Technological Turning Point

Oct. 30, 2014

Although the Air Force is hard-pressed to keep its edge as it navigates a prolonged period of tight budgets—which have already produced deep cuts in personnel, weapons, and readiness—new technologies offer leap-ahead capabilities which might offset some of the damage. To take advantage, though, USAF will have to efficiently harness industrial innovations and push its acquisition system to respond faster to stiff competition from world adversaries.

Top Air Force, defense, and industry leaders at the Air Force Association’s 2014 Air & Space Conference, held in National Harbor, Md., in September said USAF has never been smaller, even as the number of world conflicts multiplies and the tech challenge grows ever more formidable. However, they offered optimism that critical programs remain largely on track and that new game-changing technologies are near at hand. With quicker, more cost-effective acquisition, and steps to keep the industrial base healthy, the challenge is manageable, they said.

“The Air Force’s charge today is to ensure that America’s airpower is unrivaled for the next generation, and to do so with fewer resources, but more numerous and more sophisticated competitors,” Pentagon acquisition, technology, and logistics chief Frank Kendall said in his speech at the conference.

Kendall said China and Russia are making “long-term investments strategically focused on military modernization,” and these investments “appear tailored to counter the air, space, and cyber superiority that the Air Force provides and that enables America to project power across the globe.” Competitors are building new, more lethal “anti-ship, anti-air, and counterspace weapons,” as well as advanced cyber, electronic warfare, and special operations capabilities, Kendall stated. New foreign precision weapons are making “our air bases, our aircraft carriers, and our logistics nodes increasingly vulnerable.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force’s fleet continues to age.

“We now have the oldest Air Force fleet in history, subsisting on capital investments that were made in much earlier Administrations,” he said.

If sequester resumes in Fiscal 2016, it will further beat down USAF’s readiness, “which has taken too many blows already,” Kendall asserted. Meanwhile, adversaries have sharply increased their flying hours as USAF’s have fallen. This “traditional advantage you have enjoyed … is eroding,” Kendall said. “There are limits” to what airmen can be asked to do with “quick fixes and stopgap measures. …You deserve better.”

Changing Look

Kendall, speaking on behalf of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, said the Pentagon leadership is committed to modernizing the service and protecting USAF’s top three acquisition programs: the F-35 fighter, KC-46 tanker, and Long-Range Strike Bomber. Hagel had been scheduled to speak, but at the last minute traveled to US Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., to meet with CENTCOM officials and President Obama about the war against ISIS militants.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said USAF “will be bold” and is committed to “the change that must occur in the years to come.” The Air Force, she said, will certainly “not look the same” in the next 30 years as it did in its last 67. Given that USAF “is already smaller,” it will depend more on the Guard and Reserve, she said. “Basically, we traded off people and force structure … for increased readiness and protecting of modernization.”

USAF’s “technological edge” will have to make up the deficit.

“We must be able to adapt faster … than our adversaries,” she said, forecasting that much will depend on “how we leverage new technologies that could well be game-changing for us, such as hypersonics and directed energy.”

Future investments, she said, will focus on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, remotely piloted aircraft, “stand-off and long-range weap­ons, space and cyberspace systems,” and directed energy and hypersonic speed.

She also pledged to “improve the dialog that we have with our industry partners” toward jointly identifying “solutions to challenges that could help us bend the cost curve and also to deliver capability sooner” to combat airmen.

The Air Force will push to build “modularity into our systems and also to gain access in commercial technology based on robotic computing, biotechnology, nano-technology, and similar capabilities, all of which are developing very, very quickly outside … of the defense industrial base,” James said.

In his speech, USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III cautioned that it’s not enough to develop new equipment.

“All that innovation doesn’t help you if you’re not agile enough to take advantage of it,” he said. The trick will be to get new capabilities into the hands of combat forces as quickly as possible and let them figure out how to best use it.

Welsh repeated that the F-35, KC-46, and LRS-B are “our must-haves to be viable in the future,” but closely behind them are a new combat rescue helicopter, a replacement for the E-8 JSTARS radar surveillance jet aircraft, and the T-X trainer, which will replace the T-38.

He also said there are “some modernization programs that keep our legacy fleets viable,” and “we have to continue to keep those on track or we won’t be able to continue to fight.”

Air Combat Command chief Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III said those “legacy” upgrades will be have to be highly selective.

In the “zero-sum game,” Hostage said during the Four-Star Forum, “we had to choose either recapitalization or refurbishment.” Given that modernization isn’t negotiable, Hostage said, “I’ve had to sacrifice the refurbishment of the legacy fleet.” It’s “not a matter of one or the other” because the number of fifth generation F-22s and F-35s will be too small to do the job and must be complemented by fourth generation fighters, he said.

Upgrading some portion of the F-15 fleet, with new radars and some other capabilities, is needed because “we have a very limited number of assets to produce air superiority.” Unfortunately, the service life extension of the F-16 fleet has taken “some pretty heavy hits.”

Recapitalization must be the top priority, he said.

Aging Aircraft

“Airplanes are falling apart. I don’t care if it’s B-1 oil flanges that are breaking and starting fires, or F-16 canopies cracking. There are just too many things … happening because our fleets are too old. They’re just flat too old,” Welsh lamented.

One offset will be to rely more on cyber offensive operations.

“We need to start thinking about what cyber does for the air component … in the big war,” he said, adding that what ACC needs is for an air component commander, “when the big fight starts, [to] hit the cyber ‘easy’ button and watch the enemy RPAs pool at his feet. Or when the enemy starts to shoot missiles toward friendly forces, employ a tool that allows these missiles to sit and sizzle on the pad or go halfway, turn around, and go home.”

In his A&SC press conference, Hostage said that cyber operations are becoming so lethal they’re unsafe to practice in big wargames like USAF’s Red Flag exercises and must be rehearsed in simulations instead. If cyber forces were unleashed at the outset of a wargame, “somebody’s going to get hurt,” Hostage said.

Cyber warriors can “blind” an adversary and make his aircraft “run together,” Hostage said. Their more comprehensive inclusion in future “LVC”—for live, virtual, and constructive exercises—will “let the aviators learn the impact, the strength of what [space and cyber] can do.”

A strong partnership with industry is key to maintaining the tech edge, Hostage said.

“Our adversaries are aware of our historical tendency to surge from behind and are countering this by developing technologies and tactics to get inside any surge time-window, effectively negating the historical pattern.” The Air Force “cannot afford to lose our organic industry. The capability to develop and produce game-changing technologies is vital to national defense.”

Besides looking for better ways to include companies in USAF’s plans, the Air Force will look to its industry partners “to supply better, faster, and cheaper solutions to our existing capability gaps.”

What Hostage wants is for “future adversaries to spend a million bucks to counter a $5 weapon. We can’t afford to be on the opposite side of that equation.”

William A. LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said such a partnership has become the focus of his shop and Kendall’s, both. “We’re in this together,” he said to industry representatives in the audience. “It’s not government versus industry.”

LaPlante said the Air Force acquisition office—now at full strength “for the first time in five years”—is moving briskly to put into effect new acquisition philosophies put forward under the various “Better Buying Power” initiatives from Kendall’s shop.

Under Air Force Materiel Command chief Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger, the service’s various buying specialists have been reorganized so that program executive officers “own the life cycle sustainment for their systems,” LaPLante said. That will ensure that the cost and ease of keeping a system will be an important consideration “up front” when systems are chosen, he said.

“That’s a very important thing,” he said, “a difference in mentality, culture, outlook … when you have to live with what you’ve built.” The Air Force AQ shop in the Pentagon will soon be reorganized along similar lines, he said.

The shift aligns acquisition with the new USAF 30-year strategy, ensuring that “we don’t start a program we can’t afford.”

He is focused on getting programs “right, particularly early on,” maintaining “transparency” in dealing with industry, users, and Congress, and “getting back to adaptability”—building systems that will be useful and changeable to meet a wide range of contingencies.

Still fairly new on the job, LaPlante said he’s been pleasantly surprised to learn that some perceptions of USAF acquisition are “really not true.” He said the notion that USAF contract methodologies don’t hold up and are thrown out in protests is a myth.

“Out of 110,000 awards” last year, he said, “there were about 140 protests and [only about] four of them were successful.” Having an award thrown out “just doesn’t happen; it’s statistically very rare.” Likewise, he said, the notion that programs take a lot longer than they used to is also a myth.

Programs do take longer, but the additional time is “small. Only about six months to a year. It’s not like we were great at it” in the 1980s.

However part of transparency is being honest, LaPlante said, and it must be admitted that acquisition programs “take too long. We plan on a five-year development, and we end up executing a seven-year development”—numbers that are also true for the other services.

He said, “That’s not good” and adds cost because “that’s, in some cases, two years of a ‘standing army’?” of engineers and administrators doing nothing but waiting. He told industry reps that they will get attention from him “if you’re pushing a program that’s going to get done in three years.” However, “know the track record. … Plan for five, deliver in seven.”

He’s heard the complaints of industry that it takes too long to get contracts awarded; the average wait is 17 months.

Defending Against Creep

“That’s unsatisfactory,” he said. “That’s money.” The goal is to award contracts in “single digits” of months.

Another myth is that there’s a “debate” over whether fixed-price contracting or cost-plus saves more money. “They actually perform the same,” he said, but there is a “statistical difference” in contracts using incentive fees versus award fees. Incentive-fee contracts produce better performance, and the Air Force is going to use them more.

Toward its “bend the cost curve” mantra, the Air Force is looking to include contractors in setting requirements as early as possible. The process of establishing what a combat commander “wants to pay for and will pay for” is thought to be done in preprogram analyses of alternatives, or AOAs.

However, “it’s not done in AOAs. If you don’t get the requirements nailed down so they’re firm and you can keep them firm, and defend them against creep, you’re doomed,” LaPlante said. Though there are potential risks of industry being involved too early in the process—that they might steer a program to their own capabilities or that their participation might keep them out of the later competition—the “downside of not doing it is too great,” LaPlante asserted.

Should-cost efforts—wherein “the program office works with the contractor and attacks”the cost—is paying big dividends, especially since savings are plowed “back into that portfolio.” This is allowing more gear to be bought and more capability to be added, LaPlante reported.

Kendall released “Better Buying Power 3.0” during the conference, and LaPlante said it aims to keep industry vital by providing for continuous experimentation and prototyping. There will also be a push toward “frequent block upgrades” on a regular timetable. “If your improvement is not mature enough to make it into the next block, wait for the next train,” he said. It will be AQ’s job to “make sure there is a next train” and not “hold the train up for a passenger. If you don’t make it onto this block, you’ll have to wait 18 months.”

LaPlante said in the modular systems of the future, new capabilities “have to earn their way on,” and the platforms must have an “open architecture” to accommodate new sensors, weapons, and other capabilities.”

“This is where we need to go,” he said.

Experimentation will also have to be accompanied by a high tolerance for failure, according to Air Force Research Lab chief, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Masiello. In his speech, Masiello said the culture of expecting everything to work perfectly—especially when funds are so scarce—has to be set aside so that engineers and scientists can be free to learn from mistakes. Otherwise, the Air Force will “not be pushing” the edges of technology.

Masiello said hypersonics and directed energy laser systems have long been “overpromised and underdelivered.” However, now they are both “real” and will be inducted into “programs of record” to deliver fielded weapon systems in the near future.

The X-51 Waverider program, which achieved 200 seconds of hypersonic flight after the previous record of just seven seconds, “put us on the map,” Masiello said, and demonstrated that sustained hypersonic flight is feasible. The AFRL roadmap anticipates a hypersonic cruise missile in the 2020 time frame, followed by a weapon for “deep strike against high-value targets” circa 2030, and a “reusable, persistent” platform for strike or ISR—possibly manned—circa 2040.

“This is not just a PowerPoint” slide, he asserted.

In lasers, Masiello said the Air Force has parted company with the “flying HAZMAT approach” of the canceled Airborne Laser—which carried tons of toxic chemicals to achieve high-megawatt power—moving toward electric lasers in the 100 kilowatt class in the near future. A podded system with “tens of kilowatts”—which can do “militarily useful” damage—could be flying on an F-15 in the 2020s, and a sixth generation fighter could be flying with a 100 kw system by 2029.

A missile that can deliver a precision-targeted electromagnetic pulse, knocking out all the electronics in a blockhouse or weapons factory or command and control node has already been tested, and “if the decision was made today” to go ahead with it, “we could field it in a fairly low-risk acquisition program” in the early 2020s, Masiello reported.

All together, AFRL has about $2 billion in its portfolio—with about $800 million of those funds going to air vehicles, engines, hypersonics, directed energy, and related pursuits. Space and nuclear deterrence gets about $327 million; ISR gets $263 million; and $225 million goes for command, control, cyber, and communications. The balance funds diverse accounts ranging from affordability and sustainment to electronic warfare to human factors and automation research.

Looking ahead to what may happen to USAF’s technology push if sequester remains in effect and kicks in again next year, Hostage, in his speech, said the “worst-case scenario” is that Congress won’t let USAF adjust force structure to pay for modernization. “And then, my choice is either kill off future investment or attack readiness.” If forced to pick, Hostage said he’d opt to let readiness slip even further to preserve future technology.

“Going after our future potential,” Hostage asserted, “borders on the existential, and that’s an unacceptable path. Taking the hit in readiness is taking risk, but it’s potentially a survivable risk, if the adversary doesn’t call our bluff.”