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State of AF: Modernizing for next offset strategy

ORLANDO, Fla. (AFNS) -- Budget plans are poised to keep the Air Force atop of its game, with a new bomber and advanced technology to help Airmen execute a future offset strategy, the head of the service announced at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium Feb. 26.

“We’ve got to be forward thinking enough to balance winning today’s fight while preparing for tomorrow’s,” said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. “Though the horizon may seem distant, it’s actually just around the corner, and we’re getting ready for takeoff.”

With a requested top-line budget of $120.4 billion for fiscal year 2017, the Air Force aims to stand up to any threat, such as terrorist groups, China, North Korea and a resurgent Russia.

“We’re keeping our eyes on the ball to protect against a wide range of potential adversaries,” James said.

Building blocks

The secretary outlined the foundation for an upcoming third offset, following decades of nuclear deterrence and precision airpower in defense of the nation.

The first building block would harness the power of autonomous learning systems.

“These are computers that can learn and adapt over time,” she said. “They’ll be able to sort through massive amounts of data in a flash to help the warfighter make high-pressure decisions on cyberattacks, satellite movements, and target identification.”

Next, human-machine collaboration would play a key role while relying on Airmen thinking.

“This is where a machine acts as a human’s assistant to prevent overload,” James said. “This allows the user to focus on the life or death decisions that only the brain of the trained Airman can make.”

Assisted human operations, including wearable technology or combat applications to help ground troops, may also be used one day in cockpits, the flightline and even in space to give space operators a “virtual presence” on satellites, she said.

The fourth building block, human-machine combat teaming, would integrate autonomously operating platforms with a manned strike package. One example is the F-35 Lightning II helmet, which breaks down complex sensor and computer data from the aircraft before giving it to the pilot.

“Autonomous platforms could conduct initial (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) to identify surface-to-air threats, and relay the information back to the manned package for follow-on electronic warfare operations,” James said.

Lastly, network-enabled semi-autonomous technology, found in weapons like the small diameter bomb, could allow weapons to talk and share data with each other.

“So they can still hit the target if they lose data link from the aircraft or access to GPS, as they may in a highly contested environment,” she said.

Budget plans

Future spending will look to build up the force with quality Airmen who can effectively conduct the next offset strategy.

“We have been downsizing for a long time in our Air Force and this simply must stop. And it is stopping. Now we are in an era of modest upsize and we are doing it for our total force,” the secretary said.

Congress has allowed the Air Force, she added, to boost its active-duty ranks by about 6,000 Airmen to roughly 317,000 by the end of this fiscal year.

“In reality, I think mission demands will indicate that we need more growth in (fiscal 2017),” she said. “To meet these demands, I’m planning on taking a judicious approach to incrementally increasing our total force beyond the current level, provided we can attract the right talent.”

To ensure mission readiness, the secretary pointed to efforts for the new B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber and advancements on the F-35, KC-46A Pegasus and combat rescue helicopter programs.

Plans are also in place to add two dozen MQ-9A Reaper drones, extra munition buys, and to postpone the retirements of A-10 Thunderbolt II and EC-130 Compass Call aircraft.

The secretary also called for Congress to support base changes to maximize funding.

“We really need the authority to conduct a base closure and realignment,” she said. “We’re spreading out a much (smaller) pie for infrastructure improvements to many different places and we’re not doing justice to any single location.”

But there has been recent success with Cost Capability Analysis, an analytical tool used to study cost and military utility, which helped reduce the cost of B-2 Spirit communications system upgrades by 41 percent.

“The bottom line is that the numbers count, innovation counts, and speed counts,” James said. “If we can get the price tag right, leverage innovation, and do so faster, we can continue to acquire more of what we need.”

In closing, the secretary noted that despite what happens with the next offset strategy, the Air Force will lean on its most prized possession.

“Our Airmen represent our legacy and our future,” she said. “Airmen are our secret weapon. They always were, and always will be.”