ACC chief expects NGAD to make selection this year, ‘hopefully’ F-35 deliveries will resume this month

Air war

U.S. Air Force Gen. Ken Wilsbach, commander of Air Combat Command, enters the base for a general meeting at Langley-Eustis Air Force Base, Virginia, June 11, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by PFC Chloe Shanes)

WASHINGTON — Despite recent mixed signals from Air Force leadership on the fate of the planned sixth-generation fighter, the head of Air Combat Command (ACC) still expects a winning contractor to be announced this year.

“I expect it will be this year,” Gen. Ken Wilsbach said of being selected for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, where Lockheed Martin and Boeing are likely to compete for the prestigious contract. The general, who took command of ACC earlier this year, spoke today at a virtual forum hosted by the Mitchell Institute.

“My lawyers have advised me not to talk much about NGAD,” he said, citing the active source selection process. “All I can say is that everyone wants to talk about NGAD as a jet. It’s not a jet. It’s a family of systems.”

The planned successor to the F-22 Raptor, the future of NGAD has recently been thrown into question after service leaders such as Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin he seemed to hesitate in their involvement in the program, which has raised concerns about a potential delay or outright cancellation. The decision to change course for the fighter, which has been in development for about a decade, would mark a drastic turnaround for the Air Force, as aboutofficials such as Secretary Frank Kendall had previously called warrior and “key element” of a “family of systems” with which the services seek to dominate rival armies.

Kendall recently seemed to dispel some of that speculation in interview from Defense News, saying the Air Force is still committed to the fighter but is considering compromises, such as redesigning the engine to make it cheaper. Still, officials were mostly cautious about confirming a down-select timeline — which the Air Force announced May 2023 that would happen this calendar year — amid program uncertainty. Asked for further clarification, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said she had no additional information to provide about when the NGAD award would be made.

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Wilsbach also said today that delays in NGAD technology will affect plans to retire a group of Block 20 Raptor aircraft that have been largely reserved for training because the Air Force has not chosen to upgrade them with more advanced sensors and software.

In recent years, the service has tried to retire 32 F-22 Block 20 aircraft but failed. repeatedly rejected by Congress. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (PDF) further stated that the Air Force did not adequately justify the request to withdraw the aircraft from service.

Breaking with service leadership, Wilsbach added that he was “in favor of keeping the Block 20. I think they provide us with great training value, and even if we had to use the Block 20 in an emergency in a combat situation, they are very capable.”

F-35 deliveries

Returning to the F-35, Wilsbach also addressed the challenges of an upgrade known as Technology Refresh 3 (TR-3), a set of new hardware and software intended to facilitate future upgrades to the stealth aircraft. The TR-3 software problems prompted the Pentagon to deny deliveries of the new fighters, which Lockheed executives said could leave over 100 planes “undeliverable” this year.

“We are very focused on solving this problem and I hope that deliveries of the aircraft will start this month,” Wilsbach said.

Officials such as F-35 program executive officer Air Force Lieutenant General Mike Schmidt have previously said this month is deliveries can resume at the earliestalbeit with “stripped” software. Under the Pentagon’s plan to scale back deliveries of the aircraft, deliveries will resume, but they will largely be reserved for training. Full combat capability, Schmidt said, likely won’t be achieved until a separate software drop, which could take an additional full year.

The F-35 Joint Program Office did not respond to a request for comment on the delivery schedule by press time. A Lockheed spokesman noted previous statements by company executives that deliveries were expected to resume in the third quarter of this year.

A separate issue for the F-35 is the appropriate engine and cooling system upgrades. Officials have already made a decision on how to proceed with the engine — choosing improve the current Pratt & Whitney F135 — but we haven’t decided what to do with the cooling device known as the Power and Thermal Management System (PTMS). RTX subsidiary Collins Aerospace has offered a completely new PTMS projectwhile the current PTMS manufacturer Honeywell is pressing for update existing system.

“There are some power generation and cooling issues and some future improvements that we certainly need to address, and I’ll tell you, we haven’t decided yet how we’re going to do that,” Wilsbach said. “There are some very expensive options” that offer additional capabilities, “and there are some options that are just good enough. And that will continue as we look at different options to move forward.”