WASHINGTON — The Air Force needs a sharp increase in funding this budget cycle — an extra $147 million, to be exact — to be able to keep technology development for its next fighter jet on schedule, its top uniformed acquisition official said.
President Donald Trump's supplemental budget request for fiscal 2017 calls for a funding hike for the Air Force's next fighter jet from $20.6 million to $167.8 million, boosting its initial request about eight times over.
Asked about the increase on Wednesday, Air Force Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch said the money is necessary for the service to stay on the path outlined in its Air Superiority 2030 roadmap, which calls for the Air Force to develop a new fighter, called Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) or Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD), by 2030.
"We're trying to get this started. What we really want to do is invest in technologies, drive those technologies so that we can make smart decisions in the future, and evolve those technologies on multiple fronts," he said during a conference hosted by McAleese and Associates.
"That's why we have an experimentation campaign. That's why we have tech development roadmaps so that we're investing in multiple technologies so that if one area doesn't pan out, I can go to another area and I have an alternative."
The Obama administration put forward its 2017 budget request before the Air Superiority 2030 study had been completed. But once that effort wrapped up in May, it became clear to the Air Force that more money would be needed in order to adhere to that vision.
Brig. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, who led the Air Superiority 2030 enterprise capability collaboration team, told Defense News last year that the service planned to make parallel investments in a wide array of areas to speed up technology development. The successful, low-risk ones would be funneled into PCA, which could be fielded as early as 2028, while anything that slowed down the program could be cut or pushed into a future upgrade.
But Bunch acknowledged today that any delay in funding those efforts could also set back development and fielding of the aircraft.
"If we get a year delay [in getting that money], it will delay it at least probably a year. I'm not a rocket scientist, but I'm going to go that way," he said.
The Air Force has been extremely tight-lipped on what kinds of capabilities it is exploring under the PCA effort. Grynkewich had previously identified that range and payload would be two of the aircraft’s core characteristics, and it will be optimized for an air superiority role like the F-22.
Beyond that, little is known about the technology development efforts contained under the NGAD funding umbrella.
"It's mission systems, it's EW [electronic warfare], it's weapons, it's everything about having a platform to go into that kind of [high-end] environment," Bunch said, declining to say more about how the service would direct the additional $147 million.
Rob Weiss, executive vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, said Tuesday that the company is already engaged with the Air Force on PCA. Like Bunch, Weiss would not comment on specific technologies the service is considering, but said the next fighter would have longer range and be stealthier, with improved signature management "across a wide spectrum, not just radar cross section."
"It is clear, in our mind, what they are asking for," he said. "We are having a very good back and forth conversation about this desire to have this deployed quickly."
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.