SASC Bill Weighs In on Air Force’s 2021 Priorities

Fighter jets won support among senators in new defense policy legislation that also raised questions about some of the Air Force’s top priorities.

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved a $740.5 billion version of the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill by a 25-2 vote on June 10. Its recommendations now head to the full chamber for consideration and a vote as early as next week.

Lawmakers want to allocate $9.1 billion to the Defense Department for 95 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, including 60 F-35As at $5.5 billion for the Air Force, according to a June 11 bill summary. Committee members approved 14 more F-35s than the Trump administration requested, and want the Air Force to use six F-35s that Turkey bought but never used because it was kicked out of the international program.

SASC also encourages the Air Force to pick an F-35 operating base in the Indo-Pacific, where it will be closer to countries like China that it is meant to deter. The Air Force already bases F-35As at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, as part of Pacific Air Forces.

Notably, the legislation sets a minimum number of aircraft the Air Force must own for each type of mission, and stops the service from retiring the A-10, KC-10, KC-135, and manned special-operations intelligence aircraft.

Senators want at least 1,182 fighters, 190 remotely piloted aircraft, 92 bombers, 412 tankers, 230 tactical airlift and 235 strategic airlift platforms, 84 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, and 106 combat search-and-rescue airframes, a committee staffer told reporters.

That marks a slight uptick for some parts of the Air Force’s primary inventory. USAF currently owns 1,145 fighter and attack aircraft, 228 RPAs, 96 bombers, 432 tankers, 264 tactical airlift and 232 strategic airlift platforms, 75 ISR aircraft, 97 CSAR aircraft, and 110 special-operations aircraft, according to a 2019 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report.

The committee also requires the Air Force to employ at least 386 operational squadrons or equivalent units, a number the service maintains as its goal while acknowledging it could be out of reach. The defense secretary must “submit an annual aviation procurement plan across all services” and “recommend a minimum number of bomber aircraft to enable the Air Force to carry out its long-range penetrating strike mission,” the summary adds.

While the draft backs some of the Air Force’s key ventures, like development of the XQ-58 Valkyrie as a possible “wingman” drone, it wants more insight into others. They ask: How does the Advanced Battle Management System, the Air Force’s effort to overhaul how it processes data for faster combat, apply to the Pentagon’s idea of joint, all-domain command and control? 

The Air Force argues its fledgling ABMS is the cornerstone of a more connected joint force, though some lawmakers have said the service is not being transparent enough as the program evolves.

Senators are pumping the brakes on Air Force Special Operations Command’s effort to buy planes for armed overwatch as well, suggesting it could be a waste of money.

USAF cannot pursue armed overwatch platforms like the A-29 “until it is determined the Air Force’s current forces have neither the skill nor capacity to provide close air support to U.S. forces deployed operationally.” 

“The bill also requires an acquisition roadmap to better define current and future manned and unmanned ISR,” the summary adds, while throwing a wrench into the Air Force’s plan to cut MQ-9 drone procurement short.

“At no time in recent memory has it been more critical to have the personnel, equipment, training, and organization needed to signal to our potential enemies,” the committee said. “A credible military deterrent, however, requires more than just having the most planes, ships, and tanks. It requires forces in the right places, at the right time, with the right equipment and capabilities. Posture and logistics are equally as important as fifth-generation aircraft and advanced weapons.”