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Wittman Opening Statement at Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Hearing on 2024 Budget Request for the DoD’s Fixed-Wing Tactical and Training Aircraft Programs

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congressman Rob Wittman (VA-01), Chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee and Vice Chairman of the Full House Armed Services Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today’s hearing on the 2024 budget request for the Department of Defense’s Fixed-Wing Tactical and Training Aircraft Programs. 

Congressman Wittman’s statement as prepared for delivery: 

I welcome everyone to our first subcommittee hearing of the 118th Congress to review the fiscal year 2024 budget request for the Department of Defense’s fixed-wing tactical and training aircraft programs. 

I thank our witnesses for testifying today, and I welcome both new and returning Members to the “TAL”  subcommittee. I look forward to leading our subcommittee and working with our distinguished ranking member from New Jersey, and former chairman of the subcommittee, Mr. Don Norcross. We have a critically important role as we review over $133 billion dollars of programs in our jurisdiction, the largest of any of the hardware subcommittees.  

As I’ve stated many times in the past, the National Defense Strategy is clear in its focus on China as our nation’s pacing threat. During my previous tenure as Ranking Member on the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, we oversaw critical capabilities of the long-range strike and long-range logistics portfolios. They are essential components for executing INDOPACOM’s military strategy and enabling operational success of the joint force competing against the tyranny of distance in response to ever-increasing Chinese aggression. Additionally, I truly believe those long-range capabilities I just described are even more essential as they augment and support the tactical fighter fleet. However, I am worried about the Department's current direction regarding the composition of the US military's tactical fighter force structure and required capabilities. 

I am concerned that our existing force structure is optimized for a counter insurgency fight and is not prepared to address the challenges posed by expected threats in the INDOPACOM area.

As I review the plans for each service, two threads are particularly concerning. First, our fighter force structure continues decreasing. And second, we are not able to deliver replacement aircraft at affordable prices to achieve similar quantities going forward. Meanwhile our adversaries continue out-pacing us building and fielding their own lethal fighter capacity and capabilities. 

I find we must continually ask ourselves whether or not this Administration and the Department of Defense strives to maintain the U.S. as an enduring global power, or will they continue down the evident glide-slope of reducing us to regional power status. 

For the Air Force, their fiscal year 2023 through fiscal year 2028 plan includes divesting 801 fighter aircraft but only buying back 345 new F-35A and F-15EX aircraft. The F-15EX program of record is not fully funded.  The 200 planned Next Generation Air Dominance manned fighters are many years away from fielding and will cost taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars.” The Air Force has yet to figure out how they will buy 1,763 F-35A aircraft after acknowledging their major operating cost assumption of $4.1 million dollars per aircraft per year is unachievable. The Air Force in this budget canceled the electronic warfare upgrade for their fleet of existing F-16s, which now puts into question the viability and survivability of that aircraft fleet in the future, and which could be construed as an intentional pre-cursor to justifying divestment of a significant amount of that capable fleet at a later date. And while the Air Force’s new Collaborative Combat Aircraft concept may hold promise in affordability and making up for fighter capacity shortfalls, there is still a long road ahead integrating autonomous capability seamlessly amongst manned platforms, especially when the Air Force still can’t get their 4th and 5th generation manned fighter aircraft to reliably share tactically relevant data during combat air operations.   

Meanwhile, the Navy has a strike-fighter shortfall this year of 17 aircraft and that number grows in the future until 2030.  The Navy has yet to sign a contract for 20 aircraft appropriated over the last two years; has still not achieved their planned purchase rate of 24 F-35C aircraft per year; has still not demonstrated it can affordably modify legacy Block 2 Super Hornets into Block 3 capable aircraft; has reduced F-35C squadron force presentation in carrier air wings from 2 squadrons of 10 aircraft to 1 squadron of 16 aircraft; and, has similar challenges as the Air Force in affordably trying to field their version of the manned Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft.   

And I would be remiss if I didn’t pick on the Marine Corps too.  While I support the overall contours of the Commandant’s Force Design 2030 concept regarding land forces, I currently have concerns with the plans regarding aviation force structure.  I’d like to understand why the Marine Corps plans to move 54 combat-coded F-35B and C aircraft into attrition reserve status, for a total of 117 attrition reserve aircraft or 28 percent of their fleet, but still maintains an overall program of record of 420 F-35 aircraft. Especially when F-35B and F-35C fully mission capable rates have averaged over the past few years at only 27 percent and 21.5 percent, respectively.  

Finally, I want to discuss the F-35 program given it’s currently planned to comprise a significant portion of our future tactical fighter fleet around the world, presuming we’re still able to afford all 2,456 aircraft for the U.S., and another approximately 1,000 aircraft for partners and foreign customers.  

Up front I want to unequivocally state that the F-35 will be the most advanced tactical fighter aircraft the U.S. has ever built. Although multiple challenges exist across various aspects of the F-35 enterprise, I want to highlight two near-term issues.

The F-35 is currently planned to achieve full operational capability status after full TR-3 and Block 4 capabilities of the aircraft are fielded in 2028…27 years after the program began.  That is unacceptable and the program needs to do better. We currently understand that TR-3 is approximately $700 million over-budget and the last update we received from the program office about delivering TR-3 capability is April 2024 of next year, which puts it a year late to the previously planned objective delivery date of next month, April 2023. We’ve learned the late TR-3 delivery is now impacting existing fighter squadrons divesting of their legacy fighter aircraft but not receiving the planned F-35A replacements in time, which could leave fighter squadrons and highly trained personnel without any aircraft for significant amounts of time. To quote a senior Air Force official I’ve met with on the topic, “we’re currently paying for great capability, but we currently only have good capability fielded.  

The second issue is F-35 propulsion and thermal management system modernization. As I continue gathering facts and data about the existing problem and review the budget proposal of the Department to pursue a sole-source industry solution known as the Engine Core Upgrade, or E-C-U, I’d like to understand more from our witnesses about the avionics cooling requirements that have been set by the services, in addition to understanding the technical risk, schedule, and system integration assessments the program office performed related to the major subsystems for power and fuel thermal management and electrical generation in making this proposal. 

I again thank the witnesses for appearing before us and I now yield to the Ranking Member from New Jersey, Mr. Don Norcross, for his opening remarks.