The House Appropriations Committee cuts the Department of the Air Force’s nearly $256 million research and development request for Vanguard programs by almost $87 million, as the committee says that the department needs to demonstrate more rapid fielding.

The two Vanguards are Rocket Cargo, an effort begun in June 2021 to explore the feasibility of delivering 100 tons of cargo anywhere on the globe within an hour, and Navigation Technology Satellite-3 (NTS-3), started in 2019 as one of the first three Vanguards–the other two being the Skyborg low-cost attritable aircraft and the Golden Horde collaborative, swarming munitions effort.

The Department of the Air Force requests $42 million for Rocket Cargo in fiscal 2024 and about $5 million for NTS-3.

In January, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) said that L3Harris Technologies [LHX] had delivered the 1,100 pound NTS-3 to AFRL’s space vehicles directorate at Kirtland AFB, N.M., in expectation of a launch late this year (Defense Daily, Jan. 27). NTS-3, which integrates a positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) payload on a Northrop Grumman [NOC] ESPAStar bus, is to demonstrate advanced protection technologies for the Global Positioning System and other PNT systems.

The House Appropriations Committee, in its report this month on the committee’s version of the fiscal 2024 defense bill, said that the Air Force Vanguards “have led to several programs of record that enable warfighting capabilities.”

“However, the committee has concerns with the current and future scope of the Vanguard programs,” the report said. “First, the time from operational need identification to fielding remains far too long given the modest advances in capability. Second, the committee believes that the Air Force should focus its fiscal year 2024 efforts on the existing Vanguards and Vanguard Prospects. Due to the increase in the budget request for the Vanguards over the future years defense program, the committee urges the Air Force to demonstrate how it can more rapidly transition current Vanguard Prospects to programs of record before it invests in the Pathfinders. Additionally, it is not clear that the Vanguards are sufficiently leveraging emerging technologies in the commercial sector.”

The Pathfinders are first step programs which need concept refinement before becoming Prospects and then Vanguards once detailed concepts, transition partners, and fielding strategies are laid out.

The fiscal 2024 Air Force-requested Vanguard Pathfinders are Integrated Electronic Warfare, Integrated Networks, Advanced Emulation for Test and Training, and Enabling Technology for Agile Basing, while the Prospects are Resolute Sentry, Fight Tonight, Long Range Kill Chains, and Area Effects Demonstration.

Resolute Sentry is to forge multi-domain battlespace awareness in highly contested environments, while Fight Tonight is to demonstrate artificial intelligence-based theater-level, adaptive planning against technologically advanced adversaries. The Long Range Kill Chains Prospect is to use all domain data to improve targeting and the Area Effects Demonstration is to advance the development of high-speed area effects concepts through the use of modeling and simulation and aerodynamic ground testing.

In fiscal 2024, the Air Force requested $39 million for Fight Tonight, $30 million for Resolute Sentry, about $26 million for Long Range Kill Chains, and $18 million for the Area Effects Demonstration. Under the Vanguard Pathfinders, the service requested $23 million for Integrated Electronic Warfare, $15 million for Advanced Emulation for Test and Training, $13 million for Enabling Technology for Agile Basing, and about  $12.5 million for Integrated Networks.

The House Appropriations Committee zeroes the funding for the Pathfinders in its fiscal 2024 bill.

The committee “is concerned that standard business operations in AFRL perpetuate the gap between the operators, acquirers, and the S&T [science and technology] workforce, limiting the military utility and speed of fielding,” the committee’s report said. “Understanding how AFRL is closing this gap is of key interest to the committee.”

Skyborg has informed the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) concept and became part of the service’s “autonomous collaborative platforms” (ACP) work last year.

ACP focused on moving mature autonomous drones, including the Kratos [KTOS] XQ-58A Valkyrie, into the prototype phase.

ACP’s Autonomous Collaborative Technologies (ACT) project–now CCA–has focused on maturing Skyborg technologies for air power projection against adversaries. In fiscal 2024, the Air Force plans on making ACT part of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program in keeping with Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s NGAD family of systems operational imperative.

While ACP’s ACT project is to become part of NGAD in fiscal 2024, the Air Force budget requests about $119 million for two new ACP projects. The service requests about $69 million for an Experimental Operations Unit to reduce CCA program risk by exploring how CCAs could function most effectively with crewed aircraft in future Air Force squadrons; and nearly $50 million for the Viper Experimentation and Next-gen Operations Mode (VENOM).

Under VENOM, the Air Force is to put six autonomous F-16s in the air, equip them with rapidly upgradable software, execute test flights, and then have pilots fly the aircraft to monitor the functioning of the artificial intelligence-enabled autonomy (Defense Daily, March 27).

The Air Force said that it plans to transition Skyborg to a “program of record” in fiscal 2024, as Skyborg’s Autonomy Core System hardware and software open architecture and components will become part of Air Force systems. The Air Force plans to move Golden Horde under the oversight of the Air Force program executive officer for weapons in fiscal 2024.