Skunk Works Sees Value in MUM-T, Autonomous Aircraft
By John A. Tirpak
Teams of autonomous aircraft collaborating with a crewed airplane, in which each aircraft in the formation performs a unique mission on its own, is far more effective than the so-called “loyal wingman” approach, in which a piloted aircraft pairs with just one similarly equipped, autonomous multimission aircraft—or so Lockheed Martin has concluded. It also found cost-effectiveness in pairing expensive but survivable uncrewed systems with relatively cheap ones.
So said John Clark, the new head of Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs unit, or Skunk Works. Clark, who has had a career with the ADP unit in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and uncrewed aircraft, has been running the unit since April, when previous general manager Jeff Babione retired.
The concept is the same one the Air Force has been touting with its Next Generation Air Dominance program, which the service calls a “family” of systems that can collaboratively defeat a high-level adversary. The industry has come to refer to manned-unmanned teaming by the acronym MUM-T.
Lockheed Martin has applied its “pretty formidable operational analysis” capability to looking at many approaches to future air combat with an eye toward the “value proposition,” Clark said in a Zoom call with defense reporters.
The company concluded that pairing a high-end crewed aircraft with a number of uncrewed types “matched” to it in speed and stealth, along with a number of less costly or even expendable platforms, offers the most effective combination against a peer adversary’s air defenses, Clark said. He said the uncrewed aircraft work best in a “detached” way, in which they function independently, rather than in an “attached” way, in which they effectively depend on direction from the crewed airplane. The uncrewed aircraft need freedom of maneuver, he said.
The combination is a winner in the context of “the first 10 days” of a fight with a peer adversary, Clark said. “That’s where you’re going to make a difference.”
That period will also be the riskiest period of a war, and “these team members, that are uncrewed, we can take more risk with them … Being able to get better intelligence data, or, if we really need to take out an important command-and-control node in the adversary’s air capability, maybe these systems—even though they’re higher-end—they’re going to go on a one-way mission to ensure that system is taken out. And that unlocks a lot of other capabilities.”
The best results in the analysis were achieved “when you started to have a distributed team. And when that distributed team was operating each with their own unique roles,” Clark said.
He made an analogy to a disciplined soccer team spread out over a wide area moving the ball toward the goal, versus a team of youngsters all crowded around the ball. The latter draws defenders’ attention to where the ball is, he observed.
One “adjunct” of the team would be a highly stealthy platform that would fly ahead of the formation with four or so AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs) to shoot down defenders, Clark said. He described it as a “remote weapon station” for the manned aircraft, further back.
Clark said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall “has started to expand on the CONOPS” for NGAD wherein “you actually have systems that are speed matched—they are signature matched” with the main, crewed airplane. “So the price point goes up … but you’re likely to get them back each time because they’re better-equipped.” At the same time, “expendable” or “attritable” aircraft would also be part of the formation, low enough in cost that their loss or deliberate destruction wouldn’t be too onerous, he said. He drew a distinction between those terms, saying attritables are higher cost than expendables.
“There’s an opportunity there” for saving money with expendable aircraft, he said, but they must be “survivability matched,” meaning that while they might not keep up with the fastest members of the formation, they won’t tip off the defenders about where to look for the rest of the team.
Another conclusion was that the human pilot in the formation shouldn’t have to do too much work to manage the other aircraft, as the pilot already has a “pretty heavy burden” dealing with the unfolding air battle. So the level of autonomy for the other aircraft must be high, Clark said.
Clark said Lockheed Martin is deep in evaluating what specific missions the collaborative aircraft should be performing, such as electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defenses, and secure communications.
“In a basic” formation, he said, “you’re going to be looking at two to four of these adjunct systems.” But in defining what’s in the formation, “the challenge is, where do you draw the boundary, because there are multiple, interconnected nodes that are all collaborating with one another.”
Maybe, he said, “some of those systems are around NGAD, but maybe there are some systems that are farther ahead with IRSTs [infrared search-and-track devices] on it, and those IRSTs are providing information and cuing being pushed back” to the fleet, “or maybe they have small AMTI [airborne moving target indication] radars on them, providing an air picture flowing back to other systems carrying weapons and working in conjunction with NGAD.”
The boundaries of the distributed team “gets a little bit tricky,” Clark said, especially when satellites or surface vessels are also involved as sensing systems.
“We’re really looking at bigger than … the loyal wingman” concept, he said. “We have to capitalize on everything in JADO [joint all-domain operations] … to link these systems together and focus more on the data.”
Clark said munitions carried by the collaborative aircraft will have a big effect on the types of formations and the missions they’ll have, or whether they come back to be re-used.
“We have looked at” scenarios in which the uncrewed aircraft “actually ends with a bang, and we take advantage of everything it has up until that point.”
Everyone doing analysis of the future air battle comes to a common conclusion that “there’s not enough weapons close to the fight,” Clark said. The collaborative formation brings more weapons forward, he said, and “weapons are more effective” the closer they are to the target when launched. Less can go wrong—fewer get detected, shot down, or jammed or go off course—when that’s the case, he said.
Today’s fifth-generation aircraft have to carry their weapons internally to be stealthy, Clark noted, and unmanned adjuncts could be an extra magazine. The fourth-generation F-15EX, though, will have to shoot from far short of the battle line “because their survivability is compromised,” forcing them to shoot more expensive standoff munitions, he said.
Autonomous adjuncts could be operational in “the next three [to] four years,” he said.
Because “expendables … have a lower price point … we’re looking at ways to get them out there much sooner, to have that option available … for our folks in the Pacific to have that tool in their toolbox, should they need it.”
In the medium term—“the early 2030s”—the rest of the concept could be fleshed out with operational craft, Clark said. It meshes well with USAF’s agile combat employment model, because uncrewed aircraft could operate from a variety of basing options.
Tactical Autonomy Research Partnership with HBCUs
By Abraham Mahshie
The Air Force will look to the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in a closed solicitation that will create the Air Force’s first university-affiliated research center (UARC), Air Force leaders said June 27.
The center will study tactical autonomy. The DAF will select the center’s location from one of 11 qualifying schools. The current plan would make the chosen HBCU the leader of a consortium of other HBCUs studying the topic.
“Part of the future of the military is going to be autonomy—there’s no doubt in my mind of that,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in making the announcement.
Kendall said artificial intelligence (AI) is a “gap in our suite of research institutes” that is increasingly appearing on the battlefield.
“It’s here to stay, and we need to be at the front edge of that. This is an opportunity to tap into that,” he said. “I am very focused on the threat of Chinese military modernization and what that means in terms of our forces for the future.”
The Department of the Air Force will provide $12 million per year for five years to fund the research. DOD currently maintains 14 UARCs affiliated with the Army, Navy, and Missile Defense Agency. The first Air Force UARC will help close the gap of research dollars going to HBCUs, which currently receive less than 0.05 percent of total DOD research dollars, according to a news release.
Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu said that in targeting HBCUs, the Air Force is following proven scientific strategies for better problem-solving.
“We’re one of the most innovative countries in the world because of diversity,” she said in response to a question from Air Force Magazine.
“It’s a diversity of different ideas coming from a diversity of backgrounds that helps you to solve the most challenging problem with innovative ideas that you, maybe within your own perspective, wouldn’t have thought of,” she added, referencing her time working in a team of diverse engineers.
Shyu also said targeting HBCUs encourages American students to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and opens them up to the possibility of joining the military or defense industry later on.
“One thing we ought to be doing is [tapping] into and growing our STEM education through universities, [where students] are U.S. citizens, rather than looking only externally for immigrants,” she said.
Chief scientist of the Air Force Victoria Coleman said the tactical autonomy center will look at trust, collaboration between platforms, and human-machine teaming.
“What we mean by that is systems that act delegated and bound to authority, in support of tactical short-term actions that are associated with a more strategic long-term vision,” Coleman explained.
While Coleman did not provide any specific examples, Kendall cited the battlefield in Ukraine, which has seen extensive use of unmanned aerial systems.
By partnering with HBCUs, Coleman said DOD is also responding to a call in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act to increase diversity; and that doing so will help the Air Force develop a new pool of talent.
Among the more than 100 HBCUs in the country, with over 220,000 students, just 11 qualify for the Air Force’s solicitation, meaning they have a research activity rating of R2. The R1 and R2 qualifications mean the university has “very high” or “high” research activity, as determined by the Carnegie Classification.
The eligible schools include Prairie View A&M University, Texas; Southern University and A&M College, La.; University of Maryland Eastern Shore; Tennessee State University; North Carolina A&M University; Morgan State University, Md.; Florida A&M University; Clark Atlanta University, Ga.; Jackson State University, Miss.; Howard University, D.C.; and Texas Southern University.
Tawanda Rooney, deputy director of the Air Force’s Concepts, Development, and Management Office, and herself and HBCU graduate, said research dollars may lift the schools from R2 to R1 and develop long-term relationships for the Air Force.
“One of the things we’re talking about is building that capacity,” Rooney said in response to a question from Air Force Magazine.
Added Coleman: “This is a very deliberate effort to have much better access in those schools.”
The Air Force plans to hold an industry day Aug. 8 and open solicitations Aug. 15. Kendall said he wants to make a decision on the AI university partner by year’s end.
27 Firms Win Chance to Bid on JADC2 Work
By Greg Hadley
The Air Force’s plans for its portion of joint all-domain command and control, or JADC2, have taken a major step forward. The service awarded an indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity, multiple-award contract worth up to $950 million July 1. The deal gives 27 contractors the opportunity to compete for work related to the Pentagon’s ambitious effort to connect sensors and shooters across all domains into one network.
What exactly the contractors will be developing for the Air Force was not specified in the JADC2 contract announcement, but it will have to do with the “maturation, demonstration, and proliferation” of technologies that are part of JADC2, the contract announcement states.
The award also says that companies will have to leverage “open systems design, modern software, and algorithm development” as part of their development.
The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center made the award, which includes a mix of larger and smaller firms. JADC2 is intended to be a massive “network of networks,” sharing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance from sensors across air, land, sea, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum, identifying the proper units or platforms to deal with threats and connecting them with the necessary information.
In order to realize the concept, the Pentagon will have to use cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, and new communication methods, experts say.
The Air Force’s portion of the enterprise, the Advanced Battle Management System, has been in development for several years, but Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has pushed in recent months for more urgency in having ABMS provide operational benefits faster instead of focusing on more experiments.
Spending on the project, meanwhile, hit $268.8 million in fiscal 2022 after Congress slashed funding in 2021, forcing the service to adjust its plans. In 2023, the Air Force is requesting $231.4 million, but the program is expected to grow significantly in the years ahead—the Future Years Defense Program is projecting at least $550 million per year through 2027, peaking at $870.8 million in 2026.
F-22s Head to Poland to Boost NATO
By Greg Hadley
F-22s arrived at RAF Lakenheath, U.K., on July 26 en route to Poland, as the U.S. Air Force continues to bolster its presence of fifth-generation fighters in the region.
U.S. Air Forces in Europe confirmed the F-22s’ arrival, stating in a release that the fighters from the 90th Fighter Squadron of the 3rd Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, will be traveling from Lakenheath to the 32nd Tactical Air Base in Lask, Poland, to support NATO’s air shielding mission.
New USAFE commander Gen. James B. Hecker hinted at the F-22s’ appearance in Europe at the Royal International Air Tattoo on July 17 in an interview with Air Force Magazine.
“We’re bringing over F-22s … that are going to be coming over shortly, within a month, and they’ll spend four or five months over here,” Hecker said. “So we’re going to constantly cycle in fifth-generation in addition to what will eventually be two permanent [F-35] squadrons at Lakenheath. So we’ll be cycling it in here in the meantime.”
According to local media reports, six F-22s arrived at Lakenheath. When they arrive in Poland, they’ll be tasked with supporting a new mission for NATO. Air shielding is intended to protect NATO nations from air and missile threats by leveraging air- and ground-based air defense assets.
Air shielding “will provide a near seamless shield from the Baltic to Black Seas, ensuring NATO Allies are better able to safeguard and protect Alliance territory, populations and forces from air and missile threat,” USAFE’s press release states, adding that the F-22’s success as an air dominance platform makes it “a highly strategic platform to support NATO Air Shielding.”
This marks just the latest deployment of USAF fighters to eastern Europe in an effort to reassure NATO allies on the eastern flank in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and continued aggression.
Earlier in July, F-35s from the Vermont Air National Guard forward-deployed to Amari Air Base, Estonia, to support the air shielding mission. Prior to that, the Air Force has moved F-15s, F-16s, other F-35s, and still more aircraft into Eastern Europe, participating in NATO’s Baltic air policing and enhanced air policing missions.
The constant rotation of new aircraft into the region is part of the Air Force’s plan to remain vigilant as the Russia-Ukraine war drags on.
“What we’re going to do is just kind of have six, 12 kinds of airplanes that will come in here for four months, and we’ll do that for about a year or so, in addition with all the permanent aircraft that we have stationed here,” Hecker told Air Force Magazine. “And that will increase our presence here, and then we’ll have to readjust and see what this thing looks like a year from now.”
AC-130J Crews Share 2021 Mackay Trophy
By Greg Hadley
A pair of AC-130J Ghostrider crews won the 2021 Mackay Trophy, awarded by the Air Force and the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) for the year’s most meritorious flight. The trophy is in recognition of their actions during the withdrawal from Afghanistan that aided in the rescue of some 2,000 American diplomats.
All told, 18 Airmen from the 73rd Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla., received the recognition June 30.
As the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, the Taliban seized territory at a rapid rate. On Aug. 15, Taliban fighters entered the capital city of Kabul, forcing the U.S. to rapidly evacuate its embassy in the city.
In the midst of that evacuation, two AC-130Js, call signs Shadow 77 and 78, alert-launched from Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates to provide close air support for the evacuating personnel.
According to the NAA citation, the crews “maintained visual custody of all American personnel” headed to Hamid Karzai International Airport and provided real-time video to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley.
The citation also notes that the crews flew the longest unaugmented flight in the AC-130J’s young history—the gunship first flew in 2014.
With the AC-130Js providing close air support, 2,000 Americans were able to evacuate with zero casualties.
The following Airmen crewed Shadow 77 and 78:
- Capt. Lawrence S. Bria
- Capt. Sam B. Pearce
- Capt. Aaron M. Rigg
- Maj. Joshua T. Burris
- Capt. Michael G. Shelor
- Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Mayle
- Staff Sgt. Kevin P. Heimbach
- Senior Airman Denver M. Reinwald
- Senior Airman Timothy J. Cisar
- Capt. Culley R. Horne
- 1st Lt. William A. Bachmann
- Capt. Ryan M. Elliott
- Capt. Benjamin A. Hoyt
- Staff Sgt. Dylan T. Hansen
- Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Malinowski
- Staff Sgt. Tyler J. Blue
- Staff Sgt. Gregory A. Page
- Senior Airman Miguelle B. Corpuz
The crews of Shadow 77 and 78 are the latest Airmen to be recognized for their efforts in the evacuation of Kabul amid chaotic conditions. A number of C-17 crew members, who landed at Hamid Karzai International Airport to airlift personnel and civilians out, have been recognized with the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
USAF’s Next Aircrew Helmet
By Greg Hadley
The Air Force has selected a prototype to develop as its new helmet for all fixed-wing aircrew, Air Combat Command announced June 25, picking LIFT Airborne Technologies’ design.
The new helmet, which still has to undergo additional research and testing before the Air Force confirms the design and offers a production contract, is better-equipped to handle the addition of helmet-mounted devices and will offer a better fit for more diverse crews, the Air Force said in its announcement.
The service’s current standard-issue helmet for aircrew is the HGU-55/P, first introduced in the 1980s. With the advancement of helmet-mounted display systems and other devices, however, the weight on crew members’ heads and necks increased, and the center of gravity shifted.
Several academic studies over the years have found that heavier helmets or those with mounted devices can cause greater discomfort or muscle strains in the neck, compounded by the effects of high G forces.
“The legacy helmet was not originally designed to support advances in aircraft helmet-mounted display systems, causing pilots to fly with equipment not optimized for them, especially our female aircrew,” Scott Cota, ACC Plans and Requirements branch aircrew flight equipment program analyst, said in a release.
ACC worked with other major commands and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Human Systems Program Office to develop requirements for a next-generation helmet. Among those requirements were “weight, pilot comfort, optimized fitment and protection, stability, optimized center of gravity, and integration with different helmet-mounted systems,” the release stated.
ACC then collaborated with AFWERX, an Air Force innovation-focused organization designed to seek out interesting ideas from nontraditional vendors, to open up the competition process, according to the release. More than 100 designs were submitted, and from those 100, 38 companies were invited to present their proposals. The most promising were tested by the Air Force Research Laboratory, other labs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and squadrons at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
LIFT touts its design, called AV 2.2, as being substantially lighter than competitors, with increased ventilation and custom fitting options available. The helmet also has a modular design, making it easier to attach devices such as night-vision goggles or a helmet-mounted cueing system (HMCS).
It will still be years before pilots get their hands on the new helmets, however. The Air Force is estimating that a production contract won’t come until 2024, and after that, ACC will deliver them in a phased approach, giving the first ones to those flying on the F-15E Strike Eagle.
One aircraft whose crew won’t need the new helmet is the F-35—the Joint Strike Fighter has its own helmet, custom-made for each pilot and costing roughly $400,000 each.
B-21 Director Hired to Advise DOD Acquisition Chief
By John A. Tirpak
Randall G. Walden, head of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), where he has directed development of the B-21 bomber and the Advanced Battle Management System, is moving to a new job at the Pentagon to advise the DOD’s acquisition and sustainment chief, William A. LaPlante.
Walden, who is the director and program executive officer for the RCO, has been named “senior executive adviser” in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, according to a July 11 announcement from the Air Force.
The service could not immediately say whether a successor at the RCO had been determined.
LaPlante, formerly the Air Force’s acquisition executive, put Walden and the RCO in charge of B-21 development in 2015, when the Air Force selected Northrop Grumman to build what was then called the Long-Range Strike Bomber. LaPlante at the time described the choice of putting a major weapon system such as the B-21 under the RCO, rather than in a traditional program office, as a way to use lean management techniques with minimal Pentagon bureaucracy while taking advantage of the RCO’s ability to conduct projects in secret.
Pentagon leaders and cleared members of Congress alike have lauded the B-21 as a well-run program. The Air Force’s current service acquisition executive (SAE), Andrew Hunter, revealed in June that the B-21 is actually under budget.
Walden has reported that six B-21s are in construction at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., plant and that the first one will likely roll out in 2022. Walden had also predicted the first article would fly this summer, but Air Force officials have since walked back that prediction.
The Air Force has disclosed relatively few other products of the RCO, but one noteworthy program was the X-37B mini-space plane, one of which broke its own on-orbit record July 6. The RCO also says it developed the integrated air defense system installed around the “National Capital Region” after the 9/11 attacks. During Walden’s 20-year Air Force career as a flight-test engineer, he worked at times on classified projects. He retired in 2002 and was appointed to the Senior Executive Service that same year, subsequently working on special access programs, in the RCO, and as the director of test and evaluation for USAF. He became head of the RCO in 2014.
LaPlante was determined to write a good contract for the B-21 that could adapt to a changing threat, and the fact that the award handily survived a protest from the losing Lockheed Martin-Boeing team could be called one of LaPlante’s signature achievements while he was the Air Force SAE. He insisted on an open architecture for the B-21, and while USAF secured a fixed-price contract for the initial aircraft, the development program was a cost-plus arrangement that rewarded Northrop Grumman for hitting milestones early.
F-35s Stand Down as Search For Faulty Ejection Seat Part Widens
By John A. Tirpak
The Air Force grounded its F-35A fighters July 29, as it checked for potentially faulty parts in the type’s Martin-Baker ejection seats. The move followed by a day of the service’s grounding nearly half its T-38 supersonic trainers and about a sixth of its T-6A primary trainers for the same issue.
The Navy is following a similar inspection protocol on its jets with Martin-Baker seats, including its F-35Bs/Cs, F/A-18s, EA-18s, T-45s, and F-5Ns.
ACC said it has known about the potential problem since April, when a routine inspection found a defective cartridge at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
“An Immediate Time Compliance Technical Directive was issued” to inspect other aircraft, a spokeswoman said, which ordered that all the seats be checked within 90 days. When it was determined that a production-line quality failure was to blame, the F-35 Joint Program Office “rescinded the immediate action” TCTD and changed it to a “routine” TCTD, still to be completed within the 90-day period, she said.
The general stand-down was ordered “to expedite the inspection process,” the spokeswoman said. A USAF spokesperson said “this is properly called a stand-down” rather than a grounding because the aircraft can resume flying after an inspection shows they are safe to operate.