While Congress may turn back the Air Force’s fiscal 2021 request to retire almost 30 tanker aicraft, 44 A-10 attack aircraft, and 24 Northrop Grumman [NOC] Block 20/30 RQ-4 Global Hawk drones, Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said that such retirements are required to help pay for modernization and that the service’s push for digital engineering may ease the concerns of lawmakers concerned about the loss of jobs and defense programs in their jurisdictions.

Roper said that the large operating costs and manpower requirements for legacy aircraft are unsustainable. “We’re not sure what the answer is going to be from Congress,” he told reporters in a Nov. 24 virtual forum.

“It is time to get to a different kind of ISR,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of progress on MQ-Next. I’m excited to see what the next generation of ISR and strike brings into the fold and what its hopefully much lower top line is in terms of operating cost. It’s just important. There’s just no magic way to do it. It’s just something that I think we haven’t been as aggressive and vocal on in the Air Force, as we need to be. Old airplanes need to be retired. I also understand if they’re in someone’s congressional district or state that when we retire something, there’s no knowing when the next thing will come. That’s part of why I’m trying to get digital engineering up in front of people’s eyes.”

A number of companies have submitted concept designs for MQ-Next, including Northrop Grumman, General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems Inc., and Lockheed Martin‘s [LMT] Skunk Works–all of which feature a flying wing (Defense Daily, Sept. 18). Boeing [BA] and Kratos [KTOS] have also submitted concept designs but have not revealed them.

Roper has said that digital engineering will be key to fielding tranches of new, advanced features for a given program every few months. The classified Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter full-scale demonstrator used such engineering to get from concept to first flight in record time, according to the Air Force, which disclosed the first flight of the demonstrator in September.

Digital engineering is “so powerful” and is “the thing we can build a competitive strategy to beat China with because it can change the calculus for how procurement works, and we need that calculus change because we’re not going to win it by throwing money at the China problem,” Roper said on Nov. 24. “We don’t have as much as they do so we’ve got to win it with a superior or innovative process.”

NGAD work has continued during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Roper said that he has seen both program progress and movement in gaining buy-in for the NGAD concept in the Pentagon and Capitol Hill.

Pentagon officials “have gone from saying I don’t understand what’s so exciting about digital engineering to really embracing what we’re attempting to do with NGAD,” Roper said on Nov. 24.

“Very few of them would sign their name up and say I’m absolutely confident you’ll succeed, but I think we’ve gotten head nods from nearly every quarter that it’s 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,” Roper said. “It’s a really good time to try something new. 10 years from now, maybe not. I’m excited that the [NGAD] team has kept their work going, and that has allowed us to share with the Pentagon and with certain quarters of Congress we’ve been able to meet [with] in classified environments why we think this is such a big deal.”