NGAD, New Weapons, E-3 Replacement Among Air Combat Command’s Top Priorities, Kelly Says

The Next-Generation Air Dominance Fighter is Air Combat Command’s top priority, because without it, the Air Force can’t provide the control of the air the whole military depends on to operate, Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mark D. Kelly said. He also named a replacement for the E-3 AWACS, new weapons, and command and control improvements among the command’s top needs.

Speaking at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies virtual event, Kelly said NGAD is his No. 1 requirement. He described it as a sixth-generation air superiority system able to operate at long ranges—farther than would be encountered in the European theater. Kelly said NGAD is “designed to operate beyond a single spectral band of the RF [radio frequency] spectrum, to thrive in a multispectral environment,” and it also “senses” the battle space and “connects” the rest of the force, so “that I can put [it] in the adversary’s back yard.”

The NGAD is really a multi-service requirement because the other services are “not remotely—remotely—designed to operate without” control of the air, Kelly noted. “Everyone’s counting on the Air Force to provide that.”

Kelly’s other priorities include:

  • Fulfilling the “fighter roadmap,” which he laid out at the AFA Air, Space & Cyber conference in September. This includes F-35s, F-15s, F-16s and, until around 2030, A-10s and F-22s;
  • “Fifth-generation AMTI,” or airborne moving target indicator capability; a replacement for the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS);
  • Air base defenses—possibly including directed energy systems;
  • “Fifth-gen weapons for our fifth-gen Air Force”;
  • And, investment in joint all-domain command and control.

Not Soon Enough

The E-3 is “unsustainable without a Herculean effort,” Kelly said, and while there are “miracle workers” in the maintenance force that keep it flying, “there’s only so many miracles [they] … can pull off before physics come into play on a 45-year-old airframe.” The AWACS of today is “outdated and only getting older” and also “just not interoperable with what we need to do” in a multispectral battle, Kelly said. Getting a new platform “can’t happen fast enough.”

The Air Force made its first move toward a new AWACS, the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail, last week in an industry solicitation, but Kelly could not provide a timeline for acquiring it. “I want them in the inventory … two years ago,” Kelly said. “Not to be flippant, but that’s actually the answer I would give Congress and anybody else.”

He said that neither he nor the Air Force have done a good job “of unambiguously articulating the no-fail [nature] of the air domain sensing piece.”

He said he’s in constant contact with the acquisition organizations of the Air Force, “and we’ll defer to them with regards to how fast it can actually happen,” but, he said, “I don’t think it will happen in 2022 or 2023, but I can guarantee you I’ll be talking to them on a weekly basis to make sure we get it as soon as we can.” The Air Force, he said, needs “a modern sensing grid.” He also said he’s agnostic about other potential solutions, but “if you know of one, send me an email, because I don’t know of any.”

Though Kelly did not mention the new Advanced Tactical Trainer among his top priorities, this, too is an important new program, he said. The T-38s used in that mission now “have 1960s-era tail numbers,” he said, and every day, it becomes “more disconnected” from the modern systems fighter pilots need to learn. “We can’t fill that void fast enough.”

Asked if acquiring the system—the requirements of which are very similar to the capability in the new T-7 trainer—will have to wait until the T-7 buy is complete, Kelly said the ATT won’t necessarily be a T-7 variant.

The T-7 program of record is 349 airplanes, Kelly said, and Air Education and Training Command needs those as soon as it can get them, to train the youngest aviators.

“There could be a different solution out there,” he said, but “I need to get our aviators, as soon as I can, something that is not such a leap” from 1960s technology in the T-38 to 2021 technology in the F-35. “Right now, I’m putting that tactical bridge on the shoulders of our young instructors on the flight line.” But he has, again, signaled the acquisition community that the fighter trainer needs to come sooner than later. He needs something cheaper than $20,000 per hour flying cost, but “closer to $2,000-$3,000 an hour.”

Making Progress on F-35

While Kelly admitted that the Air Force is chronically short of engines for the F-35 due to parts supply issues, he said great progress has been made in reducing the shortage from as many as 48 F-35s that were grounded “for power modules or some engine issues” to less than 40 aircraft. That is “not a trivial accomplishment,” Kelly said, “because every day, they’re introducing more jets to the system. So, it’s not a small improvement, it’s an exponential improvement, and I expect that trend to continue to zero.”

Getting there, however, required Kelly to “curtail some of our airshow schedule” to make sure “we don’t over-consume our engines for not a good return on our training investment.”

Kelly said he is satisfied with about 200 training hours for F-35 pilots per year, supplemented with simulators, and said that 65 percent aircraft availability is also acceptable, because it can be surged to over 70 percent. He said, the 65 percent figure is “a steady state line” for him.

Engine Issues

While he’s aware of “pressure” on the supply of engines for F-15s and F-16s, Kelly said he’s meeting all of the demand. Where engine issues are serious, he said, are on TF33 powerplants used on the E-3 AWACS, E-8 JSTARS, and B-52. Those engines are so old and hard to get parts for that aircraft are being cannibalized “before those engines cool down” to feed others.

Reaper’s Future

The MQ-9 Reaper will persist in the force, and ACC is moving to give it the capability to take off and land autonomously in bad weather, Kelly said. That will also reduce the manpower needed for the launch and recovery effort.

The Reaper will be “a key contributor to our sensing grid” for years to come, Kelly said, due to its ability to carry a “pretty decent” weapons load and Gorgon Stare long-dwell intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance pods.

As for what comes after the MQ-9, Kelly touted a new program for a low-observable unmanned adversary air system that could also carry sensors and perform an operational role outside of training.