Brig. Gen. Taco Gilbert, USAF Ret., senior vice president, Sierra Nevada Corporation , talks about the company’s efforts in light attack aircraft and the impact such aircraft would have on US and partner air forces with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference held at the Gaylord National Harbor. Our Air, Space and Cyber Conference coverage is sponsored Elbit Systems of America, L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Brig. Gen.S. Taco Gilbert III, USAF Ret.
Senior Vice President, Sierra Nevada Corporation
AFA 2018 Air, Space, Cyber Conference
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference and Trade Show, largest gathering of U.S. Air Force leaders from around the world. Our coverage here is sponsored by Elbit Systems of America, L3 Technologies, and Leonardo DRS.
We are here at the Sierra Nevada stand to talk to Retired United States Air Force Brigadier General Taco Gilbert who is the Senior Vice President with the company following a lot of stuff in the C4I sector, but also one of your core and most important programs is the Light Attack experiment, now the Light Attack program.
Sir, whatever debate there is in the service about the merits of doing this, because I know that there are some who still continue to debate it, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force is still very much committed to the program from a partnership, from an interoperability, but also kind of a counterinsurgency warfare program which is important and we’ve heard “Mobile” Holmes, the Air Combat Command Chief talk about that as well.
So far the competition has looked like it’s going to be the A-29 which you’ve developed with the good folks at Embraer in Brazil. You’ve got the Beechcraft, the AT-6 that’s in it. We now look like Paramount Group, and their Bronco 2 looks like they’re going to be in it.
Talk to us a little bit about the timeframe of the program, what the next gates are. You know, you guys were in the earlier experiment. The Air Force gathered a lot of data on that and allowed them to decide and to move forward on the program. Give us a sense of what the time line’s going to be.
Taco Gilbert: Well, the current timeline that we’re facing, we had the experiment in the summer of 2017 at Holloman Air Force Base. That rolled into a second experiment this year at Holloman which terminated in August of this year. We are currently reviewing a draft RFP, Request for Proposal, submitting our feedback to the Air Force. They will submit to us another draft the first week of October. They have promised a final Request for Proposal the 19thof December, which would then lead to a proposal in March of 2019 and an award sometime in late summer.
As you said, the Chief has been adamant that he wants to go forward with this program. The program has several objectives, all of which recommend proceeding at all due pace. First, we’re short of fighter pilots and that shortage is driven by the lack of cockpits. All of our new cockpits in the 4thand 5thgeneration airplanes, particularly the 5th, are all single seat so you can’t get training hours in those aircraft. They’re too expensive to train in. You need a cheaper airplane that does all of those same missions but does it at a fraction of the cost.
Further, we want to invigorate our partner nation capability, and that’s done by having an interoperable airframe and capabilities with those countries.
All of that, again, recommends that we go forward with this program. It preserves the service life of those 4thand 5thgeneration aircraft for the fights where you really need them, where there’s contested airspace.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you about the difference between the experiments. We spoke last year at this show, had a fruitful conversation. We’ve just finished the latest experiment. What did the latest experiment demonstrate, and how did it differ from the earlier one in terms of what the Air Force was trying to learn?
Mr. Gilbert: From our perspective, the first experiment we really dealt with as an experiment. We already had an aircraft that was combat proven. In fact, our aircraft has over 360,000 operational hours and over 46,000 combat hours in environments all over the globe. Therefore, when we went into the experiment we tried some different things with the aircraft to our benefit to help develop the aircraft going forward.
This experiment, the latest this summer, was a little bit different because the Air Force had enumerated that they might make a procurement decision at the end. Therefore, we narrowed down what we attempted to achieve and structured our configuration of the aircraft more directly towards what we knew the Air Force would want.
Mr. Muradian: For example?
Mr. Gilbert: For example, with the data links. We’ve had 16 different data links integrated into this aircraft. We know that Chief Goldfein has discussed that interoperability hinges on a couple of things, but first and foremost it’s the sharing of information.
Rather than showcase a bunch of different data links we went for the Link 16 and we went for the AERONET, the two data links that the Air Force said they wanted. That would be one type of example where we narrowed down what we were trying to achieve.
Mr. Muradian: One of the preeminent think tanks in Washington, the Heritage Foundation, put a report out not necessarily questioning the program as such, but saying look, it’s likely to be a little bit more expensive and maybe a little bit more complicated than the Air Force is suggesting.
As somebody who’s involved in this and has been living with this program, it’s not as if you’ve been going to some rush to judgment. I mean this thing has been going on now for a while. Talk to us a little bit about how you counter the argument that they put forward.
Mr. Gilbert: Well, the Heritage Foundation has tried to allege that the aircraft will cost more than anticipated. I know very few programs that over the timeline did not cost more than anticipated because of the long time it takes to bring a system on given the Byzantine procurement processes inside the Department of Defense. That delay frequently leads to more cost.
However, I would turn it around and say that the cost of 4thand 5thgeneration aircraft make it imperative that we go forward with this program. This is a taxpayer’s I’ll say dream to have this type of aircraft where you can train fighter pilots and conduct combat operations in permissive and semi-permissive environments for 2 to 4 percent of the cost that they’re paying right now. You’re going to save the service life of those 4thand 5thgeneration aircraft for when they are really needed in those future engagements. And you’re going to add some new capabilities into an aircraft where you have an inherent ISR capability built in with the strike package to follow up.
Further, let’s talk partner nations. For the A-29, we have 13 nations currently flying this aircraft. Three more nations that have it on order. It has been the consistent choice of our partner nations that are conducting combat operations now. Part of that 46,000 combat hours the airplane has on it right now.
There are two aspects to interoperability. It’s the interoperability that Chief of Staff Goldfein has mentioned with the sharing of information which is true power. But there’s also the interoperability, the close ties that come from operating the same aircraft, that those airmen build the ties across the years going forward. So by operating the same aircraft, we help develop the capacity of those other nations to fight the insurgencies themselves, which helps us bring our airmen home while strengthening their own security.
Mr. Muradian: There are two competitors that have been going after the program. Obviously the AT-6 and you guys with the A-29. Now we’ve got Paramount Group from South Africa proposing the Bronco 2. A ruggedized bush airplane from their standpoint. Something that has got a couple of operational hours obviously in the South African context.
Talk to us a little bit about, you know, is this something that changes the dynamic, changes the competition in any way compared with, you know, we thought it was going to be a two-way race, now potentially a three-way race.
Mr. Gilbert: Well as far as we are concerned going forward, we think that our aircraft recommends itself for this mission. Whether it’s here in the United States or whether it’s across the globe. And certainly, as we look across the globe, the warfighters around the world, the Air Chiefs around the world, have agreed with us. It has been the consistent choice of Air Forces around the world to select the A-29. Why? It was purpose-built for this mission. It wasn’t converted from a trainer, it wasn’t converted from a bush aircraft. It was designed for the light attack mission to be operated in whether improved or very unimproved circumstances, conditions across the globe.
The maintainability that the aircraft has seen, whether it’s in the jungles of Southeast Asia or the desert environment of Afghanistan has been phenomenal. The combat results have been phenomenal. The sustainability, the maintainability has been very, very good.
So the combat capability continues to recommend the A-29 and we think it will be recommended in this competition as well.
Mr. Muradian: Let me take you to Multi-Domain Battle, something very important for the Chief. We were here a week and a half, over two weeks ago for the DARPA 60thAnniversary. Folks were working the connectivity among aircraft to make sure that there’s a universal translator that connects everything.
Talk to us a little bit about what you guys are doing, how your guys are thinking about the problem as the Air Force looks to create this Multi-Domain space where information is going to move seamlessly off of platforms, among platforms, and with ground stations?
Mr. Gilbert: As I mentioned in a previous question, we’ve had over 16 different data links incorporated into this aircraft. Many of those in years past, but starting with Operation Eminent Fury, you may recall was the U.S. Navy effort to address the sole-survivor situation. The Navy selected the A-29, incorporated the Link 16 and a number of other classified data links. Similarly, we’ve incorporated AERONET which is the Chief of Staff’s latest effort to have an international commercially-based data link that can share information back and forth.
The aircraft is very easy to integrate. It’s got growth space built into it from the very beginning for new capability, new radio equipment, new data links, et cetera.
But we recognized also from our work with other customers, the U.S. government as well, that all of these systems have a host of information links that come in and it’s hard to get one to talk to another. So we have incorporated what we call Trax, which is basically an automated switchboard which with the punch of a single button will translate one data link into the form factor or the waveform for another and send it out in another channel. That ease of operation, that seamless translation of data improves the efficiency and effectiveness of all of the warfighters, all of the combatants, all of the decision-makers engaged.
We think that this aircraft with an open mission system, which we have, with the open translation of data going back and forth, with the ease of up-rate going forward, recommends itself, again, for that Multi-Domain Battle and for a vibrant life for the decades to come.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you one last question. Air Force Acquisition Chief Dr. Roper, Will Roper, has talked about accelerating acquisition. As we’ve discussed, this particular program has not been a rush to judgment by any means.
What are you seeing, what evidence are you seeing of a faster Air Force and DoD acquisition cycle? As somebody who’s followed this and lived with this as long as you have, what have you seen that indicates things are moving more quickly?
Mr. Gilbert: As we talked last year, I would reiterate, we recognized that this was an experiment not only in warfighting capability but acquisition capability as well. We were pleased to be a part of that. We remain pleased to be a part of it. It has not, perhaps, gone as swift as many of us would have liked. However, no initial experiment does.
What we have seen is by quickly moving through the requirements process, if you would, going around the JCIDS Process, the JROC, we’ve cut some time off what would be an even longer process.
We would have hoped that out of the experiments which were conducted the Air Force would have made an acquisition decision. They had that authority. But in any case, we still see this moving faster than it would have. We would like to see it move faster. Delays, quite frankly, mean that the taxpayer is continuing to pay more for training, more for combat capability than is required. It means that we’re slow building fighter pilots, slower than we need to be. And when we stretch programs out, it escalates cost.
We think everything that we can do to accelerate that acquisition process will be good for the warfighter, it will be good for the taxpayer, and first experiment, we’re learning, we’ll be happy to see the fruits of that experiment in programs to come.
Mr. Muradian: Taco Gilbert, retired United States Air Force Brigadier General, Senior Vice President here at Sierra Nevada, one of the more innovative companies here. Sir, thanks very much. Always a pleasure.
Mr. Gilbert: Thank you. My pleasure.