U.S. Space Force leaders are concerned about growing space capabilities from China and Russia, such as the Russian “nesting doll” satellite that can deploy a kinetic weapon. Mike Tsukamoto/staff; NASA; Pixabay
Photo Caption & Credits

Air Force World

March 26, 2021

A New Frontier in Space Ops

Space conflict is not the future. It is now. 

By Rachel S. Cohen

Space wars could be coming. After decades of peaceful expansion in space, where the United States deployed GPS for the masses and bounced secret combat messages off satellites to troops around the world, the U.S. Space Force is being more open about growing threats and risks in space, including anti-satellite missiles, signal jammers, and threats to satellite controls and radars on the ground. Each of these pose threats to the American way of life.

“The challenge is that the access to space and freedom to maneuver in space can no longer be treated as a given,” said Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond at the Air Force Association’s virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium during a discussion with famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. “We have to be able to protect” U.S. civil, commercial, and military assets in space, he added. 

Russia and China are the pacing threats in space, each figuring out how to work space capabilities into their own global military enterprises while developing and deploying potentially damaging spycraft and weapons in space.

Raymond describes Russian “nesting doll” satellites that unfold next to U.S. assets and Chinese satellites with robotic arms to grab other systems on orbit. Each is also developing electronic weapons. 

We are seeing a lot of electromagnetic spectrum activity in Syria
from the Russians.

Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, Space Command’s Combined Force Space Component Command boss

“There are robust sets of jammers that can jam both communication satellites and our GPS satellites,” he said. “Both China and Russia have directed-energy weapons today, … lasers that can blind or damage our satellite systems. Both China and Russia have missiles that they can launch from the ground and kinetically destroy satellites in low Earth orbit in a matter of minutes.”

China fired an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, shattering one of its own defunct weather satellites. The incident proved its technology, but also created more than 3,000 pieces of space debris that now orbits the Earth, traveling at a speed and orbit that puts other spacecraft at risk. 

That move “really changed the sanctuary of space that we’ve all grown up with,” said Space Delta 7 Commander Col. Chandler P. Atwood, also during the AFA conference.

Fourteen years later, commanders are starting to see their forces in a different light. New squadrons are coming online with missions tailored to modern defense: advanced space threat analysis, orbital warfare, and offensive operations on the electromagnetic spectrum.

DeGrasse Tyson weighed in, stating, “Ever since Sputnik, space has been recognized as a strategic asset, or rather a strategic location. So it’s not a new thing. It’s actually an old thing that is finally getting recognized in the way it needs to be in terms of the umbrella of national security.”

Guardians are learning to look for the fingerprints of threats they may not have noticed before. If something goes wrong on orbit, is it a typical outage, or is someone else snooping around?

“Five years ago, … we were very good at opening the [technical order],’” said Space Delta 3 boss Col. John G. Thien. “We’d see the error message come across, and it would say, ‘call engineering’ or ‘call maintenance.’ Now, we want our Guardians to actually take a look, [when] something goes wrong, … could that be a prelude to an attack?”

Cyber and Electronic Warfare 

To distinguish between benign and malicious activity, operators will need to look to cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum—areas where the fight is already underway—to discern what might evolve into physical conflict. They’re also pairing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance techniques with daily space operations, and working more closely with other members of the Intelligence Community.

“You need an intel operator sitting right next to a space operator to provide that indications and warning … [and the] reach-back through the [Intelligence Community],” Atwood said. That enables commanders to say, “’Hey, we just saw this maneuver, we might want to do a counter-maneuver.’ That’s the paradigm shift that we’re going through right now.” 

Space conflict is already playing out in real-world terrestrial operations. 

Maj. Gen. DeAnna M. Burt, the commander of U.S. Space Command’s Combined Force Space Component Command, said operations in Syria now look like the Air Force’s Red Flag exercise—the department’s premier aerial training event, in which pilots practice complex maneuvers while dealing with degraded communications and satellite interference.

“They’re actively doing work in the electromagnetic spectrum, taking out [satellite communications], and GPS, and other things in the space domain,” Burt said. “We are seeing a lot of electromagnetic spectrum activity in Syria from the Russians, and working to make sure we can mitigate that so it does not affect U.S. forces and the work that they need to do.”

SPACECOM supports U.S. Central Command for ongoing military operations, fielding more than 500 requests for assistance from space assets in 2020. U.S. forces used military space systems to track nearly 1,300 missile launches in the Middle East in the first 11 months of 2020, Burt said.

“Multi-domain discipline in space is not for space’s sake,” she said. “It’s in order to have those satellites to provide combat effects to our other joint brothers and sisters in the other domains.” 

Officials are looking for ways to keep space safe and maintain an upper hand while the Pentagon learns how to treat space as it does air, land, and sea. Troops need to be able to hold orbital threats at bay, and if they can’t, they need the firepower to respond accordingly, Raymond indicated.

He pointed to World War II, when the Air Force sent 1,000 bombers carrying nine bombs each to hit one ball-bearing factory. Only 100 or so of those 9,000 weapons would explode near the target, he said.

Over time, military aircraft became more precise and powerful, thanks to new weapons and technologies like GPS. But the U.S. doesn’t yet have the means to defend space through force, Raymond said, so the Space Force has to work even harder to maintain a safe status quo.

“If we lost space, do we have 1,000 bombers in our Air Force today? We don’t,” he said. “That’s why I said we can’t afford to lose space, and we’re not going to lose space. It’s too important to us.”

To keep the peace on orbit, the global community is beginning to discuss what norms of good behavior might look like for satellites, other spacecraft, and counter-space weapons. The U.S. hopes established norms and peer pressure may keep other countries from threatening civil and military assets.

It’s crowded up there, Raymond said, so spacefaring nations should behave themselves.

“I would like my successors to have some rules of the road on how you operate in space,” he said. “It is not safe and professional for Russia to put a threatening satellite in close proximity to a U.S. satellite.”

Creating space safety guidelines won’t solve all of their problems, but it will “help identify those that are running the red lights as we drive this car,” he added.

Opening up in public about what space warfare is—and is not—is a first step toward convincing the American public, lawmakers, and the global community of the importance of space security. The Space Force hopes more transparency about those threats will encourage Capitol Hill to fully fund its projects for more automation, simulation, and weaponry; nudge other countries toward the same values in space; and name-and-shame adversaries to keep them in line.

For example, countries have to talk about the possibility of their satellites being destroyed if they want to get everyone on the same page about how to respond.

SpaceNews said Feb. 24 the U.S. is drafting language on its position for a United Nations report on “norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviors” in space. Burt told the publication she wants to see a binding resolution from the U.N. that helps countries hold each other accountable.

It’s harder to call someone “bad or irresponsible if I haven’t fully defined what those things are on the international stage,” Burt told SpaceNews.

A key part of those discussions revolves around discouraging countries from creating exponentially more orbital debris, as the cosmos become home to a growing number of commercial and military satellites, asteroid fragments, and other objects.

The Space Force tracks 27,000 objects on orbit now, while another 500,000 or so are too small to keep an eye on, Raymond said. Nearly 4,000 trackable objects are active satellites—meaning the vast majority of tracked items are space junk that could damage spacecraft in a collision.

One way to curb the spread of space debris is not to create more of it in the first place, Raymond said. That may be a challenge given that companies like SpaceX, and even the Pentagon, are planning for thousands more satellites to bolster everything from internet access to hypersonic missile tracking. Stakeholders must also consider engineering solutions to make rocket launches and satellite decommissioning cleaner, for example.

“If you and I could figure out a way to clean up all that debris that’s moving so fast and over those vast distances, let me know and I’ll invest with you, because we’ll be well off,” Raymond told deGrasse Tyson.     

Pentagon Editor Brian W. Everstine contributed to this article.


Closer Cooperation with Allies is Au Courant 

With their first deployment to Ørland Air Force Station in Norway, U.S. B-1Bs Lancers can now penetrate more deeply into Arctic airspace, practice Agile Combat Employment, and train with NATO members and other regional allies. It also provides cold-weather training for some U.S. Airmen. Airman 1st Class Colin Hollowell

Allies in Europe are gaining access to intelligence and operations on a targeted, strategic basis.

By Brian W. Everstine

U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) is bringing allies into its air operations centers (AOC), expanding training and range access, and deploying aircraft to new locations in a wide-ranging push to bring the same level of multinational cooperation found in U.S. Central Command to the European theater.  

“This is all about [building] the trust and confidence we need,” USAFE boss Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian said in an interview with Air Force Magazine. “In competition, in the operating environment that we execute today, if we get into crisis, we [would] have already got that built into how we deal with each other.”

As commander of Air Forces Central Command, where he commanded earlier, Harrigian’s combined air operations center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, included representatives from dozens of nations. So over the past eight months he’s been opening the USAFE AOC to “a handful of countries,” a major step toward improving combined U.S. and partner nation operations. 

The move covers the gamut of operations and issues, whether that is “intelligence or tactics, techniques and procedures,” and extends to the classified environment, Harrigian said.

Such changes have been “incremental” and access remains stratified depending on the nation-to-nation relationship. It’s not one-size-fits-all for NATO members. USAFE’s AOC and NATO Allied Air Command are located at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and USAFE wants closer communication between the two.

“Underpinning all of that is really the relationships between the individuals, the people that are working in both those buildings, and that’s been the approach that we’ve taken to facilitate the movement forward on operating more seamlessly,” Harrigian said.

There’s … a huge appetite to expand the way we train together.

Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, USAFE commander

To improve how USAF and partner air forces fly together, especially as more F-35s arrive on the continent, USAFE wants shared access to instrumented ranges and other improvements. The USAFE and Air Forces Africa Warfare Center at Ramstein is buying new threat emitters and making other improvements to three ranges toward that end, Harrigian said.

Airspace over the North Sea, off the coast of the United Kingdom, has turned into a highly effective “operational training environment … facilitating some large-force training,” Harrigian said. In some cases, as many as 60 jets from multiple countries have operated there simultaneously. For example, USAFE aircraft are doing live-missile shoots using AIM-9X Sidewinders there, and the command plans to fire AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles there, as well. In the past, such training was usually reserved for exercises such as Combat Archer, held in the Gulf of Mexico at the Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range off Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Italy, an early F-35 adopter, has been in talks with USAFE about adding emitters and other improvements to a training range near Aviano Air Base, [Italy]. “There’s certainly a huge appetite to expand the way we train together,” Harrigian said. 

USAFE is using exercises in the Arctic to expand its reach there, deploying B-1s to Norway for the first time in February. “As you can imagine, that is tremendous airspace up there,” Harrigian said. “It affords us an opportunity to not only practice some of the foundational skills, but also get into Agile Combat Employment.”

Practicing New Capabilities

The command in late February wrapped up its Advanced Battle Management System (abms) on-ramp exercise, which brought together dozens of aircraft from U.S. military services and multiple countries to test ways to share data and operate together. Significantly, while USAFE’s was the fourth ABMS on-ramp event, it was the first to include non-U.S. military participants, including the Dutch, Polish, and British air forces. It was also the first ABMS event since Congress curtailed ABMS funding in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

But budget restrictions had “minimal impacts,” Harrigian noted. His command pitched in with its own funds “because I thought it was important enough to contribute to this.” 

During the event, U.S. F-15Cs and F-15Es from RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom fired AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles over the Baltic Sea, targeting via U.S. and United Kingdom command and control systems, such as the 603rd Air Operations Center and the Deployable Ground System, U.S. Navy P-8s, USAF KC-135s from RAF Mildenhall, also in the U.K., and a USAF C-17.

Simultaneously, USAF assets at Ramstein joined Dutch F-35s in a base defense mission, in which joint and combined teams targeted unmanned aerial systems and simulated cruise missile attacks. The F-35s served as a communication link between the defense and the U.S. Army’s 10th Army Air Missile Defense Command, according to the release.

The U.S. Space Force provided a Multiband Assessment of the Communication Environment from the 16th Space Control Squadron, and SpaceX’s Starlink broadband system had a role in the exercise, according to Harrigian.

The 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., helped with communication; USAF’s Kessel Run software factory and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Detachment 12 also supported the event, which took eight months to plan and which USAFE hopes will yield “foundational improvements on some of our infrastructure … [and] tools,” Harrigian said. The goal is “to see how we holistically pulled this all together, to continue connecting different sensors.”

New Deployments

USAFE is expanding its physical presence across the European continent, moving more USAF aircraft and Airmen to the east. In Romania, Air Force MQ-9 Reapers now provide 24/7 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance over the Balkans—a mission Harrigian called “critically important” to both U.S. and European partners. USAFE had previously forward deployed MQ-9s to Romania from the 52nd Expeditionary Operations Group-Det. 2 at Miroslawiec Air Base, Poland, but now the MQ-9 presence is permanent.

The 25th Attack Group in Romania is larger than the Poland-based unit, which flies contractor-owned and contractor-operated MQ-9s. In Romania, the Reapers are USAF assets.

“It’s a bigger presence and a couple more airplanes,” said Harrigian. “It gives us greater persistence with respect to 24/7 coverage.”

Also in February, the Air Force deployed B-1s from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, to Ørland Air Base, Norway. While Lancers have integrated with Norwegian aircraft in the Arctic, this is the first time bombers will be based there. USAFE Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Steven L. Basham called the deployment an important opportunity for crews, who will get to operate from a new, frigid location. USAF bombers usually fly out of RAF Fairford in the United Kingdom during European deployments.

“While flying out of the U.K. is great, if we don’t expand our horizon and look for other opportunities to work with other allies, other partners, then we miss true training opportunities to continue to develop ourselves and—even more so, I would say—to learn from others,” Basham said.

Throughout the deployment, the bombers will fly further into the Arctic, and conduct bombing training with Norwegian ground forces. It is a test more so for the crews than the aircraft. B-1s already have proven to be adept at operating in the cold. The Texas Airmen, however, don’t have as much experience.

“The aircraft doesn’t mind, it’s our great aviators and maintainers and support personnel who might not be as familiar with the rigors of the cold,” Basham said. “Our Norwegian partners are helping us along in that. But I would offer that the aircraft has performed exceptionally well, and we’ve been able to operate in many different environments.”

For Norway, the deployment is important because Russia has exerted its pressure on the eastern edge of NATO in recent years. “This is a natural part of that, to be able to operate and defend our own territory,” said Lt. Gen. Yngve Odlo, chief of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters. “For the Norwegian defense forces, it is important to more regularly exercise and train together with our close allies and the bomber task force is an important asset to be able to conduct high-intensity, combined joint operations. So to do this in the Arctic conditions is timely.”

Basham added, “As more countries are drawn to the Arctic region, some with competing interests, it’s imperative that we maintain free, fair access for all nations. And we will continue to work diligently with our NATO allies and partners to ensure that stability.”     


Pressing On With Strategic Modernization    

While the U.S. engaged in small wars in the Middle East, China and Russia modernized their strategic weapons. Now, the U.S. must modernize its bombers, including the B-52 shown here as it’s fitted with AGM-86B air-launched cruise missiles, as well as it’s ICBMs and ballistic missile submarine fleet—all at once—while also countering advances in hypersonic weapons, cyber, and space technology. Staff Sgt. Cassandra Johnson

Strategic deterrence is no longer simply about nuclear operations.

By John A. Tirpak

The United States can no longer afford to put off strategic modernization, and the Biden administration should proceed with renewing the Pentagon’s planned strategic systems, senior military leaders argued in a panel discussion during AFA’s virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium. 

The new administration has already said it will conduct a new Nuclear Posture Review and a Missile Defense Review, and Gen. John E. Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted DOD will also undertake a Space Posture Review because the strategic landscape has changed so dramatically. 

“Deterrence in the 21st century is wholly different than it was in the 20th century,” Hyten said during the symposium. “Strategic attack can no longer just be defined as nuclear attack.” Rather, attacks in space, or on earth with cyber, chemical, biological, or hypersonic weapons all could yield strategic effects. 

The 2018 National Defense Strategy says non-nuclear but nation-hobbling attacks may be answered “at a time, place, and [in] a domain of our choosing,” Hyten said. Strategic deterrence must therefore be viewed in that context. “It’s going to be a difficult problem,” he said. “We’ve not fully thought it through.” The academics who developed deterrence theory have not yet “embraced this new construct.” 

It’s not clear yet how the Biden administration will conduct its strategic reviews, but it’s clear where Hyten stands: “Without the backstop of the nuclear triad,” he said, “it basically is … impossible … to deter an adversary.”

Without the backstop of the nuclear triad, it basically is … impossible…to deter an adversary.

Gen. John Hyten, Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

Russia recently completed a 20-year modernization of its nuclear enterprise, with new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), new submarines with sub-launched ballistic missiles, updated bombers equipped with new cruise missiles, and all-new nuclear weapons, including a nuclear-tipped hypersonic missile and a nuclear torpedo.

The U.S. must modernize in response. “You have to start from the threat, and the threat is significant,” he said. While the U.S. focused on counterinsurgency operations, China and Russia invested in modernizing their strategic forces. Hyten backed the President’s decision to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START, saying, “it puts limits and a verification regime in place” and provides “good insight” into Russian nuclear capabilities and thinking, important elements to developing a U.S. deterrence strategy. 

China, which has no arms control agreement with the U.S., presents a different challenge because the U.S. knows little about China’s nuclear doctrine. China is building nuclear weapons “faster than anybody on the planet,” including new ICBMs, cruise missiles, and nuclear-tipped hypersonic missiles “that we have no defenses for,” Hyten said. 

“Our nuclear modernization program … is late to need,” Hyten asserted. The nuclear triad of bombers, ICBMs, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles “is the minimum essential capability for deterrence in the great power world we live in today,” he said. Losing just one piece of the triad, makes it  “very, very difficult” to deter adversaries, he added. The new U.S. strategic capabilities in development are the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), the ICBM succeeding the 50-year-old Minuteman III; the B-21 bomber, replacing both the B-1 and B-2; the Columbia-class missile submarine, replacing the Trident; and the Long-Range Standoff missile (LRSO), replacing the 40-year-old Air Launched Cruise Missile.

But, the portfolio needs to be expanded to include anew sea- launched cruise missile and “a low-yield nuclear weapon that will deploy in small numbers on our submarines,” to counter the “thousands [of] low-yield … and tactical nuclear weapons that Russia is building and deploying,” which are not covered under New START, Hyten argued.

“We can’t have interruptions in the program,” Hyten insisted, “because we’re starting late and … they have to be delivered on time.”

The possibility of nuclear-armed adversaries “cooperating with each other” is something the U.S. must also consider, Lt. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said on the panel.

Adversaries are relying more on their nuclear arsenals for influence and coercion, and there are a variety of limited-use options. This “requires us to rethink our approach,” Bussiere said.

The “continuum of conflict” potentially leading to the use of nuclear weapons—“from competition, to crisis, to armed conflict, to limited nuclear use, to full nuclear exchange” is becoming “coupled and non-linear,” he said.

Eliminating part of the triad, “would embolden our adversaries to believe they could actually employ nuclear weapons against us,” he said. He noted that former Defense Secretary James Mattis was initially skeptical of the triad, but he came away from the reviews convinced of its necessity. Hyten quoted Mattis as saying, “‘America can afford survival.’” 

Bussiere also noted that while the idea is to keep Minuteman ready until GBSD replaces it, that may not work. The system might suddenly become unsustainable, and “it’s really a choice of replacing them or losing them,” he said.

In addition to the delivery vehicles, the U.S. also needs to modernize its structure to command and control the deterrent, Air Force Global Strike Command chief Gen. Timothy M. Ray said.

Command and control is “the foundational piece” of a deterrent that can be wielded effectively, and communications is “more contested” than ever, so it must be “much more relevant and resilient,” he said. There must also be more clarity about whether the U.S. should embrace the “no first use” doctrine, Ray said, because allies depending on the U.S. nuclear umbrella need to know what the U.S. will and won’t do to protect them.

“What does ‘no first use’ mean to them? Because, if we can’t come up with that really crisp answer, they now have to entertain their own nuclear program” because they are conventionally overmatched by adversaries.

Ray said it’s possible to “put other strategic deterrent capabilities on the table that fall outside of New START,” such as chemical weapons, which are “more ambiguous,” but “that’s a really dangerous game.” Better, he said, to stick with a program that’s well understood and reliable.

The nuclear modernization portfolio—including a new missile field support helicopter—“are built with a value proposition of being in the game a long time,” Ray said. Modularity and open missions will keep the new systems more relevant, and easier, and less costly to update, he said. 

“It would take me years to integrate a new standoff missile into the B-2,” he said, but with the B-21, given its open mission systems, “it will take me months.”

The panelists also noted that the Department of Energy (doe) supplies the actual warheads for the nuclear weapons, and its infrastructure also needs funding to keep it up and running. The DOE, Hyten noted, “stopped producing plutonium pits a long time ago. … It should be a concern to everybody in America that every adversary we face is building more plutonium pits than we are.” That “includes North Korea,” Hyten added. How did this happen? The DOE stopped making nuclear warheads when the U.S. stopped making nuclear delivery vehicles, Hyten observed. 

“I would offer to you that the use of nuclear weapons is not necessarily unthinkable” in the minds of U.S. competitors, Bussiere said. This fact alone “requires us to rethink our approach.” The U.S. is “at risk of making decisions without fully understanding the implications.”

China has openly stated its intention to “double their nuclear stockpile in the next decade,” and it is making delivery systems survivable, he said. The Pentagon reported last fall that China’s nuclear warhead inventory is in the low 200s of weapons, while the U.S. has 3,800 active warheads and thousands more waiting to be retired. 

Still, while China desires to be a major nuclear power, “they are resisting any effort to act like one” by refusing to participate in international protocols governing them, Bussiere said.

“We need to find more innovative ways to continue to deter them and set conditions favorable for us and our allies,” he asserted. 

The bomber, particularly, is a critical part of deterrence because of its visibility, Ray said. The forward deployment of bombers sends a strong message to adversaries, he argued, in a way not matched by ICBMs or ballistic submarines.

“Having a bomber with a cruise missile capability that can be present is something that I think is really important here. That’s one more reason the LRSO—often mentioned by opponents as a piece of the strategic arsenal that can be trimmed—is essential, Ray said. Although LRSO funding that was cut back has been restored, Ray said he “can’t accelerate” it the way he would like. Still, he said, the program is “healthy” and “viable.”

Hyten argued that the ICBM leg, though described by critics as a sitting duck because the launch silos can be targeted with precision by an enemy, area strong deterrent.

“It’s the most difficult leg to fully target,” Hyten asserted. “In order to target 400 hardened silos across five states, in the middle of America, an adversary … has to commit hundreds, if not thousands of nuclear weapons.” Sending thousands of missiles against the U.S. is a decision “almost impossible to make,” Hyten added.

If the ICBM leg was absent, though, “you’re down to a number of platforms that you could take out with 20 strategic weapons, … so you’re basically an intelligence failure or a technical failure away from losing the entire structure.” Minus the ICBMs, deterrence is “really challenged.” 

The bomber fleet can be employed as a conventional force as well as a nuclear one, underscoring the bombers’ value.  

Air Force Global Strike Command has a new Bomber Roadmap, Ray reported, and the ultimate goal is to get “north of” 220 bombers in the fleet. The question of “how much is enough” should be driven by the threat, Hyten insisted. “We could drop the number of nuclear weapons, but only if the threat changes,” he asserted. Hyten said the U.S. must deal with  “the threat that exists, not the threat we wish existed. It is a real threat. … It’s only gotten worse, and … you can’t just wish it away.” 


Biden’s Strategic Guidance  

By John A. Tirpak 

The Biden administration’s new strategic guidance, released in March, offers no details on specific weapons programs, but seeks instead to “head off costly arms races and re-establish [U.S.] credibility as a leader in arms control.” President Joe Biden said this explains why “we moved quickly to extend the New START treaty with Russia. Where possible, we will also pursue new arms control arrangements.” 

The U.S., Biden said, will take steps to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective,” and that the nuclear assurances provided to allies “remain strong and credible.” The U.S. will engage China and Russia “on a range of emerging military technological development” regarding strategic stability, he said. The goal will be to field the most advanced technology possible, while parting with “unneeded legacy platforms” to pay for it. 

However, given the “strategic challenges from an increasingly assertive China and destabilizing Russia,” Biden said, “we will assess the appropriate structure, capabilities, and sizing of the force.” The U.S. will “ensure our armed forces are equipped to deter our adversaries.”               


SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch Advances

By Jennifer Leigh-Oprihory

Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) expects to conduct an armed overwatch flying demonstration “in the coming months,” leading to a potential acquisition as early as 2022. SOCOM wants 75 aircraft for the overwatch and close-air-support mission. 

“I think we can do that at relatively low risk based on what we’ve seen from the vendors,” AFSOC boss Lt. Gen. James C. Slife said in February during a virtual “Aerospace Nation” event hosted by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act blocked U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) from buying armed overwatch aircraft this fiscal year, however, Slife said Congress still gave the command enough research, development, test, and evaluation funding to move the program forward. 

“That money is fully sufficient to do the demonstration program that SOCOM asked to do, and we anticipate going back for further conversation with Congress,” Slife said.

Whether this will be a manned or unmanned platform remains an open question. Candidates from both camps could compete. 

SOCOM wants 75 aircraft because, “that’s where I think the sweet spot is—both in terms of being able to sustain a training base [and] … sustainable force-generation model, and to be able to support the number of ground teams” that the armed overwatch platform will support, Slife told reporters at the virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium in February.

The MQ-9 Reaper is among the aircraft Air Force Special Operations Command will review in its quest to acquire 75 armed overwatch aircraft. Flight demonstrations could take place within month. Airman 1st Class William Rio Rosado

The austere environments where these units will operate may not lend themselves to such obvious candidates as the MQ-9 Reaper, which could easily fly the kinds of missions needed, but require longer runways and more infrastructure on the ground than SOCOM anticipates being able to provide.

“That doesn’t mean that the MQ-9 couldn’t be made more compatible with the mission,” Slife said. “It just means we haven’t seen it yet.”

Slife said SOCOM is looking at “everything from existing Air Force platforms—both ISR and close air support platforms —to off-the-shelf industry platforms [and] to non-developmental platforms” developed with industry funding. He expects six or seven platforms to participate in the upcoming demonstration, depending on availability of funding.

“If it is non-developmental, and it meets the requirements that SOCOM has laid out to industry, then we’re interested in looking at it,” he said.

“We need to get through this demo to see what industry can produce at low risk in a short order,” he said.

These aircraft could be used in the Middle East, Africa, or elsewhere, primarily to counter violent extremist organizations and other nonstate actors

“What I would envision is a light footprint, a multi-role capability that has the ability to provide the intelligence needed to remain aware of the threat, and … a kinetic capability to take action when necessary, without drawing a lot of attention” either to the U.S. forces or the host nation that may be hosting U.S. operations, he said. “That is what the future looks like in my mind. So the armed overwatch platform must be ideally suited for that type of an operational environment.”

Slife said AFSOC expects to retire the U-28 Draco aircraft now in use “as the armed overwatch platform comes online.” The new aircraft should be less costly to operate, more versatile, and have “greater capacity to operate in those small, disaggregated kinds of teams.”

He said he’s confident that “SOCOM will be able to demonstrate to the Congress that this is a viable program, and it’s required for the future operating environment.”                     


A C-130 Maintainer Seizes the Spark Tank Prize

By Amanda Miller

A crew chief and production superintendent from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., took home the 3D-printed trophy in the Department of the Air Force’s Spark Tank innovation contest for a simple idea he predicts could “solve a lot of issues across the aircraft community.”

Master Sgt. Justin Bauer pitched his idea, “Innovative Approach to C-130 Wheel Repair,” at the 2021 Spark Tank finals during the Air Force Association’s virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium on Feb. 26.

AFWERX and Air Force Deputy Chief Management Officer Rich Lombardi co-produce Spark Tank; the 2021 contest received more than 300 submissions.

Bauer was one of five finalists, up against teams with ideas to prevent service-connected hearing loss, to incorporate augmented reality into briefings, to streamline workflows with a ticketing app, and to cut out the need for refueling trucks when refueling aircraft with engines running.

Spark Tank winner Master Sgt. Justin Bauer from Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., presented the “Innovative Approach to C-130 Wheel Repair,” a novel concept that helps produce more wheels, saves taxpayer money, and keep C-130’s flying. AFWERX

Bauer’s idea grabbed the votes of all but one celebrity judge. The premise: C-130 aircraft wheels have to be heated up before maintainers can work on them, and not all facilities can do the heating. Bauer described the process as moving a 200-pound chunk of aluminum that’s been heated to 150 degrees in and out of a big oven. Instead, Bauer realized a handheld heating element—which only costs about $100—can be applied to a wheel to warm it up. 

In his five-minute Q&A with judges, Bauer confirmed the device will work overseas and can be adapted to other aircraft wheels. 

In response to a question from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., Bauer said the biggest challenge of the project was balancing the device’s heating requirements and power demands.

“It’s really easy to heat up a chunk of metal, as long as you’re willing to use an unlimited amount of electricity,” Bauer said, “but … we really wanted to keep it under 115 volts so facilities across the globe could power the device.”

Bauer got Brown’s vote: “It’s so much simpler; it’s ready to go; and that’s why I put up the C-130 wheel prep,” said Brown, brandishing the paper sign judges held up to signal their votes.

Acting Secretary of the Air Force John P. Roth, another celebrity judge, pondered how to spread the idea to other countries that fly C-130 variants: “Could we shop it around with a multinational workshop of one sort or the other?” 

He was on the right track.

“That’s one of the most exciting things about this device, is that through small changes in the dimensions and heating abilities, we can flex this device to multiple airframes, multiple services, and multiple nationalities,” Bauer said. “Through small changes in design, we can adapt the device to solve a lot of issues across the aircraft community.”

Roth cast the lone dissenting vote among celebrity judges, instead picking the idea “Inner Ear Bone Conduction Communication” by a team from the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom. Their idea is to switch to noise canceling earbuds in place of the foam plugs and bulky ear protection worn on the flight line. The bone conduction technology lets some sound through. It would protect hearing while also letting people communicate with each other without exposing the sensitive parts of their ears, the team said.

Meanwhile, fans voted online, choosing the audience favorite, “Viper Hot Refuel Kit” by a team from the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. The team designed a sled to serve in place of refueling trucks that may have to be transported by aircraft in advance, at a cost of $6,000 one way. The team instead put off-the-shelf petroleum oil and lubricant components into a much smaller package. 

A team from the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., got a noticeable nod from celebrity judge Matt Booty, corporate vice president of Xbox Game Studios. Their idea, “NextGen Debrief—Augmented Reality Debrief Environment,” would incorporate virtual reality into pilot training.

The judges wondered whether an app pitched by a team from the Air Force Academy might have more utility across the military. The idea, “Improving Commander’s Support Staff Workflow with Office 365,” introduces a digital means for submission and tracking of command-related workflow items.            


Rising Accidents in 2020 Spark Training Review: 15% Jump Included Seven Deaths, 14 Lost Aircraft 

By Rachel S. Cohen

The Air Force is considering changes to its pilot curriculum to curb the rising number of aviation accidents across the service, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said Feb. 25.

The Air Force saw 72 total aviation accidents over the course of fiscal 2020—10 more than in the previous year. Thirteen of the 72 accidents last year caused injury or death, according to Air Force Safety Center data obtained by the magazine. That data was current as of Feb. 16.

Seven people died in incidents that occurred between Oct. 1, 2019, and Sept. 30, 2020. One was permanently, partially disabled, while nine others suffered broken bones or minor injuries. Fourteen aircraft were destroyed in that time period as well.

Statistics show the Air Force is “continuing the generally decreasing trend of aviation Class A mishaps over the last 10 years,” the service said. But the most destructive accidents have not tapered off nearly as much as the Air Force might like, given its push to improve maintenance and training protocols.

Air Force Magazine made several of the mishaps public for the first time. Other incidents had previously unreported details as well.

When an A-29 light attack plane crashed in Afghanistan last summer, the U.S. military reassured the public that its pilot had ejected and was rescued. But the reality was more complicated.

The unidentified Airman, an American flying an Afghan Air Force Super Tucano as part of the U.S. training mission in the country, is now permanently, partially disabled, according to Air Force Safety Center data obtained by Air Force Magazine. The A-29 was destroyed after suffering from what initially seemed to be mechanical issues.

Air Education and Training Command (AETC), the organization in charge of the training wing the pilot belonged to, declined to provide more details about the pilot’s condition or what the Airman is doing now.

“Because it was an Afghan A-29, the Air Force did not have the lead for the accident investigation,”  said AETC spokesperson Marilyn C. Holliday. “The Air Force did complete a safety investigation, which is not releasable.”

Twenty-nine Class A aviation mishaps occurred in fiscal 2020, including 23 incidents involving manned aircraft and six involving unmanned aircraft. Those numbers are slightly higher than the 26 mishaps in fiscal 2019, but nearly on par with the 10-year average of 31 accidents, the Air Force Safety Center said. The service has seen 29 mishaps a year on average over the past five years, the center added.

Class A incidents are those in which Defense Department aircraft are destroyed or total more than $2.5 million in damages, or where a person is killed or permanently, fully disabled.

For Class B accidents, the Air Force saw 39 manned aircraft mishaps and four unmanned mishaps, totaling 43 incidents. That’s a jump from 36 Class B accidents in the previous year—about the same as the five-year average of 45 accidents per year, but lower than the 10-year average of 49.

“Overall, statistics tend to fluctuate from year to year, so the service looks at trends within the data to see if there are significant changes and, more importantly, to determine if there are common issues,” the Safety Center said in a statement to Air Force Magazine.

F-22 fighter jets saw the most severe problems most often, with five Class A mishaps over the course of fiscal 2020. A-10s, C-17s, and F-15s tied for the most Class B mishaps. Among unmanned aircraft, the MQ-9 Reaper logged seven Class A and B crashes in that time.

The Air Force also recorded six Class A incidents involving unmanned aircraft, including one on July 24, 2020, where an unnamed drone was completely destroyed in a crash while controlled by an Air Force Special Operations Command unit in an undisclosed location. It’s possible that aircraft could be a secretive RQ-170 reconnaissance drone or any others kept out of the public eye.

MQ-9 Reapers comprised the rest of the most severe incidents. One “intentional ditching” over Somalia in June 2020 led to a total aircraft loss for the 432nd Wing out of Creech Air Force Base, Nev. That same month, the New York Air National Guard saw another MQ-9 damaged when it lost thrust upon takeoff and left the runway.

Reapers were completely destroyed in August 2020 in an unknown location while flying for the 27th Special Operations Wing, and in September 2020 in Kuwait while flying for an undisclosed unit. Another MQ-9 at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., was damaged upon takeoff on Sept. 2, 2020, as well.

Nineteen types of airframes, from the A-10 to the CV-22, were involved in Class B mishaps over the course of the year. Their woes span engine fires, bird strikes, foreign object debris, and more.

Class B events meet at least one of these criteria: they incur damages costing between $600,000 and $2.5 million; cause a permanent, partial disability; or lead to inpatient hospitalization of at least three personnel.

An MQ-9 in Jordan was “struck by [a] vehicle” when taxiing, causing major damage to both the drone and the vehicle, according to the Air Force. The lower hatch of a U-2 spy plane’s camera bay fell off the aircraft mid-flight. Multiple F-16 fighter jets were “damaged in weather” in South Korea, the same day a typhoon brought heavy rain to parts of the country, but landed without incident.

One B-1 bomber from the 7th Bomb Wing in Nevada saw an electrical malfunction in flight that sent smoke into the cockpit, then blew out a tire upon landing. On one unfortunate day for an A-10 in Georgia last April, the aircraft’s gun malfunctioned, its engine was damaged, its “canopy departed,” and it landed with its landing gear up—but no injuries were reported.

The Safety Center also shed more light on the XQ-58 Valkyrie crash in October 2019 that rendered the prototype “Skyborg” drone temporarily unusable. The Valkyrie experienced “several failures” while trying to land during a test in Arizona, causing “severe structural damage.”

Not all entries in the list provided by the Air Force included damage costs; those that did totaled nearly $29 million. The bulk of that cost, $23.6 million, comes from a C-130J’s hard landing in Germany in April 2020. It is slightly more expensive than the $21 million in damage cited in the Air Force’s accident investigation for the event released Feb. 16.

The Air Force has already incurred at least five Class A mishaps so far in fiscal 2021, including the Feb. 19, T-38 crash in Alabama that killed 23-year-old 1st Lt. Scot Ames Jr. and a Japanese student pilot.

“We are a close-knit family and the loss of our teammates affects us all,” said Col. Seth Graham, commander of the 14th Flying Training Wing—the same wing to which the now-disabled A-29 pilot belonged. “The strength of our bond is what will help us get through it together.”

The statistics worry Brown, who told reporters during AFA’s virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium he’s already spoken with major command leaders about ways to address the issue.

Air Education and Training Command is working with organizations that own those aircraft, like Air Combat Command and Air Mobility Command, on a new approach to flight training, he said.

“Some of the incidents we’ve had have been in what I would call basic phases of flight, probably the most important phases of flight, which are takeoff and landing,” Brown said.

About 30 of the 72 Class A and B mishaps that occurred in fiscal 2020 involved takeoffs and landings, including some where the aircraft “rejected takeoff” and others with faulty landing gear or crashing on approach.

Brown dealt with the mishap issue firsthand while looking into a spate of F-22 landing problems during his recent tenure as commander of Pacific Air Forces. He suggested the evolution of aerospace technology has led the Air Force to pack more and more into initial flight school, to teach students about increasingly complex aircraft with “smart” weapons.

“We pushed, in some cases, a lot of things into our early courses, our basic courses, so when they show up at their operational unit, they’re fully capable,” Brown said. “I think we may have pushed … a little bit too far. We need to spend more time on the basics so they have a good foundation.”

Young pilots can spend more time on the advanced aspects of flight once they reach their units, he added.

While airframes like the F-22 fighter jet and C-17 cargo plane saw some of the most mishaps related to takeoff and landing, Brown said he’s not focused on one platform over another. Going up and coming down should be second nature to Airmen flying any plane, he said.

The Air Force is considering changes to its pilot curriculum to curb the rising number of aviation accidents across the service, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said Feb. 25.

The Air Force saw 72 total aviation accidents over the course of fiscal 2020—10 more than in the previous year. Thirteen of the 72 accidents last year caused injury or death, according to Air Force Safety Center data obtained by the magazine. That data was current as of Feb. 16.

Seven people died in incidents that occurred between Oct. 1, 2019, and Sept. 30, 2020. One was permanently, partially disabled, while nine others suffered broken bones or minor injuries. Fourteen aircraft were destroyed in that time period as well.

Statistics show the Air Force is “continuing the generally decreasing trend of aviation Class A mishaps over the last 10 years,” the service said. But the most destructive accidents have not tapered off nearly as much as the Air Force might like, given its push to improve maintenance and training protocols.

Air Force Magazine made several of the mishaps public for the first time. Other incidents had previously unreported details as well.

When an A-29 light attack plane crashed in Afghanistan last summer, the U.S. military reassured the public that its pilot had ejected and was rescued. But the reality was more complicated.

The unidentified Airman, an American flying an Afghan Air Force Super Tucano as part of the U.S. training mission in the country, is now permanently, partially disabled, according to Air Force Safety Center data obtained by Air Force Magazine. The A-29 was destroyed after suffering from what initially seemed to be mechanical issues.

Air Education and Training Command (AETC), the organization in charge of the training wing the pilot belonged to, declined to provide more details about the pilot’s condition or what the Airman is doing now.

“Because it was an Afghan A-29, the Air Force did not have the lead for the accident investigation,”  said AETC spokesperson Marilyn C. Holliday. “The Air Force did complete a safety investigation, which is not releasable.”

Twenty-nine Class A aviation mishaps occurred in fiscal 2020, including 23 incidents involving manned aircraft and six involving unmanned aircraft. Those numbers are slightly higher than the 26 mishaps in fiscal 2019, but nearly on par with the 10-year average of 31 accidents, the Air Force Safety Center said. The service has seen 29 mishaps a year on average over the past five years, the center added.

Class A incidents are those in which Defense Department aircraft are destroyed or total more than $2.5 million in damages, or where a person is killed or permanently, fully disabled.

For Class B accidents, the Air Force saw 39 manned aircraft mishaps and four unmanned mishaps, totaling 43 incidents. That’s a jump from 36 Class B accidents in the previous year—about the same as the five-year average of 45 accidents per year, but lower than the 10-year average of 49.

“Overall, statistics tend to fluctuate from year to year, so the service looks at trends within the data to see if there are significant changes and, more importantly, to determine if there are common issues,” the Safety Center said in a statement to Air Force Magazine.

F-22 fighter jets saw the most severe problems most often, with five Class A mishaps over the course of fiscal 2020. A-10s, C-17s, and F-15s tied for the most Class B mishaps. Among unmanned aircraft, the MQ-9 Reaper logged seven Class A and B crashes in that time.

The Air Force also recorded six Class A incidents involving unmanned aircraft, including one on July 24, 2020, where an unnamed drone was completely destroyed in a crash while controlled by an Air Force Special Operations Command unit in an undisclosed location. It’s possible that aircraft could be a secretive RQ-170 reconnaissance drone or any others kept out of the public eye.

MQ-9 Reapers comprised the rest of the most severe incidents. One “intentional ditching” over Somalia in June 2020 led to a total aircraft loss for the 432nd Wing out of Creech Air Force Base, Nev. That same month, the New York Air National Guard saw another MQ-9 damaged when it lost thrust upon takeoff and left the runway.

Reapers were completely destroyed in August 2020 in an unknown location while flying for the 27th Special Operations Wing, and in September 2020 in Kuwait while flying for an undisclosed unit. Another MQ-9 at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., was damaged upon takeoff on Sept. 2, 2020, as well.

Among 72 Aviation accidents in 2020, one included an Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucano. The aircraft was lost and the pilot was left with permanent disabilities. Senior Airman Maygan Straight

Nineteen types of airframes, from the A-10 to the CV-22, were involved in Class B mishaps over the course of the year. Their woes span engine fires, bird strikes, foreign object debris, and more.

Class B events meet at least one of these criteria: they incur damages costing between $600,000 and $2.5 million; cause a permanent, partial disability; or lead to inpatient hospitalization of at least three personnel.

An MQ-9 in Jordan was “struck by [a] vehicle” when taxiing, causing major damage to both the drone and the vehicle, according to the Air Force. The lower hatch of a U-2 spy plane’s camera bay fell off the aircraft mid-flight. Multiple F-16 fighter jets were “damaged in weather” in South Korea, the same day a typhoon brought heavy rain to parts of the country, but landed without incident.

One B-1 bomber from the 7th Bomb Wing in Nevada saw an electrical malfunction in flight that sent smoke into the cockpit, then blew out a tire upon landing. On one unfortunate day for an A-10 in Georgia last April, the aircraft’s gun malfunctioned, its engine was damaged, its “canopy departed,” and it landed with its landing gear up—but no injuries were reported.

The Safety Center also shed more light on the XQ-58 Valkyrie crash in October 2019 that rendered the prototype “Skyborg” drone temporarily unusable. The Valkyrie experienced “several failures” while trying to land during a test in Arizona, causing “severe structural damage.”

Not all entries in the list provided by the Air Force included damage costs; those that did totaled nearly $29 million. The bulk of that cost, $23.6 million, comes from a C-130J’s hard landing in Germany in April 2020. It is slightly more expensive than the $21 million in damage cited in the Air Force’s accident investigation for the event released Feb. 16.

The Air Force has already incurred at least five Class A mishaps so far in fiscal 2021, including the Feb. 19, T-38 crash in Alabama that killed 23-year-old 1st Lt. Scot Ames Jr. and a Japanese student pilot.

“We are a close-knit family and the loss of our teammates affects us all,” said Col. Seth Graham, commander of the 14th Flying Training Wing—the same wing to which the now-disabled A-29 pilot belonged. “The strength of our bond is what will help us get through it together.”

The statistics worry Brown, who told reporters during AFA’s virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium he’s already spoken with major command leaders about ways to address the issue.

Air Education and Training Command is working with organizations that own those aircraft, like Air Combat Command and Air Mobility Command, on a new approach to flight training, he said.

“Some of the incidents we’ve had have been in what I would call basic phases of flight, probably the most important phases of flight, which are takeoff and landing,” Brown said.

About 30 of the 72 Class A and B mishaps that occurred in fiscal 2020 involved takeoffs and landings, including some where the aircraft “rejected takeoff” and others with faulty landing gear or crashing on approach.

Brown dealt with the mishap issue firsthand while looking into a spate of F-22 landing problems during his recent tenure as commander of Pacific Air Forces. He suggested the evolution of aerospace technology has led the Air Force to pack more and more into initial flight school, to teach students about increasingly complex aircraft with “smart” weapons.

“We pushed, in some cases, a lot of things into our early courses, our basic courses, so when they show up at their operational unit, they’re fully capable,” Brown said. “I think we may have pushed … a little bit too far. We need to spend more time on the basics so they have a good foundation.”

Young pilots can spend more time on the advanced aspects of flight once they reach their units, he added.

While airframes like the F-22 fighter jet and C-17 cargo plane saw some of the most mishaps related to takeoff and landing, Brown said he’s not focused on one platform over another. Going up and coming down should be second nature to Airmen flying any plane, he said.

“You can mess up … in the air, but if you don’t take off and land, you lose, potentially, that Airman, and that particular airplane,” Brown said. “That’s what we’re focused on right now.”        


The National Guard will continue to guard the U.S. Capitol, supporting Capitol Police, Washington, D.C.,’s Metropolitan Police and other federal agencies. Sgt. 1st Class R.J. Lannom Jr.

DOD Extends National Guard Deployment to Protect Capitol

By Brian Everstine

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III on March 9 approved an extension of the National Guard deployment to the U.S. Capitol complex for about two months, though there is a push in Congress to end the deployment sooner.

National Guard troops have been deployed to the building to help U.S. Capitol Police with security in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the police department has requested an extension of the presence as there are concerns about continued threats. The extension includes about 2,300 troops, about half the amount that had been deployed, according to a Pentagon statement.

Kirby said the deployment is to help the Capitol Police “fill some of the gaps” in that department’s capabilities across the complex. He would not speculate if the deployment would be further extended, but said that as the police “look at themselves as an institution” and what they need in the long term, the Guard could help.

The deployment of the troops, from Jan. 6 to March 12, is expected to cost about $500 million, according to the Associated Press.                            


Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III put dozens of advisory boards on hiatus in February and ordered a review of their value and utility. Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders

Austin Slashes Hundreds of Volunteer Advisory Positions

By Amanda Miller

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III cleared out “several hundred” volunteer seats on the Pentagon’s 42-plus civilian advisory boards—every seat he has the power to appoint, according to spokespeople. He blamed the unprecedented purge on “the scale of recent changes” to board seats made in the final weeks of the Trump administration, according to Department of Defense spokesperson Susan Gough.

Austin “was concerned by the scale of recent changes to department advisory committees,” Gough explained in an email to Air Force Magazine. “For example, recent nominations affected half the membership of each the Defense Policy Board and Defense Business Board.” She did not specify what problems Austin thought the changes might present, nor did she detail how many last-minute appointments the Trump administration tried to make in its final days or weeks.

Instead, Gough said Austin instructed Pentagon officials to review each board so he can “get his arms around the breadth and quality of advice provided … and make department senior leaders  comfortable about why we have the advisory committees and the expertise they provide.”

Rather than wait for the results of the review, two Pentagon officials, speaking anonymously, announced the conclusion of the board members’ terms to the press Feb. 2. Board members had not been notified. A DOD news story posted online by the Pentagon that same day said board members were “directed … to resign,” but Gough clarified: “We did not ask for resignations, nor did we terminate the members. … We concluded their service as we stood down the boards until further notice.” A letter thanking them for their service was to have been sent by Feb. 26.

Ending all terms at once was “equitable, fair, and uniformly consistent,” an official said in the Feb. 2 briefing.

A tradition that dates all the way back to the beginning of the federal government, the boards provide expertise from the civilian world. By holding public meetings, they also provide a forum for public input, according to the General Services Administration (GSA), which monitors advisory committees such as the DOD boards and others across the federal government. The boards don’t have any decision-making powers.

If Austin’s Jan. 30 memo announcing the review is any indication, many of those 42-plus boards might not come back.

Board members on DOD-appointed advisory boards serve one-year terms and may be reappointed for three more one-year terms, serving a maximum of four years, Gough said. Because of potential conflicts of interest, board members’ activities may be restricted, and those restrictions may extend past the end of their service, according to the GSA.

Austin’s move followed “frenetic” last-minute changes by the Trump administration that involved “removing people who had been on some of these boards and then replacing them, or just simply adding them in a quite unprecedented fashion,” an unnamed official said Feb. 2.                                 


The arrival of the KC-46 at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., Jan. 25, 2019, ushered in a new era of aerial refueling capability for the overall joint force. Airman 1st class Zachary Willis

KC-46s Could Be Available for Limited Operations in June

Brian W. Everstine

U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) is looking to integrate the KC-46 into operations as soon as June, following Air Mobility Command’s (AMCs) move to free up the troubled tanker for ops to relieve stress on legacy refuelers.

TRANSCOM boss Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons recently visited KC-46 officials at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., and said he is “encouraged by recent [Air Force] efforts that will make the KC-46 available for limited mission requirements as soon as June,” the command said in a Twitter statement.

The statement is an update from Air Mobility Command’s announcement Feb. 24 that it would clear the KC-46 to be tasked by TRANSCOM this year. AMC boss Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, in announcing the step, said it would be a conditions-based process, with the aircraft only tasked with missions it has been cleared to fly in operational testing. This could include U.S.-based refueling of certain aircraft, or overseas missions to refuel deploying fighters—such as F/A-18s—using the centerline drogue system.

“We will now commit the KC-46 to execute missions similar to the ones they’ve been conducting over the past few years in the Operational Test and Evaluation plan, but can now include operational taskings from U.S. Transportation Command,” Van Ovost told reporters. “For example, today the KC-46 may provide aerial refueling (AR) for F-16s participating in a U.S.-based training exercise. Under this new approach, if AMC is tasked to provide AR support for an operational coronet mission to move F-18s overseas or an operational B-52 mission, the KC-46 is on the table, which frees up KC-135s and KC-10s to execute other combatant command deployments that the KC-46A is presently unable to support with its existing deficiencies.”

The aging KC-135s and KC-10s are heavily tasked with overseas combat deployments, along with a constant need to support training, exercises, and testing at home. By making KC-46s available to TRANSCOM, those crews would be more available for required combat missions or be able to spend more time resting and training at home. KC-46s would not be used for combat deployments until cleared after the installation of the improved remote vision system, expected to begin in 2023.                                                                                         


New Bosses Take Command at TRANSCOM, SOUTHCOM

Brian W. Everstine

President Joe Biden on March 6 nominated USAF Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost—currently the U.S. military’s only woman with four stars—to command U.S. Transportation Command, and Army Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson for a fourth star and to take over as commander of U.S. Southern Command. If confirmed, Van Ovost and Richardson would become the second and third women to lead combatant commands.

During a March 8 speech at the White House commemorating International Women’s Day, Biden said the two generals “pushed open the doors of opportunity” for female service members, calling them “outstanding and eminently qualified warriors and patriots.”

“Each of these women have led careers demonstrating incomparable skill, integrity, and duty to country,” he said as Van Ovost and Richardson stood by his side. Having both of them lead combatant commands shows little girls and boys that “this is what generals in the United States armed forces look like,” Biden added.

Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost USAF
Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson Monica King/USA

Van Ovost is currently the commander of Air Mobility Command, and if confirmed, she will become the second USAF woman to lead a combatant command, following retired Gen. Lori J. Robinson, who led U.S. Northern Command from May 2016 to May 2018.

Van Ovost is a former experimental test pilot and command pilot with more than 4,200 hours in more than 30 aircraft. A 1988 Air Force Academy graduate, she’s commanded at the squadron, wing, and major command level. She also served as director of staff for Headquarters Air Force and vice director of the Joint Staff.             


First Air Force, including Florida Air National Guard F-15s seen here conducting a NORAD mission over the Kennedy Space Center, will now be supporting SPACECOM as well. 1st Air Force

First Air Force Expands Mission To Support US Space Command

Brian W. Everstine

First Air Force will provide Air Force support to the recently re-established U.S. Space Command, making the organization responsible for both protecting the homeland and now supporting operations in space, the department announced March 11.

The Numbered Air Force also will continue to support U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command.

“In this new role, First Air Force will be better able to identify and address gaps and seams when integrating space power into the support of the homeland defense mission. This will also inform efforts to better fuse space operations into air operations centers around the globe,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said in a release

Air Combat Command is working out how to organize, train, and equip First Air Force for the new mission, with initial operational capability expected by the end of calendar year 2021.

In its current role, First Air Force provides aerospace control and air defense of the continental United States and coordinates air response for natural disasters such as wildfires.

“We look forward to supporting USSPACECOM in their efforts to defend against threats to the space domain,” said Lt. Gen. Kirk S. Pierce, First Air Force commander, in the release.

USAF assets already provide support for human space flight, with missions such as rescue aircraft and Airmen on alert for launches.