Senate Looks To Block Many Of The Pentagon’s “Tough Choices” Airpower Cuts In Next Budget

A proposed draft of the annual defense policy bill would prohibit services from getting rid of certain aircraft and order them to buy more of others.

byJoseph Trevithick|
U.S. Homeland photo


When the Pentagon released its budget proposal for the upcoming 2021 Fiscal Year it included a number of significant planned cuts to military aviation programs across the services. As The War Zone

noted at the time, Congress still had to approve those divestments and, in many cases, they looked set to face major opposition from legislators. 

Now, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has signed off on a draft version of the annual defense policy bill, or National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which, as expected, seeks to block many of the proposed cuts, if it gets passed and signed into law. The House of Representatives will still need to craft their own bill and make sure it aligns with the Senate version, before a full vote can take place, as well. However, only two of the 27 SASC members voted against this Senate draft, underscoring that there is wide agreement across party lines in prohibiting the U.S. military from getting rid of various aircraft, at least for another year.

Here is a brief overview of the actions the Senate's current version of the NDAA would take if passed today:

  • Block any cuts to the U.S. Air Force's A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft fleet.
    • The Air Force is seeking to retire the oldest 44 A-10s in the 2021 Fiscal Year.
  • Delay any divestment of KC-135R and KC-10A aerial refueling tankers until a full fix for the troubled Remote Vision System (RVS) on the KC-46A is implemented.
    • The Air Force had initially wanted to get rid of 13 KC-135Rs and 16 KC-10As in the upcoming fiscal year, before backing away from that plan.
    • Boeing has agreed to completely overhaul the RVS, a saga you can read about more here, but does not expect to have developed a full fix until 2023 at the earliest.
    • The Air Force recently said it had pushed back the planned date to approve the start of full-rate KC-46A production to 2024 and the service has previously said it will not use these aircraft for day-to-day aerial refueling missions in the meantime, except in an emergency.
  • Prevents U.S. Special Operations Command from getting rid of any manned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, such as the U-28A Draco.
  • Blocks U.S. Special Operations Command's (SOCOM) planned purchase of manned "armed overwatch" light attack aircraft "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."
    • SOCOM has said it wants to replace its U-28As with this new aircraft.
  • "Requires the Secretary of Defense to recommend a minimum number of bomber aircraft to enable the Air Force to carry out its long-range penetrating strike mission."
    • The Air Force wants to retire the 17 oldest B-1B bombers in the 2021 Fiscal Year.
  • Adds 12 more F-35A Joint Strike Fighters for the Air Force, as well as two more F-35Bs and F-35Cs for the Marine Corps and Navy, each, respectively. 
  • This would bring the total purchase of F-35s in the 2021 Fiscal Year to 60 F-35As, 12 F-35Bs, and 23 F-35Cs, or 95 aircraft in total.
    • The Pentagon's 2021 Fiscal Year Budget proposal called for the purchase of 79 Joint Strike Fighters, 19 fewer than Congress had approved funds for in the 2020 Fiscal Year.
  • "Increases MQ-9 procurement by a total of $170.6 million to prevent termination without a replacement."
    • The Air Force's 2021 Fiscal Year Budget proposal included an unexpected announcement of that service's plans to stop buying MQ-9 Reapers starting in the 2022 Fiscal Year.
    • The service has now initiated a new program to find a Reaper replacement, dubbed MQ-Next.
  • Slows divestment of F-15C/D Eagle fighter jets.
    • The Air Force has asked for funds to procure 12 more F-15EX Advanced Eagles in the 2021 Fiscal Year, but that acquisition program may now be facing delays due to the decision to hold a competition to select which company will supply the engines for those aircraft.
  • No mention is made of any required changes to the Air Force's proposed plan to cut all 21 of its older Block 20 and Block 30 RQ-4B and its three EQ-4B Global Hawks, the latter of which carry the highly specialized Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) payload.

The Senate's draft NDAA also includes some interesting proposed additions and other changes that could impact U.S. military airpower plans, especially for the Air Force.

  • Enshrines the goal of an Air Force with 386 operational squadrons into law.
  • Authorizes the modification and transfer of six F-35As originally bound for the Turkish Air Force to the U.S. Air Force following Turkey's ejection from the Joint Strike Fighter program last year over its purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system.
  • Demands that any munitions that Joint Strike Fighter program members are certifying for use on their aircraft be certified for use on all F-35s.
  • "Requires the Navy to create a fighter aircraft force structure acquisition strategy and report on aircraft carrier air wing composition and carrier-based strike fighter squadrons to better prepare for potential conflicts envisioned by the National Defense Strategy."
  • Adds 10 AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) to the Air Force's budget to "enhance our ability to blunt a Chinese offensive."
  • Shifts $75 million from purchases of AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) land-attack cruise missile variants to support the purchase of additional LRASMs.
  • "Requires a plan for the operational test and utility evaluation of the Low-Cost Attributable [sic;  Attritable] Aircraft Technology [LCAAT] System, an innovative solution with game-changing capability and capacity, and increases funds by $128 million above the President’s request to purchase addition XQ-58 aircraft and operationally relevant testing."
  • Adds another MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone to the U.S. Army's budget "to meet state requirements for unmanned fixed wing ISR."

Of course, as noted, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees still have to finalize their respective drafts and make sure they line up, so these provisions are by no means final. The full Senate and House will also have to pass the final versions of the law and President Donald Trump will then have to sign it.

Still, with such consensus within the Senate on this version of the NDAA, across party lines, would indicate that many of the major airpower plans the Pentagon has are set to be curtailed, if not blocked entirely.

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