U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel (HAC-D) on March 28 that the future Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) is critical to the future of the Air Force.

“I think the CCA is not just desirable. It’s essential,” Kendall said in response to a question from Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the panel’s chairman, who told Kendall that he “absolutely” supports the CCA concept but is concerned that CCA may not live up to its affordability promise and that CCA may end up being a bill payer in future years for other top Air Force acquisition priorities, including the B-21 Raider, the F-35 fighter, the KC-46 tanker, and the Next Generation Air Dominance manned fighter.

CCA “is essential for a couple of reasons,” Kendall said. “One is cost effectiveness. The combination of crewed aircraft with much less expensive CCAs, from our analysis, has major payoffs in operational cost effectiveness. The other is affordability. The anticipated cost of the CCA will be a fraction of an F-35–half or less, maybe a third or a quarter even. We are committed to that program. We have to do that to sustain the Air Force that we’re gonna need to meet our challenges around the world.”

Such an affordability goal may mean that the unit cost of CCA would be $20 million.

“The CCA makes the Air Force more affordable, effectively,” he said. “Without it, it’s very difficult to envision how we could keep the Air Force at the size that it’s currently in.”

The Air Force fiscal 2024 budget conceptualizes a buy of 1,000 Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCAs) for use by the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) manned fighter and the F-35. Of the Air Force’s $522 million fiscal 2024 request for CCA, $392 million is in the service’s $2.3 billion ask for NGAD (Defense Daily, March 14).

At the HAC-D hearing, Calvert also discussed the Department of the Air Force’s fiscal 2022 annual acquisition report, which he said Congress received last month.

Among the highest performing U.S. Space Force acquisition programs cited by the report, Calvert said, are the Lockheed Martin [LMT] GPS III-Follow On (GPS III-F) satellites and National Security Space Launch, while among the lowest performers are the GPS Next-Generation Operational Control System (GPS OCX) by Raytheon Technologies [RTX] and Raytheon’s Family of Advanced Beyond-Line-of-Sight Terminals (FAB-T).

Calvert asked why space “ground systems are so hard to deliver” without significant technical problems, as opposed to satellites.

“I think there’s a tendency in space programs historically to emphasize the satellite payload over the ground station,” Kendall replied. “Ground stations are almost always very software intensive, and we tend to have a problem with software programs in general in the Department of Defense. The other thing that’s impacted our programs is that cyber security requirements have gotten more stringent over time, and that’s added a layer of complexity. If you don’t design for that up front, and you come in and try to overlay it later on as you’re going through the design, it’s much more difficult.”

Kendall said that getting contractors to put their “A teams” on space ground systems has been difficult, but Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration Frank Calvelli has established a tenet of devoting increased attention to space ground systems.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman told Calvert that “how we acquire and how we develop requirements for software-based systems is something that we’re working through and managing in the new modern era of acquisition associated with those kind of systems so it stands to reason, I think, that some of those programs are lagging, but [Assistant Secretary] Calvelli is hands-on with these programs to get it right.”