The final version of the fiscal year 2021 defense appropriations bill includes a $140 million cut to the Air Force's Next-Generation Air Dominance program -- a sign Congress may not yet be sold on the service's Digital Century Series pitch.
The funding reduction, once approved by both chambers, would lower the service's FY-21 NGAD budget request from about $1.04 billion to about $900 million. House appropriators in July proposed a $507 million cut and Senate appropriators countered last month with a plan to cut $70 million.
Although the $140 million reduction is much less than what the House proposed, it still deals a blow to a development program service acquisition executive Will Roper sees as a model for buying fighter aircraft in the future -- and it comes just months after the service finally completed an acquisition strategy and announced it had flown a full-scale demonstrator.
Through NGAD, the Air Force aims to rapidly develop and field new fighter aircraft with shorter service lives and, presumably, much lower sustainment costs than the current fleet. The shorter cycle would allow the service refresh technology more quickly, Roper argues, and be more agile in response to evolving threats.
Despite its recent successes, Roper told Air Force Magazine in a recent interview that because of the constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, he hasn't been able to get as much time with lawmakers as he'd like to discuss in detail the recent NGAD developments, most of which are classified. As a result, he's worried the program could "become an unintended casualty of COVID-19."
"To really talk about anything that makes us excited about the program, we have to get in the" Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, he told the magazine.
The Air Force has not publicly discussed its NGAD acquisition strategy in detail, but Roper confirmed to reporters in September it has been approved and that it validates the Digital Century Series model is more affordable than investing in large fleets with high modernization and sustainment costs.