SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Offers Clues About the Future of Space Force
By Rachel S. Cohen
Some space watchers say NASA’s return to launching astronauts from U.S. soil could shape the far future of military manned spaceflight, though others say the new Space Force doesn’t need to aim for “boots on the Moon.”
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft carried NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the International Space Station on May 30 using a Falcon 9 rocket, marking the first time since 2011 that the U.S. has not relied on Russia’s Soyuz program to take people to space.
After the launch, Maj. Gen. John Shaw, the Space Force’s space operations commander, noted several significant differences from the space shuttle era.
The U.S. began its major overhaul of military space bureaucracy in 2019, he noted. The Pentagon stood up both the Space Force—a military service that offers people and weapon systems for U.S. commanders around the world to use—and U.S. Space Command, the organization that fights and defends space assets using the Space Force’s resources. That change put Gen. Jay Raymond, who runs both the Space Force and SPACECOM, in charge of military support for human spaceflight, Shaw said.
As Crew Dragon rocketed into orbit, a team of USAF aircraft circled the airspace to ensure it was safe and rescue crews stood alert in case something went wrong. A KC-135 from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., refueled F-15s from the Guard’s 125th Fighter Wing for the launch. The tanker and fighters patrolled the airspace for the original launch date on May 27, which was scrubbed due to poor weather, and returned for the successful launch three days later.
The KC-135, call sign NATION02, orbited off the coast of Florida for about four hours on May 30, topping off the F-15s to ensure the airspace was clear. At the same time, Airmen with the 45th Operations Group-Detachment 3 stood alert in an operations center at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.; along with Airmen and aircraft standing by at Joint Base Charleston, S.C.; and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. The detachment’s pararescuemen, combat rescue officers, aircrew flight equipment specialists, and HH-60 Pave Hawks, HC-130Js, and C-17s were ready if the astronauts needed to be rescued.
The Airmen could launch immediately, and airdrop into the open ocean with equipment—such as jet skies and scuba gear—to extract the astronauts from the Dragon capsule in the sea. For this mission, the crew stayed on alert until the Dragon docked with the International Space Station on May 31.
The team spent the “past couple years” developing new tactics, including working on a specially made Dragon capsule, to ensure they were ready if the astronauts needed help, said Maj. Marcus Merris, the rescue division chief with the detachment.
While the Department of the Air Force handled the bulk of space operations before, a new organizational chart means certain decisions will go through different channels. It also opens up the possibility of helping NASA in new ways, Shaw said.
“We’ve been supporting human spaceflight for decades, even during the shuttle era, and … during the post-shuttle era by providing space domain awareness to the International Space Station,” Shaw said during a June 1 event hosted by SpaceNews. “If there’s a piece of debris on orbit that might be coming close to the [ISS] … we will notify NASA, and occasionally they will make a decision to make an adjustment to the orbit.”
Shaw added that the military offered satellite communications networks so rescue forces could talk more easily, if needed, to help the astronauts. The United Kingdom also helped the U.S. ensure the Dragon spacecraft had a clear path to the ISS, working under a growing slate of international space ops agreements.
NASA manages space exploration and often chooses military members to be part of its civilian astronaut corps. Behnken is an Air Force colonel; Hurley retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel. The Space Force operates systems such as orbiting satellites and runs the launch ranges used for military and commercial missions, but NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, for which Crew Dragon is the first manned mission, could still spur ripple effects for military space.
The Space Force was created in part to support NASA as it looks to set up permanent facilities on the Moon, as well as privately owned companies pursuing internet service and more from low Earth orbit. But, supporting NASA’s commercial crew program isn’t as simple as reverting to how things worked during the space shuttle era.
“We’re not using a shuttle, we’re using a capsule again,” Shaw said of the Dragon spacecraft. “So, we really have to go back to 1975 to remember when we were last supporting [a] capsule for personnel recovery operations.”
Capsules require different planning because they can land almost anywhere, creating multiple potential scenarios for military rescue crews, he added. And instead of learning how to recover various capsules over time, from the Mercury program to Gemini to Apollo, service members are now learning about three capsules at once: SpaceX’s Dragon, Boeing’s Starliner, and NASA’s Orion.
Technology is evolving as well. GPS didn’t exist when Airmen were rescuing astronauts in the 1970s, and communications networks are more robust than in previous decades. The Air Force now also owns the C-17, which offers new pararescue options not seen in 1975.
“We’re in a new era of support to human spaceflight,” Shaw said. “We’re very proud to be part of that team supporting NASA.”
What about the Space Force’s own recruitment ads, which show images of people in spacesuits? Don’t get excited about the military getting its own astronauts, Shaw said.
“The United States Space Force is not going to be sending humans into space for national security purposes anytime soon. Maybe a long time from now, we’ll be doing that, but not anytime soon,” he said. “Any images you see in those commercials are meant to evoke an event horizon that transcends any of the boundaries we’re dealing with today, to really inspire our next generation.”
It’s plausible that the Space Force and other military branches could establish a presence on the Moon that accompanies NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to set up shop on the Moon as a jumping-off point for travel to Mars.
Does that require a Space Force astronaut corps to mirror NASA’s? Maybe someday, said James Vedda, a senior policy analyst at Aerospace Corp.’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy.
Others aren’t so keen on the idea, at least for the foreseeable future. Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes military space missions are better done without humans in orbit. Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson argues that protecting the national security enterprise’s approximately 120 satellites doesn’t require putting people in space.
“There is no manned military flight and no need for it—certainly in the next 10 to 20 years,” Wilson said. “Some people talk about protecting space commerce. That is pretty far away and [it is] not clear that manned operations would be the best way to do that.”
Just as the military and industry both have multiple ways to move around on land, in the air, and at sea, space may eventually be the same. But humans still have a long way to go to be adept at flying in orbit.
Jon Cowart, systems director for Aerospace Corp.’s human spaceflight activities at Kennedy Space Center, believes scientists could head to orbit before service members. Sending scientists to space with their experiments may be the first routine application of military manned spaceflight before uniformed personnel arrive, he said.
MITRE Corp. Space Systems Director Scott Kordella said he can imagine military members going to space to collect imagery, a responsibility currently left to satellites and their operators on the ground. He envisions service members could perform missions in low Earth orbit and provide greater space situational awareness to NASA missions.
Other mission areas could likely overlap. The Space Force can prevent and help NASA avoid on-orbit collisions, and deconflict intentional or unintentional interference with civilian and military space operations, Harrison said. Space tracking, communications, and navigation technologies will be even more important. The return of American human spaceflight can also drive a greater need for data analytics, energy research, space-related health care, cybersecurity, and more, some of which the military might handle, Space Foundation Chief Operating Officer Shelli Brunswick said.
SpaceX’s launch will help prove the concept of commercially led spaceflight, further shifting away from the government as the sole entity putting people in orbit and making access to space more widely available. That, in turn, poses the question of who should handle space operations if something goes wrong.
The Space Force’s creation is a first step toward blurring the line between civilian and military space, particularly as it could take on the search-and-rescue role, Brunswick said.
Vedda likened the Space Force to an orbit-focused version of the Coast Guard, which occupies a unique role as an armed force that falls under the Department of Homeland Security. From that perspective, the Space Force could handle its main mission of commanding military space assets under the Defense Department, but someday take on civilian rescue missions and other law enforcement work as commercial and NASA operations evolve.
Restarting domestic human spaceflight will affect the U.S.-Russian relationship as well. America is already moving away from the Russian-made RD-180 engine for its rockets, and less reliance on the Soyuz will shrink a major source of revenue for Russia’s space industry. Weaning the U.S. off both the RD-180 and the Soyuz program will create financial problems for Russian suppliers, Harrison said.
It’s possible that U.S. lawmakers and the executive branch could eventually reverse their plan to ditch Russian systems, but there are enough backup options available to power American rockets to avoid returning to the RD-180, which powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, he added.
Space Force leaders lauded the Crew Dragon mission as the astronauts suited up and worked through their pre-launch checklist.
“The crew is settled in,” Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond said. “Get the jalapeno popcorn ready.”
Pentagon Editor Brian W. Everstine contributed to this report.
Air Force Halts T-38 Formation Landings
By Brian W. Everstine
T he Air Force no longer requires T-38 student pilots to complete formation landings—part of military aviation training for decades—following a fatal 2019 crash at Vance Air Force Base, Okla. The family of 2nd Lt. Travis Wilkie, the student pilot killed in the crash, praised the March decision, but said USAF should have halted the “archaic and dangerous requirement” before “it took the life of our son Travis and his instructor pilot.”
On Nov. 21, 2019, Wilkie and instructor pilot Col. John “Matt” Kincade took off alongside another T-38 for a local student formation training mission. Wilkie had progressed through his training and had met course requirements. Kincade had an “impeccable reputation” and was one of the most experienced T-38 instructors at the base.
At the time, student pilots were required to complete two formation landings—when more than one aircraft land at the same time—with an “unsatisfactory” mark still meeting requirements. Two years before the crash, USAF had reduced the requirement from five formation landings, with at least three at a “fair level,” to two at an “unsatisfactory” level, prompting many instructor pilots to question why they were even necessary. The Combat Air Force, which the pilots enter after graduation, has almost completely ended the practice of formation landings, and that, combined with the reduced requirement in the syllabus, meant instructor pilots are no longer as proficient in the maneuver, officials told investigators.
After the crash, the Air Force reviewed its requirements and suspended the practice of student pilots conducting formation landings.
“On March 5, 2020, the United States Air Force directed the suspension of formation landing training in undergraduate pilot training,” AETC said in a statement.
Wilkie’s parents Carlene and Don, in a statement, said they were notified on May 11 of the March change. The decision to halt the formation landings “substantiates the failure of Air Force leadership to discontinue an archaic and dangerous training requirement, in a tired 58-year-old plane, before it took the life of our son Travis and his instructor pilot.”
During the formation landing, when they touched down, the T-38 on the left of the formation bounced into the air and rolled to the right, touching down again in a right bank, skidding across the runway toward the other Talon. It lifted off the runway again, striking the other jet with its landing gear. The impact caused the aircraft to roll and crash. Both pilots were killed instantly.
The investigation found that Kincade, the instructor, did not take control of the aircraft as a “precarious situation” developed. Subsequently, Wilkie made incorrect flight control inputs, prematurely initiating an aerodynamic braking maneuver immediately after touching down. This caused the aircraft to jump back into the air, and Wilkie applied and held right rudder to avoid the edge of the runway. The combination caused the aircraft to roll and yaw, putting it on a “collision course” with the other plane.
Wilkie’s family objected, noting it did not mention the reduced requirement for formation landings.
“Because formation landings are no longer used by front-line combat aircraft, they should have been removed from the T-38 training syllabus years ago,” they said in a statement.
Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) conveyed the family’s concerns in a letter to AETC boss Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, and called on the Air Force to ground all T-38C flights and to stop formation landing training.
“We all acknowledge the inherent dangers involved in being an Air Force pilot,” Peters said in a statement. “But if these planes are too old to be safe, then let’s get safer ones.”
While AETC has adjusted the syllabus, the command maintains the T-38 fleet is healthy and ready for current pilot training. The T-38C, the model involved in the mishap, has had 14 Class A mishaps, resulting in eight fatalities since 1998.
USAF’s Scramble to Telework
The Air Force’s IT enterprise is tested during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Rachel S. Cohen
T he coronavirus pandemic has shocked global economies, sent nations into lockdown, and overwhelmed hospitals in some of the largest American cities. As the U.S. workforce adjusts to the new reality of working from home, the virus’s spread is forcing the IT (information technology) that supports millions of military and civilian personnel to sink or swim.
Building on incremental changes that were already in progress, Air Force officials are trying to turn what they call “20th-century IT for a 21st-century service” into an enterprise that keeps their air, cyber, and space missions going uninterrupted. If they succeed, this urgent recognition of IT as a top priority could reverberate far into the future for a better connected, digitally savvy force.
As many as 4 million DOD employees are now teleworking, Air Force Lt. Gen. B.J. Shwedo, the Joint Staff’s chief information officer and its director for command, control, communications, computers, and cyber, said April 13. That includes 60 percent of staff at the Pentagon in Virginia, and a significant portion of the Air Force’s workforce.
“This has really been done at a pace, speed, and scale that has not been seen before,” said A.G. Hatcher, who oversees the Air Force’s $17 billion IT and cyber portfolio as acting deputy chief information officer. “These [network upgrades] are things that normally take weeks and months—in some cases, probably years—to get done.”
Air Force IT frustrates Airmen to the point of being a retention issue. IT has suffered from taking a backseat to other service priorities as officials valued security over utility, and ended up years behind the private sector. For all the talk of rapid acquisition, IT upgrades are woefully slow: The service is now rolling out Microsoft Office 365, the workplace software suite that launched in 2011.
The COVID-era IT response aims to change that. Starting in late February, the Air Force began offering improved virtual private networks so employees can remotely stay in contact with their offices, connecting users to a suite of collaboration tools like chat and videoconferencing. It is also handing out secure laptops, alongside about 20 other technology solutions.
At the beginning of the year, the Air Staff did not have the teleworking tools, capability, or capacity it needed to do the work of the Air Force’s Secretary and Chiefs, according to Staff Director Lt. Gen. Timothy Fay.
“The first few days on our virtual private networks (VPN) … I will liken it to, probably, driving on [I-395] pre-COVID,” Fay said. “Full-contact sport, very difficult bumper-to-bumper traffic where you would come to a standstill quite frequently.”
Things aren’t perfect, but they have improved. Task forces are troubleshooting complaints and building up bandwidth in hot spots with subpar connectivity. In late March, USAF said it was fixing a problem that requires users to enter their PIN multiple times. One consultant who spoke to Air Force Magazine has run into the PIN issue, and said he’s cut back on his Air Force projects while teleworking because of system glitches.
Before the pandemic, the Air Force averaged 4,500 VPN sessions a day, with a maximum capacity of around 9,000 sessions. That has jumped to 93,000 sessions per day and a maximum capacity of 240,000. By the end of May, users at overseas bases should have the capacity for another 200,000 connections through a partnership with the Defense Information Systems Agency.
For Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve members, daily connectivity has grown from about 800 sessions to around 7,000.
“The first week was rough. If you weren’t logged on early, you weren’t getting on until … afternoon. … Now, I rarely have an issue getting on. It’s slower during the morning peak, but still functional,” said an Air Force officer who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “You have to have a DOD-issued laptop. … Most people don’t have one, which limits their access because a lot of DOD websites require VPN access.”
VPNs let Air Force employees access Office 365 through a program known as Cloud Hosted Enterprise Services, or CHES. It opened to 600,000 users in October, and is expanding this year to add 110,000 users in the Air National Guard and the D.C. area.
While CHES is permanent, it’s not mobile-friendly and is available only to people with a certain ID card. Users can’t record audio or video meetings, and CHES limits interaction between Pentagon agencies. So the Pentagon came up with a temporary solution for the entire DOD known as Commercial Virtual Remote (CVR), which launched March 27.
“CVR provides users with a temporary Microsoft [Office 365] collaboration suite solution, consisting of tools such as Teams, SharePoint, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage capability,” according to an Air Force document explaining the differences between CVR and CHES.
CVR can be accessed from any device, without a VPN connection or a service member ID, and offers voice, video chat, file sharing, and more. It’s now available to 740,000 Air Force accounts.
Fay said CVR let him host a “seamless” tabletop exercise with more than 100 people around the globe using video conferencing with breakout rooms. Others are using teleworking software for everything from change-of-command ceremonies to industry days to digital happy hours.
But, there’s a hitch: CVR expires in September.
“This service will only be accessible for the length of the COVID-19 crisis (six months). The licenses will expire on 15 Sept. 2020, at which time all teams, chats, channels, and files saved in the CVR environment will be erased and sanitized,” the document said. “There will be NO enterprise mass migration of data—users will be responsible for data migration and will receive an email at least two weeks prior to termination of the CVR environment to do so.”
That prospect is dissuading some Airmen from embracing software that could make their lives easier in the short-term.
“At this point, if it’s going to be only a temporary thing, I won’t use it,” the Air Force officer said. “Not worth the effort to transition to something that’s going to disappear in a couple months.”
Brig. Gen. Chad Raduege, Air Combat Command’s chief information officer and director of cyberspace and information dominance, calls that feeling “app fatigue.” CVR is unifying the armed forces, he said, and the Air Force owes it to its Airmen to continue CVR past the pandemic and stop jumping from software to software.
ACC has communicated that message to Air Force leaders, and Hatcher said the Pentagon is reevaluating its plan for CVR.
Hardware solutions are also in the mix. Air Force acquisition boss Will Roper wants to provide as many as 4,000 DeviceONE-enabled laptops that connect to classified DOD networks and Air Force cloud storage. DeviceONE is part of the Air Force’s networking vision known as the Advanced Battle Management System.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) developed DeviceONE through its SecureView classified networking program, which has been deployed to more than 12,000 users across the U.S. government since 2011. The jump kits are a combination of a virtual desktop that stores classified information, a network that lets users access the data from almost anywhere, and a commercial laptop. Materials cost less than $2,500 per person, according to AFRL.
Roper said key leaders would be among the first to receive a DeviceONE unit, which ideally would let users work from home rather than go into an office to handle secret-level information on specialized computers or in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. Other units would be spread among USAF program offices.
“We’ve ordered 50 and have plans to order 400. We would like to order 4,000,” Roper told reporters in April. “We need funding to do that, and there are a lot of things that need funding.”
As Air Force networks get more crowded, they also become more vulnerable to attack. Shwedo said DOD has seen a rise in “spear phishing,” or attempts to steal sensitive information by getting people to click on malicious links. The department is getting better at understanding how those phishing attempts work and where they come from, Shwedo said.
Sixteenth Air Force, home to the service’s cyber offensive and defensive units, is keeping an eye out for disinformation and stressing the need for cyber hygiene to avoid getting hacked at home.
Over the past few years, the Air Force has begun outsourcing IT services at bases across the country to companies such as Microsoft, AT&T, and Accenture, so those Airmen could instead focus on cyber defense. Hatcher did not answer whether the Air Force could need to grow its cybersecurity workforce to accommodate future remote work, but noted that the service wants to find people who are digitally savvy in general.
Looking ahead, some officials believe the current crisis will spur a greater focus and higher spending on IT. Roper believes spending more on IT will make the Air Force more efficient and ultimately help save money, telling reporters IT “will not be that side gig for us anymore.”
Lessons learned from the pandemic can accelerate the Air Force’s Enterprise IT-as-a-Service (EITaaS) effort to bring commercial companies in to manage IT at more bases, as well as its “Bring Your Own Approved Device” effort to work from any mobile device, anywhere. Now that they are getting a better sense of what works and what doesn’t, leaders are identifying how certain aspects of telework can be improved and made permanent.
Equally important is the culture that a good teleworking enterprise creates. Working from home means having to constantly split time between a job, taking care of family and pets, and managing a healthy work-life balance. The Air Force wants to build a culture that says it’s OK to stop working at 5 p.m., that it understands your kids need you, and not to worry if your cat hops into a teleconference.
“It gives us an opportunity to give some more autonomy to our people, to be a symbol of empowerment and trust, to help people balance their working lives with their personal lives, and mix those in a way that I think is attractive to a lot of the generation of people that we are trying to keep and stay in the Air Force,” Hinote said.
Lawmakers Grill DOD Officials on Ligado, GPS Fight
By Rachel S. Cohen
Two of the most important technologies in the current digital era are pitted against each other in a perplexing debate about the future of high-speed wireless technologies.
On one side is the Space Force’s constellation of Global Positioning System satellites. On the other is the future of 5G—or fifth-generation—wireless technology. In the middle is a thin band of spectrum that the Defense Department believes is vital to the accuracy and reliability of GPS timing and positioning data and that the Federal Communications Commission has agreed should be available for 5G transmission.
The FCC ruled in April in favor of allowing Ligado Networks to build ground terminals for a broadband Internet network in the electromagnetic spectrum’s L-band, near the spectrum occupied by GPS signals.
Weeks later, Defense Department officials spoke to the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 6 in a last-ditch attempt to get the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to change its mind. They argue the risks to disruption of GPS signals used for everything from banking transactions to driving directions to pinpointing the location of 911 callers—not to mention military uses—is too great to consider the Ligado plan. They say relatively weak GPS signals could easily be disrupted.
Ligado counters that its low-power signals will not have any appreciable impact on GPS.
That’s prompted numerous lawmakers and federal agency leaders, including the secretaries of Defense, Commerce, and Transportation, to seek to overturn the FCC ruling. The Pentagon petitioned the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which in turn formally asked the FCC to reconsider on May 22.
“We think this is the first time ever where the FCC has taken an arbitrary and independent decision where it was … unambiguously opposed by multiple federal agencies,” testified DOD Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy.
The FCC has so far held firm. In responding to Pentagon complaints, the agency said in a statement: Nothing “changes the basic facts that the metric used by the Department of Defense to measure harmful interference does not, in fact, measure harmful interference, and that the testing on which they are relying took place at dramatically higher power levels than the FCC approved.”
Deasy was accompanied by Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin; National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing Advisory Board Chairman Thad Allen; and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond at the Senate hearing.
The FCC approved Ligado’s proposal with conditions attached to lower the risk of interference. The company must leave 23 megahertz of spectrum space vacant and lower base station power levels by 99.3 percent to a maximum 9.8 decibel watts.
In explaining its ruling, the FCC wrote in April: “The order also requires Ligado to protect adjacent band incumbents by reporting its base station locations and technical operating parameters to potentially affected government and industry stakeholders prior to commencing operations, continuously monitoring the transmit power of its base station sites, and complying with procedures and actions for responding to credible reports of interference, including rapid shutdown of operations where warranted.”
Military officials contend that the FCC’s expectations are unreasonable and would drive “unprecedented accelerated test, modification, and integration of new GPS receivers on existing platforms” to protect the enterprise and “significantly degrade national security.”
Multiple lawmakers appeared skeptical of DOD’s argument and asked why the FCC would issue an unusual, unanimous vote if there was risk to products and services that rely on GPS. Some see the squabble as a breakdown in inter-agency communication and cooperation.
“This process has exposed a fault line in spectrum decision-making,” FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks wrote in a joint statement. “As we move to the next generation of wireless service, it is imperative that we have an improved interagency system and a stronger whole-of-government approach to our 5G effort.”
The outcome remains uncertain. Lawmakers could include language in the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill to protect the GPS enterprise, the FCC could revise its ruling, or the ruling could stand. While Defense officials objected to the ruling, they stopped short of calling for specific legislative relief.
Jurisdictional issues in Congress mean the defense committees do not have sole authority over the matter. The Commerce Committee could take up the matter in a separate bill.
As for the FCC, it has remained steadfast, saying in a statement that the agency “will not be dissuaded by baseless fear-mongering.”
Samuel Robert Johnson, 1930-2020
By John A. Tirpak
Samuel Robert Johnson, who represented Texas in the House of Representatives for 28 years, was the last Korean War veteran to serve in Congress, and was a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam for seven years, died May 27 at age 89.
Johnson was born in San Antonio and grew up in Dallas. While at Southern Methodist University, he joined the ROTC. Activated for Korea, he earned his wings shortly after earning his business degree in 1951.
He flew F-86s out of Suwon, Korea, achieving one kill—a MiG-15—over the Yalu River in May 1953. Nearly out of gas, he glided some 80 miles to Kimpo Air Base, landing just before flaming out. He flew 62 total missions in Korea, and was also credited with one probable MiG kill and one damaged.
Johnson ranks among the few members of Congress to have fought in combat. During 29 years in the Air Force, he flew combat missions in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, receiving two Silver Stars and one Bronze Star Medal with Valor, among numerous other awards. He endured nearly seven years as a POW in Hanoi.
Following the Korean War, Johnson was an instructor at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and was selected to fly with the Thunderbirds. He flew F-100s with the team for two years, as solo and then slot, performing demonstrations around the world. In a 2013 oral history, Johnson said he frequently created a sonic boom to open the show, but was ordered to stop when he once “broke every window” on the Mississippi coast, and it “cost the Air Force about $100,000.”
He was assigned fighter duties in France and the U.K., and returned to Nellis as director of operations and training, where he wrote gunnery manuals with John Boyd. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was detached for a potential invasion of Cuba, after completing jump training at the Army’s airborne school. Johnson’s assignment was to parachute into Cuba and stand up a captured air base. The invasion did not proceed.
During the Vietnam War, Johnson flew the F-4 Phantom II out of Thailand. On April 16, 1966, during his 25th mission in theater, Johnson was tasked to hit an anti-aircraft battery and truck park. After several low-level runs, Johnson’s jet was hit by enemy flak and he was forced to eject.
Captured by the North Vietnamese, he was a Prisoner of War for seven years; half that time in solitary confinement. He sustained a broken back, broken arm, and dislocated shoulder when he ejected. His wounds were never properly treated by his captors, and he endured lasting debilitation. Johnson was tortured by the North Vietnamese, put in leg irons every night, and endured starvation. His defiance earned him extra harsh treatment and isolation from other prisoners.
He communicated with them at Hoa Lo Prison—better known as the “Hanoi Hilton”—by tapping on walls with a tin cup.
In 1969, throughout the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, Buzz Aldrin—a fellow classmate of Johnson’s and lifelong friend—wore a silver POW bracelet with Johnson’s name on it. Aldrin later said that he saw Southeast Asia on the return to Earth and prayed for Johnson, who was unaware of the moon landing.
In 1971 Johnson, learned of the “Son Tay Raid”—an attempt to rescue POWs from a nearby camp—from a tiny roll of microfilm embedded in a lollipop the North Vietnamese had allowed through in a parcel from home. It was a New York Times account explaining that the rescue had not succeeded because the POWs there had been unexpectedly moved. The story drew world attention to the POWs’ plight and the North Vietnamese eased conditions for some, explaining the parcels. Johnson later recounted, “We knew then that our country had not forgotten us.” He was released with other POWs on Feb. 12, 1973.
He returned to USAF service, and in 1974 earned a Master’s degree from George Washington University. In 1979, he retired from the Air Force.
Johnson then went into business as a home builder. In 1984, he was elected to the Texas legislature, serving seven years.
He won the first of seven elections to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1991. In 1998, he formed the House Air Force Caucus, along with Reps. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), promoting a larger and more robust Air Force. He helped pass the 2003 Military Family Tax Relief Act, which reduced the taxes of service members and increased benefits to survivors of those killed on Active duty.
The conservative Johnson championed lower taxes and sponsored legislation to delay Social Security benefits by two years. He also promoted deregulation of the oil industry. He served on the Ways and Means Committee, was chairman of the Social Security subcommittee, and also sat on the Joint Committee on Taxation. He was a member of caucuses for immigration reform, pension reform, and sportsmen.
In 2015, Johnson came to the defense of Sen. John McCain—a 19-month cellmate at the Hanoi Hilton, after Donald Trump said McCain wasn’t a hero just because he had been captured.
Johnson said, “Diminishing the courage and patriotism it takes to leave your family, face the enemy, and even—God forbid—endure wartime torture has no place in a post-Vietnam America. Every single faithful veteran—whether they are alive, no longer with us, a POW, or MIA—deserves our utmost respect and support.”
Though he pledged to stay only 12 years in Congress, Johnson wound up serving more than twice that long. Days after winning his 13th full term in 2016, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. At his retirement, he was the last Korean War vet and last Vietnam POW to serve in Congress. He was also the oldest member of the House.
His autobiography, published in 1992, was titled “Captive Warriors: A Vietnam POW’s Story.”
In 2013, AFA recognized Johnson with its Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2018, he donated some of his prisoner-of-war relics, including the tin cup, to the Smithsonian.
AFA President Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Bruce Wright said Johnson “left us with an incredible example for leadership, character, and courage in the most daunting of lifetime challenges—from combat fighter pilot to Hanoi POW to Capitol Hill.”
The Search for Faster, Longer-Range, Air-to-Air Missiles
By John A. Tirpak
The Air Force is looking for “novel” approaches to a new class of faster and longer-range air-to-air missiles, according to a request for information released May 5, but it’s not clear how these new weapons would complement several existing new dogfight missile programs.
The solicitation, released by Air Force Materiel Command’s Air Force Research Laboratory, at the Eglin weapons directorate, seeks industry ideas for technologies applicable to new dogfight missiles, which presumably would improve or replace the current generation of AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X Sidewinder, and complement the secretive AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile. The AFRL wants companies to indicate their interest to work on the project by June 18.
The new missiles must fit inside the weapon bays of fifth-generation fighters and not exceed 156 inches, according to the notice. AFRL is willing to consider single or multi-stage rocket motors, or an air-breathing system, but is keenly interested in “multi-pulse solid rocket motors” that can be throttled, along with innovative “propellants, grain configurations, cases, and liners.” The Air Force wants a missile faster than the ones it has already, with “compact design” warheads having “high single-shot probability of kill.” It wants “novel” airframes and compact control systems, advanced battery technology, and ultra-capacitors in the power system.
The Air Force will also consider “novel carriage and release concepts,” and wants “advanced power delivery” and “advanced data transmission.”
Key considerations for the new weapons, include technical feasibility, performance, resource availability, cost, and manufacturability.
Thousands of Airmen Volunteer to Join Space Force
More than 8,500 Airmen applied to formally transfer into the Space Force in May and Space Force officials expect to select about 6,000 of them—satellite operators, intelligence analysts, cyber professionals, and others—to join the service for initial two-year terms, the service announced. Applicants will hear back in July about selection boards and other next steps.
“I am incredibly proud of the men and women who made the bold decision to volunteer to join the U.S. Space Force and defend the ultimate high ground,” said Gen. Jay Raymond, the Chief of Space Operations.
The Space Force expects to grow to about 15,000 service members.
The initial transfer period opened May 1 to allow Active-duty Air Force officers, as well as enlisted members in existing space careers and certain other jobs, to formally join the Space Force.
Those selected will take their oaths in phases, starting with space operators in September.
Other career fields must wait until February 2021 to join, and members of the Army or Air Force space community may have to wait until 2022. A limited number may be allowed in sooner. An internal Army survey found most Active-duty Army space officers would switch into the Space Force, SpaceNews reported.
Still unclear is the potential for a future Space Reserve or Guard force. The Pentagon has not yet decided whether to pursue a reserve component for space. “Air Guard and Air Force Reserve units executing space missions are currently aligned to the Space Force, and will continue supporting Space Force missions in this status while the future of the reserve component for the Space Force is determined,” the Space Force said June 9.
As for civilian employees, their status is unchanged.
USAF Launches Search for ‘Skyborg’ Drones
By Rachel S. Cohen
The service began soliciting aircraft in May and plans to award contracts to the winning designs by the end of the summer, Advanced Aircraft Program Executive Officer Col. Dale White told Air Force Magazine. Chosen drones will then head into experiments to show off what they can do. White did not say how many airframes the service plans to buy.
Officials envision Skyborg as an unmanned aircraft that would take direction from fighter jets and its own artificial intelligence in combat.
Skyborg could fly ahead for reconnaissance or carry out airstrikes without endangering the manned aircraft, and it could ferry around a box that allows planes with different communications systems to talk to each other.
Skyborg should also be able to autonomously avoid other aircraft, terrain, obstacles, and hazardous weather, and take off and land on its own, the service said in March 2019.
The Air Force hopes Skyborg’s manned-unmanned teaming will give it an edge over other advanced militaries, even if USAF misses its goal of growing to 386 squadrons. The next Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown Jr. recently told senators the Valkyrie will offer pilots greater situational awareness and strike capability.
While the Air Force says it has not settled on a single aircraft that will become Skyborg, it often touts Kratos Defense’s XQ-58A Valkyrie as a top contender. Valkyrie is a joint venture between the Air Force Research Laboratory and Kratos to develop comparatively cheaper drones that can assist more advanced aircraft and are easily replaceable if lost. The XQ-58A finished its fourth flight test in January, and is slated to fly in the Air Force’s next Advanced Battle Management System experiment later this year.
USAF may also look into designs such as the “loyal wingman” combat drone Boeing created for the Royal Australian Air Force. A Lockheed Martin spokeswoman told Air Force Magazine the company plans to submit a bid “leveraging the leading-edge approaches Skunk Works is known for.” MQ-9 Reaper manufacturer General Atomics declined to comment.
Skyborg is one of three AFRL “vanguard” initiatives that are trying to speed the time it takes to go from research to operational use. The Air Force is asking for $157.6 million across its three vanguard programs in fiscal 2021, and seeks a $25 million plus-up for Skyborg through the unfunded priorities list.
The service has said it wants Skyborg ready for operations by the end of 2023.
USAF’S Shadowy X-37B Spaceplane Heads Back to Orbit
By Rachel S. Cohen
The X-37B spaceplane embarked on its sixth mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on May 17.
The secretive, unmanned orbital test vehicle, which will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, is notching new milestones as it matures. Its fifth mission was its longest to date, ending Oct. 27, 2019, after 780 days on orbit. Now, it will take a new approach to bringing experiments to space.
“This sixth mission is a big step for the X-37B program,” said Randy Walden, who runs the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. “This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments. The incorporation of a service module on this mission enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions.”
Aiding this slate of experiments is the FalconSAT-8, a small satellite provided by the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) and Air Force Research Laboratory. FalconSAT-8 is carrying five payloads that USAFA will operate while in space, the Air Force said.
Experimental payloads include an ion thruster propulsion system known as the MEP; an antenna made of synthetic materials that offer more power in a smaller package; a carbon nanotube experiment that looks at radio frequency performance under varying stress in orbit; an attitude control and energy storage experiment; and another to vet a low-cost star camera for the Air Force Institute of Technology.
Once the dishwasher-size satellite separates from the spaceplane, cadets will monitor its performance in orbit and track how the experiments are faring. Running each FalconSAT over the course of a system’s lifetime gives students a peek into a possible future job as a satellite operator in the Space Force.
“In addition, two National Aeronautics and Space Administration experiments will be included to study the results of radiation and other space effects on a materials sample plate and seeds used to grow food,” the Air Force said. “Finally, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory will transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy, which could then be transmitted to the ground.”
These experiments are also notable because they are unclassified, indicating the public may learn more about the X-37B as space operations and research are increasingly in the spotlight. The spaceplane is unique because it brings experiments back to Earth and redeploys with more, instead of leaving them on orbit.
An X-37B landing was featured in the Space Force’s first recruitment ad that was released May 6, shortly after the new service began accepting formal transfer applications from Airmen.
The spaceplane has spent seven years and 10 months on orbit in total, and about three times as long in space during the past two missions as it was designed for. The Air Force is evaluating whether to replace the two vehicles.
Highest Number of USAF Sexual Assault Reports in 14 Years
By Amy McCullough
The number of sexual assault reports in the Air Force increased 9 percent in fiscal 2019 from the year before—the “greatest number of reports” received since the service’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program launched 14 years ago.
Overall, the military services saw a 3 percent increase in reports, with the Department of Defense receiving a total of 7,825 reports in 2019 compared to 7,623 reports in 2018, according to the 2019 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military. The Air Force received a total of 1,683 total reports in 2019, including 1,161 unrestricted and 522 restricted reports.
“The Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program continuously seeks to reduce sexual assault and increase victim repxorting, thereby narrowing the gap between the prevalence rate and the number of incidences reported,” John Fedrigo, the service’s principal deputy assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, wrote in the report. “While the latest prevalence survey [conducted in 2018] … showed that sexual assault increased from previous survey iterations, the Air Force remains confident that the increase in victim reporting between FY18 and FY19 demonstrates the positive impact of our Sexual Assault and Response Program.”
The 2019 report includes reporting information, feedback from focus groups, climate surveys, and updates to DOD’s overall efforts to eliminate sexual assaults. It indicates that military culture is slowly heading in the right direction, according to the report, but it does not indicate an increase in prevalence, which is only measured in even numbered years.
The DOD report says the Air Force has made “significant progress toward sexual assault prevention,” and it praised leadership and efforts to develop a prevention workforce.
AFCENT Stops Releasing Airstrike Details as Taliban Talks Continue
By Brian W. Everstine
For the first time since the early days of the war in Afghanistan, Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT) is not providing a regular update on the number of airstrikes in that theater, or from ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria.
AFCENT said it is not posting the monthly airpower summaries because they could “adversely impact ongoing discussions with the Taliban regarding Afghanistan peace talks.”
Since at least 2012, the command has posted monthly updates online with the tally of the number of weapons released, as well as the number of mobility and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance sorties. At one time, the command posted more detailed summaries daily.
Since Operation Inherent Resolve began in 2014, AFCENT added monthly sortie and strike totals for coalition aircraft in Iraq and Syria.
The last summary, which was posted in February—the same month as U.S. and Taliban officials announced a deal to end the war—showed a high operational tempo in the country. U.S. aircraft in Afghanistan that month released 360 weapons, the second highest February total in at least 11 years.
Despite the deal, Pentagon officials say the pace of violence remains high in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said May 4, there “has not been a reduction in violence from the Taliban side,” though the attacks have solely been on Afghan forces and not U.S. troops. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said May 1 the U.S. will continue to conduct defensive attacks to help Afghan partners.
Two Airmen Shot Dead at Grand Forks Air Force Base
By Amy McCullough
Two Active-duty Airmen assigned to the 319th Reconnaissance Wing at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., are dead following an early morning shooting June 1 at the base, according to an Air Force statement. They were identified as Airman 1st Class Natasha Raye Aposhian, 21, and Airman 1st Class Julian Carlos Torres, 20. Aposhian’s parents told Stars and Stripes their daughter was a victim of domestic violence.
“Our community has been through a lot in recent days, and weeks, and months. We’d like to ask for your continued patience and understanding as we work through the next of kin notifications,” 319th Reconnaissance Wing Commander Col. Cameron Pringle said during a press conference. “We will care for our Airmen, their families, and our community. We will get the mission done, because we are the warriors of the North, and we will get through this together.”
The shooting, which is believed to be an isolated incident, occurred around 4:30 a.m. on June 1. “Let me be clear, our installation is safe,” Pringle added.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations is conducting an investigation and mental health experts are on scene “to care for those impacted,” the service said.
The War on Terrorism
As of June 1, 2020, 93 Americans had died in Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, and 97 Americans had died in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, Syria, and other locations.
The total includes 186 troops and four Defense Department civilians. Of these deaths, 87 were killed in action with the enemy, while 103 died in noncombat incidents.
There have been 570 troops wounded in action during OFS and 230 troops in OIR.