The Air Force’s test and evaluation enterprise faces a bow wave of new weapon systems to prove out, meaning that existing range space must be preserved and made more efficient and that ground testing needs more resources, said Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr., outgoing head of Air Force Materiel Command.
In an exit interview prior to handing off the AFMC leadership job to Lt. Gen. Duke Z. Richardson, Bunch acknowledged that USAF is entering a time of unusually heavy demand for testing, including new fighters and trainers, a new bomber, a new ICBM, prototype uncrewed aircraft, hypersonic systems, and a host of new tactical missiles and munitions, all on top of existing upgrade and modification testing. He said he’s devoted “a lot of brain bites” to the bow wave in recent months.
Various programs, especially hypersonic projects, have slowed recently because of the limited availability of tightly scheduled, open-air range space at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and other sites, along with a shortage of wind tunnels and similar ground testing capabilities. Program managers have complained that they have to “get back in line”—sometimes for months—if a key test is aborted due to weather or a problem with the system being tested.
The “No. 1” consideration of the test enterprise is “we can’t give up any more range than we’ve already given,” Bunch insisted. “We need to really protect the range space that we have,” he noted, saying the Air Force is constantly fending off encroachment from “people that want to build or do things” adjacent to or within testing areas.
The Air Force needs to “clearly communicate with everybody how critically important the range space that we have is,” he said, so it can continue to serve its vital function without compromise.
Next, he said, the Air Force is doing all it can to maximize the test capacity it already has by networking people and systems at multiple sites around the country.
“We are continuing to look at how we do distributed or dispersed testing,” he said, “and by that I mean, can I test an asset at White Sands while utilizing members of the team at Eglin and Edwards and wherever else, and link all them together through the networks.” Bunch said the Air Force can now do this and “capitalize on [other] range space that may be available.”
He reported that USAF has taken this approach “where we simultaneously ran control rooms at Eglin and Edwards, conducting tests at either one of those locations, or White Sands. So we know that we can do that. We just have to continue to look for … those opportunities.”
The Air Force is working to put instrumentation on the “over-water range down at Eglin,” in the the Gulf of Mexico, which is USAF’s largest test range, he said. That will add significantly more capability to what USAF can already call upon, he said. The instrumentation will be expanded “down the coastline” to capture more test data and telemetry.
A “really key” initiative is to “get early engagement with programs so we understand what they’re really trying to do,” he said. AFMC’s test enterprise needs to know “What data … do you want to verify and test? When do you need this test? And deconflict some of those things so we know exactly where we’re trying to go,” he said.
Bunch said it won’t eliminate open-air testing, but “as we execute our digital campaign” and do more comparison between real-world testing and digital models, databases will build up, and the Air Force will be able to better gauge expected performance. That “should mean there’s less we have to do in the open air, and that is another area that we are going to continue to look at.”
Bunch said he clearly remembers disappointing claims made for the F-35 suggesting that if real-world evaluations confirmed some representative test points, it could safely be assumed that the test points in between would match up as well, saving time and expense. That didn’t turn out to be the case.
“I’m not ready to say that’s going to be the immediate answer,” he hedged.
“What I am willing to say is … we’ve got programs ongoing that I think will give us more confidence in that and … I feel more confident” in digital prediction “now than I did when the F-35” was beginning testing. He noted that he was the wing commander at Edwards when that effort built up steam, “and I was told that was going to save me all this time, energy and effort … And that didn’t come to fruition, so I’m not pushing the ‘I believe’ button right off the bat.”
Bunch said the Air Force’s ground-based test infrastructure wasn’t included in the service’s installation investment strategy that set new rules for the pace at which structures and capabilities need to be refurbished or replaced.
“We can’t forget our ground test facilities,” Bunch said. While there is an easily understood need for open-air ranges where hypersonic systems, for example, can fly at Mach 5 over hundreds of miles, “we also have to think about … how many arc-jet heaters do I need? What do I need to be able to run it in the wind tunnels?”
He added that “Open-air [testing] is what everybody thinks about. But we’ve got to walk that all the way back into how we are doing that tech development, to make sure we’ve got the ground test infrastructure right, so that that does not become a bottleneck.”
The Air Force needs more investment in that ground test enterprise, he said.
“We’ve got to build that up so that I keep the capacity that I’ve got … and stay linked in with where the technology is going so that we keep the test infrastructure modernized.” Bunch said AFMC, the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center (AFOTEC), and the Air Warfare Center have a “good relationship” and are generally in agreement about “what we need to make our investments in.” Leaders understand the test enterprise, “the demand signal,” and “what our capacity needs to be.”