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U.S. Air Force Changes Weapon Design to Utilize More Women and Minorities

In 2022, the U.S. Air Force will take delivery of the F-15EX, a new and improved version of the nearly 40-year-old F-15E Strike Eagle. Despite all of the modern advances of the new jet, only 9 percent of women in the Air Force currently meet the body-size standards for piloting the legacy F-15 and possibly also the new EX variant, potentially blocking highly qualified pilots from flying a platform that will be in operation for decades to come.

Like the vast majority of the Air Force’s aircraft and aircrew equipment, the F-15 was designed to meet the anthropometric specifications of a male pilot in 1967. But in an Aug. 4 memo, the Air Force mandated that future weapons programs use current body size data that reflects the central 95 percent of the U.S. recruitment population — a move meant to make pilot and aircrew jobs more accessible to women and people of color.

Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper, who signed off on the changes, said there is a strategic imperative for opening the door to a more diverse pool of pilots and aircrew.

During a war with a near-peer, technologically advanced nation like China, the U.S. military will have to contend with a well-trained, highly educated force that might outnumber its own, he said. By fielding weapon systems that can only be used by a smaller portion of the U.S. population, the Air Force could be shutting out some of its most promising potential pilots or aircrew.

“The human factor is a delineator and it likely will be against an adversary like China, where I believe we will have a greater propensity to trust the operator in the seat, to delegate more, to empower more and take greater risk in that delegation,” Roper said.

The new guidance directs the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center to conduct a study that will solidify a more inclusive anthropometric standard that would include 95 percent of the U.S. population eligible for recruitment in the U.S. Air Force.

Roper said he is working with defense contractors to see whether there can be modifications made to legacy platforms — or upgraded versions like the F-15EX — that will accommodate operators with a wider range of body sizes.

However, Roper acknowledged that more work has yet to be done.

“Changing the policy is one thing. Changing the platforms is another. And that’s going to require cost to do. My next job, aside from designing future systems differently — which we’ll do — is to find options to bring systems into greater compliance with the new policy and then to advocate tooth and nail for the funding needed to do it,” he said. “The litmus test for the Air Force long term has got to be balancing accommodation with the technology for future platforms.”

Read more about the design changes to utilize more pilots.