Correction: This story has been updated to remove a reference to a provision that was not included in the final bill.
WASHINGTON — A new compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2022 would allow the Air Force to retire most of the aircraft it sought to downsize — but not the A-10 Thunderbolt II.
If signed into law, this version of the NDAA would deliver another defeat for the Air Force’s efforts to retire the Warthog. The proposed bill includes a Senate provision blocking the Air Force from retiring or otherwise mothballing any A-10s in 2022, except for those that have suffered a significant mishap and are no longer mission-capable.
This version of the bill, negotiated between Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees, was introduced on Tuesday. It could see a vote in the House as soon as Tuesday night, and from there, the Senate is expected to take it up this week.
The Air Force has long sought to retire A-10s so it can free up more money and resources to modernize and focus on capabilities that can better hold up in a high-end fight against an advanced adversary such as China or Russia, but the move repeatedly encountered pushback from lawmakers.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum on Saturday, specifically mentioned the Warthog as an example of an aging plane that should be retired to allow the service to focus more on China. He called the old iron in the service’s fleet “an anchor holding back the Air Force.”
The NDAA also would require the Air Force to report by March on the status of re-winging A-10s and the timeline for finishing them.
It would also allow the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps to procure 85 F-35 fighters, as well as increase funding to improve their maintenance and bring down sustainment costs.
But later this decade, the NDAA could impose limits on the number of F-35s the military could acquire in an attempt to rein in rising costs of sustaining the Joint Strike Fighter fleet.
The NDAA would restrict how many F-35s each services could have beginning in 2028 if they don’t meet affordability targets. The bill would set a formula lowering the F-35 inventory if its actual cost-per-tail exceed the set goal in fiscal 2027. The Air Force aims to eventually have 1,763 F-35As, the Marine Corps would have an inventory of 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs, and the Navy would have 273 F-35Cs.
The provision has been watered down from its original proposal earlier this year, which would have put a 2026 deadline in place. It also would allow the defense secretary to waive the limits on a particular F-35 model if more of those fighters were needed to meet a combatant commander’s strategic needs.
The NDAA would also prevent the defense secretary from entering a performance-based logistics sustainment contract for the F-35 or its engine, until the department can certify that the contract would either reduce costs or increase readiness or availability.
The NDAA would also require the Air Force and the joint chiefs to tell lawmakers more about the Air Force’s future plans for its aerial refueling aircraft. The proposed NDAA calls for more information on what the requirements for the proposed bridge tanker — also known as the KC-Y — would be, its acquisition strategy and how much it might cost. Lawmakers also want to see the plan for developing a follow-on advanced tanker, or the KC-Z.
The NDAA would also allow the Air Force to retire 14 KC-10 Extenders in 2022 and another 12 in 2023, as well as 18 KC-135 Stratotankers.
And it would require the defense secretary to issue a report on sustainment costs for all fighter aircraft and spell out what the Defense Department plans to do to cut those costs.
The NDAA would also provide additional money for the Air Force to buy five more F-15EX fighters, which are currently unfunded, as well as funds to modernize the E-8 JSTARS aircraft and for engines for the upcoming EC-37B Compass Call.
And it would fund the Air Force’s efforts to continue developing the T-7A Red Hawk trainer aircraft and for the Air Force and Navy’s Next Generation Air Dominance programs.
The Navy would get funding to buy 12 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters. And the bill would pay for four Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones and one MQ-1 Gray Eagle for the Army.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.