Senate Defense Authorizers Seek New Fighter, Bomber Plan

Airmen from the 20th Bomb Squadron prepare to board a B-52H Stratofortress before a Bomber Task Force deployment from Barksdale AFB, La., on May 7, 2019. Air Force photo by Amn. Jacob B. Wrightsman.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s $750 billion 2020 defense authorization bill asks the Air Force to settle on an “optimum” bomber and fighter force structure built to counter Russian and Chinese threats.

A committee aide said in a May 23 background briefing the report could offer a definitive blueprint for procurement in the coming years, as several recent studies have pitched their own views of what the service should do.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments recommends that in 2035, the Air Force should own 383 bombers—assuming the B-2 is still in service—and 2,107 fighters. That makes up 24 bomber squadrons and 65 fighter squadrons on Active Duty.

“The preponderance of the Air Force’s combat, [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], and [battle management command and control] aircraft cannot penetrate and persist in the contested and highly contested environments that would characterize major engagements against China or Russia in the future,” CSBA authors wrote in their March 29 report. “This shortfall would dramatically hinder the Air Force’s ability to conduct multi-domain operations.”

The service’s “Air Force We Need” projection is slightly different, saying it needs 14 bomber squadrons and 62 fighter squadrons in 2030. In March, AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies suggested growing to 2,700 fighters across 70 squadrons and 270 bombers across 15 squadrons in 2030.

The Air Force currently has nine bomber squadrons and 55 fighter squadrons.

The Senate report accompanying the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Air Force to brief lawmakers on the results of its aircraft force mix and structure review by Sept. 1, 2018. Multiple other studies on the topic, including last year’s bomber roadmap, inform the final decision.

Finalizing the right mix of aircraft will help steer a future buy plan as the service aims to ramp up to 72 fighter jets a year. SASC is offering the Air Force $5.4 billion to procure 60 Lockheed Martin F-35As and eight F-15EXs in 2020, close to the House Appropriations Committee’s recommendation. HAC pointed to inconsistencies in the Air Force’s fighter procurement plan but said a 7-to-1 ratio of fifth- and fourth-generation jets is reasonable.

A senior SASC aide told reporters that while it may seem odd that the Air Force is splitting its F-35 request between the budget submission and the unfunded priorities list, there’s a “complicated math” behind it. Congress and DOD are conferring on what the overall F-35 spending plan should be, he added.

“Part of the problem is we’ve got to make sure that Lockheed is able to produce the number of F-35s we need,” the aide said. “If the Air Force could request a whole bunch right now, they’d just do it to replace all these legacy aircraft. But they’ve got to work with industry cooperatively to make sure that they’re able to sustain the line.”

Each aircraft also needs a pilot, the aide said, another complication as the Air Force is about 2,000 fighter pilots short.

“It may look willy-nilly, and I understand that, but it’s very complicated,” the aide said. “We’ve got to get all those pieces right to make sure you don’t have an empty aircraft sitting there with no pilot, or a pilot over here with no aircraft … or no spare parts.”

Lawmakers added a provision encouraging the Pentagon to come up with an F-35 cost-saving strategy and backed “Mad Hatter,” the agile software-coding effort that will improve the Joint Strike Fighter’s logistics system. The legislation also proposes $2.8 billion for 15 KC-46A tankers, three more than requested, and $871.2 million for eight MC-130J special-operations transport and tanker platforms. Legislative text will be published in June.

Senators push the Air Force to modernize the A-10 through 2030 and expedite delivery of Boeing-Leonardo’s MH-139, which is replacing the Vietnam War-era UH-1N helicopters.

The bill endorses creation of a Space Force, but blocks changes to the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 procurement as well. It fully funds nuclear triad modernization programs at or above their requested levels, and maxes out munitions production for the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile and an extended-range version of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile.

In keeping with the National Defense Strategy, lawmakers propose more funding for hypersonic weapons, directed-energy development, and new missile-defense technologies.

Military installations in Florida, Nebraska, and North Carolina would receive $3.3 billion for natural disaster recovery. Another $3.6 billion would “replenish funds for previously authorized military construction projects that may be repurposed” for projects along the southern US border.

Overall, the bill funds an Air Force endstrength of 332,800 members, offers a 3.1 percent pay raise to the Armed Forces, and includes multiple provisions to address quality-of-life problems in privatized military housing.

“Timely and sufficient funding alone will not fix all of our security problems,” the bill summary stated. “We must establish clear priorities and reinforce them with strategic investments to pursue urgent change at significant scale. Difficult choices must be made and priorities established, particularly related to roles and missions, force employment, and resource allocation.”