U.S. Air Force Gen. Mark D. Kelly, the new (on the job for less than two weeks) head of the Air Combat Command (ACC), held forth on Air Force programs and priorities during an online press conference held on 15 September 2020 in the context of the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space, and Cyber (vASC) conference. 

On the state of the Air Force: “We just got done with the September 11th nineteenth anniversary and for nineteen years our great Airmen along with our other Service partners became really good, actually great, at executing the violent extremist fight. But during that time, we expended consumed the force faster than we regenerated it. For the Air Force, we’ve lost significant advantage in the high end arena… our capability and capacity advantage [has] diminished and our adversaries know this and they’re hoping that we continue to admire the problem.”

On a pending “ruthless prioritization” ahead for the Air Force. “As you know, again, [new USAF Chief of Staff] General Brown has only been in the seat for a few weeks and, me, [even] less so. I fully expect coming out of the upcoming Corona [senior USAF planning meeting] we will have some unambiguous “go do’s’” in terms of assessment of those priorities. If I had to [speculate] I think they’ll be very much aligned with our national defense strategy and our peer competition and the tasks and the roles and the missions that we have to unambiguously execute in those roles.”

On the rationale for buying the more expensive F-15EX in addition to the F-35 fighter – “We have to present a peer adversary with multiple challenges to fend off both inside threat rings and outside threat rings with lower radar-cross-section threats and big payloads and a mix of problems.  This aircraft [the F-15EX] will have the brains to assess and decide quickly, speed and fuel to cover a big area and some pretty significant hitting power.”

On internal USAF discussions about what type of fighters to buy — “I have no doubt that part of those [upcoming Corona meeting ] discussions will be that balance of capacity numbers and capability high end. Those are two of the most recurring discussions that we have…. I don’t see it down to a cage match between two individual airframes.”

On his greatest take-aways from the recent Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) experiment — “Well, first of all would be the overall speed and conductivity there because it really comes down to decision superiority. The other one would be they showed significant amount of AI [Artificial Intelligence]. In the AI that we saw, it seemed to work pretty well.  In terms of target identification, automatically identifying targets, we have finite number of Airmen that can do PED — our Processing, Exploitation, Dissemination –with the help of machines. So it us greatly welcome. It goes to the question of how are we going to find excess manpower to funnel to undermanned areas. The only way we’re going to do it is to free up manning across the board, and if AI technology and the machine learning technology can free up some of the PED or produce more PED with the same amount of people, that probably be the one I would lean toward right now as we absorb more data than we can process. So any AI and machine learning that that we can operationalize. would be greatly helpful for our decisions.”

On the status of ACC plans to expand the role of the Air Force’s new T-7 jet trainer aircraft into Aggressor or Light Fighter roles – “There is a discussion, but not nothing more than discussion right now in terms of will we procure an aircraft to become a follow-on aggressor or follow-on training aid or a permanent kind of Reforger-type platform. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to do the Reforger experiment is to try to scope the learning points of being able to use a digital advanced trainer, and how we might that would inform the lessons that come out of that inform the art of the possible in the options for maybe bring the T-7 from discussion to serious discussion.”

On ACC’s plans/schedule to field a hypersonic weapon and what that weapon might be – “My gut feeling is that the initial hypersonic capabilities very likely will be [from the] Air Force Global Strike Command.  [They will have the] first bite at the apple….. I can confirm for you that that the center line station on the F-15 can carry a significant weapon. It’s the same station that carries the 5000 pound class GBU-28. So without getting into the specifics of ARROW or MAYHEM and what they weigh and how far they go, and their range of payload and booster size, I can confidently tell you the satellite station that F-15EX can carry pretty much any weapon in our inventory.”