Air Combat Command is trying to move forward with an experiment it hopes will pave the way for a larger overhaul of fighter pilot training, despite pandemic-era complications.
Last year, ACC signed off on a concept called “Rebuilding the Forge,” or Reforge, which would shorten training by at least a year by consolidating certain training phases and keeping student pilots at one base longer. Air Force Magazine previously reported the new T-7A Red Hawk trainer jet would be a centerpiece of that educational fleet to reduce the strain on the operational combat force.
But the coronavirus pandemic intervened, slowing ACC’s plans for getting Reforge off the ground, ACC boss Gen. Mark D. Kelly told reporters Feb. 26 at AFA’s virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium.
“COVID has been the sand in the gears of a whole lot of things we’ve been trying to do,” Kelly said. “Before we can do Reforge as an established program, we need to do our … experiment.”
The command is working through the contracting process for the resources it needs to test the Reforge idea, he said.
Last year, the Air Force started looking at leasing Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 or Leonardo M346 training planes as part of the project. Renting eight airplanes had won support at the highest echelon of the Air Force, Air Force Magazine previously reported, but the service had yet to get on contract.
Reforge will also rely on augmented and virtual reality simulation to give students extra practice on maneuvers where they need more help, and offer students more stability through fewer moves between bases. ACC hopes that, if successful, the program will also help reverse a yearslong pilot shortage.
Kelly believes the Air Force will include funding for Reforge in the fiscal 2022 budget request, but did not say how much money the program might need.
“I’d like to start it as soon as possible,” he said.
That 2022 money could be enough to get off to a good start, but Kelly says he needs five years’ worth of funding that he doesn’t have right now.
“It’s a continual discussion I have with the Air Force team that has to balance a whole lot of budget pressure,” he said. “I think we’re going to have money to do our experiment, and our experiment needs to … get follow-on funding.”
Hopefully, Reforge will prove to be a solid solution to giving pilots a fuller education between fighter jet fundamentals in the T-38 trainer and high-end qualification on a platform like the F-35 or F-22.
“We’ve got a long way to go in terms of getting the program up and going,” Kelly said.