The House-Senate agreement on the fiscal 2023 defense authorization bill mandates that the U.S. Air Force have an inventory of 466 tankers, at a minimum, and 186 Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22s.

In June, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said that the service would ask Congress to allow the Air Force to reduce the 479 tanker requirement to 455 (Defense Daily, June 1). Kendall said that the Air Force believed that 455 is “adequate to deal with the [China] pacing challenge but also do the other things we’d have to do.”

“We are having to prioritize in the department,” he said. “We can’t do everything all the time. Given the threats that we face, the idea that we can do a major war and major contingencies simultaneously is a stretch. That’s a lot to ask any power to do, great power or otherwise.”

Heritage Foundation report in March took an opposing view and said that the Air Force needs a minimum of 691 tankers–a number in line with the “Air Force We Need” framework of former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson during the Trump administration.

The planned fleet of 179 Boeing [BA] KC-46As–to be fielded by 2029–and possible future tankers would replace more than 400 KC-135s and KC-10s in the coming decades.

The House-Senate conference defense authorization language on tankers would allow the Air Force to retire 13 KC-135s in fiscal 2023.

On the F-22, congressional conferees adopted a provision in the House bill that would prohibit the retirement of any of the 186 F-22 Raptors. The language, however, does not include the House proposal to upgrade the older Block 20, training F-22s to a Block 30/35 configuration or better.

The conference measure said that Comptroller General Gene Dodaro is to provide a briefing and a report to the congressional defense committees “that validates and assesses data and information provided to the comptroller general, by the secretary of the Air Force and the original equipment manufacturer of the F-22, on the proposed cost estimates and schedules of milestones, events and activities required to upgrade Block 20 F-22 aircraft to a capability configuration comparable to or exceeding the existing or planned configuration of Block 30/35 F-22 aircraft.”

Defense authorizers on the conference bill also provide that the Air Force may not start retiring Boeing F-15 fighters in fiscal 2024 until Kendall “provides to the congressional defense committees a report, including certain plans and assessments, not less than 180 days prior to divesting or preparing to divest any F-15 aircraft.”

While the fiscal 2023 Air Force budget did not contain any proposed F-15C/D divestments, some lawmakers have criticized the Air Force’s plan to divest its F-15C and D fleets by 2026 and to trim the service’s F-15EX buy from 144 to 80 (Defense Daily, Apr. 27).

In fiscal 2020, the Air Force said that many F-15Cs and Ds “are beyond their service life and have SERIOUS structures risks, wire chafing issues, and obsolete parts” and that “readiness goals [for the aircraft] are unachievable due to continuous structural inspections, time consuming repairs, and on-going modernization efforts.”

“The average F-15C/D is 35 years old with over 8,300 flight hours; the oldest F-15C was delivered in 1979,” the Air Force said then.

The fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act allowed the Air Force to retire 48 F-15C/Ds and 47 Lockheed Martin-16C/Ds. The approved F-15C/D and F-16C/D retirements in fiscal 2022 were to bring the fighter inventory down from 2,094 to 1,999–just above the level required for an Air Force justification of planned fighter reductions.