What’s at Stake for Air Force as Senate and House Work Out Final 2024 Defense Bill

The Senate overwhelmingly passed its version of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act late July 27 in a bipartisan 86-11 vote. But the House version of the bill was passed largely on party lines, and the two chambers must resolve their differences before the annual defense policy bill can reach the President’s desk.  

House Armed Services Committee Chair Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) will be the primary drivers on the House side, while Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) will do the same for the Senate. Party leadership will also play a role in who gets to participate. The conference committee must work out the differences and present a bill that can pass, identically, in both chambers.

Committee members will have their work cut out for them. The House and Senate bills differ on dozens of issues, from whether or not to appoint an inspector general to oversee military aid to Ukraine to whether or not the nation needs a Space National Guard. They also differ on a number of hot-button social issues included in the House bill, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion education; a prohibition on the military paying for travel to receive reproductive and abortion services not available at certain duty stations; and medical care for transgender service members. The abortion issue was the most divisive, leading to almost every House Democrat voting against the bill, which passed only narrowly as a result.  

Time is short. Lawmakers leave for the August recess this weekend and won’t return until September. Staffers will start the conference process in their absence, but with fewer than 20 working days in September, they are unlikely to pass a reconciled bill before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Divestments and Procurement 

Differences that must be resolved of particular concern to the Air Force begin with airframes. The House took a more prescriptive approach to its bill, aiming to limit the Air Force’s authority to retire older aircraft and to direct the service to assign some new aircraft to the Air National Guard. In each case, the House and conferees will have to choose whether to include or exclude provisions such as:

  • B-1 Lancer: The House bill would extend a prohibition on modifying “the designed operational capability statement for any B–1 bomber aircraft squadron … in a manner that would reduce the capabilities of such a squadron” until the B-21 Raider is fielded. If adopted in the final bill, no B-1s could be retired for at least the next four years.
  • F-16 Fighting Falcon: The House bill bars the Air Force from retiring any F-16s until it submits a report to Congress detailing how many F-16s it wants to divest in the next five years, the impact of those retirements on mission and budget, and the actions USAF plans to mitigate those impacts. 
  • F-15EX: The House bill includes advance procurement funds for F-15EX fighters, which it wants assigned to the Air National Guard. The Senate provides funds for F-15EX, but not advance procurement funding for future years, as the House does. It is silent on where the planes should be assigned.
  • Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve fighter squadrons: The House bill bars the Air Force from ending flying mission of any fighter squadron in the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve unless it offers a plan to recapitalize those missions, even by means of transferring existing aircraft in the interim, if necessary. The Senate version does not address this matter at all.
  • Tanker aircraft: Several House provisions related to retiring KC-135 Stratotankers are in the House bill, which would block tanker retirements in 2024 and require the Air Force to publish a recapitalization plan with “more realistic timelines” than its still-unclear plans for a future Next-Generation Air refueling System, or NGAS. Meanwhile, the House would also bar the Air Force from buying more than the 179 KC-46 Pegasus tankers already planned, an apparent objection to Air Force officials saying it might be wise to forego competition on a “bridge tanker” in favor of simply buying more KC-46s. Another provision requires the Air Force to certify that the Remote Vision System 2.0 operates as intended before it can be installed on any KC-46s. 
  • RQ-4 Global Hawk: The Senate bill would prohibit the Air Force from retiring any RQ-4 Global Hawks until fiscal 2029, while the House was silent on the matter. 
  • T-1 trainers. The Senate would bar retirements until the Air Force certifies that it has fully implemented Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5.
  • U-28 Draco. The Senate bill bars retiring these aircraft until the Pentagon certifies that it is providing U.S. Special Operations Command with an equal or better intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability 
  • F-15 fighters. The Senate wants to stall F-15C/D/E retirements until the Air Force reports back with details on the remaining service life, upgrades, and modifications done for the aircraft it wants to retire. 

Both bills reduce the number of A-10 “Warthogs” the Air Force is required to keep, allowing the service to proceed with 42 planned divestments. And neither lifts a prohibition included a year ago to prevent the Air Force from retiring older Block 20 versions of the F-22 Raptor, ignoring USAF requests to shut down those planes. 

Pay and Allowances 

Both bills authorize the same 5.2 percent pay raise for troops, the largest year-over-year increase since 2002. They also agree on changing the way the basic allowance for housing (BAH) is calculated for junior enlisted members with dependents. 

But the House and Senate disagree on several other pay and allowance changes:

  • Inflation. The House bill would authorize the Secretary of Defense to award “inflation bonuses” to junior enlisted troops throughout 2024, based on the rate of inflation. It also would change the formula for calculating who is eligible for the Basic Needs Allowance; by not including BAH, the House measure would greatly increase the number of families eligible for the extra pay. The Senate, however, sought to address inflation by changing the way cost-of-living allowances are calculated and paid, and by lowering the standard for what constitutes a “high-cost” area in the continental United States. The Senate bill would also reduce the size and frequency of COLA cuts for members outside the Continental U.S. 
  • Housing costs. The House bill would authorize a trial program to outsource BAH rate calculations to a third party, applying artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to determine how much members should receive. 
  • Basic Pay for junior troops. The Senate bill, addressing both inflation and recruiting, would authorize a study to determine whether “the current basic pay table adequately compensates junior enlisted personnel in pay grades E-1 through E-4.” 
  • Compensating those in remote assignments: The House bill seeks a feasibility study of incentive pay for Airmen assigned to Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The Senate bill does not address Creech, but it would authorize the Air Force to pattern a program based on one the Army already has: The Remote and Austere Condition Assignment Incentive Pay program, which grants extra pay to service members in Alaska.