Senators Want to Block F-22 and F-15E Retirements, Require Study on Air Superiority

The Senate Armed Services Committee finished its markup of the fiscal 2025 National Defense Authorization bill on June 14, with mandates on more than a dozen aircraft or related programs and a keen interest in the future of the Air Force fighter fleet.

Among the moves, lawmakers would support the Air Force’s plan to buy 42 F-35As and allow the Air Force to divest some of the aircraft it wants to retire—56 A-10s, 65 F-15C/Ds, and 11 F-16C/Ds. Air Force officials say they need to retire the aircraft to help fund modernization efforts.

However, the committee wants to deny USAF’s request to retire 26 F-15Es and 32 F-22s. And the bill would direct the Air Force to provide “an annual report on the Air Force tactical fighter force structure” and work with the Navy to develop a plan for air superiority in the 2030s and ‘40s.

The committee issued only a summary of its version of the bill, without the underlying text, and did not offer a rationale, but in budget hearings this spring, members voiced concern about the shrinkage of the Air Force in order to pay for modernization.

The defense bill provisions come just a day after Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David W. Allvin raised doubts as to the future of the service’s Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter, which is meant to take over the air dominance mission from the F-22. Allvin said June 13 that NGAD is merely one of many “choices” the Air Force faces in confronting oncoming financial challenges such as budget caps, inflation, and a $40-$50 billion overrun on the Sentinel missile program. Previously, leaders has referred to the program as a must-have.  

The SASC’s proposed bill would have the Air Force and Navy jointly provide an analysis “of how the air superiority mission will be secured for the Joint force in the 2030s and 2040s,” a mandate potentially driven by the Navy’s indefinite deferral of its future fighter, the F/A-XX, and Allvin’s lukewarm remarks about NGAD.

In addition to the report on the fighter force structure and the air dominance study, Senate lawmakers want the Air Force to provide a plan and cost estimate “for modernizing all 25 fighter aircraft squadrons in the Air National Guard.” They did not specify whether the new aircraft would be F-35s, F-15EXs, Block 70 F-16s, or Collaborative Combat Aircraft, all of which have been discussed in recent hearings as new missions for Guard units that are giving up old fighters.

The bill would not add any F-35s to the Pentagon’s request for 68 fighters across the services, 42 for the Air Force. That leaves the fate of the F-35 in 2025 well up in the air—the House Armed Services Committee cut between 10 and 20 fighters from the request in their version of the defense policy bill, shifting the funds to software and test capacity items, while the House Appropriations Committee added eight F-35s to the Pentagon’s request.

Beyond Fighters

While the Air Force has said it is willing to accept a small gap in its airborne warning and control capability as it retires the E-3 AWACS and waits for the E-7 Wedgetail, lawmakers were less enthusiastic and want to mandate that the service keep 16 AWACS on duty until the arrival of the Wedgetail “or until the retirement of the E-3 would create no lapse in Air Force capabilities.”

The Air Force has said it is unaffordable and unmanageable to keep the E-3s because of their poor condition and the Herculean effort to put them into action. The service has said the 26 E-7s it plans are a stopgap until the air- and ground-moving target indication mission migrates to space.

The committee also disagreed with the Air Force in authorizing an additional five HH-60W combat rescue helicopters; aircraft the Air Force didn’t ask for and which it says it can’t use, because it’s trying to figure out how to do combat search and rescue in a broad regional area like the Pacific.

The SASC reduced funding for three Air Force fleets:

  • The C-40 VIP transport, being built by Boeing
  • The VC-25B “Air Force One” presidential transport, being built by Boeing, because of contract delays
  • The Survivable Air Operations Center (SAOC), being built by Sierra Nevada Corp., also because of contract delays.

    Another provision would take Air Force UH-1N helicopters now serving as VIP transports and missile field support aircraft and planned for retirement and instead transfer them to the Army for use in the Kwajalein Atoll missile test region of the Pacific.

    Elsewhere, along with the Air Force’s fiscal 2026 budget submission, the committee wants a detailed plan for how the Air Force will modernize its strategic tanker fleet. The current plan calls for concluding the initial KC-46 buy around 2029, followed by a “bridge buy” of up to 75 tankers, competitively sourced. After that, the Air Force wants a smaller, stealthy tanker that can operate at the edge of contested airspace in the mid-2030s.

    Other briefings and plans the committee wants include:

    • A briefing from the Air Force on “the requirements for, and implications of” putting five to 10 long-range bombers on alert status “in the event that such an action should become necessary to meet operational requirements.” The service’s B-1 and B-2 fleet have been shrinking in recent years, and the B-52 fleet will shrink operationally as portions of it are retrofitted with new radars and engines, while others are needed for testing of those upgrades and the Long Range Standoff missile.
    • A report detailing the status of the Agile Combat Employment (ACE) program “in each one of the geographic combatant command areas of responsibility.” While the Air Force has touted ACE as applicable to all theaters, it has chiefly focused on the Indo-Pacific for exercises and implementation.
    • A briefing on “stratospheric balloon programs at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), including plans for integrating stratospheric balloon systems into normal military exercises.” The committee didn’t say if it wants the balloons used as an intelligence-collecting resource for U.S. “blue” forces or as a “red” adversary system to mimic those balloons used by China to conduct surveillance of the U.S. and other countries.

    The SASC bill is not yet law and must first be harmonized with those of Senate appropriators, the full Senate, and the House before being forwarded to President Biden for his signature.