From Bombers to Software, Keeping the Air Force Threat Ready

Gen. Arnold W. Bunch, Jr.
U.S. Air Force Materiel Command

From Armor & Mobility, July/August 2019 Issue

Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr. is Commander, Air Force Materiel Command, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. He is responsible for installation and mission support, discovery and development, test and evaluation, life cycle management services and sustainment of virtually every major Air Force weapon system. The command employs approximately 80,000 people and manages $60 billion of budget authority annually.

Gen. Bunch was commissioned in 1984 as a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He completed undergraduate pilot training in 1985. He completed operational assignments as an instructor, evaluator and aircraft commander for the B-52 Stratofortress. Following graduation from the Air Force Test Pilot School, Gen. Bunch conducted developmental testing in the B-2 Spirit and B-52, and served as an instructor in each. Additionally, he has commanded at the squadron, group, wing, and center levels. Prior to his current assignment, he was the Military Deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, at the Pentagon, Arlington, Virginia.

A&M had the chance to speak with Gen. Arnie Bunch, Commander, Air Force Materiel Command, regarding AFMC efforts to support legacy systems sustainment and next-generation capabilities integration to keep the U.S. Air Force globally dominant.

A&M: Please provide some context as to AFMC’s primary focus and present mission sets.

Gen. Bunch: Air Force Materiel Command’s mission and focus are very broad. This command has built the most powerful Air Force in the world. To remain so, the nation is relying on us to develop, field and sustain the Air Force we need for the future. We have skin in the game throughout the life cycle of Air Force systems, from fundamental laboratory research, to technology development, inception of new operating concepts, prototyping and experimentation, developmental testing and fielding advanced systems, to include the nuclear deterrent operations, supporting the supply chain and depot sustainment for both new and aging aircraft and systems and modernizing the force to meet future challenges. So, whether you are talking about 60-year-old B-52 bombers, software, hypersonic weapons or Air Force uniforms, AFMC is where our Air Force comes for solutions.

What many folks may not know, is AFMC plays a vital role in not only supporting the expeditionary readiness of Airmen but also supporting our bases, our power projection platforms, around the world. Our Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center (AFIMSC) leads the way for 77 bases providing security forces, civil engineering, contracting, logistics readiness, financial management, services, and many other areas of expertise.

Ultimately, whether we’re talking about people, weapon systems, or installation support, our mission is to provide the materiel to enhance Air Force readiness and lethality.

A&M: With regard to current Air Force materiel sustainment goals, what are some of AFMC’s target support efforts?

Gen. Bunch: AFMC has instituted weapon system specific Aircraft Availability Improvement Plans (AAIP). These plans are foundational to our readiness and lethality efforts and achieving the Secretary of Defense mandated 80% Mission Capability on the F-16, F-22 and F-35 weapon systems. To improve the mission-capable rates on a number of weapon systems, Air Force Sustainment Center has devised a 20-year organic depot infrastructure plan designed to ensure continued cost-effective sustainment for the warfighter. The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center (AFNWC) is working with the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) and has made great strides on the first-ever Programmed Depot Maintenance for Minuteman III launch facilities and launch control centers. Like the KC-135, we’ve identified Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma as the KC-46 depot and have started construction on new hangar facilities and are acquiring the equipment we’ll need to sustain this fleet throughout its life cycle.

A&M: In terms of some challenges in transitioning from legacy systems, do you see the Air Force “building onto old” or “building up new”?

Gen. Bunch: You asked an ‘or’ question but the answer is yes, as we will build onto old ‘and’ build up new. Given the fiscal environment, this a delicate balance. We always have to make trades to deliver readiness with the mix of systems we have while fielding the Air Force we need. We know there are challenges associated with supporting an aging aircraft fleet. Old airplanes come up with new ways to break, they become increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain, and eventually are surpassed by new advanced systems fielded by our peer competitors. Just as we can’t afford to field a force today comprised exclusively of F-22s, F-35s, and B-21s, we will need to carry a mix of proven, modernized and new equipment, along with more efficient and integrated systems for command and control of supporting logistics. With the National Defense Strategy as our guide, and continued support from Congress, I am confident we will strike the right balance.

Underpinning our nation’s defense is our nuclear triad, including our Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), complemented by the B-52 carried Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) and the B-2 delivered B61 family of gravity weapons. We’ve embarked on a major first-time field depot maintenance effort for the silos, but the entire ICBM infrastructure, including nuclear command, control and communications (NC3), is old and must be replaced. The ALCM was designed in the 80s with a 10-year service life and its survivability will be challenged by new Anti-Access/Area Denial threats. Minuteman III is in a position similar to ALCM and must be replaced. We must field the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent system, Long-Range Stand Off weapon, NC3 and upgraded B61-12. There is an added challenge with transition from the Minuteman III to GBSD in that there will be a period of several years where we will have both systems on alert until recapitalization is complete. This is not something we have previously faced with this leg of the triad.

We’ve also initiated re-engining of the B-52 fleet so that workhorse can continue to support our Nation’s defense for many years to come.

Adding and replacing Information Technology is particularly challenging when you have many legacy systems developed long before we were focused on cyber and today’s cyber threat. You can’t simply plug and glob on security patches when vulnerabilities are identified on old systems which don’t talk to each other. We want to move toward an enterprise, cloud-based approach where security is baked in and the number of threat surfaces is reduced. Funding is finite, but this is an imperative for us. On software, we are moving swiftly with agile development approaches and seeing measurable results delivering incremental capabilities quickly, notably with apps supporting the F-35 and Air Operations Center weapon system. Virtually every weapon system runs on software, so we’ve charged the Program Executive Officer (PEO) for Digital with deploying AgileDevOps across its portfolio and assisting other PEOs, so we can achieve similar improvements across all programs.

A&M: From a logistics standpoint, talk about how AFMC is addressing USAF fleet maintenance in terms of predictive and proactive processes.

Gen. Bunch: Understanding we have a fleet mix of some new and many aging platforms, we have made several important investments in transforming sustainment. We established the Rapid Sustainment Office (RSO) under Air Force Life Cycle Management Center. The RSO is focused on a number of technologies including Condition Based Maintenance (CBM+), additive manufacturing, cold spray, and robotics. For CBM+ and predictive analysis, we start by analyzing and understanding the data already captured by our aircraft to make better informed decisions. Currently, we have efforts underway with the C-5, B-1 and C-130. As we learn lessons, we will apply those lessons to other platforms. Clearly, we benefit in readiness and safety when the data shows we need to replace a part or system that is near the end of its useful life, or about to fail, and we replace it before it actually does fail.

The RSO is establishing a strong ecosystem by partnering with key innovation providers. Most recently, the RSO teamed with the Reverse Engineering and Critical Tooling (REACT) Lab at the Oklahoma City Air Logistic Complex. This lab provides engineering services that are positively impacting the AFLCMC Program Offices. In April alone, REACT provided the Air Force and DoD with cost avoidances through innovation and engineering support, totaling approximately $3.4 million and avoided 1,521 depot flow days. The RSO plans to continue expanding their relationship with REACT and other Air Force Sustainment Center offices to quickly scale RSO technologies to the field and depots.

As we move forward, we continue to look for new focus areas for the RSO to address. Our latest focus areas are obsolescence, training, analytical and decision tools, low observable maintenance and other key areas across the sustainment enterprise that will reduce costs and improve readiness.

To develop new technologies faster, we stood up an Advanced Technology and Training Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Middle Georgia, near Robins Air Force Base. They are establishing and sharing best practices to address some of our aging aircraft maintenance issues and solving them by laser scanning parts, 3D printing new parts using various composite and metal materials, using cold spray deposition to repair worn, but very expensive parts, like gear boxes, and more. In March, a new ATTC was established in Pittsburgh, PA, focusing on Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Automation. We’re working with the Air Force Research Laboratory to qualify 3D printed parts for critical safety of flight applications. Our maintainers are already saving time and money using these approaches, in the nascent stage. In some cases, we can print parts on site, or benefit from data ensuring the right part, at the right place and time. The future in this field is boundless.

A&M: From a partnering aspect, how is AFMC working to reflect govt/industry teaming in advancing the USAF/Joint DoD mission?

Gen. Bunch: It’s no secret American workers and industry built the world’s most dominant Air Force. We have great defense industry partners who are delivering a bow-wave of modernized systems. The focus is speed of delivery and reducing life cycle cost. We’ve been open about our desire to do more prototyping and experimentation, and I think industry is fully on board with the approach. We need to mutually protect our data and intellectual property to prevent our most sensitive technology from being harvested by our adversaries for their advantage. We are increasing use of new contracting authorities and reducing the burden of navigating our contracting system to invite innovative, agile, non-traditional tech companies and small businesses to join our team. One way we do this is via a Pitch Day, an acquisition event where we present a problem, ask for solutions and award a same day contract. This is a culture change. It may involve taking a little risk, and I think we need to do more of it.

In addition, AFIMSC is a driving force for innovation and industry partnership in the area of Agile Combat Support. AFIMSC stood up a fulltime innovation office in 2018 and held its first Innovation Rodeo in January. Eight teams from across the Air Force pitched their concepts to senior leaders in the Installation & Mission Support community. In partnership with AFWERX, the top three ideas are now being further vetted for implementation in the private sector innovation ecosystem with industry tech-accelerators.

A&M: Feel free to speak to other challenges and goals moving forward.

Gen. Bunch: We have to continue to train and educate our people. We must recruit, hire, award, reward and retain talent. Our people are our most valuable resource and the foundation of everything we do.

Finally, we have to ensure the American people understand the importance of air and space power’s contributions to national defense. Armed with that understanding, and with Congress’ support, we can keep the momentum moving forward to enhance joint readiness while modernizing our nuclear deterrent, and field vital systems such as F-35, KC-46, B-21, T-X, Combat Rescue Helicopter, among others.