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AFA's 2017 Air, Space & Cyber Conference: What to Expect

An F-16 Fighting Falcon, assigned to the 35th Fighter Wing, conducts a touch-and-go landing at Misawa Air Base, Japan, Aug. 31, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Deana Heitzman)
An F-16 Fighting Falcon, assigned to the 35th Fighter Wing, conducts a touch-and-go landing at Misawa Air Base, Japan, Aug. 31, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Deana Heitzman)

How is the Air Force dealing with a chronic shortage of pilots? Will the service buy a new light-attack aircraft? How are leaders responding to global threats from insurgent attacks in Afghanistan to ballistic missiles in North Korea?

No doubt these are topics of concern for airmen and the public writ large, and officials are expected to weigh in on them and others at this year's Air, Space and Cyber Conference, which kicks off Monday at National Harbor, Md., outside Washington, D.C.

This marks the first such conference for Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who was tapped by President Donald Trump for the top position in January and confirmed by the Senate in May. She takes the helm at a time when the force is stressed by missions around the world, as well as domestic challenges from a dearth of pilots to deadly training accidents.

In recent weeks, Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein have sought to raise attention to the harmful effects of a continued resolution and budget caps, the importance of streamlining the acquisition process and finding new ways of doing business, and the wide-ranging impact of a force whose missions range from providing relief in the wake of deadly hurricanes in the U.S. to bombing targets in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Here's a look at what's to come at this year's show, which is organized by the Air Force Association, an advocacy group based in Arlington, Va.:

Aircraft Announcement?

Last year, leaders unveiled the name of the B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber, or LRS-B, as the "Raider" in honor of the World War II-era Doolittle Raiders who led the morale-boosting bombing raid on Tokyo. (Officials have since been relatively tight-lipped about the stealth bomber program).

While defense hawks in Congress have implored the Air Force to publicize its equipment needs, the service has yet to detail exactly big of a fleet it needs. If officials have reached a definitive number of how many fighters should fill the flightlines, perhaps the they will announce it at this year's show.

Here are some other aircraft programs worth paying attention to:

JSTARS: While the Air Force plans to continue flying the current fleet of Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System fleet through fiscal 2023, it's "weighing its options," officials have said. Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue have warned the service may scrap the E-8, which is designed to track moving targets on the ground. If the Air Force were to pursue another platform to replace JSTARS, it remains unclear whether doing so would create capability gap on the battlefield.

F-15 Eagle: The Air Force is mulling the idea of retiring the F-15C/D Eagle sometime in the 2020s. The chief recently said a formal decision will be made once officials finalize numbers from future budget plans.

OA-X: The service probably won't make a quick decision on the light attack OA-X plane. Goldfein recently told Military.com results from the fly off at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico aren't complete. The so-called experiment involves four commercial aircraft -- AirTractor and L3's AT-802L Longsword; Sierra Nevada and Embraer's A-29 Super Tucano; and Textron and AirLand LLC's Scorpion, as well as their AT-6B Wolverine -- conducting live-fly exercises, combat maneuver scenarios and weapons drops.

F-35: The contract for the next (11th) batch of F-35 Lightning IIs is still weeks away. Vice Adm. Mat Winter, the new head of the F-35's Joint Program Office at the Pentagon, recently said the contract with plane-maker Lockheed Martin Corp. could come as soon as October.

Top Brass

While Wilson is making her first appearance as the Air Force secretary at this year's conference, Goldfein has service as the service's top uniformed officer for a year.

The first service secretary to be confirmed in the Trump administration, Wilson has already traveled to various bases in the U.S. and more recently to the Middle East to hear directly from airmen on any number of issues affecting the force.

Wilson and Goldfein are scheduled to make multiple appearances during the conference. The secretary will give a "State of the Air Force" speech at 10:30 a.m. Monday. The chief will join her and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright -- and their spouses -- for a panel, "Air Force Town Hall," later in the day at 1 p.m.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, meanwhile, a former Marine general, is set to deliver the keynote speech on 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

North Korea, Russia

On Tuesday and Wednesday, panels or speeches will center around nuclear deterrence. The Pentagon is grappling with how best to deal with North Korea, which this month alone launched its second ballistic missile over Japan and detonated what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb in its biggest nuclear test to date.

Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, deputy chief of staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration at the Pentagon, as well as Gen. John E. Hyten, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, are scheduled to speak 1:15 p.m. Tuesday.

Titled, "Basing for Attack, Where Do We Go?" Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy, commander, Pacific Air Forces and the air component commander for U.S. Pacific Command is on the list to speak alongside Gen Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, at 2:10 p.m. Tuesday. Topics to be discussed include Russia's latest buildup of forces for its Zapad 17 exercises, and more of North Korea.

Networked Aircraft

The F-35 and F-22 Raptor don't share data well. What's more, in some cases, these planes can't "talk" to fourth-generation fighters like the F-15 Eagle or F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Watch for Goldfein and other leaders to talk about the push to build an integrated network of "air, space, and cyberspace-based sensors, as well as leverage joint contributions from all domains," as detailed in the Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan.

Military.com recently asked Goldfein: How did the Air Force get to this point -- where systems can't talk to one another? How does it plan to fix it?

"I look at it more [like] an evolution," he said during an interview last week. "We're coming out of an era where [the question] we ask industry is, 'What does it do?' We're entering into an era where we're asking, 'Does it connect? And does it share?' That's a fundamentally different way to inquire."

Goldfein said part of the problem is how the Air Force buys information technology -- like it's a product or thing. "It's not thing, it's a journey. And once you start that journey you better stay ahead of the adversary," he said.

The chief said he never wants to see the terms "IT" (information technology) and "RFP" (request for proposal) in the same sentence because that means "you're already working too slow" to build the network into a platform that should already be connected.

But that doesn't necessarily mean a common information operating system or open architecture. Goldfein said it has to start with adopting a common standard of buying -- for everything, not just planes.

"We have to say, 'Look, if you want me to be interested as the chief in procuring a weapons system, my first question is going to be, 'Does it connect?' Next, 'Does it share?' And if the answers to those two questions are 'Yes' and 'Yes,' you've got my interest," he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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