WASHINGTON — The Air Force has begun began a major study into the future of its test-range infrastructure, one which could decide how the service runs its live-flight testing for the next twenty 20 years.

Ed Chupein, Cchief for Air Force ranges, airspace and operations sustainment, told Defense News that a review is underway to provide Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh with options on how to revitalize the training infrastructure.

"At a very high level, that's to see where this enterprise fits in with all the other enterprises, whether it's manpower installations, weapon systems, and its used for very high level guidance and then drops down and pushes down," Chupein said.

Steven Pennington, director of Bases, Ranges, and Airspace for the Air Force, added that the focus of the review is finding how much operational infrastructure is needed to enable both current and future readiness.

"When we went into the [budget control act], we took risk in near-term readiness, and [Welsh] is saying 'what do I need to do, not just to begin to mitigate the risk we took but to enable greater capability in the future?,' Pennington said. "Part of that is buying 5th gen aircraft, but part of that is making sure you have the training infrastructure to get to the level you want to get to."

Big strategic reviews are the bread and butter of the Pentagon, but both men expressed confidence this document is more than just a basic review of current policy. Instead, it should drive the conversation on what the ranges will look like for the next "fifteen 15 to 20 to twenty years," Pennington said.

"It's pretty healthy," Chupein added, noting more details could become available within a few months. "It's not done, but it's getting close."

If the plan is approved, Pennington said the effects would be felt in the 2017 presidential budget request.

Neither man wanted to get into the details of the review, citing the fact decisions have yet to be finalized. But they both mentioned the possibility of changing the current range infrastructure from a handful of large test-ranges and a number of smaller, less capable regional-ranges into one that better takes advantage of new technologies.

"I don't know that small ranges are going to go away, but they may not be geographically tethered," Chupein said. He points to the Operation Razor Talon training exercise, which involved using several smaller ranges along the East Coast as well as the Atlantic Ocean, as a possible model.

"It attracts participants up and down the East Coast, and it basically ties together a whole bunch of smaller ranges and airspace of the coast, and creates a sort of distributed exercise," he said. "All the information is fed into one central place and at the end of the day they can sort of recreate and do an exercise debrief … . So landless ranges may very well be what our future ranges look like."

At the same time, Pennington made clear that big ranges, such as Nellis or Eglin Air Force Bases, won't be going anywhere, as they remain vital for composite force training and testing of high-tech jets such as the F-35 jJoint sStrike fFighter.

Part of the need for the new infrastructure is the increasingly advanced technology being fielded by the service. The real indicator has been the F-35, which challenges the traditional ranges in a way other jets have not.

"What's happened here is we've seen a technological leap in military aviation with the 5th gen aircraft," Pennington said. "Our ranges in the past have evolved from F-86's to Century series fighters, into the F-15 and F-16 era, and they've been able to evolve to meet new requirements because they weren't that much different."

"But we've seen a leap of magnitude in the capability of 5th gen, and our ranges have to make the same leap."

Of course, change won't come cheap. Pennington declined to put a specific price tag on a range revitalization effort, but acknowledged it would be in the "hundreds of millions per year in the FYDP."

"It's not an insignificant number, and no matter what you develop, the sustainment number will not be an insignificant number," he added. "There is concurrency for the aircraft, there is concurrency for the threats and all that translates into money."

While any major investment is difficult to push through the budget at the moment, the range infrastructure plan has support at the highest levels of the service.

During September's Air Force Association conference, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh expressed concern over the state of the test infrastructure, and noted that the discussion needs to move from test ranges as part of military construction to viewing it as part of readiness.

"This test infrastructure, the infrastructure for training, the infrastructure for the nuclear enterprise and the space launch capabilities, they are mission capabilities," he said. "So I think we need to be, in our strategic trades discussion, prioritizing infrastructure investment vs mission capability, as opposed to comparing it to buying new dorms. It's something completely different."

"I don't care how many airplanes you think you're going to buy, if you can't test them and can't train the crews who are going to fly them, it doesn't rate combat capability," he continued, before singling out training ranges as an example of where "we have got to make that investment … . We've got to do that or it won't be successful."

"So that kind of infrastructure, I think, should be competing on the top tier of strategic trades," he concluded.

Both Pennington and Chupein said Welsh is driving the discussion about ranges, with Chupein calling him the "catalyst" for the new strategic plan.

Convincing Congress could be another situation. With relations between the Hill and the service at a low point, securing significant funding in the service's budget may not be easy.

Still, both men expressed confidence the Hill will understand and eventually work with the service on whatever the final plan looks like.

"I think congress generally recognizes the need for ranges that meet readiness requirement, and at the least are willing to listen," Chupein said. "There is some degree of support for what we are trying to do."

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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