The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) would like to increase the number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters procured in its markup of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and keeps with previous authorization bills in limiting the amount of legacy aircraft the Air Force can retire.
The Defense Department requested 79 F-35s across the services in its FY ’21 presidential budget request, including 48 Air Force F-35As, 10 Marine Corps F-35Bs and 21 Navy F-35Cs. SASC members want to boost each of those numbers per an executive summary of their defense authorization bill released Thursday. The committee’s version of the FY ’21 NDAA would authorize over $9 billion for 95 Joint Strike Fighters, to include 60 F-35As, 12 F-35Bs and 23 F-35Cs.
While the House Armed Services Committee’s NDAA subcommittee markups won’t begin until June 22, several HASC members have already called for the Pentagon to procure 98 F-35s, mirroring the SASC numbers for the Air Force and Marine Corps variants but asking for 26 Navy variants.
When it comes to Air Force platforms in particular, the committee wants to ensure the service maintains sufficient capacity for each of its mission areas, committee staff told reporters Thursday. To that end, the SASC NDAA prohibits the Air Force from retiring 44 A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft, as was requested. The bill also delays the proposed retirements of 16 KC-10 Extenders and 13 KC-135 Stratotankers until critical issues are resolved on the service’s next aerial refueler, the KC-46A Pegasus, namely its Remote Vision System.
The Air Force had sought to realign over $4 billion across its portfolio by retiring over 100 of its oldest aircraft and funnel those funds into new critical capabilities and technologies. Along with its oldest tankers and A-10 aircraft, the service also proposed retiring 17 of its “least-capable” B-1B bombers, along with a number of combat lines of its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) drones including the RQ-4 Global Hawk and the MQ-9 Reaper.
Committee staff said Thursday that the goal in limiting aircraft retirements in this fiscal year was to ensure that the Air Force had the capacity needed to execute the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, while acknowledging that some legacy aircraft would need to be divested to open up funds for newer aircraft.
The SASC NDAA markup requires the Air Force to have no fewer than 386 available operational squadrons or equivalent organizational units, following the results of several studies conducted by the Air Force at Congress’ behest. Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson first laid out the goal to grow the force to 386 squadrons in 2018, noting that there was no concrete plan to reach that goal.
Nearly two years later, SASC members are pushing for the Air Force to develop that plan, but are not mandating a timeline for achievement, with committee staff likening the NDAA requirement to the Navy’s aspiration to build a 355-ship fleet.
The committee’s NDAA would establish a minimum number of aircraft for each major mission area in the Air Force. That includes: 1,182 fighter jets, 190 remotely piloted aircraft, 92 bombers, 412 tankers, 230 tactical airlift aircraft, 235 strategic airlift platforms, 84 ISR aircraft and 106 combat search-and-rescue airframes. It also requires the secretary of defense to recommend a minimum number of bomber aircraft “to enable the Air Force to carry out its long-range penetrating strike mission.”
The committee could file the bill for consideration on the Senate floor as early as next week, although the schedule remains fluid, staff members said.