holistic Health Assessment initiative, an alternative to the traditional physical fitness test, and the use of wearable monitors. He pressed for a broad spectrum of health indicators such as mental and emotional well-being and contributed to the development of a revised Basic Military Training curriculum unique to new Guardians, championing efforts to develop specialized educational curricula designed to develop expertise in satellite operations, space law, and more.
Finally, as the service’s senior enlisted adviser, he offered foundational contributions to the service’s new uniforms, ranks, traditions, and even its song, “Semper Supra,” which he unveiled at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference a year ago, leading the crowd in its first public sing-along.
Towberman clearly enjoyed the spotlight. At AFA’s 2021 Air, Space & Cyber Conference, he joined USAF’s rock band, Max Impact, on stage and stunned the crowd as he threw himself into an emotional and effecting performance of the Journey classic, “Don’t Stop Believing,” covering the entire stage, playing air guitar, as Air Force leaders, their wives, and others present held up cell phones and danced along.
He traveled to Pituffik Space Base, Greenland (at the time it was named Thule Air Base) with TV’s Stephen Colbert, and good-humoredly suffered through a comedic interview at the Space Force’s northernmost outpost, with a glacier in the background, as Colbert peppered him with follow-up questions to completely straight-faced answers.
“When did the concept of the Space Force begin?” Colbert asked. Towberman answered, citing the 2001 Rumsfeld Commission report’s recommendation that a Space Force be considered.
“So, 2001 was literally the beginning of your Space Odyssey,” Colbert responded. “What does the Space Force do?”
“We ensure unfettered access and freedom to maneuver in space,” Towberman answered, straight-faced.
“Is there some fettering going on that we don’t know about?” Colbert asked. “Is there a space war that we don’t know about?”
Towberman answered no, trying not to laugh. “Is there a space skirmish?” Towberman paused, laughing. “Ah,” said Colbert, as Towberman continued laughing. “That pause speaks volumes.”
Towberman’s love of performing tracked into Kendall’s comments at his retirement. Noting the CMSSF’s singing prowess, Kendall said it showed up early and often in Towberman’s performance reports. “It was just fascinating how many times they mentioned him singing the national anthem at various events, and that he was the winner of the Tops in Blue talent competition in Hawaii,” Kendall said. “We’re not going to hear him sing today. But I wish we could.”
At public appearances, Towberman ranged from thoughtful and knowledgeable to openly emotional, easily joking and laughing and generally presenting an emotional transparency rarely seen among senior military leaders.
“He is an incredibly energetic, passionate, and empathetic leader,” Kendall said at his retirement ceremony. “Tobey defined what it means to be an enlisted Guardian, and he became the model for enlisted Guardians to follow—today and for the future. We could not have chosen better. He shaped the character, values, and culture of the Space Force. … His contributions have been literally unprecedented and without parallel.”
Legacy in the Air Force
Over the course of his 33-year career, Towberman earned the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, three Meritorious Service Medals, and six Air Medals. Starting as a ground and airborne cryptologic language and intelligence analyst, he accumulated more than 4,500 flying hours as an Airman, first as a linguist specializing in Chinese, and later gaining expertise in the wholly unrelated language of Albanian.
He held enlisted leadership positions at the squadron, group, wing, Numbered Air Force, major command, and combatant command levels, and deployed for numerous operations including Joint Forge, Allied Force, Northern Watch, Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and Unified Protector.
He attended the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy and participated in the Chief Master Sergeant Leadership Course.
In 2015, while serving as the Command Chief Master Sergeant for the 25th Air Force, Towberman hosted his first “Ask Me Anything” session on the popular internet forum Reddit, candidly addressing criticism and questions about policies. He continued to join real-time virtual Q&A sessions, responding to jokes from Airmen, and maintained an active presence on social media platforms, using Facebook to commend exceptional units and individuals.
For Towberman, the digital landscape was more than just a public relations tool; it represented a powerful means of engagement. At the 2023 AFA Warfare Symposium, he shared his reasoning for being accessible and visible on social media: “We grew up being taught to go to the DFAC [dining facilities], to go to the dormitories, because that’s where young people lived, and you need to go there, and you need to see it, and you need to be with them,” Towberman said. “Well, they live in social media now. And we’ve got to go there, we’ve got to see it, we’ve got to be there with them.”
As a personable leader, his willingness to embrace the spotlight, whether speaking publicly and passionately or singing with the Air Force Band’s Max Impact rock band or appearing on TV fielding off-beat questions from Stephen Colbert, he forged a clear connection with Airmen and Guardians, especially enlisted personnel. He was a champion for enhancing living conditions, training, education, and support systems within the Space Force, and helped shape policies geared toward enhancing the overall well-being of Guardians.
He also bared his soul. At the AFA Warfare Symposium in March he allowed how his boyhood hopes of becoming a rock star faded fast and left him so low he had even stolen food to feed himself. The Air Force enabled him to rise above those early struggles, he said, leaving him a debt he could never repay.
In panel appearances with his wife, Rachel Rush, and other senior leaders at AFA conferences, he openly shared his affection and admiration “for my beautiful wife,” and willingly showed vulnerability and self-criticism. In his retirement speech, he addressed Rush directly, saying, with cracking voice, “I wouldn’t be anywhere without you. I love you, Rach. Thank you for everything.”
Bidding a Final Farewell
Kendall said Towberman excelled at every level. “We never found a job that he couldn’t do well, so we gave him one that no one had ever done before: To define what it means to be an enlisted Guardian,” Kendall said. “And he became the model for all enlisted Guardians to follow, today and tomorrow.”
Towberman’s legacy includes his contribution to establishing the service’s core values, known as the four Cs: Character, Connection, Courage, and Commitment.
But in his departing message to Guardians, he emphasized that his legacy should not be defined by individual accomplishments, but by the Space Force’s lasting ability to affect the space domain.
“If the only thing they can write on my tombstone is my duty title, then I didn’t do a very good job. So, what I hope is we’ve done enough to enable the greatness that’s inherent in every single Guardian we have, and that they can write the future that’s unwritten.
“We can change the world if you just be who you’re supposed to be,” Towberman said. “The future of your Space Force, it’s a book that you will write. And I can’t wait to read it.”