Fighter squadron moves, range upgrades critical to ready pilots for peer combat, Rand says

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The Air Force has determined that few, if any, existing training ranges have the capability to provide fighter pilots with advanced training.

To prepare fighter pilots across the force for peer combat, many squadrons should move and many ranges will need expensive upgrades, according to a new study from the Rand Corp.

The study, “Fighter Basing Options to Improve Access to Advanced Training Ranges,” estimates the costs of restationing units, upgrading ranges and adding virtual training to get squadrons the appropriate, advanced training they’ll need in future fights.

And as aircraft get more advanced, so does the need for such advanced ranges. Half of all range events for the F-35 require an advanced range. More than one-third of events for the F-22, nearly one-quarter for the F-16 and 19 percent for the F-15 and 16 percent for the A-10.

As they have broken down the need, based on aircraft, report authors also weighted the effectiveness of training for those platforms on total training.

For example, because so much more of their training requires high-capability ranges, the most effective move is to have F35s stationed alongside such ranges. Meaning, putting a single F-35 squadron within access of the appropriate complex range provides equal effectiveness as putting three total squadrons of either the F-15C, F-15E or A-10.

To accomplish this, the authors recommend that a squadron not within the 150 nautical mile range of an upgraded range should be moved to a base within that distance. That distance allows for enough time at the range for required training in addition to transit time to reach the site.

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They also recommended that lower weighted aircraft, such as the A-10 Warthog be swapped out with higher-weighted aircraft such as the F-35 Lightning II.

That will be helpful for the F-35s and F-22s but not as much for the F-15s and A-10s, which still have an important operational role to fill.

Maj. Joshua Gunderson, F-22 Demonstration Team pilot and commander, performs an aerial demonstration over the flightline at Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., Sept. 18, 2020. (Senior Airman Kristine Legate/Air Force)

Authors stopped short of listing specific basing changes, citing a need to resolve training and basing details. The Air Force needs to finish defining range requirements and capacity, which will lay out how much time each type of squadron will need to train on the new ranges.

The following ranges were listed, in priority, in the RAND report for needed upgrades:

1. Nevada Test and Training Range

2. Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex

3. Utah Test and Training Range

4. Belle Fourche Electronic Scoring Site Range

5. Poinsett Range

6. Elgin Test and Training Complex

7. Adirondack Range

8. Mountain Home Range Complex

9. Hardwood Range

10. Smoky Hill Range

11. Air Force Dare County Range

12. Snyder Electronic Warfare Site

13. Grand Bay Range

14. Melrose Range

15. Barry M. Goldwater Range

16. Warren Grove Range

17. Claiborne Range

A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle departs after receiving fuel from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker during an air refueling mission over Southwest Asia, Dec. 22, 2020. (Staff Sgt. Trevor T. McBride/Air Force)

A combination of 15 or more planned range upgrades and 10 to 20 squadron moves results in a 90 percent effectiveness score.

Some trade-offs between the two overhauls would still manage a 70 percent rating. Those include 15 to 17 ranges upgraded and no squadrons moved or six to eight ranges upgraded but 15 to 20 squadrons moved.

The best outcome for restationing, though, comes when at least half of the ranges are upgraded. That’s because if not enough ranges are upgraded then there are not enough bases within the set 150 nm distance of a range.

Adding Air National Guard units in the moves to active bases further increases the effectiveness of the restationing models. If ANG units are not allowed to move to upgraded ranges, it will hamper overall effectiveness because much of the fighter force is in the ANG.

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 480th Fighter Squadron taxis on the flightline upon arrival at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 12, 2020. (Staff Sgt. Zade Vadnais/Air Force)

The F-35 squadron at Fort Worth, Texas is not near any of the 17 ranges, so it is moved essentially in all solutions, typically to Eielson AFB, Alaska or Hill AFB, Utah.

“The largest opportunity to improve readiness in the long term is integrating the range modernization plan and the F-35 rollout,” according to the report.

To strike a balance, the report recommends that the Air Force estimate long-term costs for range modernizations to determine the total number it can afford to upgrade and compare that with the “cost and institutional challenges of restationing squadrons.”

Those costs are not just for the pilots and aircraft. The Air Force must consider the squadron, operations support, aircraft, equipment, component and munitions maintenance that goes along with the unit, both personnel attached and infrastructure upgrades.

Personnel move costs alone were estimated at $13 million per squadron, just to move the people. Added infrastructure for personnel was estimated at $25.3 million per squadron.

Depending on the type of aircraft in the squadron, infrastructure restationing costs range between $63 million and $92 million per squadron.

Those figures amount to an estimated total cost of $101 million to $130 million to re-station a single squadron.

Range upgrade costs estimated at $1.2 billion for research, development, test and evaluation funding. Two ranges highlighted, NTTR and JPARC, that will receive the most advanced capabilities, will cost roughly $1 billion. The other 15 ranges listed will cost between $120 million and $220 million each.

The average range upgrade, not including the two prioritized ranges, equals $165 million, nearly the average cost of restationing a squadron, $130 million.

But, the authors noted, the Air Force will likely get more for their money on the range upgrades as more squadrons will be able to use the range than simply restationing a single squadron instead of doing a range upgrade.

An A-10 Thunderbolt peels away after receiving fuel over Idaho Nov. 25, 2020. (Senior Airman Danielle Charmichael/Air Force)

Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia and Tyndall AFB, Florida received additional attention as both are under environmental threat with an estimated three- to seven-foot sea-level rise in the coming decades, given their coastal proximity.

As the force builds its new F-35 squadrons, stationing them within the recommended distance of the advanced ranges should be easier since there would be “fewer institutional constraints compared with existing forces.”

Report authors made the following recommendations:

• Prioritizing a range upgrade near an F-22 base and consolidating F-22 squadrons. This would require a more detailed analysis of airfield capacity issues, range capacity, and availability constraints.

• Coordinating the introduction of new F-35 squadrons, retirement of legacy aircraft, and range upgrades to ensure that F-35 squadrons would have range access at the earliest possible time.

• Developing a training strategy that outlines how much training would be required at each range capability level to better understand how much range capacity would be required and then evaluate restationing against other potential solutions.

• Developing full life cycle cost estimates for range modernization to understand the number of ranges that would be affordable over the long term and how those costs would compare with the cost and institutional challenges of restationing squadrons.

• Collecting and incorporating relevant risk data, such as hazard exposure maps, climate data, and electric power reliability metrics, in basing decisions.

Another add on to help bring squadron training up to snuff might be the use of Live Virtual Constructive simulators paired with available range access. Though that too presents its own challenges as currently, just three bases have such simulators.

Just doing range upgrades will only give a portion of fighter squadrons the access they need for advanced training. Restationing can greatly increase fighter squadron effectiveness, but authors note that will depend on Air Force leadership’s willingness to make and manage those changes.

But authors did identify a short-term benefit that would come from consolidating F-22 squadrons near an upgraded range. That would mean moving up the Joint Base Langley-Eustis in the upgrade priority rankings or converting a fourth-generation fighter base nearby to a high-priority range for those F-22 squadrons.

As the Air Force rolls out its F-35 squadrons, the basing of those units near the upgraded ranges will provide the most benefits toward meeting effectiveness goals.

But even these major moves might not be enough.

Even with range upgrades and restationing, the Air Force will still need to develop graduated training requirements so that more basic tasks can be completed in concert with advanced training events, keeping the entire force at an effective level.

Conclusions listed in the report:

* Range upgrades alone can provide only a portion of fighter squadrons with access to advanced training ranges. Restationing could significantly increase access, but the amount would depend on institutional freedom to make restationing decisions. Most significantly, if Air National Guard squadrons cannot be consolidated near advanced training ranges, the potential benefits of restationing would be substantially limited.

• Using the current basing posture and planned range upgrades, the F-22 squadrons may not have access to advanced training ranges.

• The largest opportunity to improve readiness in the long term is integrating the range modernization plan and the F-35 rollout.

• The one-time cost for restationing a fighter squadron and the cost to procure equipment for a single range modernization are on the same order of magnitude. However, when research and development and operation and sustainment costs are taken into account, range upgrades may be substantially more expensive over the long term. Upgrading a single range may provide access for more than one squadron, and a cost-effectiveness assessment should be conducted that accounts for the life cycle range modernization costs.

• There is significant variability in electric power reliability and exposure to natural hazards and climate effects across USAF fighter bases and ranges that might require different levels of investment to recover from or mitigate disruptions.

About

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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