Oklahoma Air Guardsman Killed in Camp Taji Attack
By Brian W. Everstine
USAF Staff Sgt. Marshal Roberts, 28, a member of the Oklahoma Air National Guard, as well as a U.S. Army Soldier and a British medic were killed, and at least 18 others were wounded in an attack U.S. officials attributed to the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia. The group fired 30 rockets, with 12 striking targets at Camp Taji near Baghdad.
Roberts, of Owasso, Okla., enlisted in 2014 and was assigned to the 219th Engineering Installation Squadron of the Oklahoma ANG’s 138th Fighter Wing. Also killed was U.S. Army Spc. Juan Miguel Mendez Covarrubias, 27, of Hanford, Calif., who was assigned to 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas; and United Kingdom military medic Lance Cpl. Brodie Gillon, 26.
U.S. fighter aircraft launched retaliatory airstrikes the following night, destroying five weapons storage facilities linked to the militia around Baghdad, said U.S. Central Command boss Gen. Kenneth McKenzie. McKenzie would not identify the type of aircraft or weapons used, but said the strikes were “designed to send a clear, unambiguous signal that we will not tolerate this behavior in the future,” McKenzie said March 13. Two days later, three more service members were injured—two seriously—in a second attack on the base, DOD announced.
“The threat remains very high. I think the tensions have not gone down,” McKenzie said. In a sign of increased U.S. military presence, two aircraft carriers began operating simultaneously in the CENTCOM area for the first time since 2012, McKenzie said.
To bolster base defenses, the U.S. Army deployed Patriot missile defense systems and an associated Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) system to al-Asad Air Base in Iraq, which Iran attacked with missiles in January.
A C-RAM system could have helped defend Camp Taji against the 107 mm rockets used in the attack, but with a limited number of the systems available, that was not possible. Patriot, by contrast, is intended to protect against ballistic missiles, like those used in the state-sponsored Iranian attack on al-Asad Air Base in January.
U.S. forces were able to use radar and other electronic systems to locate the source of the March 11 attack, and Iraqi Security Forces recovered the truck that was used to launch the rockets. Analysis showed that the group intended to fire 33 rockets, with 30 actually firing and about 12 impacting the base. “That’s a large strike, that’s an intent to produce a lot of casualties, and we’re certain of that,” he said.
Combat Controller Dies During Training Swim
By Brian W. Everstine
A special tactics combat controller from the 24th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla., died March 19 during a training swim in Panama City.
The Airman has been identified as Airman 1st Class Keigan Baker, 24, of Longview, Wash. Baker enlisted in the Air Force in 2018 and was in training as a Special Tactics combat controller apprentice.
“Keigan’s loss is felt across the entire training wing, where the safety of our trainees is our top priority,” Col. Parks Hughes, commander of the Special Warfare Training Wing, said in a release.
Baker was taking part in an Air Force Combat Dive Course at Naval Support Activity Panama City when he went missing at about 11:05 a.m. Multiple search and rescue agencies, including the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center, U.S. Coast Guard Station Panama City, and the Bay County Sheriff’s Office searched the area.
He was found unresponsive at around 4:30 p.m., according to a Hurlburt release. The Air Force is investigating the incident, and no additional details are available.
This is the third fatal training incident involving the wing in the past six months. On Nov. 5, Staff Sergeant Cole Condiff, a combat controller with the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, died after falling from a C-130 during parachute training in the Gulf of Mexico near Hurlburt. In November 2019, Tech Sgt. Peter Kraines, a pararescueman with the 24th SOW, died from injuries sustained while performing mountain rescue techniques in Boise, Idaho.
The Air Force briefly paused parachute, mountaineering, and dive training following those deaths, so Air Force Special Operations Command could review its regulations, as well as equipment and procedures used during training.
What’s Holding Up Space Force Legislation in Congress?
By Rachel S. Cohen
It’s taking longer than expected to finalize legislative language building out the Space Force in the 2021 defense policy bill, indicating points of difference across the government.
The amendments are being crafted under the authority of the Department of the Air Force, which encompasses the Space Force, and will seek to apply existing law to the new Space Force and to address issues ranging from acquisition to personnel and organization.
Amendments will define details on how service members transfer into the Space Force, how civilian employees are managed, and what legal changes are required to build a better space acquisition enterprise. “Those proposals are going to [say] … ‘If you really want us to do this, here are the things we think we need,’” said Lt. Gen. David Thompson, the service’s vice commander, in February. “It’ll be an interesting discussion, just to see how far and how willing folks are to … do what we believe they’ve asked us to do: Create a lean and agile and responsive 21st-century force.”
The Pentagon must first make sure everyone from Space Force and Air Force leadership to top-level Pentagon officials are on the same page, then sell the package on Capitol Hill with “challenging and aggressive” proposed provisions. “You can imagine there are a couple of places that make some people nervous,” Thompson said. “There’s a couple of personnel things we’re talking about, there’s … acquisition and budgeting, and other things.”
Shawn Barnes, acting assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, said he hasn’t gotten pushback on any particular provisions, but debate is inevitable.
Officials are also working on an acquisition organizational plan mandated by the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. OSD’s report will largely focus on describing the internal reforms made to speed up acquisition, such as implementation of fast-track contracting and prototyping authorities. A separate Air Force acquisition report will look at similar work to make procurement more flexible as well as lay out ways that Congress could further improve the process, Barnes said.
Tory Bruno, chief executive officer of United Launch Alliance, said several of the acquisition ideas under consideration will be “very, very effective if they are allowed to do them.” He urged DOD to go ahead and try new ways of doing business if they know there won’t be catastrophic consequences and refine them along the way.
“It depends on how forward-leaning the Hill will be,” Bruno said. “Everyone wants [the Space Force] to succeed and I think everybody has gotten to the same place that, boy, this is a big challenge. … We really, really, really need these guys to be able to go faster.”
Pilot Training Next Integrated in Experimental Curriculum
By Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory
The Air Force is integrating lessons learned from its Pilot Training Next initiative into its regular pilot-training syllabus as part of an experimental curriculum that will begin testing this summer.
The new syllabus will reduce reliance on the T-1Jayhawk trainer and aim to determine whether or not Pilot Training Next can scale, said 19th AF Commander Maj. Gen. Craig Wills.
“Our plan for force development is that the Air Force training adapts to the skills that the Airmen bring to the fight, not make everybody adapt to the training program we have,” Wills said. For example, Wills said, current practice meant the Air Force recently required one new Airman who had worked as a civilian T-6 test pilot to complete a full course on how to operate the very same aircraft.
“As we move forward, what we’d really like to have is a system where we have the ability to assess what skills and talents you have and then make the training program more focused on how do we make you better?” Wills explained. “In some ways, if you’re not careful, the way we do it now, we have a tendency to drag everybody to the same baseline.”
Pilot Training Next makes use of immersive training devices to increase familiarity with many pilot skills. “They’re basically little simulators that we build from off-the-shelf parts, and the cost of the units is somewhere around, you know, $8,000-$10,000, compared to a $26 million regular simulator,” Wills said.
The most recent Pilot Training Next cohort, which began training in January, shortened the time needed for many trainees to be ready to fly solo. Typically that takes 10 to 15 flights, but among this group, two students soloed after just four sorties in the airplane.
“The difference is that they had … about 15 sorties in these immersive training devices,” Wills said. He sees two potential opportunities coming from these successes: Teaching Airmen the same lessons in less time or covering more skills and tasks in the same time frame to gain a much higher-quality pilot.”
AETC Commander Lt. Gen. Brad Webb told Air Force Magazine this kind of student-centered training is changing the face of USAF training for Airmen across the Total Force.
Wills said the curriculum to be tested this summer will include four cohorts of 11-15 participants at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, with the first one kicking off in July and starting about every “two and a half months.” The length of each Airman’s training will hinge on what kinds of airframes they’re slated to fly.
“If they go to the mobility forces, for example, we think it’s gonna be around nine months,” Wills said. “We’re still developing the fighter side of that syllabus, but we think that’ll be a little bit closer to the traditional … 12-to-14 month syllabus.”
Once proven, the aim is to extend the experimental curriculum to all USAF pilot training bases, Webb said.
“You know, we have to do it methodically,” he said. “We’re gonna fail if we just go poof.”
Pilot training has largely unchanged over the past 50 years, despite huge strides in technology. Meanwhile, today’s Airmen are “smarter than any group of Airmen” the service has ever seen, Wills said, and “better able to access multiple channels of information” simultaneously than in the past
“It’s an imperative for us to transform.”
USAF 2,100 Pilots Short
The Air Force is still 2,100 pilots short of its 21,000-pilot target, indicating the end to the pilot shortage is still not in sight.
Pilots continue to leave military service for better-paying civilian jobs with greater flexibility at airlines and elsewhere. The pilot shortage has remained relatively steady for the past several years.
Pilot production is up 30 percent over the past four years, according to Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson. He said the Air Force produced about 1,000 pilots in 2015 and 1,300 in 2019. The goal is to turn out 1,480 aviators a year by fiscal 2024.
“Between all the services, we’re going to produce 2,200 pilots and the airlines are going to hire 5,000,” Wilson told lawmakers in March. “We, too, are concerned on being able to produce the number. But then the next part is I’ve got to be able to season them with the right flying hours, then I’ve got to retain them on the back end.”
— Rachel S. Cohen and Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory
USAF Weighs Bases for First B-21s
By John A. Tirpak
The Air Force will soon start studies assessing the environmental impact of basing the B-21 Raider at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, and Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., the service announced on March 6. One of the two locations will be the first base to host the bomber.
Typical environmental assessments consider the impact of operations, noise, and pollution from a weapon system on the local area’s population, agricultural enterprises, water quality, transportation, cultural resources, airspace, and wildlife.
The two bases already support bombers, with B-1B squadrons on site, which should “minimize mission impact, maximize facility reuse, minimize cost, and reduce overhead, as well as leverage the strengths of each base to optimize the B-21 beddown strategy,” according to the Air Force announcement. Public hearings will be held in nearby locations through April.
The announcement, published in the Federal Register, said the environmental impact analysis will support the choice of “Main Operating Base 1” for the B-21, which will include B-21 operational squadrons, a B-21 formal training unit, and a weapons generation facility. The announcement noted the B-21 will be capable of “penetrating and surviving into advanced air defense environments,” delivering both conventional and nuclear weapons. Future beddown locations will be chosen after MOB 1 is selected.
The B-21 is expected to enter into service in the 2020s, and USAF plans to build at least 100 of the aircraft, which will fall under Air Force Global Strike Command.
In addition to Dyess and Ellsworth, Air Force leaders have said the B-21 will likely also beddown at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., which has been home to the small B-2 stealth bomber fleet since the early 1990s.
Besides direct area impacts, the assessment will consider the areas where the B-21s will practice. In South Dakota—as well as neighboring states Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota—it would be the Powder River Training Complex. In the Southwest, it would be the Brownwood Military Operating Area, the Lancer MOA, and the Pecos MOA, in Texas and New Mexico.
The Air Force needs to base the B-21 in an “appropriate geographic location” that can support operations, training, facilities, and airspace for the bomber mission, according to the announcement.
B-2 Task Force Deploys to Europe
An undisclosed number of B-2 stealth bombers touched down March 9 at Lajes Field in Portugal for the latest bomber task force deployment to Europe.
The Spirit bombers from the 509th Bomb Wing and 131st Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., deployed to the base with the help of KC-10s from the 305th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., according to a U.S. Air Forces in Europe release.
The bombers are scheduled to fly out of multiple bases across Europe to familiarize aircrews with the area and to prove America’s commitment to its allies and partners, according to USAFE.
B-2s most recently deployed to Europe last August, when they operated out of RAF Fairford, England.
USAF Touts Promising Research Despite Flat S&T Budget
By Rachel S. Cohen
The Air Force’s flat science and technology budget request for fiscal 2021 is worrying some lawmakers.
As the U.S. looks to develop advanced military systems such as improved hypersonic weapons and enabling technologies such as artificial intelligence faster than Russia and China, Roper lamented that the service’s research fund lost ground to more pressing priorities. Nuclear modernization, Joint All-Domain Command and Control, and the effort to stand up a Space Force pulled money and resources away from basic research in the 2021 request released last month.
“Sometimes the innovation voices did not win at budget closeout,” said Air Force acquisition boss Will Roper. “[There are] a lot of things on the Air Force’s plate … and unfortunately when we had to make the budget balance, we had to look for areas to take risk.”
Congress in fiscal 2020 allocated $35.2 billion for USAF research and development. The Department of the Air Force, which includes the Space Force, asked for $37.3 billion for R&D in 2021.
Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), chairman of the House Armed Services intelligence and emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee, noted that planned Air Force spending on basic research and advanced technology development both drop by about 8 percent in the 2021 request.
Roper agreed that the proposed S&T plan can erode the Air Force’s technological advances over time, but he pointed to progress in classified programs.
“As we think about competing against countries like China and Russia, if we have foundational research that publishing it would simply let our adversary jump ahead, it’s great that we have researchers that are willing to work with us at a classified level, not publish their research, and help us have a military edge,” Roper said. “We made a sizable movement in that portfolio.”
He brought up two other eye-catching, science fiction-like projects underway as well. One is developing small sonogram machines akin to the handheld tricorder in “Star Trek”—a sensing, computing, and recording device that analyzes the surrounding environment and can help diagnose illnesses. Another program is pursuing samarium nickel oxide, which “decouples the temperature of that material from its thermal emission, paving the way for what could be a cloaking device,” Roper said.
PT, Promotion Tests Postponed
By Brian W. Everstine
The Air Force paused Weighted Airman Promotion System testing through at least May 11 and suspended PT tests until at least June due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So many testing centers have closed due to the outbreak that the Air Force chose to give Airmen more time. But those testing centers that remain open are still authorized to support testing and those who have already sat for the exam may not retake it this cycle.
“Any Airman who is unable to test within the extended testing cycle window will be automatically considered for in-system supplemental promotion once they are able to test,” the Air Force said.
PT tests are being delayed six months. Tests originally scheduled for March will be held in September; April will shift to October; and May tests will shift to November.
The War on Terrorism
As of March 23 , 2020, 92 Americans had died in Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, and 95 Americans had died in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, Syria, and other locations.
The total includes 183 troops and four Defense Department civilians. Of these deaths, 87 were killed in action with the enemy, while 100 died in noncombat incidents.
There have been 570 troops wounded in action during OFS and 214 troops in OIR.