An F-35 pilot explains why Elon Musk is wrong about the end of the fighter-pilot era

US Air Force F-35 pilot cockpit
An F-35 student pilot climbs into an F-35 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, July 7, 2017.

  • Autonomous drone warfare “is where the future will be,” Elon Musk said last year.
  • Drones will play an important role on the battlefield, but it’ll be a very long time before they cand do what human pilots can do.
  • Hasard Lee is a fighter pilot currently flying the F-35 Panther, the US’s newest 5th-generation stealth fighter.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As a fighter pilot, I have a lot of respect for what Elon Musk has accomplished. His ability to not adhere to dogma has allowed him to revolutionize two industries through SpaceX and Tesla.

Much like a physicist, he relies on first-principle science to solve problems, which allows him to see things from a fresh perspective. However, he is wrong about the fighter jet era being over.

“Locally autonomous drone warfare is where it’s at, where the future will be,” Musk said to Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium.

“It’s not that I want the future to be this. That’s just what the future will be. … The fighter jet era has passed. Yeah, the fighter jet era has passed. It’s drones.”

As a fighter pilot, my job is to not fall in love with the aircraft I fly, but to use it as a tool to accomplish a mission. We are constantly looking for ways to optimize our lethality while minimizing risk.

If there is a better way to accomplish a mission, then it is our duty to use it. While I agree with Elon Musk that the future is drone warfare, I think we’re a lifetime away from seeing a fully autonomous Air Force.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have fundamentally altered the way we train and fight. I’ve integrated with them extensively over my career and seen first-hand how valuable they are.

Their persistence is unmatched – an MQ-9B recently flew for nearly 2 days without having to refuel. The sensors they carry are equally impressive, due to the weight savings from not having to keep a pilot alive. Perhaps most important, though, is that they don’t put human lives at risk.

MQ-9 Reaper
An MQ-9 Reaper drone.

It’s important to understand that these UAVs are not autonomous – there is someone, usually half a world away, controlling every move by the aircraft. They are a lot more, in effect, like scaled-up radio-control aircraft than they are like robots.

As we move away from limited conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq to near-peer adversaries with high-end capabilities, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the integrity of that signal. This means that to replace manned fighters, these drones will need to be autonomous, or make decisions on their own, in order to be effective.

As Elon Musk is finding out, making an autonomous vehicle is incredibly difficult. While Tesla’s autopilot can navigate reasonably well on highways, they have a much harder time in the city. There are so many edge cases (problems that only occur under extreme circumstances) involved in city driving that are nearly impossible to predict.

When several of these one-in-a-thousand events happen simultaneously, the car’s autonomous software becomes overwhelmed. Remember, these cars are operating in a highly regulated environment where the rules are clearly defined.

Combat is the most dynamic environment imaginable. The fog and friction of war prevent a full understanding of the battlefield.

In addition, the enemy is specifically targeting your weaknesses. Teslas don’t have to fight state actors that are specifically trying to make them crash.

Imagine a city that is more like “Mad Max,” where there are adversaries painting street lines into telephone poles and shining lasers into the car’s cameras – they wouldn’t go a block without being disabled.

Air Force pilot Justin Lee
Capt. Justin “Hasard” Lee heads to his F-16 at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, July 11, 2016.

The same is true for an autonomous drone – it not only has to be able to make decisions on its own, but it must overcome an adversary that is specifically targeting its weaknesses.

And that is where the human brain thrives-coming up with dynamic and creative solutions to undefined problems.

The current Venn Diagram of manned and unmanned aircraft capabilities is so far apart that neither is close to being replaced. The future is finding ways for both to operate as seamlessly as possible.

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The Air Force is spending $500 million on modified corporate jets to monitor battlefields around the world

Air Force E-11A Crash Afganistan
An Air Force Bombardier E-11A aircraft.

  • The US Air Force has awarded Learjet a $464.8 million contract for six Bombardier Global 6000 jets.
  • The jets are built for the corporate sector, but the Air Force will use them as flying communication nodes.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This month, the United States Air Force awarded a $464.8 million contract to Learjet Inc. for six Bombardier Global 6000 jets.

The large cabin jets, which serve in the business/corporate sector, won’t be used to shuttle the Air Force’s brass – but rather will be modified to serve as Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft.

Designated as the E-11A, the six jets will be assigned to the Air Combat Command where the aircraft will operate as a high-altitude, loitering communications node to air and ground forces. The contract will include the engineering and modification work to transform the basic corporate jet into the flying communication node.

Air Force E-11A Crash Afghanistan
A US Air Force E-11A aircraft.

In that capacity, the E-11A can provide a node for voice communication, as well as a crucial link to share data, video and images.

The payload can also provide relay, bridging and data translation for platforms that are not able to communicate due to terrain impediments including units that are separated by mountains, but also systems that use different voice and data link systems, Defense News reported.

“These aircraft are required for continuous operations outside the contiguous United States in multiple theaters of operation,” Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) program lead Elizabeth Rosa, Aerial Networks Division, said in a US Air Force statement.

“Bombardier is proud to be chosen once again by the US Air Force to provide our high-performing Global aircraft and our unique expertise in support of the BACN program,” said Michel Ouellette, executive vice president, Specialized Aircraft, Programs and Engineering, Bombardier. “Our US-based employees are honored to be lending their skills in support of this elite project.”

Contract terms

Air Force E-11A Crash Afghanistan
A US Air Force E-11A aircraft.

Under the terms of the new contract, which was announced last week by the Department of Defense (DoD), the deliveries of the six aircraft will occur over the next five years, through May 2026.

The contract immediately obligated $70 million to pay for the first Global 6000 out of a potential total of six planes. The service had already received $63 million for the E-11 program in the fiscal year 2021 (FY21) budget to procure the first of the aircraft.

The new Bombardier Global 6000 aircraft will complement the Air Force’s fleet of Bombardier Global Express jets that served as an earlier version of the E-11A.

Four of those aircraft entered the Air Force’s inventory beginning in 2007, while one was lost in a crash in Afghanistan in January 2020. The crash killed Lt. Col. Paul K. Voss and Capt. Ryan S. Phaneuf, both assigned to the 430th Expeditionary Combat Squadron at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan

BACN flying high

Air Force E-11A Crash Afghanistan
A US Air Force E-11A aircraft.

The Air Force also currently operates four EQ-4B Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) drones equipped with Northrop Grumman’s Battlefield Airborne Communications Node payload.

The E-11A fleet of aircraft is based at Hanscom Air Force Base (AFB) in the U.S. state of Massachusetts but deployed around the world based on the need arises.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including “A Gallery of Military Headdress,” which is available on Amazon.com.

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The Chinese navy is building destroyers so quickly that it’s running out of cities to name them after

Chinese navy Type 052D destroyer Taiyuan
Chinese navy Type 052D guided-missile destroyer Taiyuan in a naval parade near Qingdao, in eastern China’s Shandong province, April 23, 2019.

  • The new Type 052D guided-missile destroyer Nanning is the third of its class to enter service this year.
  • The Chinese navy’s expansion is so rapid that it’s running out of big cities to name certain warships after.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Chinese navy is sailing its new destroyers in the South China Sea as its shipbuilding spree continues, state media reported.

The Nanning, a new type of 052D guided-missile destroyer made its public debut in a four-day real combat training exercise in the South China Sea after it entered service with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the PLA’s official website said.

The Nanning, bearing hull number 162, was photographed joining Type 901 comprehensive supply ship Chaganhu and Type 071 amphibious dock landing ship Qilianshan of the PLA Southern Theatre Command to carry out a drill in disputed waters that are also claimed by five other nations.

“After gaining combat capabilities, the South China Sea-based Nanning will play an important role in safeguarding China’s territorial integrity, national sovereignty and development interests,” the state-run Global Times said.

The Nanning was reportedly commissioned in April at Zhanjiang port in Guangdong province and is the third of its class to enter service in 2021, following the Suzhou and the Huainan, bringing the number of Type 052D vessels in service to 18.

Chinese navy Type 052D destroyer Yinchuan
Chinese navy Type 052D destroyer No. 175 Yinchuan enters Hong Kong waters, July 17, 2017.

Meanwhile, two other ships have been photographed finishing sea trials, suggesting they will be soon delivered to the Chinese navy.

Type 052D – or Luyang III-class as Nato calls it – was designed to match the US Navy Arleigh-Burke class destroyers. It is equipped with advanced radars and electronics comparable to the US Aegis system, as well as 64-cell vertical missile launchers. The first ship of its class was commissioned in 2014 and in August 2020 the 25th Type 052D was launched.

Nanning belongs to the upgraded version of the 7,500-tonne guided-missile destroyer, the PLAN’s second-largest destroyer after the Type 055.

Sometimes also referred to as Type 052DL, the variant has an extended rear helicopter flight deck and a new radar to improve its anti-submarine and anti-stealth capabilities.

Besides Type 052D, the PLA navy has also planned for at least eight type 055 destroyers – two commissioned and six under construction. This year, it is expected to have at least three more delivered.

So rapid is the Chinese navy’s expansion, it is running out of names for its new warships.

According to PLAN ship-naming rules, Type 052D and Type 055 vessels should be named after big cities, such as provincial capitals. However, Nanning, the capital of Guangxi province, was the last name available. Future ships will have to be named after smaller cities.

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The Air Force has picked the new B-21 stealth bomber’s main operating base

B-21 Raider bomber
An artist’s rendering of the B-21 bomber at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

  • The US Air Force has indicated that South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Force Base will be the first home for the service’s new bomber.
  • The Air Force previously said Ellsworth was the preferred location for the first operational B-21 as well as the formal B-21 training unit.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

While it won’t be for a few more years, residents of the Mount Rushmore State will likely get to see the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider overhead.

The United States Air Force announced this month that Ellsworth Air Force Base (AFB), South Dakota, will be home to the next-generation nuclear bomber.

The Air Force will likely acquire more than 100 of the stealth bombers, which are capable of launching nuclear strikes around the world.

The B-21 Raider, which is currently in the prototype testing stage, will likely replace many of the aging bombers in the US Air Force such as the B-52 Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer, and B-2 Spirit.

South Dakota’s two senators, John Thune and Mike Rounds, both Republicans, were informed by the Air Force on Wednesday that the service had officially designated Ellsworth as the bomber’s main operating base. The news wasn’t entirely unexpected, however.

In March, the Air Force had announced that Ellsworth was selected as the preferred location for the first operational B-21 Raider as well as the formal training unit.

B 21 Stealth Bomber
An artist’s rendering of the B-21.

Whiteman AFB, Missouri, and Dyess AFB, Texas, will also receive B-21 Raiders as the aircraft become available. The Air Force had previously said that it used a deliberate process to minimize mission impact during the transition, maximize facility reuse, minimize cost and reduce overhead.

“These three bomber bases are well suited for the B-21,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather A. Wilson said in March 2019. “We expect the first B-21 Raider to be delivered beginning in the mid-2020s, with subsequent deliveries phased across all three bases.”

“It’s a once in a generation, historic opportunity for South Dakota,” Thune told the Associated Press last week, adding that it will ensure Ellsworth remains a vital part of the nation’s military.

Sen. Thune had said the bomber could also represent an economic boom for the western part of his state, as the bomber will likely result in a doubling of the size of the base’s personnel and could bring in 3,000 more service members.

Construction projects for the bomber hangers and other facilities are also expected. The base, which is located near Rapid City, is already one of the largest employers in the state and according to a 2017 estimate it had an annual economic impact of over $350 million.

The base had faced the possibility of closure in 2005, and it was even briefly on the Pentagon’s list of military bases that should be closed or relocated.

Ellsworth AFB currently is home to two B-1 bomber squadrons. The Air Force will incrementally retire existing B-1 Lancers as well as B-2 Spirits when a sufficient number of B-21s are delivered. According to the Air Force, Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, and Minot AFB, North Dakota, will continue to host the B-52 Stratofortress which is expected to continue conducting operations through 2050.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including “A Gallery of Military Headdress,” which is available on Amazon.com.

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A Chinese spy ship and surveillance planes are keeping closer watch on the South China Sea as tensions rise

China Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft
A Chinese Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft, September 19, 2020.

  • A Chinese spy vessel could be observing how well foreign militaries work together, one analyst said.
  • Satellite images showed aircraft and a surveillance ship at Fiery Cross Reef, another report said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Chinese military has deployed extra surveillance forces in the air and waters near a disputed South China Sea archipelago as tensions rise between Beijing and its Southeast Asia neighbours.

Citing satellite images provided by Maxar, USNI, a US military news website, reported on Friday that a Type-815G spy ship was spotted at a military base at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands chain.

A Chinese navy Y-8Q maritime patrol aircraft and a KJ-500 airborne early warning and control plane were also spotted on the reef’s airfield, the report said.

Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the Type-815G was an elusive ship, and its main task was to collect critical intelligence on foreign military activities.

“Recently there’s been an uptick in foreign military activities, especially naval movements by US and allied forces, in the South China Sea. So I’ll surmise the ship is observing how these US and allied navies operate together,” he said.

The United States conducted 72 reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea in May, up from 65 in April, according to the Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, which monitors military activity in the region.

The think tank said that when the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur transited the Taiwan Strait last month, US anti-submarine patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and a spy plane flew over the South China Sea.

Chinese military KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft
A KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft at Airshow China 2016 in Zhuhai, November 2, 2016.

The Pentagon released the satellite images of the Chinese ship and aircraft on Wednesday, the same day that an advisory body to the Pentagon made recommendations for improving US strategy to deal with China.

The recommendations, which were not made public, served as a new directive for the Pentagon to focus on China, and are aimed at strengthening cooperation with US allies, particularly those in the Indo-Pacific region.

Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, but there are overlapping claims with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, leading to confrontations over the disputed waters.

Even though the US is not a claimant, it has sent military vessels and aircraft there for what it calls freedom of navigation operations. Beijing says such operations violate its sovereignty and create tensions, but the US says China’s military installations in the region are the major threats to security.

Tensions between China and Philippines and Malaysia are running high with Manila protesting against Beijing after more than 200 fishing vessels massed at Whitsun Reef – a move China described as normal.

Malaysia also recently protested against China, saying 16 Chinese military transport aircraft had been involved in an “intrusion” near its coastline.

But China announced this week that it plans to upgrade its diplomatic ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to a comprehensive strategic partnership, after meetings between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Asean counterparts.

Wang also told the assembled foreign ministers that China would push forward discussions for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

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Mexico’s air force has a new mission: seeding clouds to combat drought

Mexico air force
Mexican air force aircraft release smoke with the colors of the Mexican flag as they fly over the Independence Day military parade in Mexico City, September 16, 2013.

  • Areas of Mexico facing extreme or exceptional drought conditions have increased due to lack of rain.
  • To combat the prolonged drought, Mexico’s air force has been assigned a new mission: seeding clouds.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Mexican air force has been assigned a new mission: seeding clouds in an effort to combat the prolonged drought.

The drought has affected as much as 85% of Mexico’s territory since July last year, leaving large reservoirs at exceptionally low levels, straining water resources for drinking, farming, and irrigation.

As of May 31 the area affected had declined to 72% due to rainfall in many parts of the country. However, areas facing extreme or exceptional drought conditions – located in Sonora, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango, Nayarit, Colima and Michoacán – increased due to a shortage of rain.

Cloud seeding thickens clouds and increases the probability of rain by up to 15%, using an acetone solution and silver iodide, which is commonly used as an antiseptic or in photography.

The chemical, prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture, is transported by plane to clouds at 5,000 meters high.
Air force pilot Guadalupe Rojas explained the method.

“When we arrive at the area, we do a preliminary reconnaissance before starting the seeding. The type of clouds is analyzed, and once safety is guaranteed, we take an entry point and enter below the cloud. We search for any ascending currents and spread the chemical,” he said.

The process was tested last March in the San Quintín Valley, Baja California, and later in Nuevo León and Coahuila to help battle fires resulting from the drought.

Air force meteorology expert Francisco Ramírez said the operation is weather dependent. “We always need adequate weather conditions. In the case of Nuevo León there was a fire, but a cold spell helped and … [the cloud seeding] worked,” he said.

He added that the operation will continue in Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Sonora, where the drought remains prevalent.

With reports from Milenio.

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The new Air Force One plane may get delivered a year late

Air Force One
Air Force One.

  • The upgraded VC-25B planes meant to serve as the next Air Force One aircraft may not arrive until 2025.
  • Air Force officials said this week that Boeing has told the service it needs to tack on an additional 12 months “beyond their original schedule.”
  • The Air Force is reviewing the company’s request to delay the delivery by at least a year, officials said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Boeing Co. is behind schedule on two new Air Force One aircraft, which could mean the upgraded VC-25B planes will not be delivered until 2025, according to service officials.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, Darlene Costello, principal deputy assistant secretary for Air Force acquisition, technology and logistics, revealed that the service is reviewing the aerospace and defense company’s request to delay the delivery by at least a year.

The aircraft were originally scheduled for delivery at the end of 2024.

Boeing has told the service it needs to tack on an additional 12 months “beyond their original schedule,” Costello told lawmakers, adding that the service must agree to the new terms.

“As soon as we get the updated schedule, we’ll determine if we have to adjust our baseline or schedule,” Costello said.

To make up for unforeseen costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Boeing said it may ask the service to pay more for the planes. The original $3.9 billion deal for the modified 747-8 airliners was set in 2018. The company has not asked for additional funding yet, Costello said; a dollar amount was not disclosed.

Air Force One
Air Force One.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Connecticut, expressed concern that the delivery delay might also create unforeseen costs to keep the current VC-25A aircraft – introduced in 1990 – flying longer.

“We may need to put in one more maintenance cycle for that aircraft, depending on the timing,” Costello replied.

Lt. Gen. Duke Richardson, the Air Force military deputy for acquisition, earlier this year acknowledged that the new Air Force One aircraft would be late because of a dispute with one of the suppliers remaking the aircraft’s interior.

“Boeing is working hard. They’ve got another supplier identified, [and] we’re going to transfer as much of the work on the interiors as possible,” Richardson said during the annual McAleese conference in May.

Boeing in April canceled its contract with GDC Technics, a Texas-based company, to redesign the state-of-the-art “flying White House,” stating that GDC failed to “meet contractual obligations” regarding work deadlines.

The subcontractor then filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and claimed Boeing was responsible for the program’s mismanagement, according to court documents filed in San Antonio and reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Boeing estimates GDC’s delays and problems related to the pandemic cost it $318 million in building the VC-25Bs, the company said in an earnings call in April.

Boeing began modifying the aircraft last year. The planes were originally ordered for the Russian airline company Transaero in 2013, DefenseOne reported in 2017. The company never delivered the jets to the now-defunct airline and instead put them in storage.

The aircraft passed its critical design review last spring, according to Defense News.

Air Force Two C-32
A C-32 frequently used as Air Force Two.

The Air Force One news comes after the service shelved plans to replace another high-profile executive aircraft: its small fleet of C-32s, or enhanced Boeing 757s, typically used to transport VIPs such as the vice president.

While the C-32 will remain in the fleet, the Air Force will not pursue investment in the airframe beyond already planned modifications, according to the service’s fiscal 2022 budget request. DefenseOne was first to note the service put off purchasing another Air Force Two aircraft.

“The C-32 Executive Transport Recapitalization program was intended to replace the aging C-32A aircraft fleet,” according to its Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Budget Item Justification.

Instead, remaining funding for the C-32 program was recently “applied to the evaluation and maturation of advanced high speed transport scale aircraft,” the budget request states.

The Pentagon last year awarded three companies contracts to begin prototyping a supersonic aircraft that could someday carry the president and other officials around the world in half the time. But until then, the C-32 – flying since 1998 – will press on, officials have said.

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

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Chinese think tank says there’s been ‘huge increase’ in US spy plane flights over South China Sea

Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint
An Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, July 24, 2015.

  • US reconnaissance flights have been constant this year, a Beijing-based think tank says.
  • The number of flights that the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative reported in May was twice that of a year ago.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The United States conducted 72 reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea in May, maintaining a constant presence over the disputed waters, a Beijing-based think tank said.

The South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative said in a monthly summary on Thursday that there was a slight month-on-month rise in US reconnaissance flight operations near China’s coast in May, from 65 in April.

But it said the number was a “huge increase compared with the corresponding period last year, which was only 35.”

The think tank previously reported record US spy plane operations over the disputed sea, numbering 70 in January and 75 in February. It said the US Navy operated 57 of the 72 sorties in May, and the US Air Force the remainder.

Military commentator and former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) instructor Song Zhongping said reconnaissance flights from the US over the South China Sea were becoming more normal.

“The PLA’s military capabilities are constantly improving, and the US military is increasingly worried,” he said. “On the other hand, the US military is also preparing for combat. Therefore, it has to increase reconnaissance against the PLA.

“This reminds us that we need to be prepared for military confrontations against the United States.”

Marine Corps Marines refueling Navy P-8 Poseidon
US Marines train with a US Navy P-8 Poseidon in the Pacific region during Exercise Noble Fury 21, October 9, 2020.

When the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur was transiting the Taiwan Strait last month, US anti-submarine patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and a spy plane were flying over the South China Sea, said the think tank, which monitors military activity in the region. It said the aircraft were “probably providing the intelligence support for the warship.”

Beijing called the transit a “provocation” and said it sent “wrong signals” to supporters of Taiwan independence.

Last month, the Chinese defence ministry said the US had ramped up reconnaissance activities near China’s coast during Joe Biden‘s US presidency.

It said such operations had increased by more than 20% for US warships and 40% for planes in and around waters claimed by China, compared with the same period last year under the Donald Trump administration.

Biden in April used his first address to the joint sessions of Congress to cast the US-China relationship as a battle in century-defining technologies and vowed to “maintain a strong military presence” in the Indo-Pacific region – “not to start conflict, but to prevent one”.

Last week, Beijing said the US should show “sincerity” about improving communication between their militaries.

“We urge the US to walk the talk, show sincerity and meet the Chinese side halfway to strengthen dialogue and communication and to properly manage disputes,” defence ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said.

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang.

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How seagulls brought down a B-52 bomber

Air Force B-52 bomber
A B-52 lands at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, May 14, 2019.

  • On May 18, 2016, a B-52H bomber was forced to abort its takeoff before bursting into flames.
  • An Air Force investigation found the incident was caused by birds, and it wasn’t the first time.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Let’s face it, seagulls are pretty damn annoying in the best of times. Now, we have an even better reason to dislike “sky rats.”

On May 18, 2016, a B-52H Stratofortress with the 5th Bomb Wing was forced to abort its takeoff run. According to a report by NBCNews.com, the plane later burst into flames and was a total loss. The reason behind the destroyed plane was finally uncovered by an Air Force investigation.

According to the investigation report, seagulls killed a BUFF – and it’s not the first time the military’s lost a plane to birds.

The accident report released by Global Strike Command noted that the crew observed the birds during their takeoff run, and the co-pilot felt some thumps – apparent bird strikes.

Then, “the [mishap pilot] and [mishap co-pilot] observed engine indications for numbers 5, 6, and 7 ‘quickly spooling back’ from the required takeoff setting. The MP also observed high oil pressure indications on the number 8 engine and a noticeable left-to-right yawing motion. Accelerating through approximately 142 knots, the [mishap pilot] simultaneously announced and initiated aborted takeoff emergency procedures.”

Air Force B-52 Anderson Guam
A B-52H at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, February 8, 2021.

The crew then tried to deploy a drag chute. The chute – and the plane’s brakes – both failed, though, and that caused the B-52 to go off the runway. The crew carried out emergency shutdown procedures and then got out of the plane. One suffered minor injuries, but the other six on board were not injured.

Bird strikes on takeoff have happened before. One of the most notorious bird strike incidents took place in September 1995 when a Boeing E-3B Sentry was hit by two Canada geese on takeoff from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. The plane crashed after briefly going airborne, killing all 24 personnel on board.

Another one took place in 2012, when Air Force Two absorbed a bird strike, according to a report by the London Daily Mail.

According to the Air Force Safety Center’s Bird/wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard Division, the Air Force has recorded 108,670 bird or wildlife strikes from the start of Fiscal Year 1985 to the end of Fiscal Year 2014.

The BASH Division also noted that from the start of Fiscal Year 1993 to the end of Fiscal Year 2014, there were 34 Class A mishaps, which included 16 destroyed aircraft and 29 fatalities.

In short, those fine feathered friends are anything but friendly when it comes to sharing the skies with the Air Force.

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Biden is signing onto Trump’s trillion-dollar plans for new nuclear weapons

Biden
President Joe Biden in an electric Ford F-150 lightning at the Ford Dearborn Development Center in Michigan, May 18, 2021.

  • President Joe Biden’s first defense budget, totalling $752.9 billion, continues a Trump effort to “modernize” US nuclear forces.
  • That modernization could cost upward of $1.5 trillion over 15 years, and Biden’s plan will only add to simmering debate about whether the US needs those nukes.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

For those anticipating a significant shift in national priorities in the wake of the huge increase in defense expenditures during the last administration – to the tune of some $100 billion over four years – President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2022 national defense budget is a major disappointment.

On Friday, the Biden administration submitted its fiscal year 2022 budget request – with a whopping $752.9 billion set aside for national defense, $715 billion of which is designated for the Pentagon. The proposed funding actually increases defense expenditures by some $11 billion from the Trump years.

Congressman Mark Pocan and Congresswoman Barbara Lee called the Biden defense budget “a failure that doesn’t reflect this country’s actual needs.” The joint Pocan-Lee statement, released last Friday, slammed Biden’s proposal, pointing out that “the defense spending increase” by itself is “1.5 times larger than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s entire $8.7 billion budget.”

Defense hawks, on the other hand, were as outspoken in their criticism, arguing that the Biden defense budget does not account for inflation, which means that, to keep pace, Pentagon spending should be ramped up to the tune of 3% to 5% annually.

“President Biden’s defense budget request is wholly inadequate – it’s nowhere near enough to give our service members the resources, equipment and training they need,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla), and his House counterpart, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala), said in a statement. “It’s disingenuous to call this request an increase because it doesn’t even keep up with inflation – it’s a cut.”

Air Force Vandenberg Minuteman ICBM test
An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, February 5, 2020.

The opposing positions are likely to be a source of contention in the weeks ahead, as Congress hammers out the details of who gets what.

Most disappointing for progressives is the Biden administration’s apparent endorsement of the Trump administration’s decision to spend big in “modernizing” America’s nuclear forces – a decision that could cost the nation upwards of $1.5 trillion over the next 15 years and as much as $634 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Congressional progressives describe the amount as a wholly unnecessary and extravagant expenditure. As an example, the Biden budget reflects a White House decision to double the amount the nation will spend on developing and deploying the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent to a proposed $2.6 billion from $1.4 billion.

The monies do not include upgrades to launch facility locations and nuclear laboratories, which would cost tens of billions more. The GBSD is intended to replace the 50-year-old Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile – the ICBM.

While the $2.6 billion figure might seem modest compared to the bulk of defense expenditures, the GBSD serves as a template for the nuclear modernization program (accounting for $27.7 billion in the Biden budget), while committing the United States to maintaining the nuclear triad – the three-legged mix of missile-launched, submarine-launched and bomber-launched nuclear weapons.

In total, an upgrade of the Minuteman III could cost upwards of $264 billion over the period of its development and deployment. Then, too, in addition to the funding for the increasingly controversial GBSD, the Biden defense budget includes expenditures for a new Columbia-class submarine, further development and deployment of the B-21 bomber, and a long-range standoff weapon.

F.E. Warren Air Force Base ICBM missile silo Wyoming
An airman gives a tour of ICBM training facilities on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, July 22, 2012.

In the weeks preceding then ew budget’s release, Congressional progressives and their allies among anti-nuke NGOs had been gearing up for a fight over nuclear modernization, arguing that land-based nuclear missiles pose the most destabilizing part of the US arsenal – and that part of the triad that is most susceptible to an accidental launch.

These advocates argue that spending for the GBSD is unnecessary since the Minuteman III can be regularly upgraded over the next 10 years without adopting the budget-busting numbers proposed by the Trump administration.

That thinking is in line with a series of options detailed in an intriguing study by the Congressional Budget Office that would cut back the number of delivery systems and nuclear warheads over a period of 10 years – saving tens of billions of dollars – but without any erosion in nuclear deterrence.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is one of those likely to lead the charge against the nuclear modernization program, particularly given her focus on it during the Senate’s February confirmation hearings for Dr. Kathleen Hicks to be deputy secretary of defense.

“I know that you believe in a safe, and secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent, but we’re going to spend $44.5 billion on nuclear weapons this year, which is more than the entire budget for the State Department and foreign operations accounts,” Warren said to Hicks back in February. “Will you commit that your review will not simply be a rubber stamp of our current nuclear strategy, but that you really will examine and re-question the core assumptions that underpin it?”

Hicks assured Warren that she would. “Absolutely, senator,” she responded.

Now, in the wake of President Biden’s seeming endorsement of a large portion of the previous administration’s nuclear modernization program, that reassurance is very much in doubt, despite Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s public testimony last week before a Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing that the Biden team will be conducting its own review in the months ahead.

icbm missile silo
A missile silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base, July 17, 2007.

In all of this, there is a sense that both the White House and Pentagon are attempting to downplay just how similar the Biden administration’s defense budget is to the most recent defense budget proposed by Donald Trump.

The strategy included a last-minute postponement of the budget’s release until late in the day on the Friday before Memorial Day (“not an accident,” as one senior Pentagon civilian told Responsible Statecraft).

It was a purposeful soft-pedaling of the dollar amount for defense in comparison with other administration priorities and heavy-handed public statements that emphasized Biden’s commitment to “innovation,” “advanced capability enablers,” and “cutting-edge, state-of-the-art technologies” (like microelectronics, artificial intelligence, hypersonics, machine learning, 5G networking).

It was a purposeful, if transparent, sleight-of-hand, as if the Biden team wasn’t actually committed to buying weapons, but rather to a “visionary” and “forward-leaning posture,” as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described it.

Few, it seems, were fooled: “At a time when the greatest challenges to human lives and livelihoods stem from threats like pandemics and climate change, sustaining Pentagon spending at over three quarters of a trillion dollars a year is both bad budgeting and bad security policy,” the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung said.

Hartung’s criticism will be echoed in the weeks ahead, as the Biden defense budget becomes an increasing focus for a badly divided Congress.

While there’s much for both the left and the right to attack, the Biden administration’s seeming unwillingness to take on the nuclear weapons lobby will likely mark the most contentious issue for both sides. It will be round one of a Congressional donnybrook over whether the United States is protected by buying, building and fielding more nuclear weapons – or placed at increasing risk.

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