U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III will soon release a new service strategy paper designed to pave the way for the next ten years and prepare for continued budget uncertainties, service officials explained.
The paper addresses the central predicament now facing all the services; namely planning programs, advancing a budget and determining developmental priorities with the lingering prospect of a $500 billion budget cut over the next decade.
Top Air Force Acquisition Executive William LaPlante is working to provide support and follow Welsh's guidance regarding what the service is calling “Air Force 2023.” He said in an interview with Military.com that the Air Force chief is focused on what decisions the service can make in the near term to protect future programs and readiness.
The Air Force has set the Long Range Strike Bomber, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and KC-46 Tanker Aircraft as its top modernization priorities. Service officials are drafting contingency plans to protect these programs in the next major planning cycle, the 2015 to 2019 Program Objective Memorandum (POM) five year budget plan.
The President’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request reflects these priorities for the Air Force: $8.4 billion is requested for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, $1.5 billion for the KC-46 Tanker and about $400 million is requested for LRS-B development, slated to be operational sometime in the 2020’s.
“There are multiple scenarios that are being planned. Anybody who has been involved in something like this recognizes the difficulty of the funding -- so it is that back and forth between strategy and the math that is going on. Given the various planning scenarios, there are very few things that have not been put on the table,” LaPlante added.
Simply protect those top three priorities will not be easy should the Air Force want to also continue to develop the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms and cyber defenses that service leaders have said remain vital to the Air Force’s future.
Along these lines, the budget request includes $893 million for the Global Hawk surveillance plane, $506 million for the MQ-9 Reaper and $662 million for the Predator.
Added to the equation are keeping legacy platforms such as the C-5 and B-52 viable. Air Force leaders have said the budget environment will force them to delay modernization programs putting further pressure on aircraft that have been operating for, in some cases, more than four decades.
The service is also hoping to finalize a new multi-year procurement deal for its C-130J aircraft, something more difficult to do in an unclear budget environment, LaPlante explained. The 2014 budget request includes $2 billion for the C-130J program.
LaPlante raised the much discussed Anti-Access/Area-Denial or A2/AD issue when discussing what sort of threats the Air Force must prepare for over the next decade. He echoed concerns that the service will face future combat environments that will be far more complex, high-tech and challenging compared with today’s air combat environment.
“We have to always be reminding ourselves of the trades between ISR capabilities that will be robust in an A2/AD environment versus ones that are useful in an environment that is more permissive,” he said.
Air Force acquisition heads remain focused on investing on system that can operate with greater electromagnetic, cyber, space, range and distance challenges.
“A basic assumption is we have to be prepared to deal with more highly contested scenarios. This causes a different level of thinking and causes you to think about systems differently. From an acquisition perspective, looking at a more contested environment, you always have to ask yourself – are we building systems that are more resilient?” Laplante asked.
Resiliency can refer to the technologies and systems themselves and also extend to the concept of operations regarding how something is used in battle, LaPlante added.
Resilient systems can encompass a range of developmental areas, including the development of software systems, cyber-hardened, next-generation “anti-jamming” or electromagnetic technologies for unmanned systems and aircraft.
One area of exploration along these lines falls under what LaPlante called Precision, Navigation and Timing –technologies designed to use timing and geo-location to perform their misson. PNT technologies can provide systems and platforms with an ability to operate in bad weather or challenged conditions, thus making them more resilient. Some of these technologies can include terrain mapping, GPS and inertial navigation, among other things.
Alongside resilience for systems in light of fast-changing threats, LaPlante also emphasized “adaptability” as a key part of this equation. “We have to make ourselves adaptable to dealing with this uncertain environment – that’s adaptable within individual programs and that’s adaptable to various funding scenarios,” LaPlante added.
LaPlante previously worked on a 2010 Defense Science Board study, “Enhancing Adaptability of U.S. Military Forces,” which, among other things, emphasized the need for forces to adapt to fast-changing circumstances and what the report cites as “degraded operations.”
“Institutionalize the use of realistic exercises and red/blue teaming to prepare for uncertain conditions, beginning with two areas of critical importance to nearly all aspects of war-fighting – cyber and space,” the report states.
Considering the Air Force’s resiliency and adaptability strategies, one analyst said Air Force acquisition is wise to focus on low observable systems combined with a faster networking of sensors.
“Faster networking and better integration of sensors, shooters, and weapons is needed to break the kill chain faster. On top of that, aircraft need to be more survivable and one of the ways you achieve that is through low observability and a robust [electronic warfare] capability," said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, a Virginia-based consultancy.
When asked about the need for better anti-jam capabilities, Aboulafia questioned the wisdom of a reported Air Force decision to cancel the EB-52, a classic large B-52 aircraft configured with jamming pods and electromagnetic warfare equipment.
He did praise the Air Force’s currently ongoing Long-Range Strike Bomber program, saying he hoped the platform would have low observability and an organic “jamming” or EW capability.