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February 10, 2007—Gen. Ronald Keys, head of Air Combat Command, says the Air Force won’t miss the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System and is developing unique applications for some new programs. Keys talked about a range of topics during his presentation and in comments to reporters at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., this week.

Mystery of the J-UCAS
The Air Force shed no tears about being pushed out of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System last year, ACC chief Gen. Ronald Keys told Air Force Magazine in an interview Friday. The Air Force had been partnered with the Navy on the stealthy UAV program, but last year’s Quadrennial Defense Review directed USAF to leave the program to the Navy. Keys said that most of the technical issues to be solved for J-UCAS “were the Navy’s,” such as the ability to come aboard an aircraft carrier, operate in the humid/salty ocean environment, and refuel using the probe and drogue method. The Air Force saw little point in subsidizing those solutions, Keys asserted and added that USAF has a pretty good handle on what it might want from a future stealthy UAV.

The Joy of AESA
New Active Electronically-Steered Array radars in the F-22 and F-35—and soon the F-15—may be capable of performing cyber attack, Keys revealed. The radars could disrupt enemy radars, fry them with “brute force,” or actually get into their processors and alter the information they were providing. However, such applications may be too elegant when a simple kill will do. Keys explained, “I’m less worried about being delicate and sophisticated” than about achieving quick results in air combat.

A Re-invented Gunship?
The new long range strike system due in 2018 could conceivably also serve as the basis of a system to replace the AC-130 gunship, Keys said. Although it would not orbit the battlefield providing “precision fires,” it might be able to drop small weapons on targets needing suppression, and if directed energy weapons become available, those might substitute for some of the AC-130’s cannons and heavy guns. Although ACC is not assuming the LRS platform will take on the Spectre role, Keys said the command would do everything possible to keep the design capable of adapting to it, should the technology become available.

Bye, Bye Blackbird
The Air Force does not want a new version of the old SR-71 Blackbird strategic reconnaissance airplane, as some have recently suggested, according to Keys. The SR-71 would not be able to survive against tough modern surface to air missiles, he said. “Speed won’t do it anymore,” he asserted, adding that the SR-71, if operational today “can’t go to the places it could go” in the past.

The Flying Hour Shuffle
Keys acknowledged that ACC will get fewer flying hours through the rest of the future years defense plan (FYDP). It’s the result of a calculated risk—putting some flying-hour money into distributed mission operations (DMO) training capability, explained Keys. Basically, he said that there simply is no time to work ACC’s combat force—elements of which are coming and going for operations in Southwest Asia—into “a big exercise.” And, he noted that DMO capabilities are getting increasingly effective. Keys doesn’t believe ACC will miss the eliminated flying hours too much because the hours the combat crews are flying in SWA contribute to overall readiness.

An Age Dilemma
Air Force leaders have noted that the service is flying the oldest fleet in its history—and will be for many years. That fleet is getting harder and more costly to maintain. Keys said that even though mission capable rates have remained largely steady for most combat aircraft over the last 10 years, the costs to keep those same aircraft in the air have gone up an average of 87 percent in the same time. And, it’s not just the higher cost, it’s the unknown problems that are being seen in these older aircraft and other known problems that are just a matter of time that really worry Keys. He said, “I don’t want to write a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Smith … that their son or daughter died because the wing fell off on their aircraft,” because he would have to say that he knew it would happen but didn’t know when.