The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has approved a fiscal year 2019 defense authorization bill that would trim purchases of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and Air Force KC-46A tankers, citing problems with both programs.

According to an 11-page summary released late May 24, the bill would procure 75 Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35s, cutting the Trump administration’s request by two jets “to realign the program towards sustainment.” The Air Force and Navy would each lose an F-35.

Hill Air Force Base F-35As fly in formation over the Utah Test and Training Range, March 30, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/R. Nial Bradshaw)
Hill Air Force Base F-35As fly in formation over the Utah Test and Training Range, March 30, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/R. Nial Bradshaw)

The reduction is accompanied by increased funding for F-35 spares, modifications and depot repair capabilities “to establish a solid sustainment base before the steep ramp of production overwhelms the enterprise’s ability to sustain the aircraft,” the summary says.

In October, the Government Accountabiliy Office reported that spare parts shortages and other sustainment problems were hurting the F-35’s readiness (Defense Daily, Oct. 26, 2017). The Pentagon’s chief weapons tester raised similar concerns in January (Defense Daily, Jan. 25). 

The bill would provide 14 Boeing [BA] KC-46As, which reduces the request by one plane “to restore program accountability.” The program has experienced cost overruns and schedule delays.

The bill would add more than $600 million to develop hypersonics, directed energy and other cutting-edge technologies. It would also authorize $144.2 million to replace wings on the Air Force’s aging A-10 close-air-support aircraft, $65 million more than the request.

While the bill would prohibit the Air Force from retiring any of its aging E-8C JSTARS ground-surveillance aircraft, it would increase funding for the Advanced Battle Management System, a sensor data-fusion system that the Air Force views as a more survivable replacement for JSTARS than a new plane.

While the bill fully funds the request for 10 ships, it adds about $1.2 billion to speed up several future ships.

The Air Force B-21 bomber and the Navy Columbia-class submarine, both major development efforts, are fully funded.

The $716-billion bill, which the SASC approved by a 25-2 vote, now heads to the full Senate for its consideration.

Also on May 24, the full House passed its version of the bill (H.R. 5515) by a 351-66 vote, wrapping up three days of floor debate.

The House approved dozens of amendments, including one by Rep. Neal Dunn (R-Fla.) that calls for upgrading 34 Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22 Raptor test and training jets to a combat-ready configuration.

In April, Dunn and eight other members of Florida’s congressional delegation wrote a letter urging the House Appropriations Committee to add $98 million to begin the conversion. For the relatively modest sum of $1.2 billion to $1.7 billion, converting the Block 20 aircraft to Block 35 fighters would provide a significant addition to the Air Force’s fleet of about 143 combat-ready F-22, the lawmakers said.

Other amendments approved by the House would: create a commission to study national security needs in artificial intelligence; require a study on the vulnerabilities of current space launch facilities and how launch capacity could be increased; require the Missile Defense Agency to submit a report on the status of its countermeasures test program; expand the Defense Department’s authority to interdict unmanned aircraft that threaten its bases; and require a study on how wind farms affect military operations and weather radars.

Overall, the House bill would provide $717 billion for defense, including the purchase of 13 Navy ships, three more than the administration requested, and at least the 77 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters that the administration requested. It would direct the Air Force to proceed with replacing JSTARS, which the service has resisted. It would fund 12 KC-46As, three below the request.