Air Force program for new F-35 missile will knock out at least one prime in FY24

Air Force program for new F-35 missile will knock out at least one prime in FY24
F-35A Training

Two U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs, assigned to the 4th Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, fly over the base and the surrounding area on Feb 14, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

WASHINGTON — In the coming fiscal year, the Air Force plans to eliminate at least one of three contenders vying to produce a new ground-attack missile for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Breaking Defense has learned.

The Air Force’s Stand-in Attack Weapon (SiAW) program has funded prototyping work with three short-term contracts first issued last year to Lockheed Martin, L3Harris and Northrop Grumman, though officials have since shared few details about its acquisition strategy. According to an Air Force spokesperson, SiAW’s latest $18 million award in February will fund the final portion of the first phase.

The end of Phase 1 comes in August, and by the time Phase 2 begins sometime in fiscal 2024, at least one of the companies will have been kindly sent packing, the spokesperson confirmed.

The SiAW Phase 1 effort follows a competitive strategy with Lockheed Martin, L3Harris, and Northrop Grumman as the prime contractors. The SiAW Phase 2 strategy will allow for up to two prime contractors,” the spokesperson said, noting the program may pursue a future down-select “if needed” for one contractor to build the SiAW prototype. The spokesperson added that work on Phase 2 will begin in FY24 and conclude in FY26.

The initial step of SiAW’s first phase, called 1.1, started in May 2022 with $2 million contracts issued to each of the three primes, Defense News previously reported. The three-month evaluation largely focused on creating infrastructure to support the program’s digital acquisition strategy, the spokesperson said, along with an opportunity for the competitors to share initial design concepts. Phase 1.2, a $15 million award that ran for six months between August 2022 and February 2023, “focused on further refinement of the SiAW digital design,” the spokesperson said, and required contractors to test their respective open-architecture models.  

The $18 million award on Feb. 27 for phase 1.3 will run another six months, according to the spokesperson, and will require each contractor to complete and demonstrate their open architecture digital designs. After phase 1.3 finishes, the program will move into phase 2 to begin building the SiAW prototype some time in FY24.  

The sum of phase 1 efforts, the spokesperson said, is to ensure the missile’s open architecture design can support possible future modular upgrades. 

The Air Force plans to buy the Navy’s Northrop Grumman-made Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile-Extended Range (AARGM-ER) — which can be carried by fighters like the F-35 to destroy enemy radar systems — as an interim capability before fielding SiAW, though officials envision the new weapon will be able to hit a broader range of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) targets like cruise missile launchers and GPS jammers, according to Air Force budget documents.

Speaking Wednesday at the McAleese conference focused on the FY24 budget, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown said the weapon will form a critical piece of future munitions buys as the service seeks to pivot to a new generation of air power.

“You can add in all the munitions that go with this,” Brown said of the Air Force’s plan for the future fighter fleet — which will be composed of the Next Generation Air Dominance platform, F-35, F-15EX and F-22 — listing off weapons like the SiAW, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). “We’ve got to look at all these other capabilities that go with the four fighters that we’re going to continue to pursue.”

The Air Force expects to spend a total of $2.9 billion on research and development for the SiAW beyond FY27, according to the service’s FY23 budget documents, with Congress ultimately enacting $240 million in R&D funds for FY23. Congress backed the full procurement request for FY23 to buy 42 of the missiles for a total cost of about $78 million in the current fiscal year. The service is anticipating a total buy of 3,000 missiles for approximately $8.6 billion, the documents say.

The Air Force did not immediately respond to questions about the program’s planned funding level in FY24, or when the program planned to issue awards for phase 2.

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