The replacement of the F-22 will have longer range, carry more weapons, still be the best air dominance aircraft on Earth — and it will be able to perform air to ground combat, the Air Force Chief of Staff told Congress today.
The Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program isn’t limited to one plane, but one of them will meet those criteria, Gen. CQ Brown told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) at a hearing on the 2022 budget request.
The most surprising part of that combination is that Brown said NGAD will have “some air-to-ground capability to ensure, one, that it can survive, but also to provide options for our air component commanders and for the Joint Force.”
As my colleague John Tirpak noted today, “Gen. Mark D. Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, has said there may be two variants of NGAD: one with long range and payload for the Indo-Pacific and one more oriented to the relatively short ranges between possible battle areas in Europe.”
The other big news out of today’s hearing wasn’t just from the hearing. Several lawmakers lambasted Boeing today for its long and ill-fated attempt to build what it long called a low-risk airborne tanker for the United States to replace the old and getting older KC-135 fleet. In its current state, the KC-46 needs a new camera system to allow it to safely and reliably refuel. So far, Boeing has lost $5 billion on the low-risk system, is years behind schedule and doesn’t seem to have a very good handle on basic manufacturing principles such as ensuring tools, scrap metal and other debris (FOD) is not left behind in the aircraft.
Rep. Rob Wittman, ranking member of the HASC subcommittee that oversees the tanker program, told Brown and the acting Air Force Secretary John Roth: “I would strongly urge you to look at re-competing,” the Boeing contract.
Air Force leaders have said a re-compete would probably cost more than completing the current fixed-cost contract. Boeing has to eat all additional costs on the program (except for one) so the service and the taxpayer don’t have to worry about increased costs. “We’re concerned that if we try to go into a new contractual vehicle, that would put additional delays into the program that we simply don’t think would be efficacious for us,” acting Roth told the committee.
My colleague Marcus Weisgerber spotted news that must have roiled the stomachs of Boeing executives: the Air Force today formally issued a sources sought alert to find companies interesting in bidding on the next tranche of KC-Y tankers, some 160 airplanes.
“The Air Force is seeking companies that have the capability to deliver approximately 140-160 Commercial Derivative Tanker Aircraft—at a rate of 12 to 15 per year—to supplement the Air Force Tanker Aircraft fleet at the end of KC-46A production, and bridge the gap to the next Tanker recapitalization phase,” the document says. “The Commercial Derivative Aircraft must be operational by 2029. The Air Force is still finalizing the requirements for this acquisition. However, the baseline for aircraft capability will be based on the requirements from phase one of tanker recapitalization with subsequent and emerging requirements as defined by the Air Force.”
There is only one other company in the world, Airbus, that currently makes a roughly comparable airborne strategic tanker. Lockheed Martin and Brazil’s Embraer build smaller tactical tankers, the KC-130 and the KC-390.
“We are responding to the U.S. Air Force’s Sources Sought Notification for the Bridge Tanker Program, offering a mission-ready solution to meet the Air Force’s future tanker requirements,” Rob Fuller, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, said in a statement to Marcus.
Airbus lost to Boeing when it bid for the current deal. But seven countries and a NATO consortium have since signed contracts to buy the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport. With so many close US allies — Australia, France, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and South Korea — having committed to the Airbus plane and with the Boeing program the object of such high dudgeon, the A330 would appear to have a reasonable chance should the European company choose to bid.
However, Boeing savaged Airbus the last time the two went head to head, marshaling every lawmaker the American-headquartered company could find. And Boeing told Marcus today that they do plan to bid on the KC-Y. A foreign bid for a major program like this — no matter how much strategic sense it might make — will face a steep incline on Capitol Hill. But Boeing’s poor performance building the KC-46 may have opened the doors.