Fifth Air Force Eyes a Future Without F-15s
By John A. Tirpak
The Air Force began bringing home the first of 48 F-15C/D Eagles from Kadena Air Base, Japan, in November—without permanent replacements available. Kadena, located on the Japanese island of Okinawa, is 450 miles from Taiwan.
The Air Force is no longer training new F-15C/D pilots and is phasing out the aircraft, which are approaching 40 years old. While USAF once planned to replace all its F-15s with F-22 Raptors, it never acquired enough F-22s to fulfill that dream. The Okinawa F-15s at the base are the last C/D models in the Active-duty force; the remainder belong to the Air National Guard.
Kadena officials said the phase out of the Kadena F-15s will take place over two years, during which the base will backfill with “newer and more advanced aircraft” from elsewhere. Those will include F-22s, the F-35 Lightning IIs, new F-15EX Eagle IIs, but also could include F-16s or F-15Es from other bases.
We need to buy fighter aircraft capacity now … to reverse the decline in fighter force structure, as what is happening at Kadena today is the tip of the iceberg.Retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies
Air Force officials said F-22s from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, will be the first to deploy to Kadena. F-16s from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, could also be in the mix.
The Air Force declined to comment on future plans to backfill the F-15s at Kadena. “We don’t discuss deployments until the aircraft arrive at their deployed locations,” said a spokesperson at the Pentagon, who could not immediately say whether the 44th and 67th fighter squadrons at Kadena, which are giving up their F-15s, will be inactivated.
Air Force officials have said the preferred approach is to replace the F-15Cs in Japan with new-build F-15EXs. However, having reduced the planned buy of F-15EXs from 144 aircraft to 80, there won’t be enough of the new aircraft to replace the Kadena jets as well as Air National Guard jets based around the U.S.
The Air Force funded 24 F-15EXs through fiscal 2022 and has requested funds for 24 in both fiscal 2023 and ’24. Deliveries will lag funding by several years, however.
Until then, the Pentagon will use the “Global Force Management process to provide backfill solutions that maintain regional deterrence and bolster our ability to uphold our treaty obligations to Japan,” the Air Force said in a release from Kadena.
The Global Force Management process apportions forces based on theater commander need, not necessarily the service providing the capability. It was not clear if Navy and Marine Corps aircraft could also be used to fill in from time to time.
In a March streaming event with AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, commander of Pacific Air Forces Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach said the Air Force is eyeing the F-15EX for Kadena.
“What we intend to use it for, there, if we’re so fortunate to get that replacement, is air superiority, and some long-range weapons capabilities that you can conduct on the F-15EX,” Wilsbach said. Unlike the F-15C/D, which is an almost exclusively air-to-air platform, the F-15EX retains all the range and ground-attack weapons-carrying capabilities of the F-15E on which it is based. The EX can carry the stealthy AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, he noted, which will be an important force-multiplier for the units equipped.
Wilsbach said, “You will be able to see some of that as we unveil” plans in upcoming budgets.
The Air Force has had F-15s at Kadena since 1979, when its first A/B models arrived. The Kadena-based F-15s of the 44th and 67th fighter squadrons were the first operational Eagles to be equipped with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, the AN/APG-63(V)3, between 2007 and 2010; and in 2020, they were the first to be operational with the Lockheed Martin “Legion Pod,” which is the first infrared search-and-track system compatible with the Eagle.
Retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said the retirement of F-15s from Kadena is the inevitable result of the “consistent underfunding of the Air Force over 30 years.” The lack of an immediate, ready-to-go successor for the aged F-15s, he added, shows the “neglect and shortsightedness [of] presidential, congressional, and Department of Defense leadership decisions made over the past three decades.”
Depending on rotational replacements, Deptula said, will “stress those aircraft, maintenance personnel, the deployed aircrews, and their families—exactly at a time when pilot retention is a serious problem.” Worse, it exacerbates a shortage of Air Force fighter aircraft that are in high demand by all the combatant commands.
“We need to buy fighter aircraft capacity now at a rate to reverse the decline in fighter force structure, as what is happening at Kadena today is only the tip of the iceberg if we don’t,” Deptula said. “There will be insufficient capability and capacity to execute the new National Defense Strategy,” he added, noting unless the Air Force starts buying and building more aircraft, deterrence is “only an aspiration, not a reality.”
Air Force Touts Unity of Effort Pushing Toward New Collaborative Combat Aircraft
By John A. Tirpak
The Air Force will make a “significant investment” in uncrewed, collaborative combat aircraft, or CCAs, in the fiscal 2024 budget, a quartet of generals announced at the Pentagon. They insisted that the technology is mature enough to move aggressively toward a program that will yield operational capability in a few years.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has previously said CCA technology is mature enough that the concept can proceed to becoming a program of record, and that it will first appear in the ’24 budget request.
The four generals—Maj. Gen. Heather L. Pringle, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory; Maj. Gen. R. Scott Jobe, director of plans, programs, and requirements for Air Combat Command (ACC); Brig. Gen. Dale R. White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft; and Brig. Gen. Joseph D. Kunkel, director of plans and deputy chief of staff for plans and programs—collectively made the case that the push toward CCAs is well coordinated within the service, that the operational side of the service is onboard with the concept, and that experimentation so far has shown that it will be, in the words of White, “a game-changer.”
The presentation seemed arranged to show unity within the service about the desirability of adding uncrewed airplanes to the crewed aircraft fleet, with buy-in from operators, technologists, budget planners, and sustainers.
In recent months, some current and retired senior leaders, including ACC commander Gen. Mark D. Kelly, have cautioned that introducing CCAs must be done iteratively, so that aircrews can build trust in their autonomous teammates and be comfortable with the technology before taking it to war.
CCAs “bring you a lot of opportunity for tactics, techniques, and procedures development, with different kinds of scheme of maneuver [and] with a different firepower that’s really not been seen before,” Jobe said.
“If you think of these things as an extension of our crewed aircraft, and the ability to manage risk in a different way, it brings a lot of potential capability, at a lower price point,” he said.
White said that an “enormous amount of analytical work” has gone into the concept, and that along with the science and technology done to date, “it’s instilled a level of confidence in us that this is a capability to pursue, that we need to pursue quickly, and we believe that it’s a game-changer.”
In order to “move the needle to get the capability faster,” White said companies were brought in early to “show us the art of the possible,” and “they have answered the call.” This was a different way of approaching a new capability, he said, and “we have worked with many vendors.”
It’s a “very collaborative relationship,” White said. “I think that’s what’s really key.” There has been “user involvement” since the beginning of the program, he said.
The CCAs will build directly on work done with the Skyborg program, one of the Air Force’s “Vanguard” technology incubators, which has created an artificial intelligence that can fly an aircraft. Skyborg has demonstrated that the technology is “portable,” Pringle said, having been shown to work in a number of different uncrewed aircraft, both solely and in concert with crewed aircraft. More demonstrations are still to come and are underway, she said.
The capability “in and of itself is critically important,” White said. The speed to ramp is really important, because this capability is something that we do believe will change the nature of the fight.”
While they would not characterize the level of funding planned for the program, “what I can say is, when our budget goes across the river, you’re going go see a significant investment” in CCAs, Kunkel said. He’s under orders from Kendall to “field an operational capability as soon as possible.”
Jobe added that the time to a usable capability must be “on a relevant timeline,” but he didn’t elaborate, except to say it’s “not something that’s going to take 10 years.” The timing of CCA introduction is “sensitive,” he admitted.
Capability development is taking place in “five distinct areas,” Jobe said, to apply CCAs to a highly complex threat. This, in turn, requires “teaming across the entire Air Force, [which has] been fairly unique to this exercise, at least in my experience.”
He said there’s been “a lot of analytical support that shows that this actually changes the way that we fight, and it makes us more effective in the way that we engage in combat operations. And it’s been in multiple independent studies, which makes us feel highly, highly confident that we’re on a solid path forward.”
He assured reporters that “there’s the requirements part to include concepts of operations, concepts of employment on how we plan to do crewed/uncrewed teaming, and bringing that all together.” Moreover, “we have to get the organization right,” he said, and there has been work done on developing doctrine for CCAs, as well as planning for how they will be maintained and organized.
Work has also been done determining the “legal authorities” required. The goal is not to create killer robots, he said, and a lot of work is yet to be done with the FAA to even allow armed, uncrewed aircraft to operate in civilian airspace.
“And you’re probably going to see us do operations in a different way than we’ve done in the past,” he said. “Again, this is a different capability.”
The “requirements and attributes” of CCAs have been defined, Jobe said, but a significant amount of modeling and simulation remains to be done to see how those play out in various scenarios.
No one would describe the acquisition strategy for CCAs. Though cooperation with other countries—notably Australia—has been touted in the development of CCAs, he said, “We know we’re going to do our own competition in our own industrial base for a CCA.” That will change if Kendall directs a more internationally collaborative approach, he said.
Though not a joint program, the generals said the Navy has been involved with CCA development from the beginning, and they suggested that the Navy may lend some of its expertise, as well. It’s already working with an uncrewed tanker, the MQ-25 Stingray.
Guam Needs Layered Missile Defenses
By Chris Gordon
The U.S. plans to significantly improve Guam’s defenses against long-range missile strikes, a senior defense official said Nov. 3, days after the Pentagon released a new Missile Defense Review.
“Missile defense of Guam is a big deal,” said John F. Plumb, the assistant secretary of defense for space policy, at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s going to require persistent layered defenses. We have cruise missile threats. We have ballistic missile threats, general air threats. So doing that is a big issue, and we are very clearly committed to it.”
A U.S. territory in the Western Pacific, Guam is a major military and logistical center and is within the estimated range of Chinese missiles. The 2022 National Defense Strategy, released jointly with the Missile Defense Review, calls China the nation’s “pacing threat” over the coming “decisive decade.”
“The defense of Guam, it’s clearly about China,” said Plumb. “That’s what it is. Guam is a power projection hub for us. We have military forces there. We have U.S. citizens there, and we’re going to protect it.”
Guam’s Anderson Air Force Base has recently hosted B-1 bombers and A-10 close air support aircraft, and the island is also home to a major naval base. Though Guam is a U.S. territory, not a state, the Missile Defense Review makes clear the U.S. does not draw a distinction in terms of sovereignty.
“An attack on Guam is, in fact, an attack on the U.S. homeland, in case there had been any misunderstanding about that by the adversary,” Plumb said.
But unlike the continental U.S., Guam does not have fixed air defenses. Instead, it is primarily protected by an ad-hoc system of Army Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems and Navy ships equipped with Aegis radars off the coast.
THAAD “gives us protection from ballistic missiles, and some of the other missiles as well, but it is somewhat limited in scope,” Navy Rear Adm. Benjamin Nicholson told Air & Space Forces Magazine in June.
U.S. commanders have expressed a desire for a comprehensive system that can detect and destroy ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, drones, hypersonic weapons, and other threats. If the U.S. Air Force is to fight a high-intensity conflict in the Pacific, Guam will be crucial to stage, refuel, repair, and rearm aircraft. To counter threats to major hubs such as Guam, the Air Force hopes to adopt what it calls agile combat employment (ACE), or distributed operations. But the vastness of the Pacific Ocean means constructing new airstrips in the region will not be easy and that Guam will play a significant role as the Air Force moves forward with ACE.
Better defenses top the priorities list for Chief of the Pacific Air Forces Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach. “I can’t get it soon enough,” he said. “I need them to push it up—hurry up and field those capabilities for them and for us.”
The Department of Defense proposed investing more than half a billion dollars in fiscal 2023 to build a 360-degree, integrated air and missile defense system for Guam. “We are going to fund that, and we’ve addressed it kind of head-on,” Plumb said. “That is new because it’s the difference between saying we should do things and actually doing them.”