An Airman assigned to the 305th Air Mobility Wing approaches a KC-46A Pegasus on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.

An Airman assigned to the 305th Air Mobility Wing approaches a KC-46A Pegasus on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joseph Morales

Defense Business Brief: Companies invest in Kendall’s operational imperatives; KC-46 cleared for deployments; Swiss sign deal for F-35; and more.

I first attended the Air and Space Forces Association Air, Space & Cyber conference in 2006, and boy a lot has changed—and stayed the same—over the past 16 years. 

It seemed like this week’s conference was the largest one yet, with some 16,000 registrants. Trying to move around the packed hallways and exhibit hall floor was difficult at times.

But this year’s conference also provided some time for reflection about what’s changed and what hasn’t. For me, the biggest change in the exhibit hall was seeing new technology and systems being developed by companies on their own dime. There were years—I’m thinking around the early part of the last decade, let’s call it the sequestration era—when there wasn’t much new to see. Companies brought the same stuff to display. Maybe there was a concept image or model of something that they aspired to build, but nothing tangible or concrete.

This year, several companies said they were making their own investments to develop new technology and weapons for the Air Force. It’s a big shift from the days when companies would largely wait for the Air Force to come up with a full set of requirements and launch a funded acquisition program before bending metal, as the saying goes.

At a Monday press conference, I asked Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall his thoughts on why companies are making investments in efforts that aren’t so-called programs of record? He, in part, attributed the response to his seven “operational imperatives”—aka the tech he believes is needed to win future wars.

“One of the things that seems to have been accomplished by the operational imperatives, is that I defined the problems that we're trying to solve and that gave the industry some information that they could use to make their own investments,” he said. “I think they've reacted to that.” 

While Kendall acknowledged “you always get some lip service to anything new that you say,” now he’s “seeing some actual activities and content.”

“I'm seeing people bringing forward some innovative ideas that we certainly want to consider,” he said. “So I'm really encouraged by that. What I've told the industry repeatedly is I don't want you waiting for the RFP to come out, I want you thinking about how to solve our problems. If we adopt your solution to our problems, obviously, that gives you a head start. So it's in your interest to be thinking ahead of us and doing his creative ideas.”

So why is industry responding to Kendall’s operational imperatives and his messaging now, as opposed to when he was the head of Pentagon acquisition during the Obama administration? “I didn't write requirements,” he said. But, “I have a lot more to do now with requirements and budgets.” 

The Air Force is also trying to figure out how much it can afford. 

“We're trying to communicate as openly as we can with industry so the industry knows what we're interested in, what problems we're trying to solve, what value looks like to us, … so they can propose to us,” he said. “I'm encouraged by that.”

During the Cold War era, Kendall said industry and government worked “much more closely together to solve problems. I don't think we're gonna go back to that entirely, because of the ethics constraints we have, but I think we could do a lot better job than we've been doing for the last 20 to 30 years.”

Among the news at AFA: First, the Air Force is scheduled to unveil the B-21 stealth bomber the first week of December. Since the plane is not expected to fly for the first time until 2023, it’s probably safe to say the roll out will be at Northrop Grumman’s factory in Palmdale, California. As I mentioned earlier in the week, the Reagan National Defense Forum is the first weekend of December, about an hour away in Simi Valley. Dozens of defense officials will already be on the West Coast and it’s safe to say many will be at the roll out as well.

Next, the Air Force’s KC-46 tanker has been cleared for worldwide deployments, Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, said Monday. “We are ready to use this aircraft globally in any fight, without hesitation,” Minihan said. The only plane unable to refuel from the KC-46 is the A-10 attack plane. The plane will not be formally declared battle-ready for a number of years,until Boeing makes fixes to the tanker’s refueling cameras, called the remote vision system. But on any given day, a dozen or so KC-46s appear to be flying missions over the United States, according to flight tracking apps. 

Also, the Air Force created a new program executive officer for Command, Control, Communications and Battle Management, or C3BM, to oversee its connect-everything Joint All Domain Command and Control effort and the Advanced Battle Management System program. Brig. Gen. Luke Cropsey will serve as the PEO and to Andrew Hunter, the Air Force acquisition chief, and will “work closely with” Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space integration.

Interestingly enough, a new bomber and tanker were among the top issues back in 2006. Air Force leaders were pressing to get a new bomber by 2018. Four years after that target, the Air Force is getting closer to reality. And, of course, who could forget the tanker. “The Air Force must start buying new tankers now since it will take decades to replace its aging KC-135 Stratotankers, the Air Force secretary said,” reads the lead of an story. Here’s the full agenda from the then-called Air & Space conference in 2006. It’s worth a look.

Back to this week, down in the exhibit hall, several contractors unveiled new, company-funded projects. L3Harris Technologies’ plan to convert an Embraer-made KC-390 tanker into an aerial tanker with a refueling boom got a bunch of attention. The twin-engine tanker is being pitched by L3Harris as refueling aircraft needed in a war against a peer adversary because it can land on more airfields than larger tankers used by the Air Force and other militaries around the world today. So what do Air Force leaders think of KC-390? “We don't have a requirement for that at this time, but I would certainly sit and listen,” said Gen. Duke Richardson, the head of Air Force Materiel Command.

Boeing and Red 6 announced they are “collaborating to develop leading-edge aerial dogfighting technology and training in advanced tactical aircraft,” the augmented reality startup said in a statement. The partnership, announced on the sidelines of AFA, could lead to Red 6’s tech being used on the T-7 pilot training jet and F-15EX fighter jet.

Not at AFA, Switzerland signed a deal to buy 36 F-35 stealth fighters. More on that here.

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