With the US gone, Afghanistan’s air force has to rely on Zoom calls to learn how to fix its aircraft

Afghan air force UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter
An Afghan air force maintainer works on an UH-60 Blackhawk at Kabul Airbase, May 9, 2021.

  • The US is reducing its presence in Afghanistan, withdrawing its troops and contractors.
  • The US military has been training Afghanistan’s air force, which will be key to fighting the Taliban.
  • Without US support, that air force will struggle to maintain its aircraft and its operations.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As the US pullout of Afghanistan nears completion, the Taliban continues to seize territory. It has paraded vehicles and weapons captured from Afghan forces and filmed its execution of 22 surrendering Afghan commandos.

While the Afghan military is fighting back, it will soon have to do so without its biggest advantage: US-led coalition airpower.

Instead, the Afghan Air Force will have to provide that support, but even with $8 billion spent and almost a decade of preparation, it still may not be up to the task.

Logistical problems, a lack of trained personnel, and a demanding battlespace are taking its toll on the AAF. Afghan airmen have been training to fix their aircraft over Zoom calls with foreign contractors – a sign of the scramble to prepare for the challenge ahead.

The importance of airpower

Afghan air force Mi-17 helicopter
An Afghan Air Force Mi-17 helicopter flies past commandos during a military exercise at the Kabul Military Training Centre, October 17, 2017.

Airpower was vital in ousting the Taliban after the US invasion, and some of the coalition’s most important victories were made possible by the coalition’s air dominance.

Airpower is important to military operations in Afghanistan because forces attempting to capture and hold territory will have to mass together to do so, said Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“They will have vehicles. They will have larger numbers of infantry converging onto targets and in infrastructure. The whole function of airpower is hitting a target, dropping bombs from fixed-wing aircraft and bombers, and taking them out,” Jones told Insider.

Air dominance also provides the Afghan military and national police with rapid transportation. Coalition and Afghan helicopters and transport planes can drop hundreds of troops and tons of supplies in remote locations that are otherwise inaccessible because of difficult terrain or Taliban presence.

“It’s the air capability that will bring those people there,” Jones said. “Ground transport is slow, and in the environment today, the Taliban does control some key roadways.”

“Because of that, air is really important in transporting key material, weapons, ammunition, and other kinds of support.”

A capable but compromised force

Afghan air force A-29 pilot
An Afghan A-29 pilot talks to maintainers after a mission, at Kandahar Airbase, May 6, 2021.

According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s most recent quarterly report, covering the first three months of 2021, the Afghan air force has 162 aircraft, 143 of which were available for operations.

The AAF inventory is primarily composed of seven airframes.

For attack, it relies on 23 A-29 Super Tucanos and 10 AC-208 Combat Caravans. For transport, it has 23 C-208 Caravans and 2 C-130s. Its helicopter fleet is made up of 13 Mi-17s, 35 MD-530s (which can also be used for light attack), and 37 UH-60 Blackhawks.

The AAF has already shown its ability to fight and transport essentials. In 2018, it conducted its first emergency combat airdrop of supplies, its first nighttime airstrikes, and dropped its first laser-guided bomb.

But the AAF faces a number of logistical issues that prevent it from being fully effective.

The most recent SIGAR report noted that of the 42 aircrew positions assigned to those seven airframes – such as copilot or mission-system operator – only 18 are filled with qualified personnel. Only one aircraft, the C-130, had more than half of its aircrew positions filled by qualified personnel.

While four of the seven airframes met their readiness benchmarks in the first quarter of 2021, the three that didn’t – the MD-530, A-29, and UH-60 – are the most important for attack and transport duties.

Maintenance woes

Afghan air force UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter
Afghan maintainers work on an UH-60 Blackhawk at Kabul Airbase, May 9, 2021.

Things are particularly bad when it comes to maintenance. Only three of the seven airframes had enough qualified maintenance personnel, according to the SIGAR report.

To keep its aircraft flying, the AAF relies on hundreds of private civilian contractors brought in to train AAF personnel and maintain the aircraft until they are ready to do it themselves.

Those contractors are expected to leave around the same time that the last US troops withdraw, which President Joe Biden has said will be by the end of August.

According to the SIGAR report, the NATO command that oversees the training and build-up of the AAF concluded in January that “without continued contractor support, none of the AAF’s airframes can be sustained as combat effective for more than a few months.”

The training still needed and the shrinking timetable has made Zoom training a reasonable alternative despite challenges of such a hands-off instruction method, but the Afghan military also has to make sure that the AAF continues to receive the spare parts, engines, fuel, ammunition, replacement aircraft, and other material it needs.

Many of these items will likely have to be delivered by air, which is costlier and more time-consuming than ground transport. Given the high operational tempo the AAF will soon face, delays and cutbacks could be severe hindrances.

A hard future

Afghan air force MD-580 helicopter
An Afghan air force member loads rockets on an MD-580 helicopter, February 18, 2018.

The AAF is expected to play a key role in Afghanistan’s fight against the Taliban. The Biden administration understands its importance and has promised to continue funding and supplying it.

The AAF too has also shown signs of progress, increasing the number of fully usable aircraft in its inventory and raising its total flight hours year over year.

Some problems may be out of the AAF’s control. It relies on trained soldiers to call in airstrikes and to capture and hold territory. With the Afghan government increasingly reliant on local militias, the AAF may be unable to effectively coordinate with ground forces.

The Afghan air force’s limited pilot corps doesn’t only face threats over the battlefield, however. In recent months, at least seven pilots have been killed while off-base – “targeted and eliminated,” a Taliban spokesman said.

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What the Air Force’s latest graphic reveals about the new B-21 stealth bomber

B 21 Stealth Bomber
A rendering of the B-21 stealth bomber.

  • The Air Force’s latest rendering shows the new B-21 Raider stealth bomber at Edwards Air Force Base.
  • The bomber will be thoroughly tested at Edwards AFB before delivery to operational units.
  • The overall shape of the B-21 seems to be unchanged since a 2020 rendering, with a few details worth a mention.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Air Force published on July 6, 2021 a new rendering of the B-21 Raider stealth bomber, accompanied by its official fact sheet.

The new artist rendering graphic follows the second one that was released in January 2020. The Air Force has put some emphasis on the fact that this is an artist’s interpretation, meaning that it could also include some inaccuracies (possibly even intentional as to not disclose important details).

While the last time the renderings featured the locations where the operational bombers will be based, this time Edwards Air Force Base, California, can be seen in the background.

As mentioned in the Air Force’s press release, the 420th Flight Test Squadron based at Edwards AFB will plan, test, analyze and report on all flight and ground testing of the B-21 Raider, so it made sense to include in the rendering the “first home” of the bomber after its first flight from the Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, where its being built.

The overall shape of the Raider seems to be unchanged since the 2020 rendering, with just few details noticeable and worth a mention.

Artist rendering of Air Force B-21 Raider stealth bomber
An artist’s rendering of the B-21 Raider, released July 2021.

The first, most eye-catching detail is the new set of cockpit windows. The old rendering showed a two-pieces windscreen which resembled in shape the one of the B-2A Spirit.

This time, the Raider has a new four-pieces windscreen, like the Spirit, but with a very different shape for the two lateral windows. The side windows appear to be arched and narrower than the ones in the front (about half the height).

The second detail is the peculiar “hawk’s-beak” profile, inherited from the B-2 Spirit and which seemed missing or barely noticeable in the second rendering.

This time the “beak” seems much more pronounced than the one of the Spirit. Another detail can be found on the wings which seem to be thicker than in the old renderings, but this might just be due to the prospective in the image.

There is not a trace of the air intakes in this new rendering. This is one of the parts of the new bomber that, as described by the Air Force earlier this year, required a major redesign before the critical design review in November 2018. The problem was reportedly about the size needed by the air inlet to obtain the right volume flow rate of air for the engines to work efficiently, but it did not impact the cost and schedule of the program.

The B-21 Raider is described in the fact sheet as a component of a larger family of systems for conventional Long Range Strike, including Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Electronic Attack, communication and other capabilities. It will be able to employ a broad mix of stand-off and direct-attack munitions, as well as retaining a nuclear capability, and designed to accommodate manned or unmanned operations.

B-21 Raider bomber
An artist’s rendering of the B-21 at Ellsworth Air Force Base, released in January 2020.

Another important feature, present also in other Air Force projects like NGAD, is the open systems architecture, which will reduce the integration risk and enable competition for future modernization efforts, allowing the aircraft to evolve as the threat environment changes.

“Nuclear modernization is a top priority for the Department of Defense and the Air Force, and B-21 is key to that plan,” said Randall Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director. “The built-in feature of open systems architecture on the B-21 makes the bomber effective as the threat environment evolves. This aircraft design approach sets the nation on the right path to ensuring America’s enduring airpower capability.”

Earlier this year, it was announced that a second B-21 was under construction while the first one continued to take shape ahead of its expected roll-out in early 2022. According to Randall Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the first aircraft will undergo extensive ground tests between the rollout and the first flight, while the second aircraft will be used mainly for structural testing.

The lessons learned during the building process of the first Raider are being applied to the second one, with the work progressing much more efficiently now that the workers are not restricted anymore to work based just off the blueprint’s assumptions.

Last month Darlene Costello, the Air Force’s assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing mistakenly said that the first two B-21s were completed, but this statement was later corrected by the Air Force saying that the two aircraft are still in production.

The Air Force didn’t, however, announce any new dates or delays, so the program should still be on track for the rollout in early 2022.

Ellsworth Air Force B-21 hangar shelter
The B-21 Raider Environmental Protection Shelter prototype at Ellsworth Air Force Base, February 26, 2021.

The new bomber is expected to be ready for service around 2026 or 2027, with Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, being the preferred location for the first B-21 main operating base, and Dyess AFB, Texas, being the alternative.

The Air Force stated that the bases were selected in order to minimize the impact to operations and communities, maximizing at the same time the reuse of existing infrastructure and reducing the overall costs to base the B-21.

The final basing decision will be made this year after the completion of the Environmental Impact Statement this summer, giving the green light to begin the actual B-21 beddown construction.

In the meantime, Ellsworth AFB is hosting the first B-21 Raider Environmental Protection Shelter prototype that will be used to collect a few years of data which will be incorporated into the final Environmental Protection Shelter design.

Ellsworth AFB was selected as the test site for the shelter as it provides the most extreme and diverse weather conditions to test the temporary structures.

“Environmental Protection Shelters help extend the life of the aircraft and reduce required maintenance by limiting UV exposure, limiting snow accumulation and melt, and limiting icing/de-icing operations experienced by the aircraft over time,” said Col. Derek Oakley, Air Force Global Strike Command’s B-21 Integration and System Management Office director. “These shelters also help us generate sorties more quickly by eliminating the need to always have to move aircraft in and out of hangars.”

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The Air Force wants to give some A-10s, F-22s, and F-35s new homes

nellis afb
Aircraft and visitors at the 2014 Nellis Open House at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, November 12, 2014.

  • The US Air Force wants to move some A-10s and HH-60 helicopters to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.
  • Some F-35s and F-22s are also being moved to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
  • The service says the moves will allow it to centralize close air support and rescue operations and to enhance training for those fifth-generation jets.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Air Force wants to move some A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft and HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, to centralize close air support and rescue operations while retiring some of the oldest Warthogs in the fleet, the service announced Wednesday.

In an effort to make Davis-Monthan the “Center of Excellence” for those missions, the service said it plans to move the A-10 weapons instructor course and test and evaluation operations from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to the base in 2022, according to a news release.

At the same time, some fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and F-22 Raptors will move to Nellis, the service said in a separate release.

The move is predicated on Congress approving the Air Force’s request to get rid of 42 A-10s outlined in its fiscal 2022 budget, an attempt the service has tried before, but to no avail because lawmakers shot it down.

Testifying before lawmakers during multiple hearings in recent weeks, officials have said the service can modernize and maintain 218 of the 281 tank-shredding aircraft it currently has, downsizing from nine operational squadrons to seven.

Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt Warthog
An A-10 Demonstration Team pilot prepares to takeoff at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, March 4, 2018.

Hundreds of A-10s in the fleet have received new wings or are in the process of receiving upgrades to their wings despite the battle over how many aircraft the service can retire in coming years. The service estimates it has poured $880 million so far into the A-10 re-winging and avionics modernization efforts.

The A-10 is expected to fly into the 2030s and has been grandfathered under the service’s “four plus one” model to downsize from its current seven fighter or attack aircraft fleets.

In May, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown said the four are the F-35 Lightning II; F-16 Fighting Falcon; the F-15EX Eagle II, which entered the service’s inventory in the spring; and the Next Generation Air Dominance program. NGAD defies the traditional categorization of a single platform, featuring a network potentially including an advanced fighter aircraft alongside sensors, weapons or drones.

The venerable A-10 remains as the “plus one.”

The Davis-Monthan Center of Excellence rescue missions, meanwhile, would be supplemented by the HH-60 weapons instructor course, and combat-coded units, including the 88th Test and Evaluation Squadron, which has detachments at Nellis, Davis-Monthan and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; the 66th Rescue Squadron, the 58th Rescue Squadron, the 34th Weapons Squadron, and the 855th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron – all from Nellis.

Those units would transfer in 2024, the release states.

amanda f35a pilot
An F-35 heritage flight team pilot prepares for takeoff at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in March 2016

“Under this plan, Davis-Monthan will play a critical role in reshaping US airpower as home to the Air Force’s close air support and rescue Centers of Excellence,” Acting Secretary of the Air Force John P. Roth said in the release. “This realignment will consolidate all A-10 and HH-60 test, training, and weapon school activity at one location, allowing Airmen in these mission areas to train together for future threats.”

For Nellis, this means more stealth fighters will head to the desert base.

The Air Force said it is gearing up to bring in F-35 Lightning II and F-22 Raptor fighters, where the two often train side by side in exercises like Red Flag.

In 2019, it announced the reactivation of the 65th Aggressor Squadron to move 11 F-35A Lightning IIs to the base to serve as aggressor air, or “red air,” training. The majority are coming from Eglin, which is planning for new F-35s on its flight lines.

F-22s from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, will be used for testing purposes, the service said.

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

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Air Force special operators face a ‘particularly hard’ transition after Middle East wars, top general says

Air Force Special Operations Forces airman gathers parachute after jump
A US Air Force Special Operations Forces airman gathers his parachute after a training jump in Romania, May 13, 2021.

  • Air Force Special Operations Command is has had two decades of success against terrorist groups.
  • That has set AFSOC up for a “particularly hard” transition to a new era of competition, its commander says.
  • “If it were easy, somebody else would would be able to do it,” Lt. Gen. James Slife, AFSOC commander, said in February.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In February, Lt. Gen. James Slife, the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), outlined the state of Air Force special operations and described how Air Commandos need to adapt in order to remain relevant and effective.

The top Air Commando said his force faces a hard transition from hunting terrorists to a potential conflict with Russia or China.

“Now’s the time for us to accelerate change,” Slife said, echoing the Air Force mantra for the new era of competition. “But I would suggest to you that for AFSOC in particular, there is a difficulty to this that I don’t think any of us should underestimate.”

Air Commandos

Air Force Special Operations Command special tactics airmen
Members of US Air Force Special Operations Command’s 23rd Special Tactics Squadron during an exercise in Jordan, May 11, 2017.

AFSOC provides air transport, close air support, precision strike, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) functions to other special-operations units.

Air Commandos operate several aircraft, such as the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, the MQ-9 Reaper drone, the MC-130J Commando II transport.

In addition to its air assets, AFSOC deploys battlefield airmen – pararescuemen, combat controllers, special reconnaissance operators, and tactical air control party airmen – to augment Navy SEAL platoons, Green Beret detachments, Delta Force assault teams, and other special-operations units.

These Air Commandos are an integral part of the US special-operations community but often go unnoticed because they are usually attached individually in other units instead of operating as dedicated Air Force teams.

New threats, new needs

Destroyed US helicopters after Operation Eagle Claw in Iran
A torched US helicopter in the desert of eastern Iran after a failed commando mission to rescue hostages in Tehran, on April 27, 1980.

Slife argued that US special-operations forces are at what he called a third inflection point.

The first inflection point was the Iran hostage crisis, a disaster that led US military leaders to create US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which revolutionized US special operations.

The second inflection point came in the post-9/11 wars, during which the Pentagon relied on commandos for almost everything, such as raids on high-value targets and training partner forces and even to topple the Taliban.

With the advent of great-power competition with China and Russia comes third inflection point, Slife said at the Air Force Association air-warfare conference.

Slife acknowledged that this transition will likely be “particularly hard” because the circumstances are different.

“At our previous two inflection points … we were in the aftermath of a failure,” Slife said. Now, however, AFSOC is coming off of 20 years of “virtually unmitigated success” against violent extremist groups.

US Air Force AC-130H Spectre gunship jettisons flares
A US Air Force AC-130H Spectre gunship jettisons flares as an infrared countermeasure during training, August 24, 2007.

Organizations can find it hard to accept change after having success, but change is necessary to address a new threat environment that comes with near-peer competition. People often quip that militaries prepare to fight the last war, so structured change is prudent.

According to Slife, AFSOC will have to excel in four areas: crisis response, countering violent extremist organizations, great-power competition, and near-peer warfare.

To do so, AFSOC will have to reexamine what capabilities it can offer to the special-operations community and the conventional military.

New limits on defense budgets mean AFSOC will have to choose its priorities carefully and avoid the temptation to find answers in expensive new programs and technology – in other words, it has to do more with what it already has.

“We will not be able to buy our way out of whatever challenges that we have in the future,” Slife said. “We have to take better advantage of the capabilities that are already resident in the force and leverage the power of our airmen to transform ourselves for the future.”

The fight for close air support

U-28A
A U-28A, used by US Air Force Special Operations Command for ISR missions.

Providing support from the air is likely to be an area of increasing focus for AFSOC.

Air Commandos currently operate a small fleet of aircraft that provide ISR to special operators on the ground. Orbiting ISR aircraft can provide a live picture of a target and its surroundings, an unparalleled advantage over less technologically advanced enemies.

As the war on terror evolved, ISR capabilities became increasingly important. In some cases, ISR support was mandatory for an operation to be approved.

SOCOM’s Armed Overwatch Program – which seeks to develop organic close-air-support aircraft and free up sophisticated aircraft like F-22s and F-35s for more advanced missions – is one of AFSOC’s biggest bets for the future.

There have been several US military attempts to find a commercially available propeller-driven aircraft for support missions. The most recent was the Air Force’s Light Attack Experiment, which was shut down in early 2020.

The Air Force and members of Congress are either skeptical of or openly opposed to the Armed Overwatch Program, but SOCOM has made it clear that it wants the capability and is moving forward with a program to purchase 75 aircraft for AFSOC that would provide close air support, precision strike, and ISR in austere and permissive environments.

Beechcraft AT-6 Light Attack Experiment
A Beechcraft AT-6 at Holloman Air Force Base during the US Air Force’s Light Attack Experiment.

ISIS and Al Qaeda have largely been defeated in Iraq and Syria, but other groups are wreaking havoc across Africa and the Middle East, threatening to overthrow weak governments and cause regional crises.

Consequently, special-operations forces will continue to deploy in low-intensity hot spots where US interests are threatened, and they might need to call in close air support. The Armed Overwatch Program is designed to support that ongoing fight.

SOCOM providing its own rugged, cheaper-to-operate planes to support commandos aligns perfectly with some of AFSOC’s transition goals.

Although Air Commandos are trying to figure out their future roles, they will certainly be called on to perform challenging missions against multiple threats.

“If it were easy, somebody else would would be able to do it, but this is our moment in time to transform ourselves for the future,” Slife said.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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Democrats take aim at the US’s new $264 billion ICBM amid search for cash to boost the military

icbm minuteman
An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM is launched during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, August 2, 2017.

  • The Biden administration’s 2022 budget has sparked new debate about military funding.
  • The GBSD, a replacement for the US’s current ICBM’s, has attracted particular scrutiny.
  • Pausing the GBSD could save $37 billion “without any deterioration of our nuclear deterrence,” Rep. John Garamendi told Insider.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Amid debates over how much funding the US military needs to counter China and Russia, Democratic lawmakers have taken aim at a major new nuclear weapon, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, to pay for other priorities.

“It’s a matter of how we’re going to spend a very precious resource called money,” Rep. John Garamendi, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee, told Insider in an interview Thursday.

The GBSD, work on which began during the Obama administration, will replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, which has been in service since the 1970s.

Cost estimates for the GBSD are close to $100 billion for acquisition and $264 billion over its lifetime, which is set to run to the mid-2070s. Northrop Grumman received a $13.3 billion contract for the weapon in September.

The GBSD is set for its first flight in 2023 and to hit initial operational capability in 2029, with all 400 of the new missiles deployed by 2036.

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

GBSD proponents say the Minuteman’s service life can’t be extended, but Garamendi has said Air Force officials “confirmed” it could and has argued for a GBSD pause until the mid-2030s.

“That is exactly what the Air Force is going to do with most of the Minuteman IIIs that are presently in the silos. They will be life-extended for the next 15 to 20 years as the GBSD is replacing the Minuteman III,” said Garamendi, who also sits on the subcommittee that oversees nuclear weapons.

With that pause, over the next 10 years “some $37 billion could be saved and used for other purposes without any deterioration of our nuclear deterrence,” Garamendi added, citing estimates from a 2017 Congressional Budget Office report.

That money could be spent on other priorities, such as more warships, new weapons like hypersonic missiles, as well as artificial-intelligence and cyber capabilities, Garamendi said.

Gen. Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, and other officials have said developing the GBSD would save $38 billion compared to extending the Minuteman III through 2075.

Garamendi called that a “fallacious argument,” citing estimates that showed life-extensions were cheaper over shorter periods, such as the CBO’s 15-year estimate, which are “the time horizon in which all of us are living.”

“To draw a conclusion based upon the cost 55 years from now is a stretch,” Garamendi said.

‘The hawks want it all’

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

Progressive activists and lawmakers have also called to pause or halt the GBSD.

Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ro Khanna introduced a bill in March to redirect GBSD funding to COVID-19 vaccine research. (A similar measure from Khanna was voted down by the House Armed Services Committee in 2020.)

Former defense officials, including former Defense Secretary William Perry, have argued ICBMs are unnecessary for deterrence and also raise the risks of a nuclear war.

Current military leaders and Democratic and Republican lawmakers say it’s necessary to maintain all three legs of the nuclear triad: ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and air-launched weapons.

Asked by Garamendi at a hearing this month about pausing the GBSD to save $37 billion, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he “would not recommend taking that money away and putting it elsewhere.”

“The recapitalization of the entire triad, to include the GBSD, is critical to our nation’s security,” Milley said, adding that with a delay of 12 to 15 years, “you’ll have a gap in the land-based leg.”

AP710728069
A Minuteman III missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on July 28, 1971.

At a press conference Thursday, Republican Sen. Jodi Ernst said the US “cannot trade” a GBSD pause for additional funds.

“For too long and many administrations, we were not as focused as we should have been on those modernization efforts, and it has set us much further behind than we should be,” Ernst said. “If we delay for a dozen years, it would be extremely hard to catch back up. If we look at Russia, China, Iran’s activities and what they want to do with enrichment, we can’t afford that.”

Garamendi countered that a Minuteman extension was already part the GBSD plan, that the older missile will remain a deterrent, and that work done on the GBSD “would be available to carry forward.”

“The delivery systems are not standing still. They’re rapidly changing, and it may very well be that 10 years from now, 15 years from now, the ICBM in silo is not the deterrent that we would count on” Garamendi said.

The Biden administration’s 2022 Defense Department budget invests $2.6 billion in the GBSD, up from $1.5 billion in the Trump administration’s 2021 budget.

Progressives have criticized Biden’s $715 billion request for the Pentagon in 2022, a slight increase over 2021, as too big. (Moderate Democrats called it “strong and sensible.”) Republicans have criticized it for not meeting the 3% to 5% annual increase that military leaders and others have recommended.

“They are increasing spending everywhere on everything, with one exception,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said of Biden’s overall budget at the press conference Thursday. “That’s the big message we’re sending. The prioritization of our military with this budget is last.”

Minuteman III ICBM warhead nose cone
Airmen mount a refurbished nuclear warhead on a Minuteman III in a silo in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, April 15, 1997.

“There’s no doubt that the hawks want it all,” Garamendi said, adding that Biden’s budget “chose to keep the GDSB in place, but they also made very, very hard choices, which are going to be very difficult for the [House Armed Services] committee to accept.”

While work on the GBSD has begun, its future may depend on the Biden administration’s ongoing nuclear posture review.

Garamendi noted that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to commit to the GBSD when asked about it at the hearing with Milley, saying that the “right balance” of forces would be informed by the ongoing nuclear posture review.

“He said that twice,” Garamendi said. “I’m sure he was honest, and I want to believe that he was honest that, in fact, the issue of the GBSD is under consideration – that is, a pause on the GBSD – so we’ll see.”

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Why the US can’t just start building more F-22s

F-22 Raptor
F-22 Raptor.

  • The F-22 was developed as a dominant air-superiority fighter and is still considered to be the best such jet in service.
  • The US stopped building the F-22 in 2011 because the need for advanced dogfighters seemed less pressing.
  • Demand for highly capable aircraft is growing, but restarting production of the F-22 after a decade just isn’t practical.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Air Force has two air-superiority fighters in their stable in the F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle, but when looking to bolster the fleet with purchases of a new (old) jet for the job, it was the Eagle, not the famed Raptor, to get a second lease on life.

That really begs the question: If America can buy new F-15s, a design that’s nearly 50 years old, why isn’t it looking to build new F-22s instead?

By most accounting, the F-22 Raptor remains the most capable air-superiority fighter on the planet, with its competition in China’s J-20B beginning to shape up and Russia’s Su-57 still lagging a bit behind.

The F-22 really is still at the top of its game … but that doesn’t mean building more actually makes good sense.

The F-22 and F-35 are fighters with 2 very different jobs

F-35 and F-22
F-22s and F-35s.

While the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is widely seen as the most technologically advanced fighter in the sky, it was designed as a sort of continuation of the F-16 Fighting Falcon’s multi-purpose architecture, with an emphasis placed on conducting air-to-ground operations.

The older F-22 Raptor was intended to serve as a replacement instead for the legendary F-15 Eagle, as the nation’s top-of-the-line dogfighter.

While both the F-22 and F-35 are 5th-generation jets that leverage stealth to enable mission accomplishment and both are able to conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground combat operations, they each specialize in a different aspect of air combat and were intended to serve in very different roles.

Unlike the F-22, the US continues to receive new F-35s, though comments made by senior defense officials over the past year have placed the Joint Strike Fighter’s future into some question.

America will undoubtedly be flying F-35s for decades to come, but it’s beginning to seem less and less likely that the F-35 will replace the F-16 as the Air Force’s workhorse platform.

The F-22 was canceled because America didn’t need a stealth air-superiority fighter for the War on Terror

f 22 raptor f-22
An F-22 Raptor.

The Air Force originally intended to purchase 750 F-22s to develop a robust fleet of stealth interceptors for the 21st century. But as the United States found itself further entrenched in counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations against technologically inferior opponents, the need for advanced dogfighters became far less pressing.

With ongoing combat operations in multiple theaters to fund, the F-22 program was shut down in December 2011 with just 186 fighters delivered. Today, nearly a decade later, the F-22 exists in precious few numbers, despite its fearsome reputation.

Now the United States faces concerns about its dwindling fleet of F-22 Raptors that were once intended to replace the F-15 outright. Only around 130 of those 186 delivered F-22s were ever operational, and today the number of combat-ready F-22s is likely in the double digits.

With no new Raptors to replenish the fleet as older jets age out, each hour an F-22 flies anywhere in the world is now one hour closer to the world’s best dogfighter’s retirement.

The future of the Air Force, as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown has plainly stated, doesn’t include the mighty Raptor. But America needs an air superiority fighter that can stand and swing with the best in the world, and as capable as the F-15EX Eagle II may be, it lacks the stealth it would need to survive an open war with a nation like China or Russia.

With the NGAD program still years away from producing an operational fighter, America’s air-superiority mission now runs the risk of not having the jets it needs for a high-end fight if one were to break out – as unlikely as that may be.

The production facilities and supply chain for the F-22 were cannibalized for the F-35

FILE PHOTO: A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft is seen at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018.   REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo
An F-35 at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, April 25, 2018.

As simple as just building new F-22s may sound, the truth is, re-starting the F-22 production line would likely cost the same or potentially even more than simply developing an entirely new and potentially better fighter.

Lockheed Martin cannibalized a great deal of the F-22’s production infrastructure to support the ongoing production of the F-35, meaning it wouldn’t be as simple as just re-opening the plants that had previously built Raptors.

In fact, Lockheed Martin would have to approach building new F-22s as though it was an entirely new enterprise, which is precisely why the United States didn’t look into purchasing new F-22s rather than the controversial new (old) F-15EX.

Boeing’s new F-15s are considered fourth-generation fighters that are sorely lacking in stealth when compared to advanced fighters like the F-22 and F-35, but the Air Force has agreed to purchase new F-15s at a per-unit price that even exceeds new F-35 orders.

Why? There are a number of reasons, but chief among them are operational costs (the F-15 is far cheaper per flight hour than either the F-35 or the F-22), and immediate production capability. Boeing has already been building advanced F-15s for American allies in nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, so standing up a new production line for the United States comes with relatively little cost.

Air Force F-15EX fighter jet
An F-15EX conducts aerial refueling over Northern California, May 14, 2021.

The F-22’s production line, on the other hand, hasn’t existed in nearly a decade.

In a report submitted to Congress in 2017, it was estimated that restarting F-22 production would cost the United States $50 billion just to procure 194 more fighters.

That breaks down to between $206 and $216 million per fighter, as compared to the F-35’s current price of around $80 million per airframe and the F-15EX’s per-unit price of approximately $88 million.

Does that mean it’s impossible to build new F-22s? Of course not. With enough money, anything is possible – but as estimated costs rise, the question becomes: Is it practical? And the answer to that question seems to be an emphatic no.

The US Air Force has invested a comparatively tiny $9 billion into its own Next Generation Air Dominance fighter program – aimed at developing a replacement for the F-22 – over the span of six years (2019-2025).

If the new NGAD fighter enters service on schedule, it may even get to fly alongside the F-22 before it heads out to pasture. So while the Raptor’s reign as king of the skies may soon come to an end, it may not be before America has a new contender for the title.

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A US Air Force Ghostrider gunship crew received awards for saving 88 lives with nearly 2 hours of non-stop fire

An AC-130J Ghostrider from Hurlburt Field is parked on the flightline at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, March 23, 2021
An AC-130J Ghostrider from Hurlburt Field is parked on the flightline at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, March 23, 2021.

  • The crew of an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship received awards for heroism this week.
  • The crew, according to an award citation, saved 88 lives with continuous fire for nearly two hours.
  • The crew was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medals.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The crew of a heavily armed US Air Force gunship received awards this week for saving dozens of lives by pouring non-stop fire on the enemy during a fight in Afghanistan.

Five crew members assigned to the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship Shadow 71 with the 73rd Special Operations Squadron received the Distinguished Flying Cross and four other members received Air Medals for “extraordinary achievements” during a mission in Afghanistan in September 2019, 1st Special Operations Wing said Thursday.

The Distinguished Flying Cross citation, which Task & Purpose first reported, says that “the AC-130J crew provided nearly two hours of continuous close air support fire against multiple enemy ambushes, saving the lives of 88 American and Afghan Special Forces members.”

The 1st Special Operations Wing said that the gunship crew engaged three enemy positions, providing fire support that allowed helicopter assault forces to land and evacuate wounded troops from the battlefield.

The DFC was presented on Tuesday to aircraft commander Lt. Col. Christopher McCall, weapons systems officer Capt. Jasen Hrisca, combat systems officer Capt. Tyler Larson, special missions aviator Tech Sgt. Jake Heathcott, and sensor operator Staff Sgt. Kyle Burden.

And the four Air Medals were given to co-pilot Maj. Brian Courchesne and special missions aviators Staff Sgt. Alex Almarlaes, Senior Airman Brianna Striplin, and Senior Airman Thomas Fay.

The crew of Shadow 71 pose after receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal during a ceremony at Hurlburt Field, Florida, June 22, 2021
The crew of Shadow 71 pose after receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal during a ceremony at Hurlburt Field, Florida, June 22, 2021

“I always say gunships are a team sport; you really can’t do something like this without a great team,” McCall said. “Shadow 71 has talent from front-to-back.”

The Distinguished Flying Cross citation said that “the professional competence, aerial skill, and devotion to duty displayed by the AC-130J crew reflect great credit upon themselves and the United States Air Force.”

The AC-130J is the latest version of a US gunship with a combat history dating back to the Vietnam War. The 73rd Special Operations Squadron, according to the Air Force, was the first AC-130J squadron. It was activated at Hurlburt Field, Florida, which is where the awards were handed out this week.

Previously described by Air Force officials as a “bomb truck with guns on it,” the AC-130J gunship is armed with a Precision Strike Package consisting of 30 mm and 105 mm cannons, as well as standoff precision guided munitions, including both bombs and missiles.

The AC-130J took to the skies over Afghanistan for the first time in June 2019, just a few months before the crew of Shadow 71 would carry out the mission during which they heroically saved the lives of fellow troops.

The commander of Combined Joint Special Operations Air Component-Afghanistan told Stars and Stripes that fall that the AC-130Js were getting called out to support missions every single night and that in a period of about four months, the gunships had flown over 200 sorties.

An enlisted leader told the paper at the time that the Ghostriders not only emboldened troops on the ground but have also saved lives.

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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 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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