The Air Force has prioritized F-35 purchases and Congress has plussed up its requests in each of the past two years. Whether that could shift under a Biden administration remains unclear and could depend on who gains control of the Senate once runoff elections in two Georgia Senate races are tallied in January. Air Force F-35As lined up for a combat power exercise at Hill Air Force Base in Utah January 2020. USAF photo
Photo Caption & Credits


Dec. 1, 2020

What a Biden Administration Means for Defense

Experts differ on how drastically Biden will cut defense spending.

By Rachel S. Cohen

President-elect Joe Biden, is expected to bring a middle-of-the-road defense policy to the White House in January, drawing on priorities from both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. 

Budget austerity was going to be an issue regardless of who won the election; leaders anticipated a period of little to no growth even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. That could affect  the status quo more than Biden expected, noted Michael E. O’Hanlon, foreign policy research director at the Brookings Institution. Defense and related spending is set to be about $740 billion in 2021. 

Conservatives worry a Democratic administration spells trouble for funding that has steadily grown since the 9/11 terror attacks. But budget watchers differ on how aggressively Biden would pursue cuts. 

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, expects Democrats won’t try to take a large bite out of defense spending. Republicans who fear vast underfunding for the military should remember that Obama requested more for the Defense Department in his first budget as President than Trump did in his own first request, he said. 

Defense budgets are probably going to be flatter in the coming years, no matter who wins the election.

Michéle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy

“Even under Trump, they have projected flat budgets for the next couple years,” said Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs, installations, and logistics in the Ronald Reagan administration. “Biden has never been part of the [Bernie] Sanders [I-Vt.] wing of the party or [Elizabeth] Warren [D-Mass.] wing [with big cuts]. I think it’ll be pretty much the same.” 

Proposals for large cuts, like Sanders’ attempt to shrink the Pentagon budget by 10 percent, have failed to garner much support in Congress. 

“If the Democrats had won a big victory in the Senate, I think you would have seen the defense budget being cut maybe by 5 percent or something like that,” Korb said. 

Republicans will temper any proposals to drastically downsize defense spending and will try for small increases to the defense budget to keep up with inflation, said Thomas Spoehr, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. 

The election results are likewise unlikely to spur significant changes to either the 2021 defense spending or policy bills, which Capitol Hill had yet to finalize as of mid-November, or the Pentagon’s fiscal 2022 budget request due out early next year, experts said. A Democratic executive branch could still ditch low-yield nuclear warheads and plans for a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile in the 2022 submission, among other programs unpopular on the left. 

As chairman of the Democratic-led House Armed Services Committee, Washington state Rep. Adam Smith will be an ally to the White House on defense and a mediator between Biden and congressional progressives. He believes the defense budget could hover around $720 billion to $740 billion in the coming years. He argues that a spending overhaul must be justified by a revamped national security policy, and is optimistic that redirecting some money away from the nuclear enterprise could pay for other wish list items.

Analysts anticipate DOD will put the funds it does receive toward a similar slate of priorities. 

The Trump years brought a renewed focus on competition with Russia and China as part of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. While Smith recently called the blueprint “a recipe for a very dangerous and unnecessary Cold War,” experts believe a Biden plan would look quite familiar. 

“The National Defense Strategy is pretty much where we ought to be,” Korb said. “The big thing is, and we’ve gone through this so many times, ‘Oh, we’re going to stop worrying about these small wars’ … you can’t do that.” 

China and Russia should remain at the center of an updated strategy as the greatest military threats to the United States, analysts said. “It probably won’t call it, ‘great power competition,’ but it will be essentially the same thing by another name,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

The main tenets of the National Defense Strategy—increased lethality, better alliances, and reform—will stay the same, Spoehr added. 

Biden’s Pentagon will continue pursuing cutting-edge technologies such as maneuverable hypersonic weapons and autonomous combat vehicles, experts said. The department is likely to be more vocal on climate change as a national security threat, support increased humanitarian aid, and allow transgender Americans to serve in the armed forces. Democrats would also delay or avoid arms sales to countries with spotty human rights records.

Biden Administration in World

Biden’s SecDef?

In carrying out those policies, Biden’s Pentagon may be led by America’s first female Defense Secretary. Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy has long been seen as a top pick for a Democratic administration. Another name that have been floated is Army combat veteran Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

If nominated and confirmed, Flournoy, who founded the Center for New American Security, would lead a Pentagon facing possible tightening budgets with a need to modernize and update its policies to address a growing threat from China. In recent writings and speeches, Flournoy has hinted at what her top priorities would be in the department, including investing in emerging technologies, such as the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, and focusing on ways to make current systems more survivable and capable versus large new acquisition programs like is typical for new aircraft and carriers. 

“Defense budgets are probably going to flatten in the coming years, no matter who wins the election,” Flournoy said in August. “That means you have to make trade-offs. That means you have to make many hard decisions. It means you probably need to buy fewer legacy forces in order to invest in the technologies that will actually make the force that you keep more relevant, more survivable, more combat effective, and better able to underwrite deterrence.” 

Defense policy watchers on the left have urged the next administration to extract the U.S. from myriad conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and bolster diplomacy to resolve them. The presumptive President-elect wants to bring thousands of U.S. combat troops home from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan but leave up to 2,000 personnel on the ground there for special operations. 

One tough strategic choice Biden could make to create more wiggle room in the defense budget might be to pare back military presence, O’Hanlon said. For instance, DOD could reduce its rotating forces in Europe, as fighting Russia in the Baltics was a bigger concern five years ago than it is now, according to O’Hanlon. Permanently basing troops in places like Poland would require fewer people than a rotating force of multiple Army brigades, he added. 

He also suggested pulling back from Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia—countries where America’s military presence provides a staging ground for operations in the Middle East. 

Senate Control

Gordon Adams, who served as the senior White House budget official on national security in Bill Clinton’s administration, believes Biden’s priorities will heavily depend on which party controls the Senate.

The two Georgia Senate seats are headed to runoff elections in January that will determine which party controls the upper chamber—Democrats in a 50-50 split with the Vice President as tie-breaker, or Republicans with a 51- or 52-seat majority. As of mid-November, Republicans had a slight lead at 50-48.

If Democrats get the upper hand, either through an outright Senate majority or because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would cast the tiebreaker vote in a 50-50 split, the White House would focus on health care, climate change, and jobs, Adams said. 

Negotiating with a GOP-led Senate would look much like the past several years, he said: “Little likelihood of deep cuts in defense, despite progressive caucus efforts. Not much growth, perhaps less than inflation.” New technologies and naval forces would be the priority then, he argued, pulling funds from areas like nuclear weapons programs and Army manpower. 

“For the Air Force, I would expect trims in the F-35 buy in the outyears, slower bomber progress, [intercontinental ballistic missile] cuts,” he said. It’s also possible Democrats could try to scale back ambitious plans for the Space Force, such as growing it into a separate department like the Army, Navy, and Air Force. 

Harrison cautioned against pulling back investment in military space as a “knee-jerk reaction” to undo the Trump administration’s work. He expects the Space Force is here to stay, but that other pieces of the military space enterprise could face more scrutiny.

“Things like the Space Development Agency (SDA), that might not have the same support under a Biden administration,” he said. “They may try to fold it into the Space Force sooner, and they may not be enamored with some of the missions that the SDA is attempting to take on, particularly the missile sensing layer. Those programs could be at risk.” 

If a Republican Senate has to cut deals with a Democratic House and President, GOP lawmakers could use Democratic priorities as leverage to keep divisive nuclear weapons programs, according to Spoehr. He argues the GOP won’t trade off sea capabilities, and will try to keep F-35 procurement from slowing down. 

“They’d be willing to compromise, I think, on some of these areas of force posture, like forces in Germany, Korea,” Spoehr added. “There’s many Republicans who don’t think we ought to vacate some of these places where we’ve been talking about.” 

Slim majorities in both chambers of Congress can moderate spending levels and force more bipartisan efforts to compromise on contentious issues, analysts predict. Republicans have retaken some of the advantage Democrats won in the House in 2018, and the blue senators who won in red states won’t be “raving liberals,” Korb said.

“Most defense issues don’t break down neatly along partisan lines,” Harrison added. 

Nuclear weapons will remain a major sticking point between the two parties during Biden’s term. At a minimum, the administration is expected to push back on the “low-yield” W76-2 nuclear warhead for submarine-launched missiles, plus a new sea-launched cruise missile. Some believe the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and the air-launched cruise missiles could be in jeopardy. 

Korb said ICBMs are likely here to stay because of their bipartisan support from members of Congress whose states are home to the missile fields. If the Democratic national security establishment wanted to change course on ICBMs, they would have done it during the Obama years, Harrison noted. 

“They studied it and they considered it and they did not [change course]. They had every chance,” Harrison said of the Obama administration. 

Strategic Arms

A new Nuclear Posture Review could leave open the possibility of deploying fewer than 400 ICBMs—the current number—across the northern U.S. in the 2030s.

“In all likelihood, they wouldn’t want to reduce the number of missiles unless we’ve got an agreement with Russia and/or China, or bilateral or trilateral reduction,” Harrison added. 

Analysts anticipate Biden will put his own stamp on arms control by reversing the Trump administration’s decision to leave major international treaties. 

Biden is expected to revive the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), under which Iran dismantled much of its nuclear program before the U.S. withdrew in 2018. The administration may rejoin the Open Skies Treaty, which allows a global coalition of nations to inspect each other’s military installations from the air. It can also pursue new terms to govern the use of intermediate-range nuclear weapons, after the U.S. withdrew from that pact in 2019. 

Those issues make some feel like they’re replaying Biden’s eight years as Obama’s veep. 

“More like an Obama third term, … that’s probably the best way to think of it,” Harrison said. 

Kathleen H. Hicks, director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, will lead the Defense Department agency review team (ART), which will review the agency’s operations and begin the process of handing it off to new leaders in January. Several other members of the transition team also come from CSIS and other prominent research institutions, including the Center for a New American Security, RAND Corp., and New America.

Their work experience spans years in the defense, foreign policy, energy, technology, and other sectors. Some names are well-known to the military, such as former DOD comptroller Mike McCord. Others have a less-traditional resume, like Michael Negron, a Navy veteran who is now assistant director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Many people on the list have ties to past Democratic administrations as well, like Susanna V. Blume, a former deputy chief of staff to the deputy secretary of defense under Obama and Trump, and Debra Wada, who served as assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs under Obama.

Notable to Air Force watchers, the DOD review team includes Stacie L. Pettyjohn, director of RAND Project Air Force’s Strategy and Doctrine Program, and Veronica Valdez, former special assistant and deputy chief of staff to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.

They will begin meeting with former agency officials and the experts who track those organizations, as well as with officials from think tanks, labor and trade groups, and other non-governmental organizations, according to the transition team. 

The Biden-Harris transition team touted the diversity of its agency review teams, saying the presumed President-elect and Vice President-elect are “committed to building an administration that looks like America.”

“The teams have been crafted to ensure they not only reflect the values and priorities of the incoming administration, but reflect the diversity of perspectives crucial for addressing America’s most urgent and complex challenges,” as stated in the Biden-Harris transition team release. “Of the hundreds of ART members to be announced, more than half are women, and approximately 40 percent represent communities historically underrepresented in the federal government, including people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities.” 

Air Force Honors Five Airmen for Heroism While Flying

By Amy McCullough and Brian W. Everstine

Within a week’s time this fall, the Air Force bestowed one Silver Star, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, and a Bronze Star with Valor upon five Airmen for their heroic actions in the air. 

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Brunetto, a pararescueman with the 38th Rescue Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., received the Silver Star—the nation’s third-highest award for valor in combat—in recognition of heroism displayed during a February 2020 ambush in Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. Nicholas Brunetto Airman 1st Class Taryn Butler

 Lt. Col. Adam C. Darrow, 58th Operations Group Detachment 1 commander, and Tech. Sgt. Samuel T. Levander, a special missions aviator assigned to the 71st Operations Squadron, received the Distinguished Flying Cross on Nov. 3, while Lt. Col. John R. Leachman was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor for their roles evacuating forces before and after the Jan. 7 Iranian ballistic missile attack on al-Asad Air Base, Iraq. 

Two days later, the service awarded Michigan Air National Guard A-10 pilot Maj. Brett DeVries a Distinguished Flying Cross for dramatically guiding his Warthog to a belly landing in 2017 after a catastrophic gun malfunction blew the aircraft’s canopy off and prevented the landing gear from functioning properly. 

Heroism in Afghanistan

While deployed to Afghanistan on Feb. 8, 2020, Brunetto and the Army Special Forces team he was attached to were ambushed. Eight U.S. service members and three partner forces soldiers were critically injured. Brunetto realized one of the troops needed a blood transfusion to survive and ran back through the line of fire to get the necessary medical equipment.

“I often emphasize that effective warriors must have two things: discipline and purpose,” said Maj. Gen. Chad P. Franks, commander of 15th Air Force, during the Oct. 29 ceremony at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. 

Brunetto repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire without regard to his own life as he carried his wounded comrades to the helicopter extraction point. 

“The Silver Star is representative of an Airman’s willingness to place their life in danger against the enemies of America for their comrades,” Franks said. “It reflects the American military fighting spirit and selfless service to our nation. Nobody would deny Nick’s selfless service to America and his team that day.” 

Lt. Col. Adam Darrow Airman 1st Class Ireland Summers

Valor at Al-Asad 

On Jan. 7, 2020, Iran enacted its revenge for the U.S. killing of Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, raining ballistic missiles down on al-Asad Air Base, Iraq, injuring more than 100 personnel and severely damaging the base. 

Darrow and Levander were deployed as part of the 7th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron, Special Operations Command-Central when they received a notice to evacuate because of an “imminent theater ballistic missile threat.” The Airmen were part of a three-ship of aircraft tasked with evacuating 194 special operations forces. They filled their CV-22 Osprey to its maximum gross weight limit, and within about 90 minutes of the initial notification flew 132 of those personnel out of the threat area. 

Iraqi forces prevented a runway landing, so the three-ship of Ospreys flew a minimum separation, maximum gross weight formation to rolling landings at a parallel taxiway. When the aircraft returned to the threatened location, they loaded another 62 special operators on board but had to divert to a third location because of a blocked refueling point and a “critical fuel state,” the award citation states. While at the third location, the crews came under missile attack. 

Lt. Col. John Leachman Airman 1st Class Ireland Summers

“Ensuring his aircraft was safe to continue, despite several flight control malfunctions and an ill crewmember, he flew with the formation to a desert landing site to link up with other contingency forces and executed a zero illumination, low visibility landing in close proximity to 18 other aircraft, 19 hours into a standard 12-hour crew duty day,” Darrow’s citation reads. 

Darrow and Levander also infiltrated special operations forces as part of a 13-aircraft dissimilar formation assault force to reoccupy the attacked base, ending their mission 24 hours after the crew day began. 

Leachman distinguished himself by meritorious achievement during an operation “in support of a presidentially directed combat mission,” his award citation states. He led a deployment of Ospreys from RAF Mildenhall, U.K., to al-Asad, departing within 24 hours of notification. He was tasked with integrating with 15 other aircraft, including fixed-wing and rotary-wing close air support aircraft, rotary-wing assault aircraft, special operations mobility aircraft, and both manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, the citation states. 

Tech. Sgt. Samuel Levander Airman 1st Class Ireland Summers

After being notified of the missile threat at al-Asad, he was able to quickly locate all 68 on- and off-duty personnel, loading them on an Osprey within 90 minutes of the notification. 

Eighteen days after the attack, Leachman’s unit was specifically requested to carry a fallen service member from the Syrian border through poor weather, long distance, and in a high-threat environment, the award citation states.

“Through his leadership, multiple other missions were flawlessly accomplished, including Army Special Operations Aviation support for ammunition and refueling equipment, Army Ranger movements, and airlift from the Baghdad Embassy helipad for key personnel,” the citation states. 

A Dramatic Belly Landing

DeVries, then a captain with the 107th Fighter Squadron at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich., was flying a training flight on July 20, 2017, when his A-10’s GAU-8 Avenger cannon malfunctioned, sending a “donut of gas” through the aircraft, blowing off the canopy while flying at 325 knots. The malfunction caused other systems to fail, slamming DeVries’ head against his seat. He was able to gather himself and, with mission-planning papers flying out of his cockpit, made contact with his wingman and maintainers back at Selfridge. 

The team decided to fly to nearby Alpena airfield, situated about 250 miles south of the base. DeVries ducked behind the canopy to avoid the wind to try to make an approach to the airfield. When he attempted to lower the landing gear, it got stuck. Maj. Shannon Vickers radioed him to try to retreat the gear, thinking a belly landing would be better than one with partially protruding landing gear. 

Capt. Brett DeVries Terry Atwell/USAF

Vickers flew on DeVries’ wing, guiding him in to a belly landing at Alpena. Video shows the A-10 without a canopy gliding down to a smooth belly landing and skidding to a stop on the flight line.

DeVries, a senior pilot, has more than 2,000 flight hours, including 830 in combat. Brig. Gen. Rolf E. Mammen, commander of the 127th Wing, said during the award ceremony that DeVries “demonstrated a level of Airmanship to which we should all aspire.” 

“As a commander, I cannot tell you how proud I am of Major DeVries and our entire 127th Wing, who work so hard every day to ensure that we are ready to fly, fight, and win,” he said in a 127th Wing release. 

Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett presented the award, saying it is the oldest military aviation decoration “awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement that is ‘entirely distinctive, involving operations that are not routine.’ Today, Major DeVries, you will join the ranks of some other American heroes.”                            

Space Force Planning Guidance Calls for Intel Hub, New Training   


Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Caulfield, standing, guides an Airman on mission operations in 2018 at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Senior Airman Michael Hunsaker

By Rachel S. Cohen

The Chief of Space Operations’ new Planning Guidance directs the service to create entities like a National Space Intelligence Center, begins to set benchmarks for improving the force, and offers insight into future operations. 

Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond rolled out the planning document Nov. 9 to communicate “my intent and [define] the capabilities and culture the USSF will pursue over my tenure,” he wrote. It also elaborates on priorities that military leaders have touted over the course of the Space Force’s first year, such as speed, flexibility, technological savvy, and international cooperation.

While the guidance reads much like the Space Force’s first doctrine document that was released in August, it includes several notable updates about how the young service will proceed.

For one, Raymond wants to move parts of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NSIC) to create a co-located National Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Military officials and experts have floated that possibility over the past year as the Pentagon grapples with improving intelligence collection in space. 

“In concert with the Space Force [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] enterprise, the NSIC will provide a framework for growth to meet anticipated demand for increased space intelligence at foundational, tactical, operational, and strategic levels,” the guidance said. That ISR enterprise will be spearheaded by the senior intel officer in Space Force headquarters’ operations office. 

The service did not immediately answer whether NASIC, which dates back to 1961, would revert to being the National Air Intelligence Center. It’s unclear how soon the NSIC will stand up. 

A top military space official said last year the Department of the Air Force needed to have a better understanding of what people, processes, and capabilities would provide comprehensive information on what’s happening in space. The push for more space intelligence support comes as the Space Force is maturing its ties with other agencies that handle the same mission, like the Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and National Security Agency.

The Space Force also wants to create a Space Warfighting Analysis Center (SWAC) to “develop future force structures that meet evolving mission requirements, are resilient to the threat, and are cost-informed,” the document said. Much like the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability group, the SWAC will hold wargames that shape those plans to benefit the joint force.

Officials at Space Force Hq. are getting new marching orders as well. The headquarters includes offices to manage human capital, operations, strategy and resources, and technology and innovation, plus a staff director. In the next year, the staff director will set standards for how the Space Force approaches “structured, data-driven decision-making,” Raymond said. 

The Technology and Innovation Office will also look for ways to automate and digitize daily work so Space Force members can spend 15 percent more time on advanced training.

Raymond’s guidance pushes forward some of the same practices the Air Force has adopted in recent years. He expects subordinates to act on their own authority unless a superior officer specifically needs to make the call. In preparation for a world where artificial intelligence and machine learning increasingly power military software, Raymond also wants commanders to create operational plans that either people or machines can carry out. 

Those plans will help warfighters and computers decide when a human should be in charge of a decision, and what tasks software can carry out on its own. 

“Commanders at all levels must ensure crew commanders and mission directors are proficient at applying warfighting concepts like acceptable level of risk, self-defense, risk to mission, and risk to force, and prepared to make sound tactical decisions in a contingency,” the guidance said. “We will recognize and reward expert system management and prudent risk acceptance to meet commander’s intent.” 

The document notes that the Space Force should be less vulnerable to a “first-mover” attack, or a surprise maneuver in orbit that could spur the United States to escalate into a larger conflict. 

“Adversaries will target vulnerable segments to degrade the larger architecture,” Raymond added of satellites, ground controls, and other parts of the space combat enterprise. “We must ensure joint commanders are prepared to defend critical space assets that enable joint forces.” 

He also noted that he’s willing to pursue more resilient, defensible systems sooner, at the risk of the Space Force’s current inventory. That could mean stopping a development or procurement program before new technologies are ready, even if it limits military operations in the short-term. 

Raymond told reporters Nov. 9 he expects a follow-on implementation plan with timelines and other specifics to be released in December.      

Allvin Promoted to Vice Chief

Gen. David Allvin received his fourth star and began serving as the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Nov. 12, replacing retiring Gen. Stephen “Seve” Wilson, USAF’s longest serving No. 2.. USAF/courtesy

By Brian W. Everstine

Gen. David W. Allvin received his fourth star and took over as the service’s new Vice Chief of staff on Nov. 12 as Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson retired, having been the Air Force’s longest-serving No. 2. 

Allvin previously served as the director for strategy, plans, and policy for the Joint Staff. 

He started his career as a C-141 pilot before becoming a test pilot evaluating the C-17 and C-130J. He previously served on the Air Staff as the director of strategy, concepts, and assessment, and has been the director of Air Force strategic planning, the director of strategy and policy for U.S. European Command, and commander of the 618th Air and Space Operations Center. 

During the ceremony at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C., Allvin said the “stakes I don’t think have been higher. The future security environment is evolving in a way that plays right into the wheelhouse of the Air Force.”

“I can’t guarantee you what all I’ll be able to accomplish on this team,” he said. “But I have gas in the tank, I have got the energy to do this, and I’ve got the will to do it, and I’m excited to do it.” 

Air Force Chief of Staff  Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who hosted the ceremony, said he expects Allvin will serve as the brains behind the Air Staff, with himself doing the operations. “He’s going to be behind the scenes making things happen,” Brown said.

Wilson retired Nov. 13 after 39 years of service. He served four years and four months as Vice Chief, surpassing the previous record of time in the job set by  Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, who served in the role from July 1957 to 1961. Throughout his career, Wilson accumulated more than 4,600 flight hours and 680 combat tours in B-1s and B-52s. He previously served as commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command before joining now-retired Gen. David L. Goldfein to lead the service.

As the 39th Vice Chief of Staff, Wilson led initiatives such as Spark Tank, his Vice Chief’s Challenge, and partnering with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create an “artificial intelligence accelerator.” Through his time at Global Strike, STRATCOM, and on the Air Staff, he has also been a key leader pushing the development of the B-21 Raider.

During the ceremony, the Air Force announced it would rename building 905 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, to “Wilson Hall” in his honor. As a salute to his time flying and commanding the Air Force’s bombers, a B-1 and B-52 flew over Anacostia-Bolling at the end of the retirement ceremony.                                                                                                  

Former AFRL Boss Heads to Art. 32 on Sexual Assault Charge

Maj Gen. William Cooley, here at SBIR Pitch Day in Dayton, Ohio, in 2019, is charged with “making unwanted sexual advances” in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Keith Lewis/USAF

By Amy McCullough

A military court will consider a sexual assault charge levied against former Air Force Research Laboratory boss Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley at an Article 32 preliminary hearing on Jan. 27, 2021, the Air Force said. 

Cooley is accused of making “unwanted sexual advances by kissing and touching a female victim” on Aug. 12, 2018, in Albuquerque, N.M., according to a USAF release. 

Air Force Materiel Command boss Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr. relieved Cooley of command on Jan. 15 amid an Air Force Office of Special Investigations inquiry, saying the service had lost confidence in the two-star general’s ability to lead. Cooley was reassigned as Bunch’s special assistant, and Lt. Gen. Gene Kirkland, commander of the Air Force Sustainment Center at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., was tasked with reviewing the evidence associated with the misconduct allegations. 

Cooley is charged with a single count of violating Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, with three specifications related to sexual assault of the woman, according to the charge sheet. She is not a member of the military or a Defense Department employee. 

Kirkland reviewed the facts of the case, “including evidence noted in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Report of Investigation and consulting with legal authorities,” the service said, and preferred the charge against Cooley on Oct. 29. 

During the preliminary hearing, which is similar to a civilian grand jury, a military judge will review the evidence and may hear from witnesses before determining whether “probable cause exists that the accused committed a UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] offense,” the Air Force said. 

“The officer will also provide a recommendation on disposition of any offenses supported by the evidence,” according to an AFMC release. 

Brig. Gen. Heather L. Pringle assumed command of AFRL in June. She replaced Brig. Gen. Evan Dertien, who was serving as acting commander after Cooley was fired. 

Greece Wants F-35s, and Fast: It Could Take Used USAF Jets

By John A. Tirpak

Greece asked to purchase 18 to 24 F-35s and is willing to accept used USAF airplanes. In an official Nov. 6 request, Greece asks for an “immediate” purchase with deliveries in 2021, citing the timeline as “crucial.”

Industry officials said the rush could be related to European Union loan guarantees that expire in the coming months. The letter of request said the speed of delivery, configuration of the aircraft, and “the repayment plan” would influence any final deal.

Speaking on background, a U.S. defense official said the Air Force has “not identified any F-35s that are excess to need,” but the Air Force has in recent years waffled on the cost and work involved to upgrade its oldest F-35s to the current production standard. Selling the older jets could be a way to solve that issue. USAF has previously indicated it intends to use at least some of its older F-35s as aggressor aircraft.

The U.S. has urged Greece to buy the F-16V Block 70, the most advanced F-16 now available for export, but one official said there’s “a prestige factor” involved. A small batch of F-35s could also be a “force multiplier” for Greece’s existing F-16s, he said.

Greece’s neighbor and rival, Turkey, was an original partner on the F-35, but was drummed out of the program after it acquired the Russian S-400 air defense system. Industry officials speculated that F-35s built for Turkey, but never delivered, could answer Greece’s request. The U.S. Air Force is getting some of those aircraft, but not all.

“You could think of them as ‘pre-owned,’ but not necessarily ‘used,’” a defense official said.

To acquire brand-new F-35s, Greece would have to get in line: Lockheed Martin’s production capacity is spoken for through at least 2024.

COVID-19 Claims First Airman

By Brian W. Everstine

A member of the Texas Air National Guard died of COVID-19-related issues, becoming the first uniformed member of the Department of the Air Force and the ninth service member overall to die of the disease.

The Air National Guardsman has not been identified. The death was reported in a Defense Department tally of COVID-19 cases on Nov. 4. The Air National Guard reports its COVID-19 cases through the National Guard Bureau, instead of in the Air Force’s own reports.

As of Nov. 5, there have been a total of 58,968 cases of COVID-19 reported among service members. The Air Force has reported 15,744 cases, which include Active-duty Air Force, Space Force, and Air Force Reserve Command personnel, along with civilians, dependents, and contractors.

In the Air Force, 14 civilians, two dependents, and seven contractors have died from COVID-19. According to statistics released Nov. 3., there were s32 USAF personnel hospitalized with the coronavirus.

The Air Force has taken new measures to try to limit the spread of the virus, including testing service members who travel on “Patriot Express” flights from two airports. Patriot Express routes are flown by commercial jets that contract with the Defense Department to ferry military members and their families overseas. As of Nov. 2, travel restrictions remain at nine USAF installations across the globe.

Pilot Error, Ejection Seat Blamed in Fatal F-16 Crash

An F-16 Viper from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., takes off during Red Flag 20-2 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., on March 9. Airman 1st Class Jacob Gutierrez

By Amy McCullough

Pilot error and a series of ejection seat malfunctions led to a fatal F-16CM crash at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., in June, accident investigators said in a report released Nov. 9. 

First Lt. David Schmitz, 32, was conducting his first nighttime qualification training flight on June 30, including his first-ever attempt to refuel in midair and simulated suppression of enemy air defenses. But after unsuccessfully trying to refuel, Schmitz’s training mission was cut short and he headed back to the base. 

When nearing the base, Schmitz, an Airman with the 77th Fighter Squadron at Shaw, misinterpreted the approach lighting system. He failed to identify where the runway began, hitting the localizer antenna array on the ground and “severely damaging the left main landing gear,” according to Air Combat Command. 

The aircraft briefly touched the ground, then tried to circle back and land again. Shaw Airmen attempted to land the plane by catching the jet on a cable at the beginning of the runway, but the tailhook missed the cable. Damage to the landing gear caused the plane’s left wing to hit the runway. 

Schmitz ejected from the fighter after missing the cable, but his parachute never deployed. He died after hitting the ground while still in the seat, according to the release. 

The F-16CM is equipped with the Advanced Concept Ejection Seat (ACES) II, which is supposed to be capable of ejecting in any landing gear failure scenario while traveling at speeds up to 200 knots. Schmitz’s aircraft was going 120 knots, or about 138 mph, when he ejected. 

“Based on the airspeed and altitude of the ejection, the mishap seat should have initiated a Mode 1 ejection,” the report said. “As the seat exits the aircraft, the Digital Recovery Sequencer (drs) is activated, which is responsible for providing seat stabilization, pilot/seat separation, and parachute deployment. For a Mode 1 ejection, the seat’s drogue chute is not used, expediting the deployment and inflation of the personnel parachute.” 

However, there was a “critical failure” when the seat left the aircraft, and six of seven “pyrotechnic devices” that should have activated did not.

“This accident is a tragic reminder of the inherent risks of fighter aviation and our critical oversight responsibilities required for successful execution,” ACC commander Gen. Mark D. Kelly said in the release. “The AIB [Accident Investigation Board] report identified a sequence of key execution anomalies and material failures that resulted in this mishap.”

Accident investigators also found two related maintenance issues with the mishap aircraft. The first was the failure to install a shorting plug on the DRS electronic module, which is designed to prevent noise bias issues in channel three.

“Two of the three channels must be in agreement for the DRS to function properly. DRS failure due to channel three noise bias issues have been observed in approximately 9 percent of all live ejections and sled tests,” according to the report. 

A time compliance technical order was issued on Jan. 20, 2016, and work was to be completed on the mishap aircraft seat on Aug. 28, 2017, but it was not completed because not enough parts were available.

Second, the DRS’s 10-year life span expired on Feb. 28, 2019, but the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center issued three temporary extensions because parts, once again, were not available.

Another contributing factor was the flying supervisor’s decision not to consult Lockheed Martin on using the cable to stop the plane, according to investigators. 

A visual inspection of the mishap aircraft concluded the landing gear was “broken and (was) hanging,” though the right landing gear and nose landing gear “appeared normal,” according to investigators.

Schmitz began working off of a checklist meant for landings with an unsafe or undeployed landing gear, but Lockheed flight safety engineers told accident investigators that list “only applies if a landing gear fails to extend normally, not when it is damaged or hanging.” 

“Analysis concluded that the [mishap pilot] had a total of 3.475 seconds from when the [seat] left the aircraft to pull the [emergency manual parachute deployment handle] and achieve a successful parachute deployment,” according to the report. Had he not attempted the cable landing and ejected earlier, he would have had as much as six times longer to pull the handle. 

In addition, Kelly noted that Air Force instructions require pilots to successfully demonstrate proficiency in aerial refueling during the day before attempting it at night.

“That didn’t occur for this officer, and when we have oversight breakdowns or failures of critical egress systems, it is imperative that we fully understand what transpired, meticulously evaluate risk, and ensure timely and effective mitigations are in place to reduce or eliminate future mishaps,” he said.

Schmitz was a prior enlisted Airman who served as a C-17 loadmaster before earning his commission through Officer Training School, 20th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Lawrence T. Sullivan said in a video at the time of the crash. Schmitz earned his pilot’s license at 17 years old before enlisting in the Air Force.