Striking a familiar tone with other top Air Force officials, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service's acquisition chief, said the force is not ready for a high-end, high-spectrum fight, adding that the U.S. military must modernize for fights in contested, anti-access/area denial environments.
"We have a large, great capability in the permissive and we've got to modernize to be more capable," he said Wednesday at the Unmanned Systems Defense conference in Arlington, Virginia.
"What we have been so focused on from a training perspective … we've listened to our service chief and our secretary, we've talked about our readiness level for a high-end fight is not there," he said. "We've not been able and we have not trained at the level we need for our combat air forces to be able to operate in that kind of an environment. That is the area that we are focused on."
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has said just as much, noting in July that when she asks around the force, "the answer … I get anyway, is 50 percent of our combat air forces have that degree of readiness" to fight against higher-end threats.
"That's not good enough," she asserted.
While Bunch did not elaborate on specific platforms that excel in permissive environments, which can include their remotely piloted aircraft such as the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk, the Air Force is looking to modernize for more contested, higher-end threats, he said, adding that the Air Force is modernizing about every platform one can think of to make them more capable terms of defense, radar and weapons.
Bunch also said the Air Force is trying to modernize its infrastructure: "If I want people to train in that kind of an environment, I have to create that kind of an environment either in a virtual manner or in an open-air range environment so that they can train that way. And we need to modernize that as well." He added the Air Force is making advancements in modernizing test capabilities to trial new systems.
Air Force officials have explained they are still working through how to adapt platforms such as the Reaper — which has excelled in permissive environments — to more contested environments with multiple hostile aircraft, radar and anti-aircraft batteries.
Along these points, Air Combat Command Commander Gen. Herbert Carlisle has previously said: "I mean, when we get a little bit of breathing room and get some dwell time I think we’ll find the MQ-9s are significantly more capable than we’ve used them in the past. We just have to have an opportunity to develop that." His comments point to the lack of downtime for both these platforms and pilots, as they are constantly employed in global operations, which strains the workforce.
When pressed about the Reaper’s capabilities against anti-aircraft or radar, Carlisle said: "Well, it depends. … There’s a lot of things that are going to go into how we make those decisions."
Other Air Force officials have also noted that Reapers are already operating in more contested environments, pointing to operations in Syria in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. The Syrian airspace is extremely complex right now with U.S. coalition aircraft, Russian aircraft and Syrian aircraft operating simultaneously.
Bunch noted that the force will have to maintain its budgetary balancing act in the future of readiness versus modernization given the current budget constraints.