If Congress blocks F-22 retirements, expect impact to Air Force drone programs: Hunter

F-22 Operations at ADAB

An F-22 Raptor takes off from Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 21, 2022.  (US Air Force/Master Sgt. Dan Heaton)

DAYTON, Ohio — If the Air Force is not allowed to retire its oldest F-22s in fiscal 2023, the service may not have have the resources it needs to develop and field new drones slated to complement the service’s sixth-generation fighter, the Air Force’s top acquisition official warned Thursday.

The Air Force plans to field a piloted sixth-generation fighter and multiple uncrewed “collaborative combat aircraft” as part of its Next Generation Air Dominance family of systems that will ultimately replace the F-22 Raptor. To help fund the program, the service wants to retire 33 Block 20 aircraft currently used for pilot training, freeing up $1.8 billion over the next eight years.

But with Congress likely to block the move, that leaves few options for getting needed R&D efforts underway, said Andrew Hunter, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, during an Aug. 11 roundtable at the Air Force’s Life Cycle Industry Days conference.

“The concern I would have would be on our ability to deliver on a collaborative combat aircraft system to complement NGAD,” Hunter said. “That’s where I can start to see impacts, and it would limit our ability to dedicate people and resources to an aggressive effort to field that capability.”

The Air Force requested about $52 million in FY23 to transition its Skyborg technology development effort to the “advanced component development and prototypes” stage. And while Congress may be willing to add more cash to that specific program, it’s not just about money, Hunter said, as the Air Force may not have available personnel or infrastructure to dedicate to new capabilities if it’s not allowed to retire legacy aircraft on time.

“If we were not to get divestments — generally and specific to the F-22 — we  wouldn’t be able to migrate the air crews and the maintenance crews that work on those platforms to the next generation capabilities that we’re trying to field,” he said. “We anticipate transitioning folks from our tactical aircraft community into those newer mission sets, and we’re looking to field on a very rapid timeframe.”

The outlook for enacting F-22 retirements in FY23 looks bleak, based on initial feedback from the House and Senate Armed Services committees. Both HASC and SASC included provisions in their versions of the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act that would block the Air Force from divesting any of its F-22s.

The SASC version of the bill has a little bit of flexibility, allowing the Air Force to begin divesting its F-22 Block 20 aircraft if the service meets a number of reporting requirements, such as submitting a plan for F-22 training and addressing concerns about F-22 maintenance and availability. But the HASC bill draws a firm line in the sand, allowing no exemptions to its prohibition and compelling the service to upgrade F-22 Block 20 aircraft to a Block 30/35 configuration. The conference version of the NDAA, which House and Senate lawmakers will hammer out in the coming months, will lay out the ultimate way forward for the F-22 Block 20 fleet.

During the conference, Brig. Gen. Dale White, the Air Force’s program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, said the Air Force is currently working with F-22 prime contractor Lockheed Martin to develop a cost estimate for what it could take to bring the Block 20 jets to the Block 30/35 baseline, with the hope of delivering an estimate in 30 days.

However, White noted that the Air Force is currently in the midst of an upgrade program for the combat-capable F-22 fleet, which would add new sensors and a low-drag fuel tank and pylon that extends the aircraft’s range. That means the Block 20s would require even more extensive upgrades to catch up to the capability level the service believes it will need to keep the jets relevant in the later part of the decade.

“It will be a tremendous bill,” he said.

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