Afghanistan’s Saigon Moment
By Air Force Magazine Staff
Gen. Mark A. Milley told reporters on July 21 that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was more than 95 percent complete, and while the Taliban was already making rapid advances throughout the country, “it remains to be seen over the rest of the summer” if the Taliban’s momentum would continue.
Less than a month later, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital as U.S. and coalition aircrews rushed to evacuate U.S. citizens, allies, and fleeing Afghans from Kabul, recalling scenes of chaos strikingly reminiscent of the fall of Saigon in Vietnam nearly 50 years before.
By the time Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country Aug. 15 the country was in chaos. Taliban troops took over Humvees and other U.S.-furnished equipment from surrendering government soldiers, seizing the presidential palace in Kabul as U.S. helicopters ferried personnel from the sprawling embassy complex in the middle of the city to Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The situation there was desperate. Afghan civilians breached the airport’s blast walls and thronged the runway and climbing atop civilian airliners. One C-17, call sign RCH871, loaded up with 823 Afghan men, women, and children, flying them to safety late Aug. 15. Another was mobbed as it landed to deliver equipment to support the evacuation, prompting the aircrew to depart immediately. In desperation, Afghan civilians chased the plane, with some clinging to the landing gear. At least one person was killed, falling to the ground after liftoff; on landing at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, human remains were discovered lodged in the wheel well.
American Soldiers and Marines contained the crowds with concertina wire, warning shots, and vehicles. U.S., Turkish, and other troops cleared the airfield. But as Americans watched from home in disbelief, President Joe Biden made his case that there was never going to be a good time to depart Afghanistan and that he was resolute in his decision to pull out.
The events unfolded “more quickly than we anticipated,” he said, but pulling out was the right decision. “We will end America’s longest war after 20 long years of bloodshed,” Biden said. “The events we are seeing now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, secure Afghanistan—as known in history, the graveyard of empires. What’s happening now could just as easily happen five years ago or 15 years in the future, let’s be honest. Our mission in Afghanistan has … made many missteps over the past two decades.”
Among those ordered back to Afghanistan were the Air Force’s 621st Contingency Response Group at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., and the 821st Contingency Response Group (CRG) from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., both of which had returned home from the country just weeks before. The CRGs are organized to deploy on short notice to set up airfield operations, and include air mobility liaison officers to coordinate with ground forces and others to coordinate air operations, provide security, and load and unload aircraft.
Col. Daniel Mollis, Task Force 74 commander and deputy commander of the 621st Contingency Response Group, comparing the drawdown in Afghanistan to the “Super Bowl,” saying in an early August interview that the totality of the unit’s job was “coming together in terms of our capabilities.”
Contingency response Airmen got orders to quickly deploy to Afghanistan as President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal plan in April. The group built its teams and orders within 72 hours of the President’s announcement and was on the ground in Afghanistan in just 10 days—most of those in a restriction of movement due to COVID-19.
“It’s not hard to fill our requirements. This was something that everyone was ready to go do—and ready to drop everything, no notice, and go execute this mission,” he said.
Ebb and Flow in Kabul
C-17s, C-130s, and international airlifters flowed in and out of the airport on its single-runway airstrip. Meanwhile, the Air Force helped to provide a heavy security presence above the city including USAF F-16s, B-52s, AC-130s, and MQ-9s, along with F/A-18s and AV-8s.
The scale of the evacuation was epic: between 5,000 and 9,000 Americans in Afghanistan, perhaps 20,000 Afghans seeking special immigrant visas, plus spouses and children. Estimates suggested as many as 70,000 men, women, and children in all.
Just getting to the airport was a challenge. The Taliban established checkpoints outside the airport, checking passports and only allowing some to pass through. U.S. troops and State Department personnel manned two gates, processing about 400 to 500 people per hour. But while the Americans said they were coordinating and “deconflicting” with the Taliban, officials in the United States were freezing Afghanistan’s bank accounts to stop the Taliban from accessing those funds.
American veterans scrambled to provide support for the thousands of Afghans who had helped the U.S. mission as interpreters find their way out of the country rather than face Taliban retribution. They faced the choice of holding or hiding U.S. documents and visa applications.
“These are things that people have been clinging to for 20 years,” said Zach Asmus, a retired Airman and active volunteer with Combined Arms, a veterans group. “They would never part with these things, because that’s [their] ticket out of the country. But right now if you’re caught with that on you, you’re identified as allied to the Americans, so it’s pretty much a death sentence.”
The Air Force aimed to move 5,000 people a day, but it was a struggle. As C-17s and C-130s moved in and out, the number of American forces on the ground swelled to 4,500 and the number departing hovered around 2,000. Ensuring the safety of the airport and those there was a prime concern. “There will be many postmortems on this topic, but right now is not that time,” Milley said Aug. 18. “Right now, there are troops at risk.”
Reading the Tea Leaves
The collapse of Afghanistan may not have been anticipated or predicted with precision, but it was probably inevitable. The office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGARs) 11th and final “lessons learned report,” released Aug. 18, offered a scathing 140-page treatise that, compiled well before the Taliban takeover, appeared to predict the Afghan military’s capitulation.
The report cited telltale signs over the 10-year U.S. drawdown that the Afghan government could not sustain progress made nor provide for its own security and criticized the $145 billion reconstruction effort for harboring unrealistic goals and timelines.
“If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture is bleak,” the report’s conclusion reads.
The reason, the report stated, was a failure of clear strategy. And once the drawdown began, it became clear “how dependent and vulnerable the Afghan government remains.”
It noted that the Taliban controlled more territory in 2020 and 2021 and that security had progressively worsened, despite $83 billion spent to build the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. The report concluded the absence of a clear strategy was to blame.
“At various points, the U.S. government hoped to eliminate al-Qaeda, decimate the Taliban movement that hosted it, deny all terrorist groups a safe haven in Afghanistan, build Afghan security forces so they could deny terrorists a safe haven in the future, and help the civilian government become legitimate and capable enough to win the trust of Afghans,” the report reads. “Each goal, once accomplished, was thought to move the U.S. government one step closer to being able to depart.”
Instead, after a decade of escalating operations, the U.S. reversed course, gradually decreasing its footprint and spending, starting around 2011. That drawdown revealed “how dependent and vulnerable the Afghan government” really was.
“There [was] a fundamental gap of understanding on the front end, overstated objectives, an overreliance on the military, and a lack of understanding of the resources necessary,” said Douglas Lute, who coordinated Afghanistan strategy at the National Security Council from 2007 to 2013, according to the SIGAR report.
Yet Milley insisted Aug. 18 that none of the intelligence he and other military leaders had reviewed “indicated a collapse of this army and government in 11 days.” Military commanders and the president expected the Afghan military to put up more of a fight.
That probably should have been more clear. As early as 2014, the report said, “The drawdown laid bare just how hollow the alleged progress had been. Contested territory that had been cleared by U.S. forces was hastily ‘transitioned’ to Afghan officials who were not ready, allowing the Taliban to seize districts as U.S. forces vacated them.”
That pattern will be reminiscent to many of similar problems in Vietnam, until now America’s longest war. Writing in response to a query from Air Force Magazine, former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper, who took that job days before 9/11 and retired in 2005, described that parallel poignantly: “For those of a certain age, the images of chaos in Afghanistan conjure up dark emotions of Vietnam in 1975—a tactical surprise born of strategic failure at the cost of American credibility.”
Over the past 20 years, he said, “men and women in uniform accomplished their assigned combat mission against al-Qaeda, but struggled to absorb the mission creep of nation building that followed.”
But Jumper sees both parallels and opportunities ahead. “The lessons of Vietnam prompted the transformation of our military services, and a wake-up call for the Air Force,” he said. “Since Vietnam we have embraced the values of stealth, standoff, and precision; become better partners in the Joint battlespace; and leveraged burgeoning digital power to enable near real-time command and control.”
Now, he continued, “the lessons of Afghanistan, the return of peer adversaries, the prospects of an operationalized Space Force and rapidly advancing cyber weapons, demand a new reckoning and thoughtful reflection about the expanding scope of threats that blur distinctions between the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of joint combat.”
The Air Force’s New Deployment Model
By Brian W. Everstine
The Air Force is overhauling its force generation and deployment model with the goal of standardizing a schedule that both Airmen and combatant commands can understand while also providing enough down time for rest and training.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., in an exclusive interview with Air Force Magazine, outlined the new Air Force Force Generation (AFFORGEN) model, which he said will be “better aligned with how we present Airmen and air power to support the joint operations, while at the same time, it actually preserves some of that readiness, not only for today, but for the future.”
The Air Force can’t just ‘flip the switch’ and go ‘OK, … so we’re starting today.’Gen. Charles Brown Jr., USAF Chief of Staff
The model is broken down into four “bins,” each lasting six months. These include:
1. “Available to Commit.” This is when a unit is deployed, or ready to go at a moment’s notice for things such as short-notice task force or dynamic force employment deployments. “Commit is our traditional, you’re deployed, or you’re on the bubble, you’re ready to go,” Brown said.
2. “Reset.” After the six-month deployment or standing-by for operations, these Airmen will have six months to come home and take a breath. “Reconnect to your family, but also look at your basic skill sets you need … It’s a chance for you to reset,” Brown said.
3. “Prepare.” After six months of rest and a focus on the basics, Airmen will then rotate into a six-month phase in which they prepare for a possible future deployment. “Now you start to up your level of training and expanding beyond just your unit and start to work with others,” Brown said.
4. “Ready.” After preparing, the next six-month phase will have Airmen in a “ready” phase in which the focus is on high-end, more intense, multi-unit training. This includes things like certification exercises with multiple wings, capstone exercises such as Red Flag, or the USAF Weapons School. The final bin is the time to ensure Airmen are at peak readiness and are ready to move back to the deployment, or “Commit,” phase.
While the goal is to have AFFORGEN reach IOC in fiscal 2023, some units are already starting to move toward it. Brown said the Air Force can’t just “flip the switch and go, ‘OK, … so we’re starting today.’”
“The thing that this is going to help us out with is, our United States Air Force is very popular,” Brown said. “And so we get … pulled into a lot of things, but I want to be able to use this to have a little bit of discipline about how we do things, how we communicate to the joint force, so we can preserve readiness.”
Under previous force generation models, such as the Air Expeditionary Force, the Air Force was often stretched thin, with high demand, low dwell time, and low corresponding readiness.
“We would actually rip ourselves apart to satisfy all the requirements,” Brown said. “And what we found is each of the [major commands], depending if you are fighter vs. bomber vs. ISR vs. mobility—we’re all doing things just a little bit differently.”
The Air Force needs to standardize its force generation model across the major commands, Brown said.
“Part of our discussion with the Majcom commanders … was, ‘We’ve got to have a standard model that we all use, that we can talk about, and be on the same page, particularly as we talk to the Joint Staff,’” Brown noted.
As the Air Force moves toward Agile Combat Employment and begins operating from different locations without the same established presence that Airmen are used to, the deployment model of a fighter unit needs to align with that of combat support units to better enable those operations, according to Brown.
“Think about it: For the past 30 years, we’ve been going to the same bases, and things are already established,” he said. “Well, we’ve got to look at these things differently now. This is why Agile Combat Employment comes into this factor as well, because you’re going to go someplace that may not already have everything set up. It’s going to be fairly austere. You’ve got to have that capability to be able do this and to align the aviation package with the agile combat support.”
Maintainer Error Made F-22 Crash
By Brian W. Everstine
A maintenance error, committed after an F-22 was washed, affected its control inputs and caused the Raptor to crash May 15, 2020, at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The pilot safely ejected, but the aircraft was totaled, with an estimated loss of $201 million, according to Air Combat Command.
ACC released limited information on the crash despite the significant loss to the Air Force’s fifth-generation fighter fleet, because unlike most major mishaps, the command did not conduct a publicly releasable investigation.
In a statement, ACC said that “due to operational concerns,” it directed a Safety Investigation Board and a Commander Directed Investigation into the crash and did not complete an Accident Investigation Board report. The AIBs typically detail the circumstances concerning a crash, as well as the AIB president’s determination of the cause.
The other two types of investigations are not released, so the limited information in a press release is the extent to which ACC is telling the public about what happened to the F-22. The Northwest Florida Daily News was the first to report on the cause of the crash.
Air Force Instruction 51-307 governs the Air Force’s aerospace and ground accident investigations. It requires the publicly releasable AIB for on-duty Class A mishaps—defined as incidents that cause a loss of life or more than $2.5 million in damage. But there’s an exception.
“This requirement may be waived by competent authority,” an ACC spokesperson said in a statement to Air Force Magazine. “In the case of the May 15 incident, the convening authority, ACC’s deputy commander, was the waiver authority for this provision. With the concurrence of Air Force Judge Advocate, who was the AFI approval authority, ACC’s deputy commander waived the requirement for an AIB.”
ACC said the Safety Investigation Board and the Commander Directed Investigation were “conducted to determine the cause of the accident and to prevent future mishaps.”
The full description of the crash is: “Upon takeoff, the pilot noticed a Flight Control System advisory and elected to continue with takeoff. Shortly after the aircraft became airborne, the pilot began having trouble controlling the aircraft and declared an emergency. While a recovery plan was being coordinated, the pilot continued to have issues with the aircraft and ejected.”
The pilot, who was assigned to the 43rd Fighter Squadron, 325th Fighter Wing, sustained minor injuries in the ejection. The incident was one of two involving fifth-generation fighters at the base. Less than a week later, on May 19, 2020, an F-35 crashed at Eglin. An AIB into that mishap found that excessive landing speed, exacerbated by issues with the pilot’s helmet-mounted display, caused the crash.
Hypersonic Missiles Suffer Another Failed Test
By John A. Tirpak
Getting the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) hypersonic missile into production before the end of fiscal 2022 depends on quick resolution of the most recent failure of the missile to make its first flight, the Air Force’s program executive officer for weapons said.
A failure review began immediately after the July 28 attempted test off the coast of California in which the rocket motor did not fire after separation from a B-52 test aircraft, said USAF weapons Program Executive Officer Brig. Gen. Heath A. Collins in early August.
Collins could not yet say why the missile failed, but the review will determine if the failure will affect the desired “early 2020s” initial operating capability. With a “quick and rapid resolution,” the transition to production can still likely happen by this time next year, but that requires at least two all-up successful tests of the weapon, he said. If the investigation is “prolonged, … or drives anything excessive from a redesign perspective, which we don’t know at this point, … it may impact our ability to meet the next test window,” Collins said.
For now, “we are still postured … to transition to award and production by the end of fiscal year 2022.” Lockheed Martin is the contractor for ARRW, and the company recently submitted its production proposals for the missile. The Air Force asked for $161 million in its fiscal 2022 budget submission to build 12 ARRW missiles.
Collins said Lockheed Martin’s $225 million loss on a classified program, reported in its second-quarter results, was not related to ARRW. Meanwhile Kenneth Possenriede, Lockheed Martin’s chief financial officer, unexpectedly resigned his post in August without giving a reason. Stock analysts speculated that it had to do with the write-down.
ARRW has experienced several test failures already. Collins said the cause of an April failure is understood, that a fix was made, and the problem did not occur again in the July test. “The corrective action was sufficient and working,” Collins said. An Air Force press release noted that although the missile’s motor didn’t fire, the test demonstrated a successful release from the launch aircraft. It unfolded its fins and established navigational links. The test missile was not recovered.
Asked how many tries Lockheed Martin gets before the program is reconsidered, Collins said ARRW is the only boost-glide hypersonic missile the Air Force has on contract and the program is constantly being “evaluated” for success.
“We also knew at the beginning this was a rapid-prototyping, … risky program,” Collins said. If not for congressional authorities to use streamlined program management and skip traditional methods, “we would not be where we are today.” The “mid-tier acquisition” approach was the right one for ARRW because it is appropriate for rapid prototyping and “new technology,” he added. The Air Force will work through the root-cause investigation and get back to flight-testing as soon as possible.
If ARRW proves unworkable, Collins said, “We certainly could go back to HCSW,” the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon the Air Force curtailed in February 2020. The HCSW had been through its critical design review at the time the Air Force stopped the project, which had some common elements with Army and Navy hypersonic programs.
But, “You’d have to trade that with the amount of cost and schedule” it would take to get HCSW back up and producing hardware, he said.
Collins, who is also director of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Armaments Directorate, said the directorate is “tracking” language from House appropriators that would cut $44 million from the program line that funds ARRW and the unrelated Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile—an air-breathing, as opposed to a boost-glide system—and said that if the change becomes law, “that would impact” a contract award because lowering the quantity purchased would raise cost per unit. The language raised concerns that the Air Force would enter production before the missile’s bugs have all been worked out. The directorate is working to increase transparency in the hypersonic programs, he said, and will split up ARRW and HACM funding lines in the future.
Kelly: Downed Airmen Will Have Few Rescue Options in the Pacific
By John A. Tirpak
The combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) mission will be extremely challenging in a fight against a peer adversary, and the focus may have to shift to downed Airmen finding their own way to safety, Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mark D. Kelly said Aug. 3.
The future of CSAR is “a tough, tough equation,” Kelly said. The mission may have to change given the long distances and enormous expanses of water in the Indo-Pacific theater and the “speed, the vulnerability, and the range of our current rescue platforms.”
Air Combat Command is “looking at it from the lens of … how much can the isolated personnel get themselves out or get themselves to a place where they can be recovered, as much as how the recovery force is going to get to them.”
He noted that if a pilot needed a stealthy F-35 to get to a well-protected location, “it’s going to be tough to get in that same chunk of airspace with the [rescue] equipment we have.” The challenge is to come up with “avenues and means for the isolated personnel to help themselves, if at all possible, to get to a more opportune location” for recovery.
Many rescue operations have been spearheaded by an A-10 flying top cover for the recovery and managing the movement of CSAR assets into and out of the rescue area. The A-10 was “great” at this in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Kelly said many lives were saved because an A-10 “took charge overhead.”
But he also said the Air Force’s planned inventory of A-10s is “more than enough” to meet its close air support and other needs and that the seven squadrons the service will retain into the early 2030s is not the way to build the Air Force of the future. Lacking stealth, the A-10 can’t get into those areas where a fifth-generation jet such as the F-35 can go.
“The fact of the matter is, as we sit here today, I have exactly zero A-10s in the Middle East, for a couple of reasons. One, the distance is too far to go from our Middle East basing to places like Afghanistan, over the horizon. Two, the threat in and around Syria—the Russians’ air defense systems—[is] too great to operate in, so we essentially had to bring them home.”
Given the considerations of distance and threat, and applying them “to places like the Asia-Pacific, the distances just become greater and the threat becomes infinitely greater,” Kelly said, indicating the A-10’s ability to help with CSAR in that region will continue to diminish. While he respects the “phenomenal performance” of the A-10, there’s an “ever-decreasing of the niche areas where it can operate, day in and day out.”
The Air Force will put new wings and avionics on 218 A-10s, which Kelly noted is 34 more than the F-22s in inventory, but of them, he emphasized, “I have zero engaged.”
For Korea, where one A-10 squadron is available to defend the demilitarized zone, seven squadrons is not only “more than enough,” it’s “more than the South Korean Peninsula can hold,” in terms of locations to base the jets.
Kelly said China is “our pacing threat. If we’re going to keep pace with what they’re doing, … you’re not going to do it by refurbishing a fleet of 40-year-old, single-mission, 210-knot airplanes. You’re just not, regardless of how much they’re loved and the great performance they’ve done.”
Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. told an audience at the National Press Club in early August that China could overcome U.S. air superiority by 2035, noting how change has largely stalled in the U.S. Air Force, while China has spent the last several decades modernizing its force.
Brown said when he was commissioned in 1984, the United States was developing a new fighter jet ever two and a half years. But only four fighters have been developed since.
The Air Force is the oldest and smallest it’s ever been, yet Brown acknowledged it might have to get even smaller to afford the new technologies that will enable it to compete against peer adversaries like China.
“I’d rather have a smaller capable force than a larger, hollow force,” he said. “The United States Air Force has some tough decisions as we go forward to make sure we have the capabilities that will be competitive against the threat.”
Senior Editor Abraham Mahshie contributed to this report.
Senate Confirms 12 Generals For New Roles
The Senate on July 29 confirmed new bosses for Air Force Global Strike Command and Air Mobility Command along with five other general officer roles in the Air and Space Forces.
Lt. Gen. Anthony J. Cotton will receive his fourth star and replace Gen. Timothy M. Ray as the head of Air Force Global Strike Command. The official swearing-in ceremony is slated for late August. Cotton, a missileer by training, previously served as Ray’s deputy. He’s commanded the 20th Air Force, the 45th Space Wing, and the 341st Missile Wing. He also served as commander and president of Air University from 2018 to 2019. Ray, who has led the command since August 2018, was ceremoniously retired in July after 36 years in uniform.
Lt. Gen. Mike Minihan also will receive his fourth star to lead Air Mobility Command. He replaces Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, who has been nominated to lead U.S. Transportation Command. Minihan is a command pilot with more than 3,400 flying hours in the C-130, KC-10, and C-32.
Other confirmations include:
- Lt. Gen. Kevin B. Schneider to serve as the Air Force’s director of staff.
- Maj. Gen. Tom D. Miller to receive his third star and to lead the Air Force Sustainment Center in Air Force Materiel Command.
- Maj. Gen. James A. Jacobson to receive his third star and to serve as the deputy commander of Pacific Air Forces.
- Maj. Gen. Mark E. Weatherington to receive his third star and to replace Cotton as deputy commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.
- Space Force Maj. Gen. Michael A. Guetlein will receive his third star and become the first commander of Space Systems Command when it stands up.
The Senate on Aug. 11 confirmed a new leader for U.S. Southern Command and a new undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. The pace of confirmations ticked up with the approach of Congress’ August recess.
- The Senate confirmed Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, commander of United States Army North, to receive her fourth star and to lead SOUTHCOM. President Joe Biden nominated Richardson for the job in March while also nominating USAF Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, current Air Mobility Command boss, to lead U.S. Transportation Command. That nomination is still pending without a confirmation hearing date set.
The Senate also made additional confirmations, including:
- Mara E. Karlin to serve as assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities.
- USAF Maj. Gen. Ricky N. Rupp to receive his third star and to command U.S. Forces Japan and Fifth Air Force.
- USAF Maj. Gen. Russell L. Mack to receive his third star and to serve as deputy commander of Air Combat Command.
- Carlos Del Toro to be the next Secretary of the Navy.
USAF: There is No MQ-Next, Yet
By Brian W. Everstine
The Air Force is starting to field some enhanced capabilities for the MQ-9 Reaper fleet that will better prepare it to operate in more denied environments while also moving away from the idea of an “MQ-Next” direct follow-on for the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA).
While the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center has released two requests for information (RFI) looking at future RPA capabilities, those requests were just “market research,” not the beginning of an MQ-9 replacement, said Col. William S. Rogers, the program executive officer for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and special operations forces, on Aug. 3. One RFI looked at what type of multirole RPA members of private industry could produce, and the other looked at airborne sensing and high-value asset protection.
“We’re really providing information at this point, up to Air Force futures and the Air Staff, [to help] them try to decide how that future medium-altitude UAS capability could fit into the overall force design for the Air Force,” Rogers said. “So, at this point, short answer is there’s no direct replacement termed MQ-Next.”
In the meantime, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) has laid out its timeline for an overall suite of updates for the MQ-9, called the “MQ-9 multi-domain operations,” or M2DO configuration, which includes improved communications, increased power, autonomous takeoff and landing, and eventually increased use of artificial intelligence to make the Reaper more relevant in a high-end fight.
“The M2DO configuration is really envisioned to mature the MQ-9 and really keep its relevancy through the planned divestiture of the MQ-9 later in the 2030, 2035 time frame,” said Col. Mike Jiru, the senior materiel leader for the Medium Altitude UAS Division at AFLCMC. “As we’re experiencing right now, the MQ-9 conducts both a counter [violent extremist organization] mission and then looks at missions in what we’ll call the ‘gray zone.’”
This includes operations conducted by the recently stood up 25th Attack Group now operating out of Romania. These missions, in more contested environments with Russia nearby, are “obviously very different than the original design criteria of the MQ-9, which was air dominance wherever it flew. So, given that, there’s recognition that we have to do something to ensure that the MQ-9 remains relevant. It’s never going to be a penetrating ISR asset that’s going to go into China or anything like that,” Jiru said.
First, M2DO is focused on improving the MQ-9’s ability to communicate, like bringing on the Link 16 data link and improving its command and control “resiliency” through the use of different waveforms and an improved modem, both within the aircraft and with the ground systems. Additionally, AFLCMC is looking to bring on open mission systems, including the Stellar Relay computer system, as the first internet protocol “backbone” for the aircraft, with interfaces at each pylon “enabling a really plug-on-and-play sort of aspect,” Jiru said.
The Air Force is also looking to double the amount of power the MQ-9 can distribute. Future upgrades will include “an enhanced suite of mission capabilities” with the ability for high-power computing, opening “up the ability of the MQ-9 to be a host for significantly advanced artificial intelligence algorithms and autonomy algorithms,” he said
AFLCMC is working with the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center to support its development of a “smart sensor,” with demonstration expected in exercises over the next year that will serve as “both a cornerstone for the department’s development of a suite of autonomy algorithms, but then also looking at how does an MQ-9 as a surrogate vehicle help inform the future development of AI and the integration of that AI into the overall fight,” Jiru said.
The Air Force is already bringing on anti-jamming GPS capability, with retrofits underway.
“So that suite of M2DO configurations really is what the Air Force is depending upon to ensure that the MQ-9 remains relevant in its expanding role through the 2030-35 time frame,” Jiru said.
The Air Force is planning on installing the M2DO configuration on 71 aircraft, but that is a “dial” that will be adjusted depending on budget constraints, he said.
Below is a schedule for upcoming MQ-9 enhancements:
Anti-jam GPS: Fielding underway.
Enhanced power: Fielding to begin in the first quarter of fiscal 2023.
Command and control elements: 2023.
Link 16: The first quarter of 2024.
Stellar Relay: The third quarter of 2024.
Automatic takeoff and landing for the MQ-9 fleet is also in a continuous development effort over the next several years, Jiru said.
AFRL Seeks Microwave Weapon to Counter Drones
By John A. Tirpak
The Air Force Research Laboratory is looking for contractors to develop a fieldable, high-powered microwave system that can protect air bases by disabling or destroying hostile drones, according to a solicitation published July 28. The program will launch this fall, and AFRL wants a prototype system in 2023.
The program is called “Mjölnir,” the name of the hammer wielded by the Norse god Thor. It will build on the success of an existing experimental version, the Tactical High-power Operational Responder (THOR), and AFRL wanted a related name for the next version, according to an AFRL press release.
The THOR demonstrator “uses bursts of intense radio waves to disable small unmanned aircraft systems [sUAS] instantly,” according to AFRL. An AFRL video posted on YouTube shows the THOR sweeping microwaves against a UAS swarms, causing them to explode or fall out of the sky instantly, but at relatively close ranges to their intended targets.
After a two-year experimental campaign, the AFRL team “has learned a lot about the benefits of the technology and how it can be improved,” said Amber Anderson, THOR program manager. The Mjölnir will be the follow-on system using the same technology, with improved capability, reliability, and “manufacturing readiness,” AFRL said.
The goal is a deployable system that can be “economically produced in large numbers,” THOR deputy program manager Adrian Lucero said, and to “grow a fledgling industry that will become critically important as the U.S. strives to maintain our electromagnetic spectrum superiority,” he said.
The announcement comes a week after AFRL published a paper on potential future directed-energy systems called “Directed Energy Futures 2060.” The paper said the Air Force is looking for systems that can destroy swaths of UASs at once, rather than individually pointing directed-energy systems at them and destroying them one at a time.
AFRL is partnered with the Joint Counter-UAS Office and the Army’s Rapid Capability and Critical Technologies Office on the project, which is being managed out of Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., by AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate, High Power Electromagnetics Division.
The solicitation specifies that AFRL wants “a single, near-production representative, cost-effective counter-unmanned aerial system (cUAS) that is suited to operational environments and performs at levels equal to or greater than” the THOR prototype. The program will capitalize on the earlier work and “enable future transition to a program of record.” A cost-plus, fixed-fee award is anticipated. AFRL estimates it will spend $14 million on the program in fiscal 2022 and $6 million in 2023, for a total of $20 million. Although one award is anticipated, more may be made.
Responses to the solicitation are due Sept. 13.
KC-46 Cleared For More Refueling Missions
By Brian W. Everstine
Air Mobility Command on Aug. 6 announced it is freeing up the KC-46 for more operations, allowing the tanker to refuel C-17s, B-52s, and other KC-46s in some circumstances.
It is the second “interim capability release” for the troubled tanker, which AMC cleared last month to refuel aircraft with its centerline drogue. In February, AMC said allowing KC-46s to pick up some of the tanker load in non-combat taskings can free up legacy KC-135s and KC-10s.
AMC boss Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, in announcing the plan in February, said, “under this new approach, if AMC is tasked to provide [aerial refueling] support for an operational coronet mission to move F-18s overseas or an operational B-52 mission, the KC-46 is on the table, which frees up KC-135s and KC-10s to execute other combatant command deployments that the KC-46A is presently unable to support.”
As of July, KC-46s have flown more than 5,000 sorties, with 2,700 of those this year. The command reviewed the tanker’s operational criteria in recent months and determined it was ready for more taskings from U.S. Transportation Command, said Brig. Gen. Ryan R. Samuelson, AMC’s deputy director of strategy, plans, requirements, and programs and the KC-46 cross-functional team lead, in a release.
“Though a fully-mission capable aircraft is a few years away, releasing capability our KC-46 bases have demonstrated they can safely and effectively support and employ is a large part of how AMC is accelerating the KC-46 on the path to becoming fully operational and combat-ready,” Samuelson said.
There’s no timeline for the next announcement, according to AMC. The capability releases come as the command and other leaders determine the tanker can conduct more operations, based on the abilities of the crews and data from recent operations.
Since October 2020, KC-46s have conducted more than 4,700 refueling contacts with C-17s, B-52s, and other KC-46s, according to AMC.
The command, in announcing the ICR plan, said it aimed to pick up the refueling load in taskings for training, exercises, and some “coronet” deployments—carrying fighters or other aircraft on their deployments outside of the U.S. The KC-46s will not deploy for combat operations until fully operational.
There are still several Category 1 deficiencies on the tanker, defined as those that may impact the safety of flight. The most notable ones are with the tanker’s troubled Remote Vision System, which is being overhauled with a 2.0 version expected to become operational in 2023, and with the tanker’s “stiff” refueling boom, which is blocking it from refueling A-10s.
The Air Force in June announced two more Category 1 deficiencies, which are being fixed at Boeing’s expense. These center on instability with the aircraft’s Flight Management System software and its receptacle drain tubes. Boeing has a design fix in place and is “working through the process to get that finalized and then get it through the system,” said Paul Waugh, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s executive officer for mobility and training aircraft, during an Aug. 3 virtual event. “I think those two latest fixes … are well on track to be in resolve.”
Superintendents Get Retitled as Senior Enlisted Leaders
By Greg Hadley
The Air Force is changing how it refers to the top enlisted Airmen in detachments, squadrons, and groups.
Starting Oct. 1, superintendents will instead be referred to as senior enlisted leaders, or SELs, according to a memo from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Joanne S. Bass.
The memo, dated Aug. 4, which was posted to the unofficial Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page and confirmed by Air Force Magazine, states that the change “better synchronizes us with joint force doctrine, practices, and culture.” The Navy and Army both use the title.
“Today’s modern threats call for a new level of teaming and partnerships to defend the security of our nation,” the memo added. “To support this mission imperative, it is important that our duty titles reflect the key leadership roles many of our senior noncommissioned officers serve in.”
Superintendent as a title has usually been given in the Air Force to a chief master sergeant or a senior master sergeant who serves as the top enlisted leader in a division or unit. There are more than 770 group superintendents in the service.
There will be no change in pay as a result of the title change, and no enlisted evaluations closed out prior to Oct. 1 will need to be modified, the memo added.
“We intentionally chose to avoid waiting to make this decision,” Brown and Bass wrote in the memo. “As a service, we will keep accelerating positive change, when and where it’s needed, to align us toward our Air Force goals and priorities.”
Here’s USAF’s Newest X-Plane
By Brian W. Everstine
There’s a new X-plane in the Air Force’s fleet.
The Air Force Test Pilot School in June redesignated the NF-16D Variable In-flight Simulator Aircraft as the X-62A, allowing the aircraft to be used for testing the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Skyborg program.
The aircraft, originally a Block 30 F-16, has been heavily modified and upgraded since its first flight in 1992 to give pilots a way to simulate different flying conditions as well as the characteristics of other aircraft, according to a USAF release.
“For more than two decades VISTA has been a vital asset for the USAF TPS [Test Pilot School] and the embodiment of our goal to be part of the cutting edge of flight-test and aerospace technology,” said William Gray, VISTA and TPS chief test pilot, in the release. “It has given almost a thousand students and staff members the opportunity to practice testing aircraft with dangerously poor flying qualities, and to execute risk-reduction flight-test programs for advanced technologies.”
The Air Force is now replacing the aircraft’s VISTA Simulation System with the System for Autonomous Control of Simulation, the release states.
“The redesignation reflects the research done on the aircraft over the past almost 30 years, as well as acknowledges the major upgrade program that is ongoing to support future USAF autonomy testing,” said Chris Cotting, USAF TPS director of research.
AFRL’s Skyborg is a suite of hardware and software aimed at developing the Air Force’s use of teaming manned and unmanned aircraft, also known as a “loyal wingman.” The system made its first flight on a Kratos UTAP-22 Mako air vehicle in April. In December 2020, the Air Force awarded Kratos, Boeing, and General Atomics contracts to continue with the effort.
Skyborg is one of four Air Force “Vanguard” programs—top research projects that USAF believes will be unique and useful. Others include the Golden Horde weapons swarm, Navigation Technology Satellite-3, and the “rocket cargo” space mobility effort.
The famed “X” designation is for aircraft that are designed for “testing configurations of a radical nature,” Edwards said in the release. The X-62 is now part of an exclusive club that has helped shape cutting-edge aeronautical research for decades, including the Bell X-1, which was the first airplane to break the sound barrier, and the hypersonic X-15. Other more recent examples include the X-37 space plane, the hypersonic X-51 Waverider, and the second-most-recent X-61 Gremlins.
New PT Gear, Updated Uniforms
By Greg Hadley
Dozens of changes are coming to the Air Force’s dress and appearance standards as the service prepares to implement initiatives recommended by the 2020 Air Force Uniform Board.
The changes will become official when Air Force Instruction 36-2903 is republished in early October 2021, but on Aug. 10, USAF released images of some of the new uniforms that will be rolled out over the coming 15 months and previewed some of the appearance changes.
We remain committed to maintaining an iterative approach with our dress and appearance standards.Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services
On the appearance front, hosiery will now be optional for women in all variations of the dress uniform and hair accessories, previously limited to 1 inch, can be up to 2. The Air Force recently made several changes to its regulations on women’s hair grooming.
Men will now be allowed to grow their hair to a bulk of 2.5 inches from the scalp, up from the previous 2 inches and double what was allowed up until September 2020. Men will also be allowed cosmetic tattoos on their scalp, but no change was announced to the service’s beard policy, which has been a point of contention for some Airmen who wish to grow out facial hair.
However, wing commanders now will be allowed to authorize the wearing of approved morale patches on Fridays and special occasions.
“We remain committed to maintaining an iterative approach with our dress and appearance standards,” Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, said in a statement. “During this most recent review we approved several updates fully aligned with our Air Force standards and culture that maintain our focus on warfighting while providing options to meet many of the needs of our Airmen.”
The biggest uniform changes are coming to the Air Force’s PT gear. On March 2, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center revealed the updated design for the athletic wear, the first PT uniform update in nearly two decades. On Aug. 10, the service announced that the new gear is expected to be available in October 2022, with a four-year transition period following.
Tweaks to the service uniforms were also announced. Shirts and blouses will be made with a material that is stain- and wrinkle-resistant and also moisture wicking.
For men, the shirt body will be lengthened and tapered and have a redesigned armhole and shoulder.
Men’s trousers will have redesigned pockets, and women’s trousers will have a lower waistband and be straight cut, as opposed to a tapered fit. The front darts will also be removed to create a flat front shirt, the tuck-in style blouse and the new maternity blouse are all expected to be available in October 2021. The updated semi-formfitting blouse will follow in January 2022, followed by the updated trousers and slacks in May 2022.
In August 2022, women will be able to buy dress mess slacks, two years after the Air Force announced it would no longer require floor-length skirts. Since then, women who have wanted to wear pants have had to buy men’s mess dress trousers and have them altered.
The Space Force will continue to follow Air Force guidance until the service develops its own grooming and uniform policies, expected to be released in late 2021.