The fiscal 2022 defense authorization conference bill largely accedes to the U.S. Air Force request to retire 201 aircraft with some conditions and a prohibition on retiring A-10 Warthog close air support planes.

The proposed Air Force fiscal 2022 aircraft divestments, including the retirements of 48 Boeing [BA] F-15C/Ds, 42 A-10s, 18 KC-135s, 14 KC-10s, 47 Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-16C/Ds and eight C-130Hs, 20 Northrop Grumman [NOC] Block 30 RQ-4 Global Hawk drones and four Joint STARS aircraft, would save nearly $1.4 billion, the Air Force has said.

The service has said it wants to position itself to face Russia and China while sustaining the capacity for engagements with less technologically advanced potential adversaries. Air Force officials have said that retiring “old iron” is vital to funding service modernization.

The congressional defense authorization bill would prohibit the retirement of more than 18 KC-135s through fiscal 2023, would require the secretary of the Air Force to provide a report on A-10 basing locations and the timeline for completion of the re-winging of A-10 aircraft, and extend through fiscal 2026 the requirement that the Air Force secretary justify any reductions in fighter aircraft below a statutory minimum of 1,970 and a total primary mission combat-coded aircraft inventory of 1,145–thresholds established in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

The approved F-15C/D and F-16C/D retirements in fiscal 2022 would 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.

“The average age of the fighter/attack force has increased from 8 years at the end of the Cold War in 1991 to 29 years today,” according to recent Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report. “Because this is the average age, about half the fleet is older, with some aircraft approaching 50 years of age. Fleet size has decreased from 4,000 in 1991 to 2,094 today.”

“The Air Force cannot sustain the current fleet size and attain the desired average age without a large increase in procurement quantities,” per the study. “With production of the F-15EX, however, the Air Force gets close to or attains the 72 aircraft procured per year needed to maintain the current average age and fleet size.”

The fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill, which authorizes the 48 Lockheed Martin F-35s requested by the Air Force and 37 by the Department of the Navy, would require annual reports through 2025 by the U.S. Comptroller General on F-35 sustainment efforts. The measure would also require the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of the Air Force, in coordination with the Pentagon acquisition chief, to submit reports on the integration of the Adaptive Engine Transition Program or other advanced propulsion system for the F-35.

In addition, DoD would be unable to enter into a performance-based logistics contract for the F-35 or its F135 Pratt and Whitney [RTX] unless the defense secretary certifies that the contract would reduce costs or increase F-35 readiness or availability.

Under a bill provision, the F-35 would be the first fighter to receive On-Board Oxygen Generation Systems (OBOGS) enhancements starting with assessments of F-35 pilot breathing problems initially noted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Engineering and Safety Center Technical Assessment Report published on Nov. 19 last year (Defense Daily, July 28).

The bill would also require each commander of a geographic combatant command to provide an independent assessment of the operational risk to that command posed by the restructuring and inventory divestments projected in the classified Modernization Plan for Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance for the Department of the Air Force.

Section 1678 of the bill would require Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to submit a strategy by June 1 for acquiring combat rescue aircraft and equipment to align with the upcoming national defense strategy.

On space, Section 1609 of the bill would direct Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to conduct a review of U.S. Space Force programs to determine which programs to declassify.