Group Editor Marty Kauchak provides highlights of the US Air Force’s quickly evolving “Rebuilding the Forge” Concept of Operations that aims to dramatically cut the time to train.

One of the most significant US Air Force (USAF) simulation & training (S&T) developments MS&T will publish in its 2020 editorial program is this brief feature article, which examines that service’s roll out of its Rebuilding the Forge (Reforge) Concept of Operations (CONOP). As readers familiar with military bureaucracies are aware, a CONOP label has significant implications, most notably, the lack of funding mechanisms through the budget outyears and other support of a true US DoD program of record. Yet, this CONOP is an attention-getter. For instance, Alexi Worley, a Media Operations spokesperson at Air Combat Command (ACC), initially noted, “Reforge seeks to reduce the time from Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) graduation to combat flight lead in an operational fighter squadron by 12-18 months.” At the end of the day, the service is conceptually seeking to parlay this reduction into the time needed to transform an aspiring student pilot into a fighter flight lead from 40 to as few as 22 months.

Familiar Requirements

The Reforge CONOP, published this 2 June under the approval signature of Air Force General James Holmes, Commander, ACC, provides compelling – and all-too-familiar reasons to regular readers of MS&T – for the service to invest in what is nothing less than a game-changing way to acquire mission ready fighter pilots. While the service is “not making new fighter pilots fast enough”, the CONOP notes, the Air Force is also “not retaining enough of those we do make in the force.” Beyond persistent accession and retention woes, there is the reality of a mismatch between strategies and training readiness in the contested 2020-era warfighting domain, in particular, as the Air Force invests in the fifth generation F-35A and other forward leaning warfighting systems. Indeed, the CONOP asserted that, for starters, “Current tactical training development is not keeping pace.”

What’s also noteworthy, is nowhere in the CONOP, nor in previous senior service leader pronouncements on this topic, has there been the requirement to advance the CONOP to save training dollars and other resources. While it has been noted any savings in training funds generated by the CONOP will be a byproduct of this effort, the service appears to be genuinely focused on overcoming its fighter pilot community’s retention, training readiness and other shortfalls through a mix of revamped training courses, cutting-edge learning technologies, the Boeing T-7 Red Hawk advanced trainer and other enablers.

Rebuilding Fighter Training

ACC’s Worley summarized how the service will revamp its’ fighter pilot accession training by reducing the pipeline by 12-18 months. “This is done by merging aspects of UPT Phase III, IFF (an eight-week fighter pilot training course) and the Formal Training Unit into a 12-month, proficiency-based training program called Initial Tactical Training (ITT). Upon earning wings, a new pilot will complete a permanent change of station to an ITT squadron at an operational wing. Those completing ITT will be eligible for a Formal Training Unit short course, which is approximately half of the Basic course.”

The ITT program is of particular interest to the S&T community. It is expected this program will integrate flying training sorties, augmented with new learning tools and technologies to enhance all aspects of training. Reforge is not limited to just one type of technology, as all variations of reality-based systems are options to enhance the training pilots receive. Of significance, the major command spokesperson added, “Augmented/mixed/virtual reality technologies, including AI/machine learning for a proficiency-based training program, will be reviewed and many will have their viability assessed during the Rebuilding the Forge Proof of Concept (RFX).”

 A common editorial topic of interest among Halldale Group publications MS&T, CAT and Safety Critical Training is “cross pollination” – the sharing and, when appropriate, the migration of learning technologies and lessons learned – among military, civil aviation and high-risk industries’ training audiences. To that end, as the Air Force is casting a wide net to gain learning technologies and best practices for Reforge, ACC was asked to what extent it is seeking insights from one specific, adjacent community – civil aviation – on its path forward. The Command’s Worley responded, “Reforge is not planning on limiting itself to internal USAF solutions to achieve the desired objectives. Industry and the civil sector have concepts, methods, and technology both under development and in use that have the potential to enhance this concept. The team is open to ideas that will lead to the best possible solution to produce and develop fighter pilots.”

Wanted: RFX Training Aircraft

Another glaring, early mismatch in the CONOP is the absence of the new T-7A to support the service’s expressed interest for a quick beginning to RFX, and with good reason: through this last decade, the Air Force relegated a replacement of Air Education and Training Command’s (AETC’s) 58-year-old fleet of T-38C Talons, behind robust investments in the F-35A Lightning II, KC-46 tanker and other air platform priorities.

Belatedly, the Pentagon awarded a US$9.2 billion contract to Boeing in September 2018 for 351 T-7A aircraft, 46 simulators and associated ground equipment to be delivered and installed, replacing the AETC’s Talons.

The Pentagon awarded a $(US) 9.2 billion contract to Boeing in September 2018 for 351 T-7A aircraft (one in flight above), 46 simulators and associated ground equipment to be delivered and installed, replacing AETC’s Talons. Image credit: Boeing.

An Air Force document notes the first T-7A aircraft and simulators are scheduled to arrive at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, in 2023. All undergraduate pilot training bases will eventually transition from the T-38C to the T-7A. Those bases include Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi; Laughlin AFB and Sheppard AFB, Texas; and Vance AFB, Oklahoma. However, the T-7A is still a long way from becoming reality, with full operational capability not expected until 2034.

As this article was submitted for publication, the Air Force was piecing together together its strategy to harmonize its ability to start and possibly complete the RFX phase with an alternate next generation trainer aircraft. Comments in open source media outlets and service documents, attributed to ACC’s chief Holmes and other service officials, have noted the Air Force’s interest to lease between eight to eleven T-50 jets, originally made by Korea Aerospace Industries, or even the Leonardo M346 Master advanced jet trainer, to launch RFX as early as mid-2021. In a story line rich with irony that MS&T will follow, both the T-50 and M346 took part in the Air Force’s original T-X competition – losing to the Red Hawk.

ACC’s Worley added, “The anticipated lease will use an advanced trainer for the next 4-plus years.”

The Air Force’s interest in another, advanced training aircraft as a “gap filler” to commence RFX, before sustained T-7A deliveries occur, generated the author’s request to the service to confirm the fielding plan, and possible adjustments to the broader Red Hawk program of record for 371 aircraft. Ann Stefanik, spokesperson for the US Air Force staff at the Pentagon, responded, “AETC will replace T-38C aircraft directly with the T-7A. Detailed planning efforts are ongoing, but AETC will continue to use the T-38C throughout the transition and will endeavor to make the transition as efficient as possible with the least impact to pilot production. The Air Force will transition directly from T-38C to the T-7A and does not expect a gap between the T-38C and T-7A for Undergraduate Pilot Training [author’s emphasis].”

Yet another story line will evolve once the service takes delivery of the Red Hawk. To be certain, Air Force leadership has publicly maintained the T-7 will be a good trainer – able to prepare the next generation of fourth- and fifth-generation pilots to go into harm’s way. What’s unknown is whether its configuration will be enough to meet the needs of fighter training, or if it will need to be modified.

Boeing declined to comment on T-7A for this article.

Contracts supporting RFX are expected to be awarded by the end of fiscal 2020 (this 30 September for the US DoD), with this CONOP phase expected to be finished in a little less than five years.

To manage S&T industry expectations of additional opportunities for the broad, still evolving CONOP, beyond the ACC-conducted industry “one-on-one” sessions on 23 July 2019, Worley added, “there is no intent to conduct further industry days.”

Air Force Training Coalition

This CONOP is one of a number of concurrent Air Force strategies seeking to gain training readiness efficiencies throughout service pilot training programs. In one instance, readers of MS&T and its web site, follow the progress of the oft-cited Pilot Training Next program. At the same time, other service S&T professionals are expanding the training readiness envelope in other technology pursuits. The service is seeking to harmonize these disparate efforts through Reforge. ACC’s Worley pointed out the Reforge Task Force is developing a coalition across multiple Major Commands in order to enable information sharing, specific to lessons learned and best practices. “The team intends to leverage as much corporate knowledge as is available in order to avoid reinventing the wheel of the work that has already occurred and is going on now across the Air Force.”

Expanding Storyline

There is a quickening pace of activities to launch the US Air Force’s Reforge CONOP. The ability to achieve the CONOP’s bold, major deliverable of reducing the time needed to mold an aspiring student pilot into a fighter flight lead, from 40 to as few as 22 months, will offer major lessons learned for other military aviation communities. Early metrics on the service’s multi-year journey will focus on accession and retention data in the jet pilot community. However, MS&T readers will recognize that the ultimate CONOP grade of success or failure, will be earned through that service’s jet pilot community’s ability to win in an increasingly complex, contested air battles of this decade and beyond.