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  • OCO Boost Better Than Nothing, Still Not Good Enough

    ​Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer testifies before the House Armed Services Committee's readiness panel on March 26, 2015. Screen shot photo.

    The $3.2 trillion government-spending bill, which the House approved March 25 with a vote of 228-199, does not do much to improve the Defense Department’s worsening readiness crisis, even with the extra $20 billion in war funds, said several members of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness panel on Thursday. Congressional and defense leaders agreed the overseas contingency operations boost is better than nothing, but said there are still plenty of restrictions, which will affect overall readiness levels. The Air Force, for example, is “very capital intensive” and relies on multi-year contracts to get the best deal on expensive procurement programs, such as the F-35 strike fighter, the Long-Range Strike Bomber, and the new aerial refueling tanker, said USAF Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer. OCO rules also allow the service to replace munitions expended in war, but it doesn’t allow the Air Force to “budget for projected weapons that we’re going to use,” said Spencer. “So, it puts us behind by a year.” Subcommittee ranking member, Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), said the budget resolution “undermines defense and uses gimmicks to act like we’ve truly boosted defense spending.” Panel Chair Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) acknowledged that an OCO-driven budget is not the best solution, but said, it “does allow the appropriators and the authorizers to get to the $613 billion number, so it does allow at least some relief.”  (Spencer prepared testimony)

  • Looming RPA Operator Crisis

    ​Roughly 70 percent of remotely piloted aircraft operators trained from the ground up to fly RPAs don't plan to re-enlist, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer told the Senate Armed Services Committee's readiness panel on March 25. The Air Force conducted an internal survey of RPA pilots and "roughly 30 percent say they'll stay" and take the re-enlistment bonus, Spencer said. However, "We've got RPA pilots that we've just worked to the point where we're worried whether we can retain them or not," he added. "The new RPA pilots are coming up to the point where they can separate" at the same time cross-trained pilots would have been allowed to return to manned cockpits. "We're telling them they can't go back … we are essentially at our wit's end," Spencer said. The Air Force is implementing a slew of initiatives to "make that enterprise healthier," including offering fatter re-enlistment bonuses and asking the Air National Guard to volunteer to backfill Active Duty billets, he said. "It's just an indication of what the current ops tempo is" and the fact that the RPA force has essentially been in "surge" mode since 2007, Spencer noted. (Read Are RPA Pilots the New Normal? in the April 2014 issue of Air Force Magazine.)

  • AMP Deal Weeks Away

    Negotiations continue between Congress and the Air Force on how to proceed—or not—with the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program, or AMP, but a deal is expected next month, said Lt. Gen. James Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs. In an interview with Air Force Magazine Thursday, Holmes said Congress is "of two minds" regarding how to upgrade the C-130. "The Senate is probably more inclined to [do the] AMP, the House has more flexibility" to do a lesser program called the Viability and Airspace Access Program, or VAAP, he said. The VAAP—in two increments—would make the C-130 compliant with national and international airspace requirements, but would be less involved and costly than the full AMP, which USAF cancelled two years ago because of sequester. Holmes' staff will brief Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh "next week" on the options, and "tee up" a pitch to Congress the week after that. If Congress insists on the AMP, it might have to be funded from USAF's base budget, or Congress could fund it "through the Air National Guard" equipment accounts. The Fiscal 2015 defense authorization demanded USAF carry out the AMP or take a 15-​percent penalty in operations and maintenance funding. Holmes said congressional staffers tell him the cut would affect "the Secretary of the Air Force … her travel" and immediate staff, not the Air Force Secretariat or wider Air Force fleet, "but we're still working that out."

  • Almost Ready to Go

    ​If the Air Force is compelled to carry out the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program, the research and development work is largely done, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Program Lt. Gen. James Holmes said Thursday. In an interview with Air Force Magazine, Holmes explained that the AMP would need a "tech refresh," however, because of vanishing vendors. Some of the displays, for example, are no longer manufactured, "so we'd have to ask the contractor to go back and … select another display from those that are available." But, as for the whole AMP, "we know what it will cost." The price of doing the AMP is starting to become comparable to that predicted for a lesser mod, called the Viability and Airspace Access Program, or VAAP, which would make the Hercs compliant with international airspace regulations. If USAF can cut the overall fleet of C-130s down to 300—Holmes admitted there is "pushback" on that plan from Congress—the number of aircraft requiring AMP, and those needing VAAP, begin to converge, especially if more of the fleet is new C-130Js. "As the fleet gets smaller, the cost of AMP goes down," he said. VAAP is not yet defined though, he cautioned. "We're not as confident about what it will cost" and the cost will rise as the fleet gets smaller due to amortization over fewer airframes, he explained. About 172 C-130Hs will need AMP or VAAP; C-130Js have a parallel airspace compliance program.

  • Powder River Expansion Approved


    The Federal Aviation Administration approved the Air Force's plan to expand the Powder River Training Complex to create the continental US' largest training airspace by year's end. "After nearly nine years working with the Air Force on this important expansion project, we’re not only going to see savings to the tune of $23 million a year at Ellsworth [AFB, S.D.], but we’re also going to offer better training opportunities to our airmen," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who pushed the project. Powder River will expand to 35,000 square miles—nearly four times its current size—spanning the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming, according to a March 24 release from Thune’s office. The expanded range will give B-1s from Ellsworth and B-52s from Minot AFB, N.D., training venues close to home, saving time, fuel, and wear and tear on aircraft commuting to and from distant ranges. Powder River will be divided into high, medium, and low-altitude sectors, with provision for 10 days of large-force exercise annually.

  • Following the Compass Call

    ​An EC-130H Compass Call flies a training mission over Lake Mead, Ariz. Air Force photo.

    The Air Force is considering transplanting some of the EC-130H Compass Call's electronic attack suite to its JSTARS' replacement aircraft to offset fleet cuts, Air Staff plans and programs chief Lt. Gen. James Holmes told lawmakers Thursday. Depending on how JSTARS replacement unfolds "we think it might offer some options for re-hosting of the EC-130 electronics," Holmes said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical air and land forces panel. Even though Compass Calls are combat-deployed in both Afghanistan and the Middle East, budget pressure is forcing the service to divest half of its 14-strong fleet in Fiscal 2016. "The divesture incurs and accepts" that Compass Call will not be able to support future contingency operations beyond "the currently tasked operations," Holmes admitted. To mitigate this, the service "will continue to investigate alternatives" to supplement and rebuild the EC-130s electronic attack capability, he said. All EC-130Hs are currently assigned to the 55th Electronic Combat Group at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. (Holmes prepared testimony)

  • Ninth GPS IIF Satellite Launched


    ​A United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket launches the GPSIIF-9 satellite March 25, 2015, from Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla. ULA courtesy photo.

    The ninth Global Positioning System IIF satellite successfully launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket from Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla., on March 25, the service announced. “Each new generation of GPS satellites provides enhanced capability over the prior generations, and has delivered reliable performance demonstrating our commitment that GPS remain the gold standard space-based positioning, navigation, and timing service for the future,” said Brig. Gen. Bill Cooley, head of the GPS directorate at the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles AFB, Calif., in a March 25 release. The Boeing-built satellite reached orbit just over three hours after launch and “sent signals confirming its health,” according to a company release. “Boeing, ULA, and the Air Force successfully launched four GPS IIFs last year, the highest operations tempo in over 20 years, and today’s mission marks the first of three launches planned in 2015,” said Dan Hart, vice president, Boeing Government Space Systems. “As they enter service, the IIFs are advancing and modernizing the GPS constellation by improving accuracy, signal strength, and anti-jamming capability. We are also introducing the L-5 civilian ‘safety-of-life’ signal intended mainly for aviation and transportation."

  • Embracing the “Multi-Domain” Approach

    The Air Force’s recent headquarters reorganization reflects a shift in thinking about how USAF will develop and field future capabilities, said Air Staff strategic plans boss Lt. Gen. James Holmes during an AFA-sponsored, Air Force breakfast event in Arlington, Va., March 26. Past programs often led to “exquisite requirements,” which led to 20- to 30-year development programs, and often struggled to keep up with evolving technologies even as potential adversaries close the capability gap around the world. If repeated, this approach could lead to “jumping off a bridge into an F-X [analysis of alternatives] that costs $250 million an airplane to get all the capability you think you need 20 years in the future,” he said. “Multi-domain” capability planning helps solve this, he said. Aircraft development has changed drastically in the 21st Century, he noted as an example, and today “the cost in our programs has moved from the touch labor of building an airplane over into the software development of an airplane that has eight million lines of code in it.” In this environment, 20-plus-year development cycles won’t work, and USAF needs to shift how it works with industry to come up with better solutions in old missions, such as air superiority. One approach, said Holmes, is to embrace more open architecture tools, and separate the development of weapons, sensors, and platforms “so we can upgrade one without upgrading the other.”

  • Tikrit Airstrikes Support Iraqi Troops

    After a request for assistance from the Iraqi government, US and coalition aircraft conducted airstrikes in Tikrit, supporting Iraqi forces attempting to dislodge ISIS fighters from the city. Fighters, bombers, and remotely piloted aircraft carried out 17 strikes on ISIS targets in the initial wave, hitting a building held by ISIS, two bridges, three checkpoints, berms, staging areas, and a command and control facility, according to a March 26 Defense Department release. The strikes insert US and coalition forces directly into the stalled battle for Tikrit, which also features Iranian advisers, Shiite militias, and Iraqi forces, raising potential deconfliction challenges with the Iranians. However, US officials claim the Iranian-backed militias are no longer in the fight. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee March 26, US Central Command boss Army Gen. Lloyd Austin said some 4,000 Iraqi forces are now in the area, mostly Iraqi special forces and federal police. Shiite militia members “are [not] part of the clearing operations in Tikrit,” he added. US strikes were conditioned on the Iraqi government taking control of the operation, coordinating a scheme of maneuver with forces, and being able to establish a clear line of communication with Operation Inherent Resolve air planners, said Austin.

  • Saudis, Gulf Allies Launch Military Campaign in Yemen

    ​The Saudis have begun a multi-national air campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen, with the backing of its Gulf Arab allies, regional Arab partners, and logistical and intelligence support from the US, the country announced Wednesday. The move comes as Iran-allied Houthi forces close on the port city of Aden, the temporary home of Yemen's displaced President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi. The Saudi Press Agency state news wire declared the first wave hit at midnight on March 25 Riyadh time, which "resulted in the destruction of all Houthi air defenses," an airfield at Al Dalimi, and four aircraft. The Gulf Cooperation Council released a statement immediately saying the action was in response to a request for help from Hadi, and that the "coup" by the Houthis represented a "threat to the security of the region." In a press conference at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., late Wednesday, Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir said more than 10 nations participated in the operation, which would be "limited" and designed to protect Yemen's "legitimate government." National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said Wednesday the US is providing "logistical and intelligence support" for the GCC, and US forces are establishing a joint planning cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate US military support, but are not participating in "direct military action." Saudi military forces began building up on Yemen's border earlier this week, according to Reuters, and the US has withdrawn all of its diplomatic and military presence from the country.