By Sandra I. Erwin
Top defense contractors have jumped into the race to develop autonomous mini-submarines for the U.S. military. As the Pentagon makes it increasingly clear that unmanned technology will be a linchpin of future warfare, contractors have taken the plunge, partnered with or acquired commercial firms in this sector in hopes of capturing future Defense Department contracts.
There is a flaw in the plan, however, warns retired Navy Rear Adm. Fred Byus. The Pentagon has taken initial steps to “steer investments” in autonomous technology but is not moving fast enough to increase production of robots so they can be made available to large numbers of users for testing and experimentation.
The technology to produce autonomous underwater vehicles is ready to transition from the lab to the fleet, says Byus, who is general manager of mission and defense technologies at Battelle. He contends that if the Pentagon continues to buy vehicles only in onesies and twosies, the technology is at risk of getting stuck in limbo, will remain unfamiliar to most potential users and will produce prototypes that are too expensive to be accessible across the military.
Undersea drones are one area of warfare where the United States has the opportunity to gain a big technological edge over potential adversaries, Byus says. Leaps in innovation have occurred both in the defense and commercial markets but the Pentagon may not be able to take advantage of the advanced technology because of its internal approaches to acquisitions, he adds. “You have to have processes that keep up with technology.” With robotics, it is important to “get the technology into the hands of the war fighters as widely as possible.”
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has been a proponent of unmanned undersea systems. He said in February that the Pentagon would invest $600 million over the next five years in “variable size and variable payload unmanned undersea vehicles.” Carter described a vision of networked “distributed” drones that would give naval forces unprecedented capabilities to collect intelligence.
Despite this high-level endorsement, the Defense Department’s acquisition organizations are not moving quickly to push the technology forward and start building prototypes in sufficiently large numbers, Byus says. Talking about the promise of robotics alone is not enough unless there is “parallel development of tactics” for the use of the technology, and incentives for vendors to produce more systems at lower prices.
The Navy this month solicited a “request for information” from contractors, asking for proposals on how existing unmanned undersea vehicles could be adapted for military use. Under a project called “extra large unmanned undersea vehicle,” the Naval Sea Systems Command wants to conduct experiments to develop tactics and concept of operations.
Contractors like Battelle, General Dynamics and Boeing Phantom Works have made big bets on commercial robots they believe are suitable for military use and cheaper than anything the Pentagon could ever invent.
Byus worries that the Defense Department’s plan to tap commercial technology may fall short because it is mostly focused on niche experiments that will not create a demand for vehicles and therefore not motivate the industry to keep investing. “The autonomous systems industrial base is not in place to support large scale employment of the technology,” he says. “They need to be thinking about that.” Underwater submarines, for instance, have not been made in big enough numbers so units across the Navy can test them, he says, nor is there enough work to support the development of the autonomous underwater vehicle industrial base.
Companies in this sector continue to hedge their bets. Battelle moved to acquire SeeByte Inc., a software developer that specializes in autonomous undersea vehicles and sensors. One of the industry’s best known players, Bluefin Robotics was taken over by Battelle in 2005, and earlier this year was acquired by General Dynamics Mission Systems.
A major Navy ship builder, Huntington Ingalls Industries, has produced the Proteus underwater vehicle in a partnership with Battelle. It is a dual-mode system that can be driven by a pilot or operated autonomously. The vehicle was designed by the Columbia Group’s Engineering Solutions Division. Huntington Ingalls acquired ESD two years ago and renamed it the Undersea Solutions Group.
Commercial companies that have developed underwater robots are now feeling the pinch of the downturn in the oil and gas industries. This creates an opportunity for the Pentagon to play a more prominent role as a customer of this technology, Byus says. “Underwater technology development is under the same type of financial constraints on the commercial side that it has seen with the downturn in R&D on the government side.”
The Defense Department has made significant investments in underwater vehicle designs and prototypes but has not funded advanced development in the “middle area” where vehicles would be produced in larger numbers for testing and experimentation. Byus argues that would help “kick start the industry so that the whole area of autonomous underwater systems can build an industrial base to support both government and commercial needs.”
The military needs to step up the integration of unmanned systems into the force because it can’t afford the rising costs of people, he says, and needs to “relieve war fighters from dull dirty and dangerous work that autonomous systems are capable of doing.” With underwater submarines, the military could deploy a network of robots to keep eyes on potential enemies, for example.
“It will take some progressive thinkers in the Defense Department to say, ‘For this industrial base to be in place when we need it, we need to kick start the commercial applications as well as the government applications.’” A cautionary tale is found in the ship-building industry, where there are so few suppliers that prices continue to soar, forcing the Navy to buy fewer platforms — a downward cycle known in the Pentagon as the procurement “death spiral.”
The Pentagon also would benefit from better outreach to commercial companies so it can learn what innovations are being acquired by other countries, some of which are potential future adversaries. “You need a well coordinated program of commercial and government investment,” Byus says. “With only commercial development, you’ll have technological parity. If it’s all government funded, there is a risk that you end up with an industrial base and systems that are very expensive, which increases the cost of systems and the challenge of getting them into the hands of users.”
Photo: Proteus dual mode underwater vehicle (Battelle)
By Stew Magnuson
Rockwell Collins, maker of the F-35 joint strike fighter’s helmet mounted display system, will begin delivering a lighter version of the system next year, company executives said in a recent interview.
Testers in 2015 found that there was a risk that lighter pilots might suffer neck damage if ejected from the aircraft, resulting in those under 136 pounds being temporarily banned from flying the plane.
A half pound has been shaved off the helmet’s weight, which will re-adjust the center of gravity, said Joe F. Ray, the company’s marketing manager for government systems. All pilots, not just the lighter ones, will receive the new version of the Gen III helmets next year.
“Pilots of all shapes and sizes, if you will, will be able to operate the helmet,” said Brad Haselhorst, Rockwell Collin’s vice president for government systems strategy and development.
The helmet’s display system is an integral part of the F-35, but one that has suffered some development setbacks. Gen II helmets had an issue with the tracker. That has been resolved. “Now the pilots aren’t having any of the delays or inconsistencies in the visual system,” Ray said.
“Just like any system that you have, when it’s new and it’s unique, you’re going to have issues. We understand that. You just continue to plug though and now we have, we think, a pretty good product,” Ray said.
The Gen III models went into production about two years ago, Haselhorst said. Approximately 170 have been issued and 400 are on order. It has been baselined, meaning its design will remain as is for the next 2,400 or so units produced.
The contractor brought a mock-up to its booth at the recent Air Force Association annual conference in National Harbor, Maryland. The display embedded in the visor provides a 360-degree view. For example, pilots can look down and get an image underneath the F-35 giving them the sense that they are looking through the aircraft.
The virtual heads-up display includes target tracking, a digital night vision sensor, flight and weapon status, video recording and a picture-in-picture capability.
“Ultimately what we want to do is make this such an immersive experience that they are able to act without really thinking about it,” Ray said. The company and the program tout it as the most advanced jet fighter display system ever produced.
Rockwell Collins will continue to look into improvements. “We want to be able, from our contribution, reduce the amount of power, make it lighter, make it more comfortable for the pilot,” Ray said.
Reducing the power consumption would lessen the amount of heat being emitted and would make the helmet more comfortable. Shaving off energy needs, no matter how small, is important. “Even in an aircraft like the F-35, you’re always concerned about power because you’re putting more capabilities on the aircraft,” Ray said.
The company could make that adjustment by using “visual organic light-emitting diodes,” an emerging technology that Haselhorst predicted will be in most consumer televisions within the next five years. “It’s light and takes less power,” he said.
Rockwell Collins is also working with prime contractor Lockheed Martin to reduce the cost of the display system as part of an overall effort to reduce the per-aircraft price tag. “Everybody is trying to get the costs down,” Haselhorst said. As the rate production rates go up, the manufacturing process will become more efficient, which should result in some savings, he added.
Meanwhile, pilots are having to change their thinking about the technology. They can’t have a cavalier attitude and treat the system like their old helmets. This education begins at one of the three pilot fit facilities, where trainees are issued individually designed helmets, Ray said.
Pilots sit in a chair, where a laser takes precise measurements of their jaw structure and head. Frames come in standard sizes: small, medium, large and extra large, but the data taken from the measurement is processed and then used to whittle down the inside liner for a precise fit. The display’s apex is also adjusted.
Since everyone’s eyes are different, measurements are taken of them for the display as well.
“Pilots used to throw their helmets on the ground,” Ray said. It has to be impressed upon them “this isn’t just a helmet. You need it for protection, but this is your cockpit and you have to treat it that way. ... The aircraft doesn’t fly without it.”
Photo: Rockwell Collins
By Jon Harper
A lack of reliable data makes it difficult to estimate the price tag of building a new intercontinental ballistic missile, the head of the Pentagon’s cost assessment and program evaluation office said Sept. 22.
The aim of the Air Force’s ground-based strategic deterrent program, or GBSD, is to replace the nuclear-warhead carrying Minuteman-III by the 2030s. The service released a request for proposals to industry in July.
In recent weeks top defense officials have cast doubt on the accuracy of early cost estimates for the project.
“When my team was called upon to do a cost estimate on the GBSD program, we had to … look back and say, ‘OK, what is our data foundation for this program? How do we assess what it takes to field a force of ICBMs? And it turns out we don’t have a lot of data to go on,” said CAPE chief Jamie Morin during a nuclear weapons conference in Washington, D.C., at the Capitol Hill Club.
It has been decades since the Defense Department last started a new ICBM development effort, which complicates the reliance on historical data to estimate the cost of a new program, he noted.
“Minuteman-III is 50-plus years back and was a derivation of the earlier [missile] programs, so you’re talking extremely old data,” he said. “We used it, but it’s extremely old data.”
Other important information is simply unavailable, further compounding the cost estimate challenge, he said.
“We were in a large respect victims of some conscious choices that were made in a previous era of acquisition reform in the 1990s to stop collecting cost data on a lot of systems we bought, which meant we had a huge gap, a huge lack of insight into what it takes to produce these kinds of capabilities,” he said.
Morin’s office recently made a “very rare” move by giving the Defense Department’s acquisition executive two cost estimates for GBSD — a low-end one and a high-end one, Morin noted.
Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall made a decision to accept CAPE’s lower independent cost estimate, he said. Morin declined to provide the cost figures.
During his remarks, Morin addressed the substantial difference in the cost assessments that his office and the Air Force have developed. The Air Force projected the price tag of GBSD at about $62 billion in its latest estimate. Although the Defense Department hasn’t publicly released the CAPE estimate, Bloomberg News reported that it was $85 billion or more.
The cost gap stemmed from the use of different assumptions about the flight system, labor costs and the technical complexity of the effort, Morin said. His office also analyzed Navy data about its missile systems. The Air Force didn’t use that data when it came up with its estimate, he noted.
“That provided a richer data set with some more recent programs and it tended to push the [CAPE] estimate higher,” he said.
Going forward, Morin expects more accurate cost estimates as the Pentagon uses different methodologies and gathers additional data.
A Milestone A assessment is “predominantly analysis from analogy,” he said. Analysts “find a collection of similar programs [and] understand what the best pastiche of their different elements is to represent the future program.”
“When we get to Milestone B on the program, you will then see much more of an engineering-based approached to the estimates breaking things down into smaller subcomponents and understanding … with more rigor what are the [labor] hours and materials associated with that,” he added.
That method will yield “a much higher fidelity estimate,” he said.
But missile programs such as the GBSD are complex, and the next assessment might not accurately peg the program cost, he noted. “This stuff is not easy to assess,” he said.
The Pentagon will have a better idea of the ultimate price tag as more information comes in, he said.
“We will have ample opportunities to gather more data in the coming years and, you know, if it looks like we’re on the high path we’ll be able to adjust” the cost estimate, Morin said. “If it looks like we’re on a path … to a lower number, that will be great as well.”
Photo: Boeing's Minuteman III missile (Air Force)
By Yasmin Tadjdeh
V-247 Vigilant concept art
Bell Helicopter — co-manufacturer of the V-22 Osprey — unveiled a concept for a new unmanned tilt-rotor aircraft that the company aims to sell to the Marine Corps, Bell executives said Sept. 22.
The system — which could be ready for production by 2023 — is officially known as the Bell V-247 Vigilant, said Vince Tobin, Bell Helicopter vice president for advanced tilt-rotor systems.
“The Bell 247 Vigilant will provide a platform which can operate from land or off the ship,” he said. “The intent is for the Bell 247 Vigilant to provide expeditionary capability with increased operational flexibility and a reduced logistical footprint.”
The unmanned aerial system is a low-risk approach that is meant to fill a Marine Corps need for a Group 4 or 5 drone that was outlined in the 2016 Marine Corps Aviation Plan, he said during a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Group 5 systems weigh more than 1,320 pounds and fly at an altitude of more than 180 feet. Group 4 systems weigh the same, but fly below 180 feet.
“By its nature, the technology provides a performance envelope unachievable with just a rotorcraft or just a fixed-wing aircraft,” he said. “A shipboard Bell V-247 UAS will offer superior loiter times coupled with ranges that are achievable with only fixed wing efficiencies."
The system would weigh 16,000 pounds empty and have a maximum gross weight of 29,500 pounds, according to company materials. It would feature a 65-foot wingspan. Additionally, it aims to have a 250-knot cruise speed and reach more than 300 knots at maximum continuous power.
The system will have a combat radius of 450 nautical miles and could provide 24-hour persistent surveillance with a two-aircraft system, Bell said. It will be powered with a single engine.
Because of the system’s speed and range, the aircraft could fill an escort role for the Bell-Boeing V-22 or other Marine Corps aircraft, Tobin said. It could also execute electronic warfare, carry sensors, provide persistent fire and do resupply missions.
The system will have an open architecture and a modular payload system that will allow for rapid configuration changes with plug-and-play mission packages. The aircraft could carry fuel, Hellfire missiles, torpedoes, radar systems, LiDAR modules and sonar buoys.
The Bell V-247 will feature a blade fold-wing stow design that will allow it to fit inside a DDG hangar space, Tobin said. Two systems can be transported in a C-17, he added.
The “performance and capability present in today’s engines would enable us to go into production, Milestone C, as early as 2023. Obviously we’ll need an engineering and manufacturing and development phase prior to that,” he said. That would last three to four years, he added.
“Starting sooner to hit 2023 would be a good thing,” he said.
The system could also be hardened to withstand electronic warfare attacks, Tobin said. “We would be looking at the requirements that would come down from our customers, but we would have the ability to harden” the aircraft, he said. “We’re looking to use the shape of the aircraft itself to kind of reduce the overall signature. Not by any means is it going to be low-observable. It has got some big rotors turning out there.”
The company has already started discussions with suppliers, but has so far not made any commitments, he said. The system would likely be built in Amarillo, Texas.
This is not Bell Helicopter's first foray into a tilt-rotar unmanned system. The Bell HV-911 Eagle Eye was part of the Coast Guard's Deepwater modernization effort in 2002. After cost overruns and delays in the overall Deepwater program, the Coast Guard reorganized its modernization plans in 2008 and the Eagle Eye was dropped.
Tobin noted that this would be a much larger aircraft than the Eagle Eye. Some of the autonomous control systems from that program would carryover as well as the scalable tilt-rotor system.
"That's the beauty of tilt-rotors — that you can make them as big or small as you want to," he said.
Photo: Bell Helicopter
By Jon Harper Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Materiel Command
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Startup companies and young entrepreneurs were largely absent from the Air Force Association’s air, space and cyber conference this week, an issue that came to a head Sept. 21 during a discussion among the Air Force’s top officers.
To speed the acquisition of commercial technologies and bring new companies into the fold, Defense Department leaders have been reaching out to firms in technology hubs such as Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin. But the AFA conference in National Harbor, Maryland, one of the most prominent annual defense industry expositions, was dominated by traditional contractors that have been doing business with the Pentagon for decades.
A panel of four-star and three-star general officers was asked by an audience member about the notable absence of the non-traditional companies that defense officials have been courting.
“Why would you expect to see a millennial at the opera?” said Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Materiel Command. “By that I mean the forum that’s here for AFA and the booth concept is not the environment that the entrepreneurial community that … we engage with is one that they come to.”
“It’s not of interest to them,” she added. “That’s not their culture.”
The Defense Department will have to court them, not the other way around, she said. Pentagon officials must make a concerted effort to meet them on their turf, she noted.
“We have to reach out to the forums and to the venues that they go to,” she said. “That will put some of us out of our comfort zone that we’re used to participating in, but that is the way we have to draw them in.”
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has made several high-profile trips to Silicon Valley and other centers of innovation. Last week, the Pentagon chief attended a TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, where he tried to persuade cyber technologists to work for or do business with the Defense Department
At a venue where a Pentagon official wearing a business suit looked like a fish out of water, Carter fielded tough questions. Some, including one about marijuana use, would be considered way out-of-left-field if they had been asked at a traditional industry conference.
Pawlikowski noted that she attended a venture capitalist conference in Los Angeles focused on space issues, with positive results.
“After I finished, I had about a dozen venture capitalists come up to me wanting [me] to know that they had entrepreneurs that were interested in getting involved in this business and [asking] how could they get involved” with the Defense Department, she said.
But the Pentagon’s acquisition process sometimes causes headaches for those involved in outreach efforts to non-traditional industry and startup companies.
Air Force Materiel Command has made a concerted effort to draw in commercial firms with small business innovative research funding, Pawlikowski said.
“What we found though that is if we just leave it up to our usual devices of going out and putting out, ‘Here’s our topics we’re interested in,’ we will get shall we say the more traditional small business” to respond, she said.
“It doesn’t necessarily attract the entrepreneurial business base as a general rule,” she added. “In fact, sometimes our definition of a small business actually makes it hard for that entrepreneurial business base to participate, because if a venture capitalist invests in an entrepreneur then they no longer qualify as a small business, for example.”
Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed concerns about the hurdles thrown up by the often cumbersome acquisition process.
“There are startup companies that are interacting with the department and are interacting with the Air Force, but they don’t find themselves comfortable in the environment we’ve created,” he said. “They are not comfortable inside the Federal Acquisition Regulations. And they’re certainly not comfortable on the long lead time and very long development cycles that we normally bring to a program.”
The Pentagon has been pursuing different paths of engagement, he noted.
“What we have to do and what we have been doing is trying to nurture relationships with those small companies by placing bets and asking them hard questions and giving them some time to chew on them,” he said.
Entrepreneurs and innovators in commercial industry are just as patriotic as those who work in the traditional defense industry, Selva said.
“They’re wiling to give their intellect to the questions we’re willing to ask,” he said. “We just have to find an environment that they’re comfortable operating in.”
Photo: Air Force
By Yasmin Tadjdeh
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force may soon conduct experiments with a light attack aircraft that could conduct close-air-support missions and supplement existing warplanes — such as the A-10 Thunderbolt II, service acquisition officials said Sept. 21.
The Air Force is currently seeking approval to test a non-developmental platform, referred to as OA-X, said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.
“If we get approval to go forward with an experimentation … [we would host] a flying demonstration to look at the capabilities that are out there in the field,” he said during a media roundtable at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. “That would just be to collect information. That would not be to down select to anything at all. It would be to inform the Air Force of what the capabilities are that are out there.”
The A-29 Super Tucano, built by Embraer, and the AT-6 Wolverine, manufactured by Beechcraft Defense, could be viable options for the OA-X program, experts have suggested.
It will be a long approval process for the experiment, and Bunch did not offer a timeline. “I’m not expecting it next week,” he said. If the Air Force receives approval, it will take the service 120 to 150 days to prepare for the experiment, he added.
The experiment is not about buying an aircraft on the spot, Bunch said. “We’re not looking at anything like that. We’re trying to set up an environment where we can see and have demonstrated what the capabilities are that are off the shelf and available today,” he said.
Within the Air Force, there is one school of thought that suggests if the service can purchase an aircraft that is low-cost and able to operate in a permissive environment, then perhaps it can take the wear and tear off fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft and drive costs down, he said.
“That’s one school of thought” and not necessarily what the Air Force believes, he added. A decision cannot be made until experiments are conducted, he said.
Given that the Air Force is interested in a commercial-off-the-shelf aircraft, it would be difficult for industry to submit a clean sheet design, he said.
The OA-X program is not about replacing the aging A-10, he said. For now, the service has no plans for an immediate follow on to the Warthog, Bunch said.
“That’s not what’s on the table. That’s something that we would have to do a broad engagement strategy [for] and come up with a plan. That’s not what this is about. This is about what’s immediately available,” he said.
For now the service is taking measured steps and has not yet initiated a requirements document for an A-10 replacement program, which would be known as the A-X2, Bunch said.
For years, the Air Force and Congress have been at loggerheads over the aging, but beloved, A-10. The service has tried to retire the aircraft, saying it diverts tights funds from other important programs, but advocates on Capital Hill have blocked those efforts.
Photo: Air Force
By Vivienne Machi
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Despite big investments in new Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies, senior service leaders said Sept. 21 that they still need more sensors to tell them what is happening in their battlespaces.
Whether they were discussing targeting capabilities or how to improve cyber resiliency, senior Air Force leaders at the Air Force Association’s annual conference, as well as the chairman of joint chiefs of staff, all cited intelligence gathering and ISR recapitalization as crucial needs for mission success.
Despite a sustained degree of investment since the early 2000s, the joint services are still far from meeting their ISR needs, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in his keynote speech.
“Since 2003, we have increased the ISR capability capacity available to combatant commanders by 1,200 percent,” he said. “Since 2007, we increased the numbers of ISR platforms over 600 percent.” And yet, operational leaders and combatant commanders said they are meeting “somewhere less than 30 percent of their ISR requirements,” he said. “That is a challenge we cannot buy our way out of,” he said.
Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, told reporters that “the demand for ISR in general is insatiable.”
“It doesn’t matter how much we produce, we cannot meet it,” he said. AFSOC is recapitalizing on ISR capabilities, continuing to conduct testing to place small, tactical off-board sensing systems on its AC-130 gunship, which could improve targeting capabilities under poor weather conditions and other challenges.
Webb emphasized the command is in the “very early stages of that technology,” but that he is “absolutely on board” to continue testing it. Webb was also open to looking at how tactical off-board sensing could fit onto other airframes, like the CV-22 Osprey.
Meanwhile, Webb said he wants to continue to work to place a directed energy weapon on a gunship, something his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold had focused on. “I absolutely do not intend to take the foot off the gas with respect to the development of a high-energy laser.”
Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander for Air Force Material Command, called intelligence gathering one of the key lines of attack that AFMC has identified in a plan to combat cybersecurity threats.
“We need to understand where the threat’s going to be. We have to be able to project what we might see,” she said.
Improved multi-domain command and control was another repeated theme at the conference. Dunford said the joint services are “taking a hard look” at their command and control strategy, but did not provide many details.
The joint services must confront the way the combatant commands interact with each other to address future conflicts that are ever-more transnational, multi-domain and multi-functional, from adversaries like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, plus the threats related to terrorism and cyber attacks, he said.
“That’s a marked change from how we’ve fought in the past,” he said. Current and future conflicts quickly spread across combatant command geographic boundaries and domains while the joint services’ strategy remains based on a regional model, he said.
“I personally don’t believe that our current planning, our organizational construct or our command and control are optimized for the current fight,” he said.
Back in the 1990s, a conflict with North Korea could likely be contained by air power and ground forces to the Korean peninsula. Now that the country has developed intercontinental ballistic missile and cyber capabilities that could target foreign nations, including the United States, a conflict on the Korean peninsula “would very quickly involve” commanders from Pacific Command, Strategic Command and Cyber Command, to name a few, Dunford said.
Cooperation does occur between combatant commands, “but what really is required is global integration,” he said.
Photo: Air Force
By Jon Harper
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force must help develop new battle management networks and operating concepts as the Pentagon seeks to stay ahead of advanced adversaries, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work said Sept. 21.
The ability to coordinate the operations of autonomous systems and other cutting-edge platforms and capabilities will be critical for warfighting and executing the new “third offset” strategy in the coming years, he said.
“We need ideas on how to connect sensing and effect grids through a command-and-control grid that is multi-domain, multi-functional,” he said at an Air Force Association air, space and cyber conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
“We need Air Force thinkers to expand the idea of the [combined air operations center] and think in terms of building a joint learning C3I [command, control, communications and intelligence] network that can mesh operations across domains, across functions, with allies and sometimes across regions,” Work added.
The Pentagon’s No. 2 official identified the recent creation of the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center as an example of the push to develop better command-and-control networks to deal with emerging threats and thwart advanced adversaries who could seek to take down U.S. systems.
The center, known as the JICSPOC, is charged with developing new tactics, techniques and procedures for operating and protecting military, intelligence and civilian space assets. It became operational last year as other countries continued to grow their counter-space capabilities.
The Air Force must now expand battle systems management and operating concepts beyond the service’s traditional domains, Work said.
“Airmen think in terms of space, cyberspace and air,” he told service officials. “I hope you can lead the joint force into a new way of thinking where air superiority effects might originate under the sea, or land superiority is made possible through … multi-domain and multi-functional effects, and maritime superiority is achieved by cooperative operations at sea, on land and in the air.”
The Defense Department is developing and acquiring next-generation technologies and platforms, but tying them together will be essential if the U.S. is to maintain its combat advantage, the deputy defense chief noted.
“It’s the most important thing we have to understand,” he told Air Force officials and members of industry. ”What is the brain that will make this work and what are the connections, the central nervous system that will allow us to wield this battle network effectively?”
Artificial intelligence will be the key ingredient in any solution, he noted. In the coming years, the adoption of various AI technologies will likely be gradual, Work said.
“But if … [Air Force officials and others in the defense community] figure out a vision for a learning C3I network in which all of the narrow AI is contributing to better, faster knowledge and connecting the sensor grid to the effects grid, then that is when you will see the major revolutionary step” in warfighting capability, he said.
Photo: Air Force
Photo: Air Force
By Yasmin Tadjdeh
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force and prime contractor Lockheed Martin are currently working on a fix for faulty cooling lines that grounded more than a dozen F-35A joint strike fighters only a month after being declared combat ready, officials said Sept. 20.
The root of the problem is poor quality insulation provided by a supplier rather than a flaw in the aircraft design, Lt. Gen. Christoper Bogdan, program executive officer for the F35 Lighting II joint program office, said during remarks at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Cyber and Space conference in National Harbor, Maryland. The insulation around the fuel lines deteriorated when it came into contact with the fuel and caused pieces to crumble into the tank, he said.
Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command, said, "It is a subcontractor that failed to perform to standards is what it really was. Quality control of the subcontractor ... did not meet the standards that they were supposed to meet." The problem only affects the Air Force's A-models and only one lot of the fuel lines, he added.
The issue affected 15 F-35As in the field, as well as 42 that are still in production, Bogdan said. The JPO and Lockheed are currently working on an engineering solution, he said.
“We will go in and by cutting holes in the wings ... and remove that insulation and remove that FOD [foreign object damage] … and close the airplane up and allow it to get back into flight,” he said.
The engineering for the fix is completed and maintenance procedures are currently being written, he added. The first airplane to be tested with the fix, which will take place next week, is a ground test aircraft at Lockheed Martin.
Lockheed is currently putting together eight fuel teams that will be sent out within the next week or two to prepare the aircraft for modifications, he said.
“Our first priority is the 15 airplanes in the field and then we will work our way back to resolve the 42 airplanes on the production line,” he said. Modifications for the 15 fielded aircraft should be completed by December.
In a statement, Michael Rein, director of communications for Lockheed’s F-35 program office said, “safety is always our first consideration and Lockheed Martin is committed to resolving this issue as quickly as possible to return jets to flying status.”
Bogdan said it is not a surprise on any given day to find an issue with the airplane. “What I like to tell people is now is the time to find those things and fix them. The perfect example is our insulation problem we have right now,” he said.
“If this problem were to not be found today and to be found three or fours years from now, we would have hundreds of airplanes out there that are affected,” he said. “But we found the problem now, we’re putting our heads down, we’ve got a solution for it and we’re going to fix it.”
The mark of a good program is not that an aircraft doesn’t have any problems, but rather they are found early and fixed so they can move on, he said.
The insulation issue comes on the heels of the F-35A reaching initial operating capability in August. Some have questioned whether or not the aircraft is actually ready for combat, or if declaring IOC was simply the Air Force rubberstamping the program.
If a combatant commander “called me up and said, ‘I need these attributes in an airplane,’ and the F-35 fit, I would send it tomorrow," said Carlisle. "There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that’s what I would do and that’s what initial operating capability means."
Many F-35 critics are people who are not directly involved with the aircraft and do not make decisions about deploying airmen, he added. While the program has faced bumps in the road — such as schedule slippage and cost overruns — that isn’t unlike other Air Force development programs, he said.
Bogdan added: “The program itself is making progress, but that is not to say we don’t have risks and things that we have to take care of — because any development program is going to encounter issues. I will tell you that if you build a test program, or you build a development program and you don’t find anything wrong, then you didn’t do a good enough job building that program.”
Photo: Airmen from the 58th aircraft maintenance unit look over an F-35A. (Air Force)
By Sandra I. Erwin
The concept sounds relatively simple: A team of special operations troops sees an area of interest, and aims their smartphones. Then software magically produces instant GPS coordinates of where the operators are looking, giving commanders the option to strike the target or watch a live-stream of events from their command center.
It’s the type of technology that the U.S. Special Operations Command believes can help lift the fog of war.
The developmental app has yet to be tested in the field, but SOCOM sees promise. The command’s technology incubator, known as SOFWERX, has partnered with the software company CrowdOptic and a prototype version is expected to be ready by Sept. 30.
The app, dubbed “collective awareness engine,” combines real-time GPS data and live video streaming and calculates the precise location of where people’s smartphones or smart-glasses are looking.
It’s a new form of “triangulation,” says CrowdOptic CEO and co-founder Jon B. Fisher. “Triangulation has been around since Pythagoras. GPS has been around for decades,” he says in an interview. What is new is that now “we have the ability to understand in real time where multiple mobile devices are aimed in common.”
Anybody can track the location of your phone, he adds. “What we have is the location of where you’re looking. Imagine multiple phones aiming at a common point.” CrowdOptic algorithms compute the precise GPS location of a fixed or moving target.
Fisher and a small team of engineers invented the app five years ago for the commercial market, and never imagined if would be sought by the military. The version of the app customized for SOCOM was jointly developed with Tampa, Florida-based SOFWERX — an arm of SOCOM created specifically to hunt for cutting-edge technology. The app will be tested next month at the 1208 Rapid Prototyping Event. This is where companies bring commercial open-source technologies that can be rapidly adapted for SOCOM use.
Fisher, a 20-year veteran of the tech startup world, says he was impressed by how quickly SOFWERX moved to bring the company into the fold. “This is real-world fast track,” he says. “We had not heard of them until a month and a half ago. They reached out to us. It’s very exciting.” The software industry is known for moving quickly, he says, “but never have we seen the military provide such a turnkey path to engage them.”
So-called “collective awareness” technology is widespread in sports and other industries. CrowdOptic-equipped Google Glass devices carried by players, referees and fans are used for broadcasting events. Company investors include former National Football League stars John Elway, Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig. In a partnership with Solford Industries, CrowdOptic launched Incident Command Vision, a wireless helmet camera system for fire fighters and law enforcement to stream live video from incident locations.
For the military, this technology “represents a new type of situational awareness and investigative technique,” Fisher says. Specifically for SOCOM, the company designed a smaller version of its streaming device that can be mounted on a helmet or a vest. It has an onboard battery, GPS and compass sensors for push-button live streaming. It also can be activated remotely by commanders in the rear, “so they can see through the war fighters’ eyes,” Fisher says.
SOFWERX immediately understood how this could change the way forces engage enemies, Fisher says. “A commander can see where the soldiers are looking in common, even moving targets, and take action on that. As soldiers are aiming their devices, we can tell SOCOM where the devices are aimed in common. The guys in the field are painting the target and the commanders watch to better understand the target.”
For precise targeting from the air or the ground, the military typically employs laser devices, but the mobile app adds a whole new capability, he says. “Everyone has phones. This is situational awareness any time, anywhere. These guys are walking around, looking around. Now the command can look through them.”
Fisher says tech companies that have been approached by SOFWERX are amazed at how nimble the organization is. In order to test CrowdOptic patented software in government labs, for instance, the organization bought licenses and did not make an issue of intellectual property. “We own lots of patents,” Fisher says. “These guys really respected that about us. That’s another reason this moved so quickly.”
SOCOM leaders have touted SOFWERX as one answer to the military’s frustrations about matching up commercial technology with battlefield systems.
The command’s procurement chief, James Geurts, was an early proponent of SOFWERX to help expedite the transition of advanced technology to the field. One of his favorite sound bites: “Velocity is my combat advantage.”
Fisher has witnessed how innovation around the world leapfrogs at breakneck speed whereas U.S. military technology programs move at a much slower pace. SOFWERX is a dramatic departure from the norm, he says. “Having done business in Silicon Valley for years, I think this is exactly the way the government should be doing this.”
Apps like the collective awareness engine have the potential to give SOCOM options to do more than just pinpoint target location. The software can be adapted for remote firing of unmanned weapons, for example. It can be scaled so large numbers of operators can be connected and help ID targets across the globe, Fisher says. “What happens if this is in the hands of thousands of guys all around the world?’