The draft conference report on the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, H.R. 6395, requires the Pentagon director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) to submit a report on U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) capabilities.
While the House version of the bill would have cut 15 percent from NGAD funding until the submission of the CAPE report, the conference report contains no funding restriction. Senate conferees also proposed and received in the report a requirement that the CAPE director “perform a non-advocate review on the Digital Century Series acquisition business case analysis developed by the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics.”
Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said in September that the service has already flown an NGAD demonstrator. The service requested more than $1 billion in fiscal 2021 NGAD research and development, which authorizers trimmed by $70 million to finance at $974 million in the conference bill.
Roper said on Nov. 30 that the Air Force has “received head nods from nearly every quarter” that NGAD is a “calculated risk that is well merited, that the benefits that have been seen in commercial industry are likely to prove out in defense and that the only way to prove them out is to do it while we still have a competitive industrial base to support it and while we have a tactical aircraft, the F-35, going through a major modernization (Defense Daily, Nov. 30).
Navy NGAD has apparently lagged behind the Air Force effort.
“Given the significant immaturity of the Navy’s Next-Generation Air Dominance program and that F-35C aircraft are still currently in low rate production, the conferees believe that decision could induce greater operational risk in the future for combatant commanders as well as increase the Navy’s forecasted strike-fighter deficit in fiscal year 2021 from -49 to -58 aircraft,” the conferees said.
Lawmakers also want the Pentagon acquisition chief to conduct a study to determine the causes of physiological episodes (PEs) affecting pilots of the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35 fighter. The conferees also direct the DoD acquisition chief to submit an annual report on the efforts to address the F-35 PEs and the funding for such efforts.
Congressional defense authorizers fund 93 F-35s in fiscal 2021, including 60 Air Force conventional F-35As for nearly $5.3 billion, 10 Marine Corps short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs for more than $1 billion, and 23 Navy carrier variant F-35Cs for nearly $2.4 billion. The conferees increased the budget request by nearly $720 million for an additional 12 F-35As and $190 million for an extra two F-35Cs.
A report by the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety (NCMAS) said this week that there have been at least 49 PEs on the F-35 since 2013 (Defense Daily, Dec. 3). From 2013 to 2018, the Navy and Marine Corps had 699 PEs, while the Air Force had 718.
Such incidents have included an Onboard Oxygen Generating System (OBOGS) problem on training aircraft, such as the T-6, T-45, and T-38, and on some low-altitude aircraft, like the A-10s, said NCMAS Chairman Richard Cody, a retired Army general.
“The conferees remain concerned that the continued increase in physiological episodes with aircraft equipped with On-Board Oxygen Generating Systems from across the different services pose a serious threat to safety and combat effectiveness,” according to the fiscal 2021 NDAA draft conference report. “The conferees expect the department to quickly take the necessary steps to ascertain the root cause(s) and resolve the problem(s).”