WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee’s fiscal 2022 defense policy bill slapped down some of the U.S. Air Force’s plans to retire legacy aircraft, mandating that the service retain the venerable A-10 Warthog.
The bill, approved by the committee on Wednesday, did permit some aircraft divestments. Most notably, it would allow for the retirement of 18 KC-135 aircraft and 12 KC-10 aircraft, enabling the continued bed down of the KC-46.
However, the committee’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act sends a message that lawmakers have not been wholly persuaded by Air Force officials’ arguments to mothball a portion of the fleet to free up money for cutting-edge aircraft still in development, such as the B-21 Raider and Next Generation Air Dominance program, and will seek to balance risk by retaining certain airframes.
The A-10 Warthog
Over the past decade, the service has attempted to divest some or all of its remaining 281 A-10 Warthog attack planes, which have flown close air support missions for ground troops since the late 1970s.
In FY22, the service had hoped to mothball 42 A-10s, with the goal of reaching an end state of 218 A-10s by the end of 2023. At the same time, it would extend the life of the rest of the aging Warthog inventory with new wings. However, the Senate committee’s proposed legislation would prohibit any reduction of the A-10 fleet.
While the House Armed Services Committee has not yet finalized its own version of the defense authorization bill, the SASC bill signals that the Air Force’s plan may not be palatable to Congress.
In testimony to the Senate Appropriations defense committee on Wednesday, Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, said the failure to divest A-10s would have “considerable consequences,” including a “significant buyback cost” needed to upgrade and sustain A-10s that the service won’t need to meet future requirements — thus reducing its ability to invest in technologies necessary to compete against China.
Retaining the current number of A-10s could also leave the F-35 joint strike fighter without enough skilled maintainers as 91 new jets are delivered to the Air Force between FY21 and 22, Nahom wrote in the testimony.
“While adding funds could solve the personnel deficit, new recruits require training with a lead time of at least a year (post recruitment), and the most critical billets of experienced maintainers requires years to create and cannot be purchased,” Nahom stated.
Earlier this week, Republican Sen. Mark Rubio — who represents Florida, where Tyndall Air Force Base is located — urged lawmakers to approve the A-10 divestment, thus freeing up manpower to support the basing of three F-35 squadrons at Tyndall.
“It is my understanding that language is included in the chairman’s mark of the FY22 NDAA that would prohibit the divestment of 41 A-10 aircraft at the expense of Tyndall’s F-35 squadrons,” Rubio wrote in a letter to SASC Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., and ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla.
“I urge the committee to remove, or reject, any provision or funding that would jeopardize the strategic basing of three F-35 squadrons at Tyndall,” he said. “Including such language would have significant impact on the Air Force’s F-35 pilot output, our strategic capacity to field F-35s in the event of a conflict, and have grave, long-term implications for the national security of the United States.”
The Senate committee would permit the Air Force to retire 18 KC-135 tankers and 12 KC-10s — two fewer KC-10s than the Air Force requested.
However, even that allowance comes with some stipulations.
The committee included language in the bill that would prohibit the Air Force from developing a follow-on to the KC-46 — which the service has called KC-Y or the “bridge tanker”— until the KC-46′s Remote Vision System is fully operational.
Boeing is redesigning the RVS, a camera system that provides video imagery to boom operators as they refuel aircraft. However, the new system will not be functional until at least 2023. Meanwhile, the Air Force is hoping to get an early start on the bridge tanker program, having released a request for information to industry earlier this week.
Additionally, the Air Force would not be permitted to retire Air National Guard KC-135s.
In the area of tactical airlift, the Air Force had hoped to draw down its number of C-130s from 300 to 255 in FY22. SASC lawmakers have responded by mandating that the service maintain a total active aircraft inventory of 292 C-130 aircraft.
It’s ambiguous whether the proposed legislation would impact Air Force plans to retire a portion of its fighter force.
According to a summary of the bill, the NDAA “extends the requirement to maintain a minimum capacity of Air Force fighter aircraft,” but it leaves unclear whether the Air Force would be able to mothball any of the 47 F-16C/D and 48 F-15C/D fighters as requested.
As part of FY22 budget deliberations, the Air Force also sought the retirement of four E-8 JSTARS aircraft and 20 RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 surveillance drones, and while it did not request to retire any of its MQ-9 Reaper fleet, the service opted to end procurement of the General Atomics-made drone.
The bill summary did not detail the fate of those aircraft.
The SASC bill included some language that could limit bomber divestments for years to come. While the Air Force did not request to retire additional B-1s in FY22, the SASC bill would prevent the service from divesting any B-1s until the new B-21 Raider bomber begins fielding in the mid 2020s.
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.