Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, USAF, the US Air Force’s program executive officer for fighters and bombers, discusses increasing fighter and bomber readiness and bringing Boeing’s F-15X into service should the service decide to acquire the new jet to replace its aging F-15C aircraft with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The Interview was conducted at the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando where our coverage was sponsored by Leonardo DRS and L3 Technologies.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Orlando, Florida at the Air Force Association’s Annual Air Warfare Symposium, number one winter gathering of Air Force leaders, industry executives, analysts, thought leaders and the media here in Orlando where our coverage is sponsored by Leonardo DRS and L3 Technologies.
We have with us Brigadier General Heath Collins who is the Air Force’s Program Executive Officer for Fighters and Bombers, an absolute low stress job. Sir, congratulations, you pinned on last year.
Everybody is looking to increase readiness and availability rates. We saw that order go out by Secretary Mattis last year. Talk to us a little bit about the challenges of keeping up to date and keeping running a fighter and bomber enterprise that has a lot of very, very aging aircraft in it.
Brigadier General Heath Collins: Thanks, Vago. That’s certainly a big challenge since the day I took over last year. Taking a look, the fighter/bomber fleet for the Air Force is the oldest it’s ever been and it certainly brings challenges as we fly 30-40 year old fighters and even older bombers. And as Secretary Mattis has said and Secretary Wilson and the Chief have also said, our number one goal right now is to restore readiness to this fleet.
The existing legacy fighter and bomber force that we have has been flying a lot of missions for the last couple of decades, so now we’re in the midst of relooking at readiness and getting after it as best we can while also adding on top of that the challenge of modernizing it for this peer competitor fight that’s going on there.
So it’s a balance between availability for the mission today as well as prepping it for the mission tomorrow, so we’re really getting after that. We do have strategies in place for all of our weapon systems to both modernize as well as increase readiness.
On the readiness front certainly Secretary Mattis is driving us right now with the F-16 and F-22 in my portfolio to increase that readiness rate, the mission capability rates. And we are engaging the entire enterprise, both the acquisition force, the sustainment force, as well as our MAJCOM ACC and our Reserve and Guard brothers and sisters to really get after all pieces of the puzzle to include improving supply rates, getting more parts and the right parts out into the field. We’re also trying to get after the maintenance career field, both increasing it as well as building the experience that was talked about in one of our earlier panels here.
As well, we’re looking at how to improve the depot and the program depot maintenance that we do on our fleet to make sure we have certain inductions as well as critical exits and how we can match modernization and modifications at the same time we’re already doing planned maintenance such that we increase availability, but don’t take as much time on the fleet, and so it’s really a full court press with a total force team to get after that.
Mr. Muradian: Absolutely. Acting Secretary Shanahan has also made readiness obviously one of his priorities and was part of the key team with Secretary Mattis on that strategy.
The trouble is you have real world operations, right? So nobody wants to give up aircraft. So the aircraft you have are not only older, but the utilization rates on them are higher.
Talk to us a little bit, the message here is oh well look, faster renovation and smarter results. Obviously the Secretary was talking about that and the Chief was talking about innovation here. It’s obviously a very important theme. Talk to us about how you’re doing things to do them faster. We have the B-52 reengining program which is a very important priority. That falls in your portfolio. Folks are trying to do that fast. Dr. Roper has put that as a priority effort.
Give us some examples on going across the piece from the studying piece of it to the contracting piece of it to the delivery piece of it. What are the things you’re doing and what are some examples of you moving the ball faster down the field?
Brig. Gen. Collins: Absolutely. It’s an exciting time as a career acquisition officer to see the attention and the full commitment of our leadership all the way up the chain to going faster and innovating.
As I’ve always said, we program managers have always, we don’t wake up to go slow. We want to go fast and get after it. So we’re in fighters and bombers looking to leverage all the authorities that existed in the past, but as well there’s some new authorities that have been given to us to really get after and prototype quicker, to avoid a lot of the administrative burden that we’ve all felt throughout our careers and we’re really getting after it.
The B-52 reengine is a great example. In that particular case we’re leveraging the Section 804 prototyping authorities whereby we’re actually within a year, earlier than a year we’re actually going to get our contractors working and demonstrating through virtual prototyping the engines for the B-52 replacement program such that we can make an earlier decision, buy down risk earlier, and then get to a second phase of physical prototyping quicker than we would have during a normal traditional acquisition. So that’s one way that we’re really trying to get after it. But as well, there were existing flexibilities in the system that we have today, the DoD 5000 as we call it, whereby we are really trying to look to maximize our ability to tailor and use those flexibilities. And we have the trust and authority from above us now that lets us do that.
An example is in the F-15E EPWS, Eagle Passive Warning System, which is going to be a new system we’re working for radar warning receiver and EW protection on the Eagle. We had an existing program within the 5000 and we were executing ahead of plan, but then one of our great PMs got this thought of how can I pull that even sooner, and he came up with an innovative strategy of breaking up a large future milestone into multiple decision points incrementally based on deliberate risk, and with that we’ve been able to cut more than a year off the existing plan to do that. It’s all about getting capability to the field quicker. So it’s really a culture change to get after that.
Mr. Muradian: How do you, two questions because I know you’re about to get the hook. First is, does it make sense at some point, I talked to Dr. Roper about this last year, to just retire blocks of aircraft and actually put that investment, instead of salami slicing it across a bigger force, get that better capability, given that the F-35 is going to be coming in and replacing some of these aircraft anyway. Does it make sense to do a little bit of a larger muscle movement to get some older stuff out of the inventory faster to focus the resources on that which has a little bit more leg left in it before it itself then eventually gets replaced?
Brig. Gen. Collins: That’s a constant challenge, Vago, that we continue to take a look at. The tough part of this equation though is, the missions in the old aircraft we have today are flying missions, and so retiring them before we have a replacement that can pick up that mission, that’s got to be a decision that the Air Force and the senior leaders need to make.
It’s hard to retire something without something to pick that game up, and so that’s a tough challenge that we face. So we’re continually looking at how to extend the fleet as long as we can, waiting for whatever the replacement is to pick that up, and certainly the F-35 is the future of the fighter fleet for the Air Force. And as that comes on-line, we do need to timely make the decision to divest capabilities there. But until the F-35 is fully there to take up that mission, we need to make sure that we continue to, my directorate needs to continue to make sure we maintain, sustain, the fighter fleet we have today.
Mr. Muradian: One last question. There’s a lot of discussion, obviously, whether there’s going to be a new old airplane, more F-15s that would come into the inventory. The Air Force has C’s, it has Echoes. Does the introduction of say 80 or so similar but dissimilar aircraft, I mean the air frame is a different air frame. The mold lines and the contours look the same, but a lot of what’s inside the airplane has been evolved and modified. Does that present any sort of sustainment challenge? Because the Air Force historically has not liked having sort of small boutique fleets of aircraft, right? I mean the whole thing has been let’s standardize and get sort of the value of numbers behind it.
Have you and your office done any work to actually think through what are some of the long-term implications of having sort of a third different F-15 type in Air Force service?
Brig. Gen. Collins: Yes. We’ve certainly supported the Air Force in making those decisions on what does the fleet of the future look like? Is it 5thgen? And what’s the 5thand 4thgen mix that’s out there? And another part of the fighter/bomber portfolio is we also operate the FMS enterprise for fighters and bombers. So we have a lot of experience delivering the new F-15s 4thgen fleet for F-15s and F-16s, but we have experience with Saudi Arabia as well as Qatar and they’ve invested billions of dollars of development to upgrade the capability of the Eagle from the old generation of Eagles.
So it is an active production line that has new capability. As well we have new capability like EPWS that I just talked about that we can also bring to bear. So as the Chief talked about it, it’s about a capacity conversation. And there is certainly still a plan to keep Eagles flying. The Strike Eagles are going to be flying for decades to come to fill a mission set that F-15C Eagles — we have some of the oldest fighters. When I mention 40 year old fighters, the F-15C, and it is becoming more and more challenging to keep that aircraft flying and viable as we go forward. So as you balance the cost of a service life extension on the existing platform or take a look at a production line with a new capable Eagle, we provide that information to the Air Force to help make that call of how do we make that decision? Because we’re trying to bring down the age of the fleet, of the fighter fleet as well as additionally add that capability of the future. So our calculations are we need 72 new aircraft a year to help buy that number down. So part of that is to get the F-15 through to when we need it. We’ve either got to go through an extensive SLEP program or potentially buy these new aircraft.
Mr. Muradian: And you’re not concerned about any introduction of a smaller number of — you’re comfortable that you could absorb that into the current maintenance calculus.
Brig. Gen. Collins: Yeah, absolutely. A big part of this is that we want to fit within, and it’s an attractive offer, the fact that the F-15 Saudi cutter and a newer version for the Air Force still has a lot of relevancy and commonality with the existing F-15 fleet from a training, from a sustainment perspective, from a supply chain and parts perspective, from a support equipment. It’s going to use basically 97 or more percent of the support equipment that’s used for the Eagle today can be used on this new variant of the Eagle.
Mr. Muradian: Brigadier General Heath Collins, Program Executive Officer, Fighters and Bombers. Sir, congratulations again. Great see you in the new guise. Best of luck in the job, and looking forward to many more conversations.
Brig. Gen. Collins: Thanks Vago. It was my pleasure. Thank you.