ORLANDO -- I'm reporting today from the AFA Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, searching for clues on the US Air Force's many new and ongoing acquisition programs. Of great interest are the USAF's plans for the F-35 fighter, KC-X tanker, CSAR-X helicopter, and next generation bomber (which I'd prefer the air force call B-X, but that sounds too much like their on-base department stores).
11:25: We've moved on to long range strike. According to Kowalski, when the air force describes the next generation bomber as "optionally manned", that's a purely non-nuclear, long-range mission.
11:05: Speaking to reporters, Kowalski has clarified his position on an acquisition strategy for CVLSP [see entry below for background]. Decisions about the acquisition strategy will be made by the air force's assistant secretary for acquisition, and there's another "meeting or two" before a decision is made. Kowalski says he wants to circumvent a competition among multiple bidders and award the contract on a sole source basis for the Sikorsky HH-60M. "It accelerates that process and maybe removes some things that -- while nice to do within the acquisition formal structure -- when we're trying to do efficiencies and do things the smartest way," Kowalski says. I asked Kowalski if he has any concerns that taxpayers won't get the best deal without a competition. He replied that the acquisition policy issue is made above his rank, and that his job is to meet an "urgent and compelling need" for new helicopters. "How much longer are we winning to wait and take this risk?" he asked.
10:35: Gen James Kowalski, head of Global Strike Command, has addressed the audience, and pressed his case for replacing UH-1s supporting missile fields with new fleet of about 90 helicopters. "The UH-1s have served the air force well since 1970. But the requirement has changed in the 1990s. After the terrorist attack o 9/11, ... [the air force needs] robust and agile forces for our convoys and misile security. ... With our current fleet we could fail. The risk we assume with this platform is unacceptable. The need for a replacement is both urgent and compelling." Kowalski did not address the fact that the air force has not released an acquisition strategy for the replacement program, which is called the common vertical lift support platform (CVLSP). When he speaks to reporters later, I'm sure this question will come up.
10:23: Hamilton Sundstrand's stand in the exhibit hall offers a throw-back concept for a long range strike platform. I detect a strong resemblance to the McDonnell Douglas/General Dynamics A-12. I'll post a photo later.
9:15: More information from Donley on 6th generation fighters:
"We do not have resources available to ramp up a 6th generation fighter while we're still working on 5th generation. We do continue R&D in AFRL and other dimensions of our ongoing R&D work relative to advance components, avionics, weapons that will eventually support that work. So the early peices of what would constitute a future program are already out there. What we'll be looking at is how to focus that work at a relatively low level on an extended timeline so that we understand how those various research programs are developing and might interact."
9:12: Asked what would trigger a 6th generation fighter program, Donley replied: "More money." I asked if that meant he would launch a program now if his budget was larger, given the threat. Donley replied:
"The broad message ... is we're living with flat budgets ... They may go down a little bit. We already have a significant challenge to implement the programs that are on our plate. ... We have a very full plate of acquistion priorities. We can already see requirements that are not funded -- T-X, presidential aircraft replacement. Some other special niche smaller fleet kind of assets that will eventually need to be repalced. Even the Minuteman will need to be replaced. So that's those issues that are out there byeond the FYDP and beyond the FYDP-FYDP. We have a lot of issues in front of us."
8:59: Speaking to reporters, Donley answers questions about possible KC-X protest:"We have assumed that there might be a protest so we have taken a lot of care and extra time in our source selection process to fully and completely [document] every aspect of the source selection process so everything is fully documented. We certainly hope that the offerors will not decide to protest. We recognize that is their right."
8:30: Donley says the latest F-35 production slowdown has forced a "deeper assessment for F-16 service life extension", but a decision to launch such a program is not necessary for four more years. [Background: In December, Lockheed inducted a USAF F-16 to begin a three-year assessment of the aircraft's remaining service life.]
8:26: Donley on KC-X: "We must recapitalize the tanker fleet. As we posture the future our mobility assets will remain central. In the last year we solicited and received proposals and despite the inadvertent release of some information we're confident the integrity of that process has been maintained and we're positioned to make a source selection soon."
8:20: Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley is delivering the keynote speech.