F-22s Remain Top priority for near-term fight, US Air Force says.

Much attention has been paid to the Air Force’s plans to scrap an aging group of F-22 Raptor fighters, but newer, more combat-capable versions of the stealth fighter are the service’s “top priority” for a future fight, according to a senior officer.

In a speech at the McAleese conference on Defense Programs, Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter called the F-22 the “foundation” of the service’s air power amid a broader “re-optimization” effort. ” for competition with China, noting that the reactor will play a vital role until its successor, the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) platform, comes online.

“The F-22 is a critical capability,” Hunter said. “What is my top priority in the short term in that great power competition? “I would probably put the F-22 in the lead.”

In its fiscal year 2024 budget request, the Air Force proposed ditching 32 aging F-22s in a configuration known as Block 20, arguing that money to modernize those aircraft would be better spent on the NGAD. But Congress blocked that measure, forcing the service to continue its maintenance. Hunter’s comments today are likely a preview of what the service will ask for the Raptor in its upcoming FY25 budget request.

Hunter said Air Force officials will engage with Congress on “some” F-22s that are not combat-ready and appeared to suggest the funding could instead be used to modernize other Raptors in the fleet. Air Force officials had previously said that funds freed up by the sale of Block 20 fighters would be spent directly on the NGAD.

Later, Gen. David Allvin, Air Force chief of staff, explained that the service is currently focused on keeping some F-22s “viable and relevant to the threat until the next generation of air dominance arrives.” Echoing Hunter’s words, he stated that “we’re trying to take the ones that have the most combat capability, keep them in the fight, and then leverage some of the resources that are going to be cost and time prohibitive.” for its modernization.

In 2021, the Air Force awarded Lockheed a nearly $11 billion, decade-long contract to modernize the fighter.

F-22s Remain Top priority for near-term fight

CCA Maturity

Another key priority for the Air Force is the deployment of its planned fleet of unmanned aircraft, the Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA), which the service expects to field in FY28.

As Breaking Defense previously reported, five companies – Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI), Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and the start-up Anduril – have been selected by the Air Force for the first round of CCA work. In the coming months, a second selection is expected that could reduce the list to two or three suppliers.

Responding to questions from reporters after his speech, Hunter stated that this group of five suppliers already had mature systems, and cited examples such as GA-ASI’s Gambit family of drones, currently contracted for the external detection stations program of Air Force. Without existing government partnerships or the necessary internal investment, those companies likely would not have been in a position to compete for the first CCA “increment,” he said.

The second increment of the CCA program will facilitate a “broader pool of competitors,” Hunter said, and “will still be in a very early phase of conceptual development” when a competition for the increment opens in fiscal 2025.

Contracting tensions with the industry

The foundation of all Air Force procurement is contracting, which has become a major point of friction with the industry due to complaints from suppliers about losses on fixed-price contracts.

Commenting on previous comments doubling down on fixed pricing, Hunter noted that tensions often arise around exactly when fixed-price models are used in contracts. The Pentagon typically uses a cost-plus model for development and moves to fixed-price agreements once production of a weapons system begins, although even that approach can result in huge losses for contractors on programs like the stealth bomber. B-21, built by Northrop Grumman.

“When I talk about fixed pricing at the beginning of production, which I think is where our real argument lies, what I’m looking for is at what stage in the production process is fixed pricing the appropriate approach,” he said. “What I’m looking for is realism from the industry,” he continued. “When do they feel confident enough in their cost estimate and pricing to accept [a contract] as a fixed price versus a cost plus?”

Additionally, the Air Force “does not have a policy” of fixed-price development, he said, but rather tries to contract using “appropriate levels of risk” in development. Fixed-price development contracts, in particular, have come under fire from the industry, and Boeing has given up on them entirely due to billions of dollars in losses on programs such as the KC-46A tanker.

Secretary Frank Kendall recently stated that the Air Force has had “difficulty” reaching an agreement on the cost-plus contract for the E-7A Wedgetail, manufactured by Boeing. Hunter told reporters that the service is “working with [Boeing] to get to an affordable price” and that the two sides have “significantly narrowed” the differences, but “we’re not there yet.”

Still, he said, officials “see the E-7A as a capability that makes sense and that we need to deploy in the near term.”

Michael Marrow