Proposed NDAA Amendments Would Block T-1, C-40 Retirements—but Increase A-10 Cuts

The Senate will deliberate over the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act in the coming weeks after leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee took the annual policy bill to the floor Oct. 11.

And as lawmakers debate the legislation, they’ll also have to contend with more than 900 amendments that had been filed as of Oct. 13. Already, Republican and Democratic leaders have agreed to a block of 75 amendments, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chair of the SASC, remarked from the Senate floor.

Of the hundreds more still to be considered, some have little to do with national security, with Senators simply hoping to attach their proposals to a bill that is typically considered must-pass. Others touch on everything from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate to military housing and child care to funding for specific programs.

For the Air Force, in particular, a number of lawmakers have proposed provisions that would affect the service’s fleet of aircraft and its personnel.

In years past, members of Congress have used the NDAA to block the Air Force from divesting or retiring older aircraft. That process could play out again, as Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) introduced an amendment that would prohibit any funds authorized in the NDAA from being used to reduce the size of the T-1 Jayhawk trainer fleet.

The Air Force has been planning to phase out the T-1A in favor of pilot training that relies heavily on simulators, an approach dubbed Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5. In its 2023 budget request, the service asks to retire 50 of the 178 trainers.

While Hyde-Smith wants to stop that from happening this year, she introduced a separate amendment offering the Air Force a roadmap for what it will take for her to get on board with retiring the T-1. That provision, co-sponsored by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), would prohibit any T-1 retirements until UPT 2.5 has been implemented across the service and USAF submits a date to Congress by which the T-7A trainer will achieve full operational capability—current estimates put that in 2034.

Both Hyde-Smith and Wicker represent Columbus Air Force Base, Miss., which hosts a squadron of T-1s.

It’s not just the T-1 that could be saved from retirement. Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth from Illinois introduced another amendment that would block any 2023 funds from being used to retire the C-40 Clipper, a transport aircraft that carries senior military commanders, Cabinet officials, and members of Congress.

Their amendment follows on a similar proposal in the House version of the NDAA, also introduced by Illinois lawmakers—much of the small C-40 fleet is based out of Scott Air Force Base, Ill.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) proposed legislation that would block the Air Force from reducing the capability or manpower in any B-1 bomber squadron so it can’t meet its current “designed operational capability statement.” The only exception would be for squadrons in the process of replacing B-1s with new B-21 Raiders.

That amendment was one of two Cruz proposed to keep the B-1 relevant for the future fight. The Air Force is planning to move away from it in the coming years. In a second proposal, Cruz, along with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), calls for an extra $30 million in research money for testing hypersonic weapon systems on the B-1.

And it’s not just aircraft that lawmakers are trying to save. In separate amendments, both Hyde-Smith and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) proposed prohibiting the divestment of any “Tactical Control Party specialist force structure from the Air National Guard” until the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, along with the Chief of Staff of the Army and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, submit a report detailing the capability gaps such a move would create.

Amid all the moves to block retirements, however, one proposed amendment would do just the opposite. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) introduced legislation declaring that the Air Force “shall divest 42 A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft” in 2023.

Such a move would go beyond the Air Force’s own proposal to cut 21 A-10s and would mark a significant reversal from years past, when lawmakers have persistently stopped the service from retiring the beloved close air support jet.

Whether or not the Senate approves Scott’s amendment, Congress does seem poised to finally allow at least some A-10 retirements to happen, with other versions of the NDAA allowing the proposed cut of 21 to stand.