US Air Force Gen. Ken Wilsbach, commander of Air Combat Command, walks into the base theater for an all-call at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, June 11, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Chloe Shanes)

WASHINGTON — Despite recent mixed messages from Air Force leadership about the fate of a planned sixth-generation fighter, the head of the service’s Air Combat Command (ACC) still expects a winning contractor to be named this year. 

“I do expect it to be this year,” Gen. Ken Wilsbach said of a down select for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, where Lockheed Martin and Boeing are believed to be facing off for high-profile contract. The general, who assumed command of ACC earlier this year, spoke today at a virtual forum hosted by the Mitchell Institute.

“My lawyers have advised me not to talk too much about NGAD,” he said, citing the active source selection process. “The one thing I will say on it is, everyone wants to talk about NGAD as a jet. It’s not a jet. It’s a family of systems.”

A planned replacement for the F-22 Raptor, the NGAD’s future has recently been somewhat in doubt after service leaders like Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin appeared to waver in their commitment to the program, prompting supposition of a potential delay or outright cancellation. A decision to alter course for the fighter, in development for roughly a decade, would represent a stark reversal for the Air Force, as officials like Secretary Frank Kendall have previously called the fighter a “vital element” of the “family of systems” the service is pursuing to dominate rival militaries.

Kendall appeared to quash some of that speculation recently in an interview with Defense News, stating that the Air Force is still committed to the fighter but was examining tradeoffs, such as redesigning its engine to be cheaper. Still, officials have mostly been wary of confirming a down select timeline — which the Air Force announced in May 2023 would occur this calendar year — amid the program’s uncertainty. Asked for further clarity, Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek said she had no additional information to offer on the timing for the NGAD award.

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Wilsbach today also said delays with NGAD technologies would impact planning to retire a group of Raptor jets with a configuration called Block 20, which have largely been reserved for training, after the Air Force chose not to upgrade them with features like more modern sensors and software. 

The service in recent years has tried to retire 32 Block 20 F-22s but has been repeatedly rebuffed by Congress. A recent Government Accountability Office report [PDF] further found that the Air Force has not sufficiently justified the request to retire the aircraft.

Breaking with service leadership, Wilsbach added that he is “in favor of keeping the Block 20s. I think they give us a lot of training value, and even if we had to in an emergency use the Block 20s in a combat situation, they are very capable.” 

F-35 Deliveries

Turning to the F-35, Wilsbach also addressed challenges with an upgrade known as Technology Refresh 3 (TR-3), a suite of new hardware and software meant to facilitate future upgrades for the stealth jet. Software woes with TR-3 have prompted the Pentagon to refuse deliveries of new fighters, which Lockheed executives have said could leave over 100 planes “undelivered” this year.

“We’re very much focused on unwinding that hold up, and I’m hopeful those jets will start to be delivered this month,” Wilsbach said.

Officials such as F-35 Program Executive Officer Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Schmidt have previously said this month is the earliest deliveries could resume, though only with “truncated” software. Under the Pentagon’s truncation plan, aircraft deliveries would resume but would largely be reserved for training. Full combat capability, according to Schmidt, likely would not come until a separate software drop, which could take a full additional year. 

The F-35 Joint Program Office did not respond to a request for comment on the delivery timeline by press time. A spokesperson for Lockheed pointed to previous statements by company executives that deliveries are expected to resume in the third quarter of this year. 

A separate issue for the F-35 involves respective upgrades to its engine and cooling system. Officials have already decided a course of action for the engine — choosing to enhance the incumbent Pratt & Whitney F135 — but have not yet decided on what to do for the cooling apparatus known as the Power and Thermal Management System (PTMS). RTX subsidiary Collins Aerospace has offered a whole new PTMS design, while current PTMS maker Honeywell is pushing to upgrade the existing system.

“There’s some power generation and some cooling issues with some future upgrades that we certainly need to address, and I will tell you that we haven’t decided how we’re going to go about doing that yet,” Wilsbach said. “There’s some very expensive options” that carry additional capabilities, “and then there’s some just-good-enough options as well. And so more to follow as we analyze the various options to go forward.”