Modernization Turbulence

Oct. 9, 2017

Air Combat Command’s Gen. Mike Holmes said that budget pressures will keep the F-35 buy at 60 per year. USAF photo by Michael McCool

The Air Force’s slate of long-postponed, must-get new hardware is threatened by competing Pentagon priorities, Capitol Hill inaction, and second-guessing by the service itself.

Top service leaders at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference 2017 in September explained how external factors and internal reevaluations are driving them to recast their modernization plans.

JSTARS Recapitalization

One surprise arose regarding the plan to replace the E-8C, an Air Force-Army ground target tracking aircraft. USAF may be going back to the drawing board.

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a press conference that “we are going ahead with source selections,” but added that “we are not meeting combatant commander requirements,” and USAF wants to see if the mission could be performed “in a different way.”

There are a “lot more sources of information” in the battlespace that aren’t being collected and aggregated that could improve the picture JSTARS provides, she said.

The following week, Wilson said she expected results from the second look in October. She said she’s rethinking the program because the JSTARS Recap would merely recreate an existing capability, suggesting that adding aggregation capability might be part of a JSTARS 2.0.

Candidates have been narrowed to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. They are offering business jets of various sizes to host the JSTARS radar and processing systems and stations.

During an ASC17 panel on “Big Wing” intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, Deputy Chief of Staff for ISR Lt. Gen. VeraLinn “Dash” Jamieson said USAF is rethinking the JSTARS role because of both the evolving threat and changing ways to perform the mission.

“Adversary capabilities … have come online in the last couple of years” demanding a fresh look at JSTARS, she said.

Jamieson told Air Force Magazine there are new, automated ways to collect and fuse data from a variety of platforms with sensors—as well as from “publicly available information” such as social media—that could prove useful for the ground moving target indicator and command and control missions while minimizing US “vulnerabilities.”

T-X Advanced Trainer

The T-X advanced trainer program, meanwhile, has become a bit of question mark for completely different reasons: Congress’ inability to pass a budget threatens the program.

The competition has been run, and the Air Force is nearly ready to choose a winner.

However, under a Continuing Resolution (CR)—which was the state of affairs at the time of the AFA conference—funding is frozen at the previous year’s spending levels, and new starts are prohibited.

Top uniformed USAF acquisition chief Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch said source selection has always been planned for the end of calendar 2017 or early 2018, but USAF won’t rush the choice in order to beat a CR deadline of early December. The program is “event driven, not calendar driven,” he insisted, adding it is possible USAF could choose a winner and hold off awarding a contract until Congress passes a budget.

Doing so would tell both the winner and losers whether they should keep their T-X team together or release their engineers to work on other projects.

B-52 Re-Engining

Secretary Wilson said “we know we’re going to have to re-engine” the B-52 bomber if the service is going to keep it in the inventory for the long term, but new engines are still in competition with other priorities.

USAF is struggling with budget tradeoffs, but Wilson said, “We’re starting to get into the window” where a re-engining decision will have to be made.

Boeing, which made the B-52—the last one was delivered in 1962—and engine makers have said fitting the bomber with modern power plants would decrease fuel use 30 percent, increase range or loiter 40 percent, and drastically cut maintenance requirements. Bunch said the Air Force has looked at leasing as a way to afford the engines.

F-35 Strike Fighter

The F-35 fighter should be through with development in the next few months, Vice Adm. Mathias Winter, program executive officer, reported in a panel discussion on acquisition program affordability. He thinks operational test and evaluation will begin nearly on time—early in 2018—and he expects prices will go lower. However, Winter said the biggest challenge for the program will be sustainment costs, and right now they’re “too high.”

Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program manager, said he expects F-35 prices to eventually reach a level “comparable to those of the F-16.”

Air Combat Command chief Gen. James “Mike” Holmes told Air Force Magazine the service simply can’t afford to buy F-35s at the desired rate of 100 a year. In fact, even 80 a year—USAF’s target for 2022—is a goal that’s been given up. With all the budget pressures, 60 F-35s per year is probably going to be the buy rate “for the foreseeable future,” Holmes said.

B-21 Bomber

The Air Force’s very secret Northrop Grumman B-21 stealth bomber has passed its preliminary design review, and drawings are “being released” to vendors to start fabrication, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office chief Randall Walden said during an acquisition panel. He thinks the aircraft is making good progress and will come in on or below cost expectations.

Walden said the program so far is meeting its goals: to “hold any target on the planet at risk”—able to penetrate any air defense system now anticipated—and deliver “at least” 100 airplanes “on time, on cost, with the best value.”

To quicken its delivery, Walden said, the B-21 is based on “mature technologies” and will “leverage those lessons learned” from the B-2, F-22, and F-35 programs.

“Our biggest activity right now is putting out drawings to build the bomber,” he said.

The next task is to “get on with the first builds of the structure.”

He said programmatically, the B-21 is “doing quite well,” having “plagiarized” the structure and culture of Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works” model. The B-21 is being built by a small team with clear direction, avoidance of requirements changes, and management that “doesn’t get in the way.”

Air Force Global Strike Command chief Gen. Robin Rand, in a press conference, reiterated “at least” 100 B-21s should be bought to meet regional commander needs because of the demands on the bomber fleet. The final number doesn’t have to be set now, he said, and will be re-evaluated when the aircraft is in production. A “deep dive” is underway on the B-2 program to capture lessons learned and make the B-21 as problem-free and cost-effective as possible, Rand reported.

The Air Force is working on a Bomber “Vector,” a term it prefers to “Roadmap,” to lay out the planned introduction of the B-21 and the schedule USAF will use to eventually divest its older aircraft.

Rand said the plan is coming close to completion, but he has previously said he doesn’t think the B-21 will be “additive” to the fleet—given constraints on funding and manpower. Counting its B-1, B-2, and B-52 aircraft, the Air Force today has 157 bombers.

Rather than calling for a minimum of 100 B-21s, USAF ought to be requesting 174, said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Chairing a panel on “The Evolution of Stealth,” Deptula said the Air Force must conserve its heaviest hitters and add to their numbers. “What we really need is 120 combat-coded B-21s,” which translates to a fleet of 174 of the jets to accommodate test, maintenance, training, depot work, and some for attrition, he said.

Deptula specifically noted that the 20-airplane B-2 fleet—only about 14 of them available for combat at any given time—is the only system on hand that can penetrate heavy air defenses and attack “hardened, deeply buried” targets with the Massive Ordnance Penetrator weapon. Countries like Iran and North Korea have hidden their nuclear development enterprises in such hardened underground facilities.

KC-46 Tanker

The Air Force and prime contractor Boeing have a disagreement about the ability to meet KC-46 delivery requirements, tanker program executive officer Brig. Gen. Donna Shipton reported. While Boeing insists it can meet its end-of-2017 deadlines, USAF believes the real date will be closer to “spring,” and in a later press telecon with reporters, said that was June 2018.

Shipton also reported three outstanding KC-46 issues. She expected two of them to be “closed” in October. One has more serious repercussions.

One of the simpler problem to fix is an uncommanded boom extension after disconnect from the receiver aircraft.

The other is to guarantee that high-frequency radios—which use the wings as an antenna—don’t broadcast while air refueling is underway, because the wings could arc and ignite the fuel.

A tougher problem to solve is a lack of warning if the refueling boom makes contact with a receiving aircraft away from the fuel receptacle. If a boom were to scrape the front of a stealth aircraft, that could damage the aircraft’s low observable finishes—and thus jeopardize its ability to perform its mission. This has never happened—only A-10s, C-17s, and F-16s have thus far tanked behind a KC-46 in test—but Shipton didn’t know when the problem might be resolved.


The Air Force recently chose Boeing and Northrop Grumman as the finalists in the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Program director Col. Heath Collins said that after exhaustive study, it looks like USAF will be able to make use of existing silos and launch facilities.

The existing silos are “plenty big enough” to accommodate any missile design being contemplated, he told Air Force Magazine. Although they’d have to be modernized, the concrete structures are sound.