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WASHINGTON – The Air Force will not be able to meet a 2020 deadline to fully comply with new Federal Aviation Administration regulations, top service officials told lawmakers.

Beginning on Jan. 1, 2020, aircraft must be equipped with the latest satellite-based surveillance system to fly in most controlled airspace. The Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) uses GPS technology to determine an aircraft’s location, airspeed and other data, and broadcasts that information to a network of ground stations. Those ground stations in turn relay the data to air traffic controllers.

The total bill to equip all Pentagon aircraft with the required equipment is $5.6 billion, including $4.4 billion for the Air Force alone, Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, told the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee March 1.

The Air Force is working hard to outfit all of its aircraft with the required equipment, prioritizing its mobility fleet of C-130s and C-17s because those planes need to fly in the densest air space, Holmes said. But with limited resources due to sequestration cuts, the service won’t be able to get through its entire fleet by 2020, he said.

The Air Force will likely need some kind of waiver for certain aircraft, including the F-22 fighter jet, to operate in that airspace in future years, Holmes said.

Although the fleet will still be able to complete its mission without authorization to operate in the most crowded airspace, the situation is not ideal, Holmes said. Moving aircraft around this airspace, rather than through it, will cause delays and eat up fuel, he said.

“We’ll be able to move the airplanes where we need to go to serve the country, but with some delay and with some higher fuel costs if we have to drive around an area to get where we need to go,” Holmes said.

Upgrading the Air Force’s aging C-130Hs is clearly a priority for subcommittee Chairman Randy Forbes, R-Va., and ranking member Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who devoted much of their opening statements and questions to the issue. Lawmakers last year funded a two-part modernization program for the C-130Hs, first to meet the FAA mandate, and then to complete longer-term upgrades.

“I'm concerned that this budget fails to provide the resources needed [for] the avionics upgrades needed to ensure that the entire fleet of tankers, airlifters and bombers are able to cooperate safely in compliance with the FAA mandated next-generation air traffic management standards by Jan. 1, 2020,” Forbes said. “I’m concerned that our military aircraft could be shut out of the airspace they need for transit and training.”

The Air Force’s plan to replace its C-130Hs with newer C-130Js took a hit in the latest budget request. The service’s fiscal year 2017 blueprint cuts the eight C-130Js planned beyond the current multiyear agreement with manufacturer Lockheed Martin, Holmes said. The Air Force has proposed cutting 27 C-130s in all, Forbes said.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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