Improved range, payload, sensing and weapons are needed not only for the U.S. Air Force’s future Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) family of systems, but also for the current fighter force, including the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22, Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, the head of Air Combat Command (ACC), said on March 9.

“We’ve invested a lot as a nation–time, effort and money–into building a low-observable force,” Kelly told a McAleese & Associates defense conference in Washington, D.C. “We will not get a good return on investment from this low-observable fleet if, due to weapons limitations, we have to push them into ranges where everyone’s observable.”

“Range/payloads/weapons doesn’t just apply to what we’re acquiring,” he said. “It applies to what we already own. We built the F-22 to kill Russian Flankers. Period. Yes, it has done great in employing GBU-32 JDAMs and GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs in combat, but when we built it, we acquired it to kill Russian Flankers. But a different time frame means a different threat and geographic region, which means now I need it to go further. I need it to sense further, and I need it to engage at further ranges than its original design.”

Boeing [BA] builds the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the Small Diameter Bomb.

Lockheed Martin received a contract last November potentially worth nearly $10.9 billion to modernize the F-22 through October 2031 under the Advanced Raptor Enhancement & Sustainment (ARES) program.

In addition, ACC recently declared initial operational capability (IOC) for the Lockheed Martin Legion infrared search and track (IRST) pod on F-15C fighters by Boeing (Defense Daily, Feb. 14).

Legion is to permit air-to-air targeting using Raytheon Technologies‘ [RTX] AIM-120 missiles against hostile aircraft in radar-denied environments.

Lockheed Martin has been developing the pod since 2015 and received a Boeing subcontract for Legion in 2017.

Boeing has said that equipment on current F-15Cs, such as fuel tanks, Lockheed Martin Sniper targeting pods, and the Legion IRST pods in radar-denied environments are fully compatible with the new F-15EX, and, as a result, the Air Force can simply transfer those systems from F-15Cs to F-15EXs without having to buy new materiel (Defense Daily, Feb. 2, 2021). ACC said that the Legion pod is also compatible with the Lockheed Martin F-16.

The Air Force has hoped to field the classified Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM) as early as this fiscal year. JATM is to defeat adversary electronic jamming and to have a longer range than the AIM-120D (Defense Daily, Nov. 24, 2021).

The Air Force and the Navy are to field JATM on the Lockheed Martin F-22, the Boeing F/A-18E/F, and the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter aircraft.

In 2019, the Air Force disclosed the JATM effort to counter the Chinese-made PL-15 air-to-air missile (Defense Daily, June 20, 2019). While the Air Force has divulged little about JATM and has said that its capabilities are classified, defense analysts have said that the missile will likely have a speed of Mach 4 to 5 and a range of 120 to 150 miles.

While the Air Force said last year that the first JATM flight test would occur this year, JATM flight testing appears to stretch back to Feb. 13, 2019 when the missile clocked 5.5 flying hours, according to “sortie recaps” posted on the federal government’s business notice web page.

On March 9, Kelly said that flight training to counter Chinese and Russian threats will require a greatly enhanced use of simulators.

Despite upgrades to Air Force ranges to train for such threats, “there is no level of fiscal investment that would enable a physical range expansion to replicate the size and scope of an Asia-Pacific fight, and there is no level of fiscal investment that would let me legally replicate the contested electromagnetic spectrum of communications jamming, radar jamming, and GPS jamming that a peer adversary would transmit into a contested region,” Kelly said.

“There are also limits to the amount of high end adversary air that I can generate to challenge our aircrews,” he said. “To that end, we have to take our toughest combat challenges into the synthetic, simulator environment. All roads to Desert Storm led to the Nellis test and training range and Red Flag. The dynamics of modern conflict and the limits of our physical range infrastructure mean that all roads to peer competition and conflict will go through our virtual test and training center and other synthetic training environments.”

The Air Force has aimed to conduct 90,000 training sorties per year without contractor support by 2030 (Defense Daily, Dec. 23, 2021).

On March 9, Kelly noted the sharp difference between the Air Force’s fighter force structure today and at the time of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. While the service had 3,936 fighters with an average age of 11.5 years and pilots who flew 18 hours per month in 1991, today the service has 2,094 fighters with an average age of 29.5 years and pilots who fly an average of 9-10 hours monthly, per an ACC slide that Kelly showed.