WASHINGTON — Congress is seeking to block the Air Force from retiring any of its A-10 Warthog attack planes, KC-135 refueling tankers and RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drones this fiscal year.
On Dec. 3, the House and Senate Armed Services committees put forward the conference report of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act — a final version of the defense bill that includes input from both chambers. The bill is expected to be approved by Congress sometime next week and will then move to the desk of President Donald Trump, who has threatened to veto it.
This year’s NDAA contained policy provisions on everything from the Pentagon’s organizational structure to military bases named for Confederate officers. For the Air Force, the biggest concern was whether Congress would greenlight the divestment of more than 100 aircraft, which service leaders said would free up funding for modernization priorities that include space technologies and the Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept (which was recently updated to Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control).
Lawmakers have opted to let the Air Force retire some bombers, tankers and cargo planes, but they stridently protected others like the A-10 and Global Hawk from any reductions.
Here is a breakdown of what the Air Force wanted to send to the boneyard, and how Congress responded:
A-10: Congress’ battles with the Air Force over the venerable A-10 have been legion over the past decade, with the service seeking to retire the entire fleet in the mid-2010s. In FY21, the Air Force sought a more modest adjustment — the retirement of 44 A-10s, or about three squadrons worth of aircraft, leaving about 237 Warthogs to fly close-air support missions in the next decade.
But Congress put the kibosh on that as well, stipulating in the NDAA that no funding be used to divest or retire any of the 281 A-10s currently in the Air Force’s inventory.
Bombers: The Air Force hoped to retire 17 of its oldest B-1s, which leaders said were putting strain on the fleet due to the manpower needed to keep them running. In the defense bill, Congress repealed an existing law that requires the Air Force to maintain at least 36 combat coded B-1 aircraft — essentially agreeing to a reduction to the B-1 fleet.
However, lawmakers put several new stipulations in place: The Air Force must maintain 92 bombers of any kind in its primary mission aircraft inventory. The service must place four retired B-1s in storage so that they can be reclaimed if necessary. And it cannot remove any B-1 maintenance billets, ensuring that the B-1s that stick around will get the time and attention needed to keep them flying.
ISR fleet: Congress also rejected the Air Force’s plan to retire all the Global Hawk Block 20 and 30 surveillance drones — a total of 24 aircraft — which would have left RQ-4 Block 40s and the U-2 spy plane around to conduct the high-altitude surveillance mission.
Over the past decade, the Air Force has tried multiple times to divest its Global Hawks and U-2s, with Congress refusing to permit the retirement of either aircraft. In response, Congress has stipulated a list of requirements the Air Force must meet before lawmakers consider that request. Specifically, lawmakers have asked for certifications from the Defense Department that the Air Force is developing a cost-effective way to replace the RQ-4 or U-2, or a waiver from the defense secretary stating that a better but more expensive capability is in development.
Neither has been received, lawmakers wrote in the conference report.
“The conferees understand and acknowledge that modernizing airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities will necessitate divestment of legacy systems,” the conference report stated. “However, the conferees remain concerned about the Air Force’s continued inability to execute an ISR acquisition and replacement plan that appropriately manages operational risk to the global combatant commanders, as well as the service’s failure to comply with current public law.”
Tankers: The Air Force wanted to divest 13 KC-135s and 16 KC-10s in FY21, but the NDAA sketches out an alternative plan — one that forbids any KC-135 retirements over the next three years.
Congress will allow the Air Force to move down to 50 primary mission KC-10A aircraft in FY21, 38 primary mission KC-10A aircraft in FY22, and 26 primary mission KC-10A aircraft in FY23.
The Air Force currently has 56 KC-10s that are considered primary mission aircraft, so the language would allow the service to retire six aircraft in FY21 and a total of 30 tankers over the next three years, a source familiar with the bill told Defense News in June, when the House Armed Services Committee released identical language.
Cargo planes: The service hoped to retire 24 C-130Hs, most of which would be directly replaced by 19 C-130Js that are set to be delivered in FY21. While the NDAA does not address the issue directly, it sets a minimum airlift aircraft inventory at 287 aircraft, including 230 combat-coded cargo planes.
The report also included a provision that would prohibit the Air Force from retiring only Air National Guard airlift assets.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.