DAYTON, Ohio — A congressional push to block the U.S. Air Force’s plan to retire 33 F-22s could have ripple effects for one of the service’s top priority programs, the Collaborative Combat Aircraft.

The Air Force’s proposal to cut the F-22s is part of a broader plan to divest 150 aircraft in fiscal 2023 to free funds for higher priorities such as the B-21 bomber, hypersonic weapons programs and Next-Generation Air Dominance systems.

The House Armed Services Committee’s defense policy bill offered a sharp rebuke of the strategy and of the planned F-22 retirements in particular. Not only did lawmakers reject the plan to cut the aircraft, they called for the older-model jets, which are used primarily for training missions, to be upgraded to the newest F-22 configuration.

The White House Office of Management and Budget said in a statement to Congress last month it “strongly opposes” House efforts to block aircraft and ship retirements. Andrew Hunter, the Air Force’s top acquisition official, told reporters this week that preventing the service’s divestment plan would slow progress on the Collaborative Combat Aircraft, which aims to field a fleet of unmanned aircraft to augment NGAD and other fighter aircraft during combat missions. The program is one of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s top priorities.

“The concern I would have would be on our ability to deliver on a Collaborative Combat Aircraft system to complement NGAD. That’s where I think we start to see impacts,” Hunter told reporters during an Aug. 11 briefing at the Air Force’s Life Cycle Industry Days conference in Dayton, Ohio. “It would limit our ability to dedicate people and resources to an aggressive effort to field that capability.”

The Air Force requested $51.5 million in fiscal 2023 to transition technologies matured through the Skyborg program — the service’s effort to demonstrate the utility of teaming fighters and unmanned aircraft — to the Collaborative Combat Aircraft effort.

Asked whether additional funding from Congress would allow the Air Force to keep the F-22s and stay on track with the Collaborative Combat Aircraft, Hunter said there are infrastructure and manpower constraints that can’t necessarily be addressed with more money.

Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, told reporters during a separate Aug. 11 briefing the service is working with F-22 manufacturer Lockheed Martin to develop a cost estimate for modernizing the 33 older aircraft. A 2019 analysis projected it would cost about $50 million per jet, but White said a number of variables, including supply chain constraints, could change that estimate.

“We’re trying to put our arms around what has changed since the last time we did this,” he said.

The service plans to provide that data to Congress within the next month to inform budget deliberations, he added.

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