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Monday, December 19, 2016

Innovation and Air Dominance: Loyal Wingman Options & Acquisition Approach - Part III

Author's Note: I realized I still hadn't uploaded parts III and IV of the Innovation and Air Dominance article series; parts I and II were posted last year. The article series is based off of  two papers I wrote for graduate school. 

Loyal Wingman Assessment and Procurement Strategy

Image 8: Loyal Wingman Options

            The F-16 is a reliable, combat proven, and highly versatile airframe with nearly 1,000 active aircraft in service within the USAF. The F-16 design is highly mature and upgraded derivatives of the F-16 are expected to fly into the late 2020s to early 2030s ensuring robust fleet sustainment and support activities for any modified unmanned F-16 program. In 2012, Boeing began modifying older F-16 airframes into QF-16 target drones which have superior maneuverability and countermeasure performance when compared to older QF-4 target drones. The greatest benefit a modified QF-16 program would be its comparatively low unit cost. The average cost to modify and F-16 into a QF-16 under a 2014 contract was $6.9 million per airframe.[1] Furthermore, at least some of the 300 F-16 airframes remain stored at the “boneyard” in Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ could be utilized for a modified QF-16 program.[2] Given the reduced maneuverability needs of the loyal wingman concept, the QF-16 could be loaded with external fuel tanks to extend its range and endurance. The greatest deficiency of a modified QF-16 design would be its limited survivability as a result of its comparatively large radar cross section (RCS) relative to 5th generation aircraft; significant electronic warfare support would be required to keep QF-16s operational long enough for them to fulfill their support role of manned aviation platforms. The following initiatives could improve the survivability of a modified QF-16 at additional cost:
  1. “Have Glass” II radar absorbent material (RAM) coatings applied to the F-16CM/CJ “Wild Weasel” F-16 derivative could conceivably be applied to the QF-16 for marginal RCS improvements
  2. An enclosed specially shaped weapons pod similar to Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Block III concept for the QF-16 could provide additional RCS improvements
  3. Adoption of the Low Observable Asymmetric Nozzle (LOAN) to the F100-PW-200 engine as demonstrated by Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney in 1996 would both reduce the QF-16’s rear aspect RCS and its IR signature[3]
  4. Incorporation of a diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI) similar to Lockheed Martin’s highly successful modified F-16 Block 30 demonstrator aircraft tested in 1996 would likely provide substantial frontal RCS improvements[4]

In contrast to the QF-16, the Predator-C features a built in reduced RCS which would greatly enhance its survivability.
            The Predator-C was originally developed to fulfil the USAF’s MQ-X program to design a low observable airframe capable of withstanding battle damage in a contested environment as well as incorporating a resilient and agile communications system.[5] Notably, the USAF did not find the Predator C’s performance to meet MQ-X requirements and canceled the program in 2012. However, the cancelation of the MQ-X may have been the result of shifting priorities towards the classified deep penetrating ISR and electronic warfare platform, the RQ-180 RPA.[6] Regardless, the Predator C fulfills many of the less ambitious loyal wingman criteria such as low observability, range, endurance, and low technical risk and cost ($15 million unit cost). The modular design of the Predator C facilitates future upgrades and new payloads such as General Atomics’ 150 kW laser module which is scheduled for in-flight interception tests against rocket and missiles between 2016 and 2017 at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.[7]  A more in-depth technical and cost analysis is likely required to definitively determine which aircraft best would fulfil the loyal wingman role, but the greater capabilities and survivability of the Predator-C likely merit the additional unit cost. Should the USAF pursue a SoS solution to air superiority to ease the transition between 5th and 6th generation platforms, the following organizational structure maximizes acquisition agility, expertise, and risk reduction:
  • Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) – oversight and coordination
  • Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) – acquisition
  • Big Safari – systems integration between loyal wingman and 5th generation platforms
  • USAF Weapons School, Test and Evaluation Squadrons (TES), Aggressor Squadrons (ARGS)  – new techniques, tactics, and procedures (TTP)
Image 9: Relevant development, acquisition, and procurement agencies. 

The guiding philosophy behind the organizational structure above is that small well financed and highly autonomous offices/organizations staffed by the best and the brightest within an institution are key drivers of innovation[8]. The growth of bureaucracies and oversight requirements has stifled the pace of innovation as two former Skunk Works engineers recently remarked in a Classic Aircraft Magazine interview:
…the time it takes to go from initial design to operational use by the Air Force is directly proportional to the size of the Air Force oversight committee that’s guiding the airplane design. For the F-117, the Air Force team was a colonel and six other experts-the corresponding team on the F-22 was 130. And if you ratio 130 over seven, you’ll get just about the ratio of the time it took from starting the airframes to getting them in service… Because of bureaucracy, […] once you get all these organizations involved-all the different Air Force bases across the country, and every contractor that makes a screw for the airplane-when they have meetings, everybody comes to every meeting, and nothing ever gets settled. It’s crazy! If you’ve got 300 people in a meeting, what the hell do you solve?[9] [emphasis added]
Given the core requirement of any SoS solution to be fielded within a decade, as many of the major organizations which would be required to transition the SoS concept to an operational capability were chosen as a result of their comparatively small highly skilled workforce and greater institutional autonomy.
            The SCO is the newest of the four major organizations listed above and was created in 2012 at the recommendation of Ashton Carter while he served as Deputy Secretary of Defense. SCO has largely developed around the expertise and creativity of William Roper, a Rhodes Scholar with an educational background in physics and mathematics. SCO’s mission is “to help us to re-imagine existing DOD and intelligence community and commercial systems by giving them new roles and game-changing capabilities to confound potential enemies — the emphasis here was on rapidity of fielding, not 10 and 15-year programs. Getting stuff in the field quickly”. [10] SCO has a full time staff of just six government employees and roughly 20 contractors making it the smallest organization examined in the proposal.[11] The growing clout of SCO, whose budget rose to $530 million in funding for 2016 up from $125 million in 2014, and small size facilitate SCO’s role as the ideal oversight and coordination body for the SoS solution to air superiority. In many ways, the SCO drew its organizational inspiration from the RCO.
            The RCO is the USAF’s premier agile acquisition organization with a consistent track record of success as demonstrated in their involvement of the X-37B space plane and long range strike bomber. Formed in 2003, RCO operates outside of much of the Pentagon’s traditional acquisition system and reports directly to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition), Chief of Staff for the Air Force, and Air Force Secretary. The workforce of roughly 80 individuals is widely regarded as among the USAF’s foremost experts in acquisition.[12] Given its extensive acquisition capabilities and experience, RCO would be responsible for leading the acquisition of the loyal wingman. RCO would seek to procure at least 200 primary aircraft inventory (PAI) – the minim number to be strategically relevant, loyal wingmen UCAVs with additional units for attrition reserve, test and evaluation, training, etc. The unmodified base Predator-C has a unit cost of roughly $15 million meaning the low-end procurement estimate cost of the proposal, which does not factor necessary data link and semi-autonomous mode modifications, is $3 billion. The opportunity cost in terms of F-35As would be roughly 28 aircraft using Lot 8 prices of roughly $108 million per airframe.[13]  In terms of the cost effectiveness of a platform to carry air-to-air missiles, the F-35A is $9 million vs. $2.5 million in terms of unit cost divided by SACM storage capacity. Despite the enormous capabilities of the F-35, the minimal curtailment of the F-35 fleet, roughly one fighter squadron worth of aircraft, to fund 200 UCAVs is merited as the UCAVs would have a disproportionate force multiplier effect on the entire fighter force via SoS integration.

Image 10: AH-64 with MQ-1C, OH-58 background. Image Credit: U.S. Army. 

            Big Safari is a USAF program founded in 1952 and its primary mission is to rapidly create modifications for existing aircraft. Over its long history, Big Safari has supported numerous USAF programs such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint, MQ-1, and reactivation of the SR-71 fleet in 1994.[14] In many respects, Big Safari’s role in the loyal wingman proposal is the most challenging. Both the F-35 and F-22 need to be able to communicate with the Predator-C which likely utilizes a C-Band line-of-sight data link before transitioning to a Ku-Band Beyond Line-of-Sight (BLOS)/SATCOM data link for the majority of its the flight in a similar manner as the MQ-9 Reaper.[15] Traditional methods of ground control are insufficient and reliance on satellite communication systems in the midst of a conflict with a near-peer adversary is possibly shortsighted. Big Safari might be able to incorporate the Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) into the F-35, F-22, and Predator-C as a short-term solution to expedite the modification process; the AH-64E already utilizes TCDL to command the MQ-1C under MUM-T. Over the long-term, developing a low probability intercept, resilient, and secure data link is the single most important aspect of any SoS system. The data link and associated battle management network is potentially the Achilles’ heel of any SoS system as disrupting the integration and communication of its various subsystems negates the synergistic effects SoS typically provides thereby potentially making each individual system more vulnerable to attack. At a higher institutional level, the U.S. military needs to be diligent to institute a network-enhanced warfare system, not a network dependent system as Jon Solomon astutely examines in the article, “21st Century Maritime Operations Under Cyber-Electromagnetic Opposition”:
...there is a gigantic difference between a network-enhanced warfare system and a network-dependent warfare system. While the former’s performance expands greatly when connected to other force elements via a network, it nevertheless is designed to have a minimum performance that is ‘good enough’ to independently achieve certain critical tasks if network connectivity is unavailable or compromised...Conversely, a network-dependent warfare system fails outright when its supporting network is corrupted or denied.[16]
A partial solution to a network-dependent system is semi-autonomous capability as this proposal advocates as a core requirement for the unmanned wingman UCAV. Big Safari would likely work with General Atomics on a sole source basis to develop the necessary software and hardware modifications to upgrade the Predator-C with a semi-autonomous mode capable of supporting manned 5th generation assets. Once the modifications to the F-22, F-35, and Predator-C have been completed, the first modified aircraft would be sent to specialized units to create new TTP.
The elite Weapons School based at Nellis Air Force Base is responsible for both teaching the skills required for modern combat pilots and developing new TTP in tandem with USAF TES and AGRS. Once a new aircraft enters the fleet, TES attempt to identify teething problems with the aircraft. After the aircraft’s teething problems have been rectified, the TES pilots often attempt to create new methods of employing the aircraft[17]. Doctrines and new TTP are strenuously evaluated with aggressor units in large simulated combat exercises such as Red Flag, Red Air, or Northern Edge. AGRS enable the USAF to conduct accurate combat exercises by providing a realistic opposing force to engage trainees. Aggressor pilots are among the most skilled pilots in the USAF fighter force and specialize in flying their aircraft in a manner similar as a selected aircraft from a potential adversary; aggressor pilots will study their chosen adversary aircraft in detail for an entire year based upon briefings from the intelligence community on adversary capabilities and tactics.[18] These institutions provide the USAF with a robust capability to test new concepts of operation in a realistic setting. The feedback and TTP developed by the Weapons School, TES, and ARGS with respect to the loyal wingman will be the final major step before operationalizing the SoS approach to air superiority.
In conclusion, a manned F-X sixth generation WVR capable platform is still needed with an expected IOC of 2035 to 2040. However, a low cost SoS solution to air superiority incorporating MALD, SACM, a loyal wingman UCAV, and 5th generation platforms can ease the transition between the 5th and 6th generation platforms by substantially solidifying the U.S.’ comparative advantage in BVR missile exchange capabilities. The loyal wingman and its associated modifications developed and purchased by the DoD and USAF’s leading small, autonomous, highly skilled and innovative organizations such as SCO, RCO, and Big Safari will maximize acquisition agility. Lastly, the Weapons School, TES, and ARGS will translate the potential of the loyal wingman and SoS concept into decisive new operational capabilities for the USAF and the joint force.

Author's Note: Part IV will discuss the role of the sixth generation F-X and why the USAF must accelerate the program.

[1] Defense Industry Daily, “QF-16s: Look Ma, No Hands!”, last modified May 2014.
[2] “F-16 Fleet Reports”, last visited April 2016.
[3] “F-16 LOAN Low Observable Asymmetric Nozzle”, last visited May 10, 2016.
[4] Eric Hehs, “JSF Diverterless Supersonic Inlet”, July 15, 2000.
[5] David Axe, “The U.S. Air Force Was Not Fond of the Next-Gen Predator Drone”, November 2014.
[6] Amy Butler and Bill Sweetman, “Where Does RQ-180 Fit In Stealthy UAS History?”, December 2013.
[7] Richard Whittle, “General Atomics Plans 150kW Laser Tests; Eye On AC-130, Avenger”, December 2015.
[8] Ben R. Rich & Leo Janos, Skunk Works, (Back Bay Books, 1994), 343-350.  
[9] Dario Leone, “Two former Skunk Works members seem to know why the F-35 program is a mess”, April 2013.
[10] Colin Clark and Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Robot Boats, Smart Guns & Super B-52s: Carter’s Strategic Capabilities Office”, February 2016.
[11] Dan Lamothe, “Veil of secrecy lifted on Pentagon office planning ‘Avatar’ fighters and drone swarms”, March 2016.
[12] Marcus Weisgerber, “Meet the Secretive Team Shaping the Air Force’s New Bomber”, October 2015.
[13] Aaron Mehta,“Bogdan: F-35 Costs Down, Despite Worries”, March 2015.
[14] Global Security, “Big Safari”, last modified April 2011.
[15] Defense Industry Daily, “It’s Better to Share: Breaking Down UAV GCS Barriers”, last modified October 2011.
[16] Jon Solomon, “21st Century Maritime Operations Under Cyber-Electromagnetic Opposition Part Two”, October 2014.
[17] Dave Majumdar,“USAF testers prepare for F-35 operational evaluation”, last modified 11 March, 2013,
[18] Dave Majumdar, “The Aggressors: Someone has to play the bad guy. Part One”, NY Military and Civil Aviation Examiner, last modified April 2009,
[19] Bill Sweetman, “F-35 Stealthier Than F-22?”, June 9, 2014.
[20] John Wilcox, “Arming 5th & 6th Gen Aircraft In An A2AD Environment”, 2015.
[21] Amy Butler, “ACC Chief: Stealth ‘Incredibly Important’ For Next USAF Fighter”, February 12, 2015.
[22] Guy Norris, “GE Details Sixth-Generation Adaptive Fighter Engine Plan “, January 29, 2015.
[23] John Wilcox, “Arming 5th & 6th Gen Aircraft In An A2AD Environment”, 2015.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Bill Sweetman,, et al, “Podcast: What’s Interesting In The New Budget?”, February 2015.


  1. I am not sure I see the point of reducing a QF-16 RCS, if practically all wingman mission calls for use of external stores

    1. If the Predator C was not an option, reducing the RCS of the QF-16 might be worthwhile for the purpose of delaying detection such that it can fulfill its role as missile truck rather than trying to make a stealth aircraft e.g. similar to the F-16CJ/CMs which both utilizes extensive Have Glass treatments and carry external stores. DSI, LOAN, and other extensive airframe modifications are cost prohibitive and are not likely to be worthwhile. A simpler solution might just be to incorporate a much longer range AAM with the QF-16 such as the Meteor. The loyal wingmen should not be thought of as disposable and some degree of survivability is required for BVR scenarios.