Divesting legacy platforms to pay for modernization is the key challenge for the Department of the Air Force, according to Undersecretary of the Air Force-nominee Shon Monasco.

“The biggest challenge I see for the department is this: if we are not able to divest legacy platforms, we will be unsuccessful in competing against near peers,” Monasco said in response to written questions on his nomination from the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). “If confirmed, I will double my efforts to ensure our critical stakeholders understand the implications of not being able to invest in innovation options in the future.”

Monasco, who performed the undersecretary duties from December last year until May, serves as the assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs. He is a graduate of West Point and a U.S. Army veteran.

In his answers to SASC questions, Monasco said that he agreed with the goals of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and that financial strain imposed by COVID-19 has hastened the need for the Air Force to move away from legacy platforms and forward on modernization.

“We can no longer maintain large amounts of legacy forces deployed in places like the Middle East while simultaneously modernizing to field forces that can counter China and Russia,” Monasco wrote. “We will have to choose to field new forces used in new ways, or we will not realize the strategy. If confirmed, I will work with our stakeholders to reframe the challenges in light of the strategy.”

The Air Force requested to retire nearly 100 legacy aircraft in fiscal 2021, but defense authorizers largely want to scale back such plans (Defense Daily, June 25).

The service has proposed shifting $4.1 billion toward modernization by retiring 29 aging tankers, 44 A-10 aircraft, 17 bombers and multiple intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) drones. In addition, the Air Force proposed closing the production line for the General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper drone.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill would allow the Air Force to only retire up to six Boeing [BA] KC-10 Extender aircraft in fiscal 2021, and 12 KC-10 aircraft in fiscal 2022. In fiscal 2023, the service could retire up to 12 KC-10s and 14 Boeing [BA] KC-135 aircraft. The service’s budget request, released in February, detailed plans to retire 16 KC-10s and 13 KC-135s in FY ‘21.

The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the bill includes similar mandates for KC-10 retirements over the next three years, but prohibits any KC-135 retirements through the beginning of fiscal 2023.

The SASC bill would also prohibit the divestment or retirement of any A-10 attack aircraft, while the HASC legislation would not.

The SASC bill prohibits the Air Force from divesting any U-2 Dragon Lady or RQ-4 Global Hawk intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft. The service had planned to cut 24 Block 20/30 RQ-4 Global Hawks built by Northrop Grumman [NOC] while continuing to invest in the Lockheed Martin [LMT]-built U-2 along with the remaining RQ-4s.

Monasco said in response to SASC questions that he supported closing down the MQ-9 production line and divesting 75 percent of RQ-4s.

“Divesting legacy systems, low priority tasks, and activities which deliver little value in denied and contested environments will enable future combat systems that will provide a military advantage to the United States,” he said. “Closing the [MQ-9] production line allows us to shift resources toward NDS priorities, which may include a follow-on platform or capability for the MQ-9A.”

Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said last month that he envisions fielding a multi-mission follow-on to the MQ-9 Reaper by 2030 and that he hopes to accelerate that timeline.

The House Appropriations Committee’s version of the fiscal 2021 defense appropriations bill recommends the reversal of the U.S. Air Force’s proposed end in fiscal 2021 of the MQ-9 Reaper production line and the acceleration before 2030 of the fielding of a to-be-determined follow-on drone, “MQ-Next.”

On the bomber fleet, Monasco said that “the future of our bomber force relies on the B-21 and a heavily modified B-52” and that he would “ensure we continue to sustain the B-1 and B-2 fleets until the B-21 fleet is delivered in sufficient quantities.” Northrop Grumman [NOC] is the contractor for the B-2 and the B-21, while Boeing is for the B-52 and B-1.

In his answers to questions from SASC, Monasco suggested he would focus on Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) as a priority innovation effort. JADC2 “is the most important ingredient to our future effectiveness,” Monasco said.

The Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) is part of JADC2, an initiative to build a joint digital architecture for multi-domain operations.