The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) agrees with the Air Force’s request to retire a number of aging bomber aircraft in the fiscal year 2021 defense authorization bill, but will forbid any proposed KC-135 retirements until the service’s next tanker program is on track.

The HASC seapower and projection forces subcommittee mark of the FY ’21 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) supports the proposed retirement of the Air Force’s 17 oldest B-1B Lancer bombers between the bill’s enactment and January 2023, so long as the service maintains at least 24 combat-coded aircraft. The committee currently mandates the Air Force keep at least 36 B-1s. The mark also authorizes full funding for the Air Force’s next-generation bomber — the B-21 Raider in development by Northrop Grumman [NOC].

The Air Force also requested the retirement of 29 aging tankers in its proposed budget request, released in February. That included 16 KC-10 Extenders and 13 KC-135 Stratotankers – eight from the active Air Force and five from the Reserves – as the service partners with Boeing [BA] to bring the next-generation KC-46A Pegasus online. The FY ’21 request also included 15 new KC-46A Pegasus aircraft.

The HASC subcommittee’s mark, acquired by Defense Daily, supports the retirement of  KC-10 aircraft, while mandating the service maintains a minimum of 50 primary mission KC-10A aircraft in FY ‘2021, 38 primary mission KC-10A aircraft in FY ‘22, and 26 primary mission KC-10A aircraft in FY ’23. A committee aide told reporters June 22 that the committee would cap the number of KC-10 retirements to six in FY ’21, and 12 each in FY ’22-23. The committee also prohibits the KC-135 retirements through FY ’23. The service currently holds 398 KC-135s in its inventory.

Lawmakers’ decision to hold off on these tanker retirements comes as the Air Force and Boeing continue work on the KC-46A program, which has suffered multiple schedule delays and cost overruns over its lifetime. The Air Force recently decided to push off a planned Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) conclusion for at least one more year as the program office works through the aircraft’s biggest deficiency (Defense Daily, June 10). Committee aides confirmed that the hold on tanker retirements was linked to the delays and uncertainty surrounding the KC-46 program.

Meanwhile, Air Force officials have expressed optimism about the program’s improvements, telling reporters that a path forward has been established on the Remote Vision System (RVS) that remained the largest issue (Defense Daily, April 2).

U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) has also expressed concerns about a potential tanker shortfall. Its FY ’21 unfunded priorities list included 13 KC-135s and 10 KC-10s, noting that the proposed retirements would create a “capacity bathtub.” (Defense Daily, Feb. 25) The subcommittee mark directs the secretary of the Air Force to provide an update on the KC-46 program by Sept. 1, “as to how the Secretary intends to mitigate the concurrency of development associated with these category one deficiencies with a full rate production decision.” That update should happen before a full-rate production decision is made, lawmakers said.

The HASC seapower and projection forces subcommittee will vote on whether to approve their portion of the FY ’21 NDAA mark June 23. If it is passed, lawmakers would have to consolidate their wishes with the requirements set in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s mark, which prohibits all proposed tanker retirements. SASC approved its FY ’21 NDAA mark June 11.