The House Armed Services Committee’s tactical air and land subcommittee wants answers on the Air Force’s plans to retire a number of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms in the fiscal year 2021 defense authorization act.
The subcommittee’s mark of the FY ’21 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requests a modernized plan for airborne ISR, and asks that Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett provide a strategy “to ensure alignment between requirements, future Air Force budget submissions, and authorization of appropriations,” per the bill’s language released June 22.
The service’s FY ’21 presidential budget request includes plans to mothball 24 Block 20/30 RQ-4 Global Hawks built by Northrop Grumman [NOC], including three EQ-4B drones equipped with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) system. The Air Force also wants to reduce the General Atomics Aerospace Systems Inc.-developed MQ-9 Reaper combat lines from 70 to 60 by eliminating 10 contractor-operated lines while maintaining all MQ-9 aircraft. The service has released a request for information to begin market research on the MQ-9’s replacement (Defense Daily, June 4).
Lawmakers acknowledged that while the proposed Reaper and Global Hawk divestments may align with the Air Force’s modernization goals, “the absence of such a strategy incorporating both current and future capabilities concerns the committee.”
“The committee expects the directed strategy to address required capabilities and capacities, to identify anticipated gaps in both areas, and to cover both manned and unmanned ISR capabilities,” the bill said.
Meanwhile, the subcommittee’s mark also expresses some concern over the progress of the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), the service’s portion of an effort to develop the U.S. military’s “Internet of Things.” The service’s budget request noted that it hoped to realign $4.1 billion across its portfolio, including the aforementioned retirements, to invest in new technologies and capabilities like ABMS (Defense Daily, Feb. 10).
The Air Force requested $3.3 billion for ABMS over the next five years, including over $300 million in FY ’21 research-and-development funds. But the HASC Tacair mark would cap the program’s spending at 50 percent, until the service completes one of three proposed paths, committee aides told reporters on Monday.
The committee could either receive assurance that the Air Force will not retire the Global Hawk, or receive confirmation from Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s acquisition czar, that any proposed RQ-4 replacement aircraft would be cheaper to operate and fly on a fight-hour cost basis. Alternately, lawmakers would accept certification from Defense Secretary Mark Esper that the increased cost of an RQ-4 replacement is worth it, or certification from Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the chairman of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, that any new platform to replace the Global Hawk would result in equal or greater capability for combatant commanders.
“Right now, none of those conditions have been met to give us any kind of peace of mind that the Air Force’s fiscal year ’21 plan to divest Block 30 [Global Hawks] is with acceptable risk,” a committee aide said Monday.
The subcommittee mark would continue an ongoing moratorium on retiring the Air Force’s E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft until a comparable capability is identified and available. The service currently has 16 of the Northrop Grumman-built aircraft in inventory, and canceled the proposed recapitalization in fiscal year 2018 to instead pivot to the ABMS program.
The subcommittee will vote Tuesday on whether to approve their portion of the FY ’21 NDAA mark. The full House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to vote to approve the full mark July 1.