Sustaining Readiness through Fleet Modernization

Col. Ken Kuebler
Program Executive Officer
PEO Fixed Wing
U.S. Special Operations Command

From Armor & Mobility, May 2021

Armor & Mobility spoke with Col. Ken Kuebler, Program Executive Officer for Fixed Wing, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), MacDill Air Force Base, FL, regarding some of USSOCOM’s focus efforts in legacy fleet recapitalization and latest in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance driven capabilities across all airframes.

A&M: You previously worked in PEO-Fixed Wing and are now back serving as the PEO. Can you provide your perspective of how things have or have not changed?

Col. Kuebler: I was fortunate enough to return to U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) headquarters and Program Executive Office-Fixed Wing (PEO-FW) last summer and have consistently said, “There is no place I’d rather be, and nothing I’d rather be doing,” which is not a cliché of mine; it is absolutely true. I say that because there are some things that do not change. For example, the SOF Truths are timeless. “Humans are more important than Hardware” has always been evident in the command especially within PEO-FW. The workforce – the military, civilian, contractor support and industry partners – includes some of the most dedicated, skilled, and professional folks I have ever known. Additionally, the opportunity to relentlessly develop, field and sustain winning capabilities for the Special Operations Forces (SOF) operator has always been part of the PEO-FW mission.

The PEO-FW team has done an exceptional job meeting that mission. We continue to recapitalize the fleet of AC/MC-130 aircraft. When I was previously assigned at USSOCOM, the average age of the SOF C-130 fleet was more than 20 years old; and now it is under five years old. We have made tremendous strides in ensuring a modular, open systems approach, and we will continue to do more with both hardware and software upgrades and modifications. Furthermore, we remain committed to ensuring the SOF C-130 fleet is equipped with the latest precision strike and defensive systems to meet future operational requirements.
Game-changing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities have never been more important. Our goal is to field ISR solutions that are survivable, cost-effective and modular. However, there is not a ‘one size fits all.’ Cost-effective for manned ISR platforms could be addressed through improved ways that we operate and sustain the programs, while cost-effective for unmanned programs might mean fielding or modifying a family of systems with longer endurance and/or open system software. Additionally, I think the importance we have always placed on improving reliability is sometimes overlooked. To be extremely effective in a ‘no fail’ mission, we must have systems that are highly reliable. Our Silent Knight Radar program is a good example of continually improving reliability. So is the CV-22; we have worked with the Air Force, CV-22 program office and industry partners to improve reliability and will continue to do so.

Finally, our partnerships with our Service acquisition teams has never been more important. Whether it is working with Eglin’s 96th Test Wing or the technical, contracting, and program management subject matter experts at Wright Patterson, Robins, Dahlgren and countless other locations, we will always rely on their assistance in developing, integrating and testing new technology, as well as providing new tools like digital engineering to help us do so. In answering the question succinctly, the capabilities and technology have changed. However, the PEO-FW team has always worked incredibly hard to ensure we are fielding the capabilities our nation needs. We will continue to do so to meet the challenges presented by great power competition, and ensuring SOF is best postured for counter-violent extremist organization operations. I am honored to once again be part of that rich legacy.

A&M: As USSOCOM Commander Gen. Richard Clarke mentions, next-generation intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are important to the future of SOF. As much as effective ISR can bring operational fluidity to a mission, how do you see current applications evolving in the fixed-wing domain?

Col. Kuebler: There will continue to be a significant role in the future for fixed-wing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) in USSOCOM’s mission as outlined by the National Defense Strategy and the Interim National Security Strategy. The next generation of airborne ISR assets must be capable of delivering a decisive edge to special operators competing against a mix of adversaries in a complex multi-domain battlefield including GPS-denied and access-denied environments. We will also continue to provide cost-effective ISR capabilities that provide special operations forces an overwhelming advantage in their counter-violent extremist organizations mission.

To meet these challenges, fixed-wing manned and unmanned ISR platforms will benefit from investments in intelligent technologies including automatic target recognition and fully automated aircraft operations. We will also continue to evolve a suite of advanced electro-optical and infrared sensors with long-range standoff capabilities that, when combined with maritime, ground, and space-based sensors, will give SOF operators a more complete picture of the battlefield than previously possible. Additionally, important evolutions in low-cost, long endurance, survivable aircraft capable of operating in austere or isolated environments will enable future airborne ISR assets to support our lethal warfighters through the next generation.

A&M: In terms of airborne mobility, what are some current PEO-FW priorities for MC-130J Commando II and CV-22 Osprey, particularly regarding infiltration/exfiltration and resupply in hostile operation zones?

Col. Kuebler: Our strategy is to leverage common government modular open systems approaches (MOSA) to increase our acquisition agility and deliver new capabilities at the speed of need. MOSA serves as a backbone for our system-of-systems to integrate and share information across our internal and external networks. This information enables the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to expedite the decision-making processes throughout our programs and operations. Through airborne mission networking and secure agile software development, the mobility portfolios are quickly converging their infrastructures to continuously adapt to the warfighters’ needs in the field for collaborative Joint all-domain operations with both SOF and conventional forces. SOF Acquisition, Technology & Logistics’ past and future lies with our ability to identify and integrate best of breed capabilities with timelines measured in weeks or months, not years. With structured processes to deliver dynamic capabilities with speed, we can continue to work side-by-side with the warfighter to innovate enduring new ways of employing the MC-130J, CV-22 and future mobility systems to deliver disruptive effects in execution of the mission.

A&M: From a precision engagement perspective, talk to current priorities for AC-130J Ghostrider and munitions.

Col. Kuebler: The AC-130J gunship team remains focused on delivering premier close air support technologies. As of April of this year, we have delivered 21 combat aircraft and are positioned to deliver three more by the end of fiscal year 2021. As we look to continued deployments of the AC-130J, near term development will focus on improved defensive and training systems. As the command ensures we are optimally postured for great power competition we continue to incorporate advancements in tactical weapon systems such as the X-net radio enabled data-linked precision guided munitions. Finally, in tandem with the Mobility C-130J community, the AC-130J team will incorporate airborne mission networking and secure agile software development to ensure the platform remains more than relevant in tomorrow’s fight.

A&M: There is a lot of discussion and interest with regards to Armed Overwatch. Can you share any insight into the program?

Col. Kuebler: First, it’s important to understand that the Armed Overwatch program’s purpose has not changed. The Armed Overwatch acquisition program provides SOF with deployable, affordable and sustainable manned aircraft systems capable of executing close air support, precision strike and armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance requirements in austere and permissive environments for use in operations against violent extremist organizations.
A year ago, we conducted an Industry Day where we met with industry members who were interested in participating in the program. Through subsequent phases of the ongoing acquisition process, we have competitively narrowed the field of vendors to those who demonstrated a likelihood of producing a successful prototype. Last Fall, congressional defense committees asked USSOCOM to conduct additional analysis to evaluate whether other material solutions or methods of employment of existing aircraft might meet Armed Overwatch acquisition program requirements before we conducted the demonstrations. That analysis is almost complete, and we look forward to further working with Congress to ensure we fully considered the many different facets of this program. If the analysis supports our original acquisition strategy, we are prepared to include up to five prototypes in a command-sponsored demonstration scheduled to take place this summer. We will then use the demonstration results to inform the next steps of the acquisition process toward a potential procurement of up to 75 aircraft.