By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The three-star general who heads the secretive U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command is pressing arms makers to speed up the development of new weapons and move toward greater standardization of aircraft and sensors.
"We're pretty relentless," Air Force Lieutenant General Eric Fiel told Reuters at the annual Air Force Association conference this week.
"We put a man on the moon in 9 years. We can't even bring a major weapons system in less than that now," he said in a rare interview with a senior officer in one of the Air Force's most hush hush units. "Why does it take that long?"
Fiel's remarks echoed those made by other Air Force leaders and top Pentagon leaders, who are struggling to fund key weapons programs at a time when U.S. military spending is due to decline by nearly $1 trillion over the decade beginning in fiscal 2013.
Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co and other companies that build weapons for the U.S. military are anxious for clues about funding priorities in the coming lean years. Conferences such as the Air Force Association event give them a chance to talk directly with operational military commanders such as Fiel, instead of just military acquisition experts.
Fiel said most of his suppliers understood the need to bring costs down and get new capabilities to troops more quickly, especially given mounting pressures on U.S. military spending. But there were exceptions.
"I think some of them get it better than others," he said.
He declined to name any specific laggards, and acknowledged that the military also bore the blame for some delays since it often added requirements after development work on new weapons began.
Fiel said Air Force Special Operations Command has had some success in rapidly developing smaller weapons systems, including the conversion in 2005 of the Swiss Pilatus PC-12 into the militarized U-28A aircraft, which took less than a year.
One important lesson officials learned was to accept "B-minus" equipment instead of pressing for perfect solutions and make improvements after it was fielded, he said.
It was also important to set strict standards for sensors and other equipment to ease training and integration into existing platforms. For instance, the command required all imaging sensors to fit onto one of two specific interfaces.
"We can't afford to have a different type of sensor for every airplane." he said.
Like most military commanders, Fiel is also looking at manned and unmanned aircraft suited for more hostile battlefield environments after a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. forces controlled the air space.
Also on Fiel's "new magic" wish list are new sensors that can penetrate and see through the dense jungles that are more common in Africa, South America or Asia, as well as sensors that can be dropped in remote areas to track the weather, he said.
Another big priority for special forces was development of lighter and longer-lasting batteries to power the equipment that commandos needed when they deployed in remote areas.
Fiel said Air Force special operations faced budget cuts along with the rest of the military, but he was upbeat about weathering the downturn.
"We're not protected at all," he said. "But I see this as a sort of opportunity."
Cuts of 10 to 12 percent would shrink the size of the force, which grew over the past decade to just over 18,000, including active duty, reserve forces and National Guard, Fiel said. The command would also lose some older C-130 aircraft.
But the command would save maintenance and personnel costs as it shifted to the more modern J-model of the C-130, built by Lockheed Martin Corp, which will replace the six different C-130 models now in use by 2023. The new aircraft also uses just seven crew members, half the old number.
The command is also moving to more global basing so it can respond to crises more quickly.
"At the end of the day, even if sequestration does last for 10 years, we are small enough and nimble enough that we can adjust," he added.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa. Editing by Andre Grenon)