Air Force Technology’s 2019 year in review

Harry Lye 24 December 2019 (Last Updated December 17th, 2019 13:09)

The world’s Air Forces in 2019 began to try and get a firm grasp on space, while contracts were handed to make missiles faster and of course the F-35 continued to make headlines.

Air Force Technology’s 2019 year in review
F-35 Lightning II. Credit: USAF photo by master sergeant Donald R Allen

DIA Reports on Chinese and Russian space security treats

In February, The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released a report highlighting the key security threats facing the US in space, including the fast-advancing capabilities of Russia and China. The report focused predominantly on China and Russia, noting the strategic intent of both nations in terms of their space and counter-space capabilities.

Speaking to press at the Pentagon, a DIA senior official at the time said: “Both countries have developed robust and capable space services, and these capabilities provide their militaries with the ability to command and control their forces worldwide, and with enhanced situational awareness enabling them to monitor, track and target US and allied forces.

“Chinese and Russian doctrine indicate that they view space as important to modern warfare and view counter-space capabilities as a means to reduce US and allied effectiveness.”

Hypersonic race gets in gear

In March, Raytheon received a contract from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to further develop the US tactical boost-glide (TBG) hypersonic weapons programme. The $63.3m contract work was part of a joint effort from DARPA and the US Air Force (USAF) to develop and demonstrate technologies to enable future air-launched, tactical-range hypersonic boost-glide systems.

Hypersonic systems have been on the shopping lists of militaries around the world this year, with the weapons speed making them harder to intercept with existing air defence systems.

Rendering of what a hypersonic missile could look like. Credits: Raytheon.

Another F-35 story…

In May, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released an F-35 progress report, detailing substantial supply chain challenges to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. These include spare part shortages, mismatched parts, and an immature global supply network.

The report said that at the time of publishing only 27% of F-35s have reached full mission capability, 33% lower than the minimum target of 60%. Approximately 52% of F-35 aircraft are reportedly mission-capable for one mission, again falling short of the minimum target is 75%.

The report also noted that the US DoD has a “repair backlog of about 4,300 F-35 parts”, and had not established the required actions to meet the war fighter requirements.

Turkey gets the boot

In July, the US formally expelled Turkey from the F-35 programme in response to the country accepting delivery of the Russian S-400 missile system. The US had warned Turkey it could face being axed from the programme if it moved ahead with the purchase. As a result of the decision almost 900 parts for the jet made in Turkey had to be relocated to US factories which was predicted to lead to a near 10% increase in the overall programme cost.

The US insisted it still values Turkey as a strategic partner despite the country’s ejection from the F-35 programme, with US under-secretary of defence Ellen Lord saying: “Since early 2017, when Turkey began publicly discussing its interests in the Russian-made S-400 system, all levels of the US government have consistently communicated that the F-35 and the S-400 are incompatible. As other US officials and I have clearly said, Turkey cannot field a Russian intelligence-collection platform in proximity to where the F-35 programme makes, repairs and houses the F-35.”

Russian S-400 Missile System. Credits: Dmitry Fomin (via Flickr).

Space Command takes shape

In August, the US formally stood up the US Space Command (USSPACECOM) to unify command and control of US space-based assets, paving the way for the creation of a US Space Force or Space Corps. USSPACECOM became the US 11th combatant command and is lead by the head of the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) General John Raymond.

The first new command since the creation of US Cyber Command in 2009, Space Command has control over missile warning systems, satellites, space control and space support for the DoD.

Speaking at a press event the US Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, said: “I’m also excited for tomorrow’s activation of the United States Space Command. To ensure the protection of America’s interests in space, we must apply the necessary focus, energy and resources to the task, and that is exactly what Space Command will do.

“As a unified combatant command, the United States Space Command is the next crucial step towards the creation of an independent Space Force as an additional armed service.”

Boeing makes progress on the KC-46

In October, Boeing’s plagued KC-46 got some good news with reports that a fix for faulty cargo-locks was on the way with the company is set to retrofit replacement parts to fix existing aircraft. The aircraft, an aerial refuelling tanker, had been banned from transporting cargo and personnel after it was found that locks to secure pallets and chairs had come loose during flights.

At the time a spokesperson for Boeing told Air Force Technology that the company had developed a fix for the lock and successfully tested it on the aircraft and would be rolled out over the course of the next months. The KC-46 Pegasus is based on the commercial Boeing 767 and was developed as a result of the USAF’s KC-X request for proposals for a new aerial tanker.

US KC-46 Pegasus Tanker. Credits: US DoD.

NATO lays plans for future aircraft

Finally in December, NATO’s Nato Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) announced it had awarded contracts to support the development of a future surveillance and control capabilities. Contracts were awarded bidders including General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, MDA, Airbus and consortiums led by Boeing and L3 Harris.

NATO is looking for industry to develop future surveillance platforms and follows a £1bn contract given to Boeing to modernise its existing Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) fleet in late November. The Boeing contract will keep the AWACS aircraft flying through 2035 after which they are set to be replaced with a new platform which according to the Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will incorporate “autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and big data.”