F-15X in, Light Attack Out in FY20 Budget

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein meet with members from the Light Attack Experiment at Holloman AFB, N.M., Aug. 9, 2017. Air Force A1C Alexis Docherty.

The Air Force will propose buying new F-15X aircraft in the fiscal 2020 budget, but won’t seek Light Attack aircraft yet, making those choices to accommodate the National Defense Strategy, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition official said Friday at an AFA breakfast on Capitol Hill.

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch said he would not reveal details of the budget, which has not yet been delivered to Congress, but he acknowledged these two items have been discussed widely in recent weeks—including by Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein—and he offered some explanations as to USAF’s thinking.

With regard to the Light Attack aircraft—the result of experiments USAF has been doing for nearly three years—Bunch said an actual requirement has now been established after having been “rammed through” the requirements process. However, because the expected budget has “gone up and down,” with topline figures ranging from $700 billion to $750 billion, “this was not an area where we would go do a large procurement at this time,” Bunch observed, noting the service also took “priorities” stemming from the NDS into consideration when making this decision. He also said the Light Attack program was always “additive” to the service’s budget, and that nothing else could be dropped in order to bring it on. So for now, the service will focus on further experimentation.

He said he knows how the program will go forward from here—USAF Under Secretary Matt Donovan has said larger aircraft may be evaluated and Goldfein has suggested drones or helicopters may play in the mission—but Bunch said he must explain it all to Congress before discussing the plan publicly, because Congress has been “supportive” of the effort and he wants to preserve that good relationship.

Light attack is needed “to … counter violent extremists,” Bunch asserted. “What I don’t want is [to] end up in a position that I’ve got F-35s chasing small buses or mopeds. … The requirement is still valid,” even if the execution has been delayed. The Air Force also wants to buy commercial, off-the-shelf networks that would complement the light attack system and enhance cooperation with allies, he said. He said Goldfein may have been misunderstood in suggesting there’s lukewarm interest among allies in buying a Light Attack aircraft; many countries are flying such airplanes, he noted.

Bunch disputed a question suggesting the Light Attack experiment has failed because it hasn’t yet resulted in a program.

“I do believe it has been a success,” he asserted, in delivering lots of information, building a partnership with industry, and getting Congress to agree to a novel approach to addressing a need. The Air Force simply wasn’t “ready to make a large-buy decision at this stage.” Still, Bunch said the service will “look ourselves in the mirror” and decide if the experiment could have been handled better.

Retired Gen. John Michael Loh asked Bunch if industry is being “led down the primrose path” in investing “hundreds of millions” in experiments, only to find that they don’t result in programs. The Air Force is pursuing similar concepts with hypersonics and the B-52 re-engining, Loh observed.

Bunch responded that USAF is doing experiments and prototyping to get to a solution to pressing challenges. On hypersonics, for example, “If we didn’t think it was challenging, we probably wouldn’t have two efforts.”

The Air Force is “trying to do things differently,” Bunch said. “I am looking at things that may not be in the field in a zillion years,” but for the most part, USAF wants a faster solution, not one that’s drawn out. Still, “not everything is going to result in going forward on a program.” The Air Force will work on setting “the right expectations” with industry, and it is also overhauling the way it sets requirements, to streamline the process and make it faster.

On the F-15X, Bunch said USAF must confront the fact that “our fourth generation fleet is aging out.” He reminded the audience that during last year’s budget testimony, he and Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, talked about “what steps we need to do to look at our F-15C fleet.”

Bunch said “we are getting to the point where we have to make a decision of how we are either going to upgrade it, and pay for the upgrades, or do a Service Life Extension” Program.

Assuming the budget “stays the way we anticipate, we’ll buy some F-15s to replace” the oldest Eagles in the fleet.

“We are doing the upgrades, we are doing what we need to do to address that future threat, but we have to be able to execute the NDS … in the timeline that we’re working.”

Air Force officials said privately the NDS demands certain levels of force structure that can’t be achieved on the timelines it requires by buying more F-35s, which would take some time to deliver. Boeing is building F-15s for foreign customers, however, and could potentially deliver the aircraft faster, especially if foreign customers agree to let USAF buy earlier aircraft off the line. Buying more reduces the unit cost for everyone, and USAF can “leverage the investments made by our allies” in upgrades to the F-15, one official said. Those upgrades have been tested by USAF, at the expense of foreign users, at Edwards AFB, Calif.

Bunch emphasized, however, that “We’re not backing away from the F-35 in any way, shape, or form.” The F-35, he said, is “critical” to “execute the missions of the National Defense Strategy” and to be able to “operate in that threat environment” of the future. “And we’re committed to that program.” Bunch declined to comment about USAF’s long-standing insistence that it will buy no “new old” aircraft, and will put all available fighter dollars toward buying fifth-generation aircraft.