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These are Uncertain Times for the US Air Force

Air Force Association’s 2018 Air, Space & Cyber Conference

Some clarion, final impressions from the last three days of “living and breathing Air Force” at the 2018 Air Force Association’s 2018 Air, Space & Cyber conference.

The service is boldly and deliberately moving to improve its readiness in several heretofore challenging missions: cyber security and training (MONCh was told on the sidelines the award of T[X] contract is “imminent”), to name a few. On the technology front, while there is much discussion of China and Russia’s efforts to leap ahead of the US and other Western nations with their hypersonic weapons programmes, there were references this week to the quickening pace of US activities to field its hypersonic weapons – with one focal point being the joint activities of the US service secretaries.

Yet, delegates are leaving the National Harbor venue with more questions than answers to a number of challenges on the USAF’s horizon. Given the US’s uncertain political direction after this November’s congressional election and the nation’s mounting debt, there is the oft-asked question of “Really?” to the senior leadership’s increasingly well-publicized vision to dramatically increase operational squadrons to 386. While the service’s long-gestating Boeing KC-46 programme is finally on track, the future and viability of manned air force tankers in a future contested airspace is one of those topics waiting to emerge to the forefront.

Credit Air Mobility Command’s leader General Maryanne Miller with discussing the topic this week. (Hint: USAF may wish to look at the genesis of the recently awarded contract to Boeing to deliver the MQ-25 aerial refueler, the US Navy’s first carrier-based unmanned air vehicle). And perhaps as a “nudge” to USAF, industry’s special missions aircraft sector and its partners are truly asking “What’s next and when” for the acquisition plan replace JSTARS.

On the industry side of the military-industry “team”, mergers and acquisitions in the aerospace and defense sectors continue at an eye-watering pace – with Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s acquisitions of small satellite companies Millennium Space Systems and Terran Orbital, respectively, being the capstones of a busy 2018 to date. Several industry colleagues note they have been forewarned of being “subsumed” in a merger or acquisition effort by year’s end.

Marty Kauchak

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