Senate defense bill puts limits on planned Air Force aircraft retirements

Senate defense bill puts limits on planned Air Force aircraft retirements

WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee wants to give the Air Force more F-35s and drones, but its version of the 2021 defense policy bill leaves many questions open about the future of the service’s legacy aircraft.

In the Air Force’s FY21 budget request, the service proposed retiring a number of its portion of its B-1 bombers, A-10 Warthog attack planes, RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drones, KC-135 and KC-10 tankers and C-130H planes. Air Force leaders said the controversial reductions were necessary in order to free up the money needed for key investments in future technology areas like space and joint all domain command and control.

However, the proposed version of the FY21 National Defense Authorization Act passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 10 puts some limits on those proposed cuts.

Instead of mandating the Air Force to retain a certain number of specific types of aircraft, SASC’s defense bill “establishes a minimum number of aircraft for each major mission area … and prohibits the divestment of aircraft until the minima are reached to ensure that Air Force can meet [National Defense Strategy] and combatant command requirements,” SASC said in a summary of the bill.

With only a summary of the bill available, it’s unclear exactly how that compares with the Air Force’s planned inventory reductions — and whether any retirements will be permitted at all.

According to a committee staffer, the numbers proposed by SASC include a “primary mission aircraft inventory” of 1182 fighters; 190 drones; 92 bombers; 412 tankers; 230 tactical airlift platforms; 235 strategic airlift platforms; 84 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft; and 106 combat search and rescue aircraft.

Specifically, the bill blocks the retirement of three A-10 Warthog squadrons, limits F-15C divestment, and delays the retirements of KC-10 and KC-135 tankers until after the KC-46’s technical challenges are resolved. The Air Force had planned to retire 13 KC-135s and 16 KC-10s in FY21.

The summary of the bill makes it clear that the SASC is concerned that the Air Force’s plan to trade its existing aircraft for future capability could lead to a drop in near-term readiness — and a potential end state where legacy aircraft are never actually replaced.

The bill “requires the Secretary of Defense to submit an annual aviation procurement plan across all services,” the summary states. It includes language that cements the Air Force’s aspiration to field 386 combat squadrons as a requirement, although one staffer clarified that the provision is more a goal than a mandate, and that there is no timeline associated with it.

SASC’s legislation is far from set in stone. The bill will move to the Senate floor for debate, but its House counterpart is working on its own version of the defense authorization bill and both institutions will have to agree on a final bill.

Where’s the money going?

The House and Senate armed services committees make funding recommendations, which are then used by congressional budgeteers in the appropriations committees to draw up the final funding bills. Nonetheless, SASC made a number of key funding authorizations that could mean major increases for certain aircraft programs.

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