Congress should permit the U.S. Air Force to retire dozens of aging planes to help the service fund modernization, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told the Reagan National Defense Forum on Dec. 4.

“If there were one ask I would have of the Congress, it would be to allow the Air Force to retire its old and irrelevant airplanes so that we can free up the resources we need…to confront China and what they’re doing in their military modernization program,” Kendall said. “Our old iron—our 30-year-old average airplane–is an anchor holding back the Air Force right now, and we’ve got to get rid of some of those aircraft so we can free up resources and get on with modernization.”

The Air Force’s fiscal 2022 budget requested the retirement of 201 aging aircraft–a plan that has received some pushback in Congress.

“We have a number of assets that we acquired that were very useful in the counterinsurgencies that we’ve been fighting for the last 20 years that are not all that threatening to China,” Kendall said on Dec. 4. “We have to re-focus…China’s modernization is focused directly on defeating the American ability to project power, and they’ve been at it since roughly the first Gulf War 30 years ago, and they’ve acquired a number of systems which threaten our high-value assets, of which the numbers are fairly low. We’ve got to respond to that or we can’t credibly project power in the western Pacific.”

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.

On Dec. 4, Kendall said that General Atomics‘ MQ-9 Reaper drones, older C-130s and tankers, and the Air Force’s A-10 fleet “have had great value to the department, but they’re aging and their utility against the pacing challenge is very limited.”

“We have to make some changes there,” Kendall said. “What I encountered as I was coming up for confirmation is I would talk to senator after senator who would tell me how much they understood the threat of China and then in the next sentence or maybe in the same sentence would say, ‘But don’t touch my fill in the blank aircraft that are in my state.’ We’ve got to get by that. We’ve got to get a common understanding of the seriousness of this threat and a sense of urgency about addressing it. I don’t think we have enough of that in Congress right now.”

The upcoming fiscal 2023 budget appears to be a key one for Air Force modernization. The fiscal 2022 budget requested the buy of 91 manned aircraft, yet a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report said that the service would need to double that number to retain an inventory of nearly 5,500 aircraft–a future buy that suggests the service may increase its procurement of inexpensive drones significantly (Defense Daily, Dec. 1).

The report said that the Air Force’s buy of drones “has leveled off at 5 to 7 percent for 10 years, and current procurement plans show no change in the future.” The fiscal 2022 budget “procures no drones and retires the block 30 RQ-4 Global Hawk fleet in favor of the manned E-11,” the study said.