Congress Unveils Compromise NDAA; Here’s How It Would Affect the Air Force Fleet

After weeks of negotiations, top lawmakers unveiled a compromise version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act late Dec. 6, priming Congress to pass the annual policy bill before the end of the year. 

The top Republicans and Democrats from the House Armed Services Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee crafted the new legislation, bypassing the usual conference process of resolving differences between the versions passed by each chamber, then sending the bill back for another round of voting. 

The House passed its version of the NDAA in July, but the Senate had yet to vote on its own—not to mention hundreds of amendments that had been filed—leaving precious little time for the usual legislative process before this session of Congress ends Jan. 3. 

The compromise bill is intended to speed up the process, incorporating elements of the House-passed version, the SASC markup, and other proposals from Representatives and Senators. The House is scheduled to vote on the bill Dec. 7, and the Senate is expected to follow in the next week or so. 

The largest change in policy included in the compromise NDAA is undoubtedly the rollback of the Pentagon’s mandate that service members be vaccinated against COVID-19. That policy, first announced by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III in August 2021—has led to nearly 2 million troops getting the vaccine but also sparked legal battles and resulted in thousands of service members getting booted from service for refusing to get the shot. 

Prior to the new NDAA being released, President Joe Biden and Austin had voiced support for keeping the vaccine mandate in place, arguing that it was necessary to ensure readiness. But rolling it back was a key policy goal for Republicans, and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the HASC, indicated he was open to it, pointing to the general easing of COVID-19 protocols across the country. 

It remains to be seen, however, how other Democrats in Congress will react to the mandate’s removal in the NDAA, or if Biden will consider a veto of the bill over the issue. Such a move could spark a Congressional override, something lawmakers last did for the 2021 bill after President Donald Trump blocked it. 

While the vaccine policy change is likely to generate the most headlines and debate as the NDAA moves forward, pieces of the 4,408-page bill touch on every aspect of the Pentagon. For the Air Force, the bill would carry major implications for the future of the service’s fleet of aircraft. 

Some Divestments Allowed 

For years, the Air Force and Congress have clashed over the service’s attempts to retire older aircraft in its fleet, a move intended to free up money for modernization—a strategy dubbed “divest to invest.” 

In the 2023 NDAA, lawmakers are prepared to let some retirements go through. After the Air Force asked to retire 21 A-10s, one provision in the bill would allow that process to go through by reducing the congressionally mandated size of the fleet from 171 to 153.

Additionally, the NDAA would amend a previous congressional requirement that the Air Force maintain a fleet of 479 aerial tanker aircraft. The new minimum would be set at 466 planes, allowing for the proposed divestment of 13 KC-135 tankers.

Finally, the bill would eliminate a provision in the 2019 NDAA that required the Air Force to keep at least six E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft. That would let the service proceed with its plan to retire eight of 16 remaining E-8s in 2023, followed by four more in 2024. 

Some Blocked 

But while Congress is ready to let go of some A-10s, KC-135s, and E-8s, it doesn’t want to get rid of other aircraft just yet.

Most prominently, the NDAA includes a section that would block the Air Force from retiring any F-22 fighters until 2027 while maintaining a fleet size of at least 184 Raptors. 

That stands in contrast to the Air Force’s stated desire to retire 33 of 36 Block 20 F-22s, reducing the fleet size to 153 aircraft. Service leaders have argued that the Block 20 airplanes are currently rated for training use only because they are expensive to maintain and are increasingly mismatched to the combat-coded versions, reducing their value as training platforms. 

A previous version of the NDAA passed by the House Armed Services Committee rejected that plan and went further in requiring the Air Force to instead upgrade those F-22s, a move Air Force officials say would be too expensive. 

The new compromise NDAA doesn’t go that far, but it does require a report from the Air Force that includes a “strategy and execution plan … for conducting formal training for F–22 aircrews,” including the reestablishment of one or more F-22 Formal Training Units, where the Block 20 F-22s currently reside. The bill also requires an audit by the comptroller general to determine the costs and timeline for upgrading the aircraft. 

In addition to the F-22, the NDAA would fully block any divestment of the C-40 Clipper, used to transport senior military commanders, Cabinet officials, and members of Congress.  

Other provisions in the NDAA would prevent aircraft divestments, but with caveats. 

No F-15 fighters could be retired until the Secretary of the Air Force submits a report to Congress detailing how, when, and from where the service plans to retire F-15s, any effects from such divestments, an explanation of how to mitigate those effects, and procurement plans for the F-15, especially the F-15EX. The Air Force has said it wants to buy fewer F-15EXs in the long term, a move that some members of Congress have opposed. 

The NDAA would also block any retirement of E-3 AWACS aircraft, contrary to the Air Force’s wish to retire 15 of the 31 airplanes in the fleet. However, the bill includes exceptions that would let the service retire some, depending on its progress in acquiring the E-7 Wedgetail, the planned replacement for AWACS. 

If the Air Force submits an acquisition strategy for the Wedgetail approved by its acquisition czar, it can cut its number of E-3s down to 21. If the service awards a contract for the procurement of E-7s, it can cut the AWACS fleet down to 18. 

Another section in the NDAA would prohibit the retirement of any C-130 transport aircraft currently assigned to the Air National Guard. That would mostly affect the aging C-130Hs—the Air Force has said it wants to cut 12 in 2023. The NDAA would also require the Air Force to maintain a C-130 fleet size of at least 271 aircraft. 

Aircraft Added 

While much in the Air Force-related sections in the NDAA deal with the proposed retirements of aircraft, the bill also would authorize increases in procurement for some types of aircraft.

Funding for those extra purchases still needs to be appropriated—the NDAA doesn’t provide that, and Congress is still negotiating an omnibus spending bill that would provide such funds. 

Still, the NDAA offers an indication of what lawmakers want the Air Force to spend more on, namely F-35 fighters, HH-60W helicopters, and EC-37B Compass Calls. 

The Air Force’s request for F-35As in 2023 fell to 33 aircraft, well short of previous years’ requests for 48. The NDAA would approve funding for five extra fighters, just shy of the seven included in the Air Force’s unfunded priorities list

Also included in that unfunded priorities list was four extra EC-37Bs, which are used to disrupt an enemy’s command, control, communications, radar, and navigation. The NDAA would authorize funding for those aircraft.

One kind of aircraft that was not included in the unfunded priorities list was the HH-60W Jolly Green II, designed to replace the HH-60G Pave Hawk for combat search and rescue missions. Indeed, the Air Force has indicated it plans to cut its total buy at 75 helicopters, instead of the originally planned 113. 

That’s led to pushback in Congress, and lawmakers included an extra 10 HH-60Ws in the NDAA on top of the 10 requested that would have completed the 75-aircraft fleet the Air Force wanted. On top of that, the NDAA requests a requirements study and strategy from the Air Force for its combat search and rescue mission.