AFA NEWS: Air Force to Congress: Modernization, CCA at Risk Without 2024 Budget

By Sean Carberry

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — The Air Force is using existing programs and authorities to the extent it can to advance initiatives like the collaborative combat aircraft, but unless Congress passes a 2024 National Defense Authorization Act and budget, there are limits to how much progress the Air Force can make on its modernization goals, the service’s secretary said.

“We have a lot of things pending before the Congress that are of concern to us,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said during a roundtable conversation with reporters at the Air and Space Forces Association’s Air, Space and Cyber conference Sept. 11.

“Obviously, people getting confirmed is important — that's becoming increasingly debilitating to the department,” he said, referring to Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s, R-Ala., hold on promotions of general officers due to his objection to Defense Department reproductive health policy.

“We have some reprogramming we need to get through,” Kendall continued. “And of course, we need our bills passed.”

Kendall echoed a concern voiced by other senior Defense Department officials — if Congress issues a continuing resolution rather than a 2024 budget before the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1, that will have serious consequences for modernization efforts.

Of greater concern would be a shutdown, “which a lot of the people that I talked to say is a distinct possibility,” he added.

“That would be very hard on the department. We’ve been through them before,” he said. “I’ve been through some pretty severe ones. They do a lot of damage. So hopefully, that won’t happen.”

The Department of the Air Force spent the last two years identifying modernization programs and working them into the fiscal year 2024 budget, he said. “And we really need the authorizations and appropriations bills to move forward.”

That is why he continues to push on Congress to pass the defense bills. “We have a lot of meetings with individuals, and we're in touch with committee leadership on both sides of the Hill,” he said. “The shutdown is an issue that's bigger than the Defense Department, it’s bigger than the Air Force. It has to do with some national level politics, basically.

“All we can do is try to make everybody understand as clearly as possible what the implications will be. And then they'll make their own judgments about what to do,” he said.

Kendall said he’s also been pushing the Hill to pass the Air Force’s “quickstart” legislative proposal that would allow the service to carry out early-stage development work on new programs before Congress passes authorizations and appropriations.

The proposal is not intended simply as a workaround for continuing resolutions, he said. “It's really pointed at the normal budget process, without a CR, where, because of the typical length of time it takes us to get into the DoD budget and then have the DoD budget considered and acted on, you're already talking about well over a year. And you could save all that time if we could move immediately” on a new program or initiative, he said.

“And it's a very limited authorization or appropriation permissions,” he continued. “It's just the earliest stages of a program … you cannot make any long-term commitment. You're basically just allowed to get started.”

In the meantime, the service is doing everything it can to advance the collaborative combat aircraft, or CCA, program, which has an initial goal of fielding 1,000 uncrewed aircraft that can perform surveillance, electronic warfare, fire weapons and other functions in support of crewed aircraft. The Air Force is working with existing funding and authorizations to determine the roles CCA can fill and examine costs and technology options, Kendall and Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics Andrew Hunter said.

“We are actively working with industry on a regular basis to achieve the objectives on the CCA program,” Hunter said.

“We can move forward and are moving forward on the program that we already had instantiated,” he added. “The thing about getting the ‘24 budget is we will get significantly more funding to carry out the effort. So, we do still need the fiscal year ‘24 budget, because it's a substantial uptick in resources for the effort and we will be delayed in terms of our ability to move forward at the pace that we would like if we don't get that ‘24 budget request.”

Hunter said achieving the right mix of affordability and scale requires getting the design correct.

“There’s some areas where you can go back and simplify things later on and there’s many areas where you can’t,” he said. “So [F-35] is a critical capability for our future efforts, but by itself, it’s going to need another component together to get at that issue of scale and mass. And that’s where the CCA comes in.”

“In order to build an entirely different scale, you really have to design a different kind of aircraft and hence CCA, right, affordable mass, it has to be designed from the beginning to be something that can be produced [in] much more significant numbers and scale them,” he said.

“It will not cost as much as F-35, but it’s also going to be simpler in design. And so that is core to our strategy, core to our efforts,” he continued.

“So, we're making that very much part of the front-end process for how we get to CCA,” he said. “And it does require, as the secretary said, you know, discipline — discipline and how do we think about what you're asking the platform to do to ensure that continues to be something you can produce effectively and affordably.”

Hunter said the vendor base for CCA is robust with a lot of capability available. “Not everyone who’s good at software is necessarily a platform provider, not everyone who is a platform provider may be as good at software as some of our new entrants have shown themselves to be,” he said.

“Having said that, I would say that the capabilities across the vendors that we've been engaged with and talk to, the capability is very robust and that leads to us feeling like we will be able to make rapid progress on CCA,” he added.

The Air Force is working to reduce barriers for new companies to engage with the service and partner on CCA, he said. The service is also working to mitigate experimentation limitations, he said.

The 2024 budget includes an operational experimentation unit that will focus on how to use CCAs and help industry engage with the service, he said.

“When we get that established, that's another [fiscal year] ‘24 budget initiative that will substantially help, and we have several mitigating efforts to try and allow us to do more test and evaluation of the kinds of software we think will be used with CCA,” he said.

As is the case with the F-35 Tech Refresh-3 that is behind schedule and delaying deliveries of the most advanced version of the aircraft, software is often what holds up modernization programs, Kendall noted.

“This is a perennial problem,” he said. “We've tried a lot of things to make it better. But what we've done over the years — as computing capability has gotten better and as software languages have gotten more efficient — is add more and more functionality in the software, make the product more complicated. So, one of the things we're going to try to do in CCAs is avoid that tendency, limit the functionality we want to what we really need to get an advantage and get that fielded.”

“One of the things I've asked my scientific advisory board to do … is to go take a look at how far we should extend in terms of functionality,” he continued. “How much autonomy can we really — with confidence — get into the first increment of the CCA as we field, so that we don't overshoot or undershoot.”

And as the service works through those questions, it is going to have to keep an eye on the bottom line.

“We've got two increments planned, but basically we want to keep the cost down to a fraction of an F-35,” he said. “And we're having an open competition, we're looking at effectiveness analysis, maturity of the technology, the numbers that will accompany a crewed aircraft.

“When I talked about it initially, I said two to five [per crewed aircraft] was sort of the range, right? So, we would like to have at least two — more is better, and you get more cost effectiveness if you can do more,” he said.

“But you've got to have technology that can allow the crewed aircraft to control that number and do it effectively,” he continued. “So that's still an unknown. What we're trying to get industry to do is to mature technology and be creative and then demonstrate to us what kind of capabilities they can provide and why it's cost effective. And that's how we're going to be selecting which ones we carry to the next phase of competition.”

While the intent is for CCAs to support an F-35 or the future sixth-generation fighter, they could support the B-21 bomber, he noted.

“When we started the operational imperatives, we thought initially that we might find a good cost-effectiveness case for dedicated uncrewed collaborative combat aircraft that accompany the B-21,” he said. “That didn't turn out to be the case as we got into the analysis.”

However, there is a “possibility where basically the B-21 picks up CCA as it gets closer to the operating area,” he said. “It's one of the possibilities we'll think about. The more we learn about the idea of the CCA and how it can fit into operational contexts, the more interesting and appealing it becomes.”

While much about the B-21 program remains classified, Kendall posed some scenarios where CCAs could support a B-21.

“The CCAs could be managed forward as you penetrate as augmentation to the B-21,” he said. “They could provide defensive capability around the B-21. They could provide a better situational awareness potentially for the B-21 if they were with it, so those sorts of things are possibilities out there.”

Still, it all comes down to Congress, he reiterated. During his keynote address, Kendall called on Congress to get the budget done and avoid a continuing resolution or shutdown.

“As we look out into the next week and months, we urge you to give us the authorization, appropriations and confirmations that is your duty to provide for our military,” he said. “Our men and women in uniform and the people who also support them are doing their jobs. Congress, please do yours. One team one fight.”


Topics: Air Force News

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