Increasing fighter capacity through such programs as Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA), the rapid fielding of the Boeing [BA] E-7 Wedgetail AWACS replacement, and incorporating regular virtual test and training against high-end adversaries are among the top priorities of Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, Air Combat Command’s (ACC) commander (COMACC).

Kelly and other Air Force officials discussed “red hot irons in the fire” for ACC on Nov. 3-4 at the ACC Fall Conference at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., the headquarters of ACC.

“The ‘irons in the fire’ is COMACC’s list of priorities to focus command efforts across our large portfolio of complex programs and issues,” ACC said in a Nov. 15 email. “Items on the list range from fielding and sustaining Combat Air Forces [CAF] weapon systems to training and readiness.  At the top of the list is working CAF fighter capacity as Gen. Kelly presented at the AFA [Air and Space Forces Association] conference in September, moving the F-22 Formal Training Unit from Tyndall AFB [Fla.] to Langley AFB [Va.], and rapidly fielding the E-7 Wedgetail.”

At the AFA conference in September, Kelly said that he envisions a future fleet of multi-role CCAs that build off initial fielding lessons learned for a small number of CCAs. Maintainers would be able to switch out electronics and weapons regularly, based on force needs (Defense Daily, Sept. 22).

“If I was doing a clean sheet design, I would look for something you could iterate,” Kelly said in September. “You could bolt on growth. You could get an order one day going, ‘Hey, these guys and gals at Nellis [AFB, Nev.] want an eight-ship, and they want them all to be X-Band radars.’ So, let’s shift to X-Band radars. Unlock a nose, bolt on another nose. The next day…they want all jammers. So really quickly, let’s take off the X-band radars and put on the jammers.”

“I would not lock myself into, ‘It’s a sensor and can’t do anything else, or it’s a jammer and can’t do anything else, or it’s not armed, and you’ll never arm it,’” he said.

Kelly said that he believes in the next two to three years the Air Force will conduct operational testing of several CCAs out of an Air Force location or locations that can launch drones–Creech AFB, Nev., Tonopah Test Range, Nev., Holloman AFB, N.M., and/or Tyndall AFB, Fla.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said that his top technology priority is “autonomous behaviors and artificial intelligence decision support,” and he has suggested that the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) manned fighter could serve as a play caller for autonomous CCAs (Defense Daily, Aug. 11).

For CCA, the Air Force may glean lessons learned from other manned-unmanned teaming efforts, such as the Skyborg Vanguard program, and may take a step toward equipping fighter squadrons with some initial stage CCAs in next year’s fiscal 2024 budget request.

The Air Force has been developing an acquisition strategy and timeline for CCA, up to five of which may be employed by each “quarterback,” manned NGAD fighter, which Kendall recently said has entered the engineering and manufacturing development stage. Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter has said that he envisions more than one supplier of CCA, rather than a “winner take all strategy.”

Air Force Lt. Col. Chris “Slam” Duncan, an F-35 operational test pilot and the commander of the 31st Combat Training Squadron at Nellis, wrote in a LinkedIn post this week that the 31st CTS’ Virtual Test and Training Center (VTTC) came in fourth among 115 ACC “red hot irons in the fire” and is vital to future readiness against possible high-tech air adversaries, such as China.

The Air Force “has reached the point where a synthetic test and training environment is critical to high-end readiness,” he wrote. “The Strategic Requirements Document for Synthetic Training and Test Capability signed on 17 May 22 identified the USAF’s need for a robust synthetic capability which enables operationally representative and high-fidelity test and training in a seamless and connected virtual environment. The key to the future of test, experimentation, and operational training is JSE [Joint Simulation Environment] in the VTTC.”

The JSE is to replicate threats that high-tech adversary air systems, such as China’s J-20 fighter, may pose to the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35.

Delays in the final 64 runs for JSE mean that F-35 initial operational test and evaluation will not end until next summer (Defense Daily, July 21). Medium-fidelity simulators and high-fidelity Fighter-In-A-Box (FIAB) simulators are critical elements of the JSE.

The FIAB simulators are for operations in dawn, day, dusk and nighttime Out-The-Window visual scene conditions provided by a SpectraView 2.5 meter radius spherical display screen dome with the pilot’s eye point at the dome’s visual center. JSE testing for F-35s and sixth-generation fighters is to occur at Edwards AFB, Calif., and Nellis.

The ability to link JSE with other aircraft simulators will be important, as the Air Force has identified a lack of model/training device interoperability with JSE.