The U.S. Air Force wants proof that Lockheed Martin [LMT] will be able to field Block 4 advancements for the F-35A fighter before increasing the buy of the plane, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said on May 13.

The service’s fiscal 2023 budget curtails the planned buy of F-35As from more than $5 billion sought for 48 planes in fiscal 2022 to about $4.5 billion for 33 F-35As in fiscal 2023.

“The reduction we took this year and that we will probably extend into next year was based on a number of factors,” Kendall said at a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel in response to a question from Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) on why the Air Force had decreased its planned F-35A buy in fiscal 2023.

“There were a number of things we needed to do with the TACAIR (tactical aircraft) portfolio,” he said. “One of them was to buy out the remaining number of F-15EXs that we need for the capabilities that the F-15EX would provide. We want to increase the funding for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD)–the follow-on to the F-22. We’ve got other programs we need to move forward as well.”

“We also are very interested and insistent on getting the Block 4 capabilities for F-35, and the contractor has been late in delivering them so far so we want to see evidence that he’ll be able to accomplish that before we increase the production,” Kendall said.

Technology Refresh 3 (TR3) is the computer backbone for Block 4, which is to have 88 unique features and to integrate 16 new weapons on the F-35. A big challenge, however, for TR3 is the L3Harris [LHX] integrated core processor, and the Government Accountability Office has been concerned by the possibility of further delays in processor deliveries and by the poor software quality for Block 4. The processor is to have its first flight on an F-35 in July.

The Air Force has said it retains the goal of buying 1,763 F-35As. “We’re 15 years into production, and I expect we’ll be buying it for another 15 years,” Kendall said on May 13.

Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) and Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical air and land forces panel, told Air Force officials last month that they were taken aback by the significant acceleration in the planned retirement of Air Force fighter aircraft–646, a net decrease of 400–over the next five years (Defense Daily, Apr. 27). The divestment includes a complete retirement of the Air Force’s fleet of Boeing [BA] F-15C/Ds by 2026 and 281 A-10 close air support aircraft by 2028.

The Air Force has also cut its planned F-15EX acquisition objective from 144 to 80, “all the while shifting expected timelines for the NGAD program significantly later than originally planned,” Hartzler said at an Apr. 27 hearing.

To accelerate the replacement of F-15C/Ds nearing the end of their service lives, the Air Force fiscal 2023 budget requests nearly $2.7 billion for 24 Boeing F-15EXs–double the number sought last year.

Air Force Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the service’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, testified during the Apr. 27 hearing that the classified NGAD “is on a very good track” and that NGAD development and fielding “timelines have not changed appreciably from last year.”

“I was in a classified briefing a couple of weeks ago, and that’s not what I was told,” Hartzler then told Nahom at the Apr. 27 hearing.

Nahom replied that he would like to meet again in a classified setting to “make sure we’re all looking at the same things, but I do actually like where Next Generation Air Dominance is going because I think it’s the right thing to do for our nation.”