Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall warned on Jan. 19 against the United States mirror imaging Chinese hypersonic weapon efforts.
“We don’t have the same target set that they’re worried about so we have to think about what’s most cost effective for us,” Kendall told a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) virtual forum. “While I do think there is a role for hypersonics in that mix, and I think we should proceed with developing and fielding appropriate hypersonics, I think we have to look very carefully at the target set we’re interested in and at the most cost effective way to deal with that. I think that’s very much an open question.”
Kendall said that the Air Force needs more analysis on trade-offs between hypersonic weapons’ benefits and the weapons’ high costs.
Prime among the Air Force hypersonic efforts has been the Lockheed Martin [LMT] AGM-183A Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), which gained the inartful sobriquet, “super duper missile,” from former President Trump.
“I think there was a rush to hypersonics in the previous administration that at the time I questioned, ‘Is this really the right path for the United States?’ I still have some of those questions,” Kendall said on Jan. 19.
At the CNAS forum, Kendall also laid out and discussed his evolving list of seven priorities for the Department of the Air Force, including a resilient space order of battle architecture; operationalizing the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS)–the Air Force’s part in Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2); a system of systems approach for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) platform and the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider, including the use of fighter and strike drones controlled by NGAD and the B-21; effective ground moving target indication and air moving target indication; resilient basing; and being able to mobilize, move, and support military forces effectively, including protecting personnel, logistics, and transportation systems from cyber attacks.
Kendall recalled that ABMS and JADC2 derived from the Air Force’s thought that ABMS and JADC2 would fill a gap caused by the cancellation of the recapitalization of the Northrop Grumman Joint STARS aircraft due to concerns about its survivability.
“I think there’s a validity in that assumption but we have to figure out how that’s going to be done,” he said of ABMS. “JSTARS provided a tremendous wide area surveillance for the surface of the Earth, and I was in the Pentagon in the first Gulf War. I fought to get JSTARS prototypes employed to support that conflict. We succeeded, and the two prototypes were remarkably successful.”
ABMS Increment 1 and the upcoming Increment 2 “are important things to do on the path to getting that operational capability, but they aren’t it,” Kendall said. “They are things that get after some of the competing, distributing technologies and contributing capabilities, but I really want to get to the overarching operational architecture that will enable things like the two [NGAD and B-21] family of systems’ concepts, for example.”
The Air Force also may devolve its fundamental command and control node–the Air Operations Center (AOC)–to lower levels.
For its part, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in Rome, N.Y., wants to revolutionize air operations planning through the use of artificial intelligence and interactive gaming, a joining that AFRL believes could lead to a drastic reduction in Air Tasking Order (ATO) planning time at AOCs (Defense Daily, Jan. 4).
AFRL is seeking industry ideas on ways to reduce such planning time under the Fight Tonight program to lead to the conduct of air combat planning within 4 hours and re-planning in minutes.
AOCs “are at a fairly high level,” Kendall said on Jan. 19. “My intuition is we have to have nodes at lower levels because those high level nodes can be attacked–are potentially vulnerable, and we need to maintain continuity in a contested environment from the point of view of cyber attacks, electronic warfare attacks, and kinetic attacks. We’ve got to take all that into account and get to an architecture that allows us to provide that offboard [sensor] support when we do targeting and situational awareness, but also support the operational forces.”
“A fair amount of work has been done in the Air Force over the last few years in architecture definition and so on, but I think it’s been from a premise that we could get to a grand solution, and I don’t think that that’s going to be affordable or easily achievable on a time scale that’s realistic and meets our needs,” he said. “So this is about focusing ABMS on the things that are going to make the biggest difference in a reasonable period of time. Increment 1 and 2 can be part of all that, but they are not yet, in my mind, the solution to that.”