Uncertainty Surrounds Air Force 'Holy Trinity'

By Jon Harper
The “holy trinity” of Air Force acquisition programs — the F-35A joint strike fighter, the KC-46A tanker and the long-range strike bomber — are moving forward but key questions about their future remain unanswered, according to a top service official.

The $400 billion Lockheed Martin F-35 program — the largest in Defense Department history — has been plagued by cost overruns, schedule delays and technical glitches.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act withholds about $900 million in procurement funding for the F-35A until the secretary of defense certifies that the aircraft delivered in 2018 will have full combat capability with Block 3F software.

Resolving the plane’s information technology challenges remains a key focus for program managers and engineers, including improving the autonomic logistics information system and “cleaning up some of the fusion issues,” said William LaPlante, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisitions.

“What we’re working on now is making sure that the downloads from the airplane are faster and making sure that the mission data files, software files are correct for the airplane. So it’s kind of blocking and tackling things there,” he said at an Air Force Association breakfast in Arlington, Virginia.

Even with the ongoing information technology issues, LaPlante said the Senate’s NDAA provision didn’t raise any “big red flags” in his mind in terms of the Air Force’s ability to meet the requirement.

The F-35A “looks like it’s on track” to achieve initial operational capability next summer, LaPlante said.

Moving forward, the acquisition chief said the Air Force would like blocks of the F-35A to have an “open architecture” so that sourcing for future upgrades can be open to competition. The service is assessing the costs and benefits of switching to a different type of architecture, LaPlante said.

“It has not been decided that we will do it or won’t do it, but it has been decided [that] we’re going to try; we’re going to explore it,” he told reporters after the breakfast.

Working out an effective sustainment strategy for the aircraft is another major hurdle that hasn’t received a lot of media attention, according to LaPlante. He noted that sustainment usually accounts for about 70 percent of a major weapon system’s life cycle costs.

“That’s going to be really a challenge because we’ve got eight [international] partners; we’ve got FMS [foreign military sales] cases. And we have to make sure that these parts are globally available, that we have a fair competition globally to be a product supplier and that we all have a transparent process. And so that is the work going on right now,” he said at the breakfast.

For Boeing’s KC-46A tanker, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees cut about $200 million from the Defense Department’s research, development, test and evaluation budget request in their respective NDAAs, stating in summaries of the legislation that the Air Force wasn’t capable of fully executing the amount it had requested.

It’s unclear when the new tanker will achieve initial operational capability. The Air Force is aiming for the first test flight of a fully configured KC-46A to happen in July, according to LaPlante. Service officials had hoped it would be ready to fly in April.

“The biggest issue in the KC-46 is just getting through the testing” and getting to the required assets available stage, LaPlante said. Eighteen new tankers are slated to reach that mark by the fall of 2017.

The achievement of initial operational capability “may be to the left of RAA or to the right” depending on how Air Mobility Command chooses to define the requirements, LaPlante said.

The Pentagon has a fixed-price contract with Boeing for the KC-46A and the government’s financial liability is capped at $4.9 billion.

Of the big three acquisition programs, the long-range strike bomber faces the greatest amount of uncertainty. LaPlante said in May that he expects a decision about source selection to be made in the next “one to two months.”

The Air Force plans to acquire 80 to 100 new bombers at a price of $550 million per plane in fiscal 2010 dollars. Service leaders want the aircraft to enter service by the mid-2020s and have an open architecture so future upgrades can be subject to competition.

In their respective NDAAs, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees cut $460 million in research, development, test and evaluation money from the Air Force’s fiscal 2016 budget request for the bomber program.

LaPlante acknowledged the widespread skepticism that the Air Force can meet its bomber program goals.

“Everybody is very cynical outside, they’re very suspicious … but they will be proven wrong,” he said.

Topics: Aviation, Defense Department, DOD Budget

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