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Wittman Chairs Hearing on 2025 Budget Request for the Department of Defense’s Fixed-Wing Tactical and Training Aircraft Programs

Congressman Rob Wittman (R-VA), vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, held a subcommittee hearing to review the fiscal year 2025 budget request for the Department of Defense’s fixed-wing tactical and training aircraft programs.

“While our focus remains on the National Defense Strategy, which prioritizes China as our primary threat, I'm concerned about the lack of clarity in defining our tactical fighter force structure and capabilities,” said Chairman Wittman. “The persistent decrease in fighter force structure and the challenge of delivering affordable replacement aircraft are alarming. Additionally, uncertainties persist in aircraft procurement quantities for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, particularly regarding the F-35 program. Despite the F-35's promise as the most advanced fighter aircraft, we must expedite TR-3 hardware and Block 4 software deployment to address ongoing challenges.”

(Watch the full hearing)

The hearing addressed the clarity and direction of the U.S. military's currently declining tactical fighter force structure, particularly in light of the National Defense Strategy's emphasis on China as a pacing threat.

The subcommittee heard testimony from:

  • Andrew P. Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics
  • Nickolas H. Guertin, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, and Senior Acquisition Executive for the F-35 Program
  • Dr. Douglas C. Schmidt, Director of Operational Evaluation for the Secretary of Defense
  • Lt. Gen. Richard G. Moore, Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs of the Air Force
  • Lt. Gen. Bradford J. Gering, Deputy Commandant for Marine Corps Aviation
  • Lt. Gen. Michael J. Schmidt, Air Force F-35 Program Executive Officer
  • Rear Admiral Michael Donnelly, Director, Navy Air Warfare Division

Chairman Wittman:  

“We understand the need to modernize. The key is, we always go through these transitions where we get rid of existing platforms, regardless of their limitations and capabilities and things that they can and cannot do for the promise of new capability somewhere out in the future. And I tell folks ‘All of our dreams come through outside the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP).’ ... We have got to find a way to get those curves to intersect as far as retiring older capability [and] bringing online newer capability. It always seems like there's a bathtub there we have to swim in for years.

“I know we've had a lot of conversations about F-35, TR-3. It was bitterly disappointing to myself, and other committee members, that we had to learn of another shift to the right to Q3, not directly from the contractor, but from an earnings call.

“Can you give us your perspective on how you see the path forward? Because the F-35 is it. We are all in on this aircraft. It has to perform. The capabilities that TR-3 brings to the table are necessary and it has to occur at the speed of relevance.

“I'm not looking to place blame. I think everybody is part of this. Congress has to be part of this as far as not just understanding what happened, but what the solution is going forward. How do you see things going forward to make sure we get back to where we need to be?”

Lt. Gen. Schmidt

“Honestly, sir, I am getting tired of over-promising and under-delivering, and I need to change that narrative. All that said, just saying it's going to take longer is not going to be satisfying and all the things we talked about earlier with a true digital infrastructure, being a state-of-the-art program for literally the biggest fighter program in the world. It would be unacceptable to be anything else. But I don't feel like that's where we are today. The discussions from industry are all we can do in the future on future programs. There is no future program that is bigger than this program. And so, getting after the development side is the thing that bothers me the most every single day. And those are the things that we're trying to do about it, but I need some help from industry, sir.” 

Chairman Wittman: 

“I think things are finally starting to move in the right direction. I appreciate your assertion that we have to have the best on your team there at the Joint Program Office. I appreciate the conversation we had a few days ago to give Lockheed credit that they're saying we're going to make sure we bring subject matter experts across the enterprise because there are other aspects of what Lockheed does that use digital twin technology, that use digital design, that use advanced methods to make sure that we develop systems at the speed of relevance to make sure you get information quickly into comparison computer models to make sure we make those software upgrades. Those are things that have to happen. 

“Lockheed has made the commitment to do that … the key now is execution.

“I tell folks, ‘We can talk all about the ground that we've already plowed and talk about how we got here. But the key is, what are we going to do on the path forward?...’I do want to ask the next step forward, so as we begin to deliver these TR-3 configured aircraft, are you confident as to when they are delivered as to where they will be operationally? And will there be additional things that need to be done in the interim, actually get them to be combat coded? Because the thought is when they first come in, they may not be a combat coded status. It looks to me, it may take 12-16 months to get them from the early stages of TR-3 to actually being able to fly within that combat configuration.”

Lt. Gen. Schmidt: 

“There are certain capabilities that will not be available in the truncated version of the TR-3 software and you're probably right about the 12 to 16 months. We're looking at everything we can to try to figure out what [we can] move left in that, but that is an accurate assessment, sir, that for a couple of the capabilities that our warfighters feel are required to be fully combat capable they will not be there at the truncation, sir.”

Chairman Wittman: 

“I think one of the aspects of this also with NGAD is not just understanding what the future threat scenario would be and what the future countermeasures will be by our adversaries to try to overcome whatever technology would bring to the table, but also to look at [options] like CCA. I think CCA holds a lot of promise for the current aircraft and F-35. As we know, it's meant to be in ancillary, not in place of — but give us your perspective. We talk about the current scenario now moving it to the left getting it out there quickly. But as we advance that particular platform, give me your perspective on what it does to the capability of NGAD.”

Mr. Hunter: 

“Our collaborative combat aircraft program is part of the NGAD family system, so it's very much envisioned to be a complementary capability that helps NGAD perform its mission. Having said that, we anticipate, or we project, and we are budgeting towards, fielding of collaborative combat aircraft on a faster time frame. So it is not just NGAD that they would be teaming with. Also, other Air Force systems and joint systems like the F-35.”

Chairman Wittman: 

“Do you think what we learn by fielding CCA faster will provide more capability and capacity for NGAD?”

Mr. Hunter: 

“Absolutely. It's leveraging that same architecture, that same industry-based partner. It allows us to exercise fielding of technology in a way that will definitely be supportive of us doing the same thing with NGAD.”