The US military’s annual defence spending bill – the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – is as much political document as strategic blueprint.
Lawmakers, who have ultimate say over the Pentagon’s budget, often disagree with generals and staff at the Department of Defense (DoD) on issues ranging from aircraft procurement to fleet size.
In the fiscal year 2023 NDAA bipartisan agreement released on 6 December, legislators acquiesced to some fleet reductions long sought by Pentagon brass, while blocking others. The bill has been passed by the House of Representatives. It now heads to the US Senate and is expected to be signed into law by President Joe Biden before year-end.
Fairchild Republic A-10
The US Air Force (USAF) has for years tried unsuccessfully to reduce its fleet of A-10 Thunderbolt II ‘Warthog’ ground-attack aircraft. Generals say the slow-flying jet, built around a direct-fire cannon, has woeful survivability in modern battles.
However, the DoD’s proposed reductions have repeatedly been thwarted by Congress, with lawmakers citing the platform’s popularity among ground troops and effectiveness at providing close-air support during conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and, more recently, Syria.
It now appears the USAF will, at least partially, get its wish in 2023. The latest NDAA would authorise a reduction of 18 A-10 airframes, to a minimum fleet requirement of 153.
That is fewer than the 42 A-10s the USAF sought to cut in last year’s NDAA, and close to the 21-count reduction the service proposed in its FY2023 budget request.
The fourth-generation F-15 air superiority fighter, which boasts an undefeated combat record, has been subject of much recent debate. The USAF wants to retire older F-15C/D models as it builds out its fleet with the latest F-15EX variant, which Boeing describes as a “4.5-generation” fighter.
However, with a price higher than that of stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35As, some members of Congress have expressed concern the USAF is investing too much in old technology; funds that could be used to buy more F-35s.
Boeing has countered that the twin-engined F-15EX has substantially greater weapons payload than the single-engined F-35. Combined with the latest avionics and sensors, the company says the EX can backfill some of the F-35’s limitations.
Congress has weighed in. The NDAA would prohibit the USAF from divesting F-15s without first submitting a report detailing operational and fiscal impacts and how it will mitigate negative effects, including how it intends to replace capabilities lost through divestment.
That may impact some USAF plans. The service in November announced its intention to transfer F-15C/Ds out of Kadena air base in Japan, with some continuing service in the Air National Guard (ANG) and others moving into storage. While the service will be allowed to continue withdrawing the Kadena F-15s, to be replaced by temporary rotations of other fighter forces, it may have to rethink plans to mothball older Eagles.
Lockheed Martin F-22
The stealthy air-superiority fighter is a favourite on Capitol Hill, and the USAF’s relatively limited procurement of 187 airframes has often been subject to criticism.
To that end, Congress has repeatedly subverted USAF efforts to retire some older block F-22 Raptors, which service leaders say are less capable and require greater expense to maintain.
Lawmakers again put their collective foot down on any notion of reducing the F-22 fleet. The 2023 NDAA draft contains a hard prohibition on Raptor retirements and sets a firm fleet minimum of 184 aircraft.
The bill also requires the USAF to develop a plan for “avoiding the diminishing combat effectiveness of all block variants of F-22 aircraft”, and requires the service upgrade Block 20 Raptors to Block 30/35 capabilities.
The NDAA would allow the USAF to shrink its air tanker fleet to 466 aircraft, down from a previous requirement of 479. It would repeal an earlier limitation on retiring of Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers, but permit the service to retire 12 Stratotankers in the air force reserve.
The 2023 NDAA draft also seeks to give the DoD more leeway in contracting for development of a so-called “bridge tanker”, leaving open the possibility the programme could be awarded without a competition. It does so by dropping an earlier provision that would have required the USAF complete a “full and open competition”.
Known officially as the KC-Y programme, the bridge tanker is meant to be a transitional aircraft, serving during the period between the USAF’s operation of Boeing’s troubled KC-46 Pegasus (once known as KC-X) and service entry of a still-theoretical KC-Z refuelling aircraft to be delivered in the 2030s.
Lockheed has said it will propose its LMXT design for the KC-Y programme. The Lockheed jet would be built on an Airbus Defence & Space A330 multi-role tanker transport airframe. USAF officials have suggested that a modified KC-46 could adequately fill the KC-Y role.
Lockheed Martin C-130
The 2023 NDAA draft would require the USAF to maintain a minimum of 271 C-130 Hercules turboprop transports through at least 30 September 2023. The bill also prohibits the USAF from retiring C-130s with the ANG and reserve components.
The USAF operates about 330 C-130s, according to Cirium fleets data.
Congress is offering the USAF an incentive to modernise its ageing fleet of 707-based E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) jets.
The 2023 NDAA would prohibit E-3 retirements unless the USAF submits an acquisition strategy for the more-advanced Boeing E-7 Wedgetail. It would also allow the USAF reduce its Sentry fleet to as few as 18 aircraft – a nearly 50% reduction, according to Cirium data – if a contract is awarded for E-7 acquisition.
The Wedgetail is currently in service with the air forces of Australia, South Jorea and Turkey flying airborne early warning and control missions, with the UK also to receive three examples of the heavily modified 737NG.
Sikorsky HH-60W and CH-53K
In good news for Lockheed subsidiary Sikorsky, which recently lost its bid to produce the US Army’s Future Long Range Assault Aircraft, Congress will protect production of Sikorsky’s new combat search and rescue helicopter.
The USAF has plans to acquire up to 113 of the UH-60-derived Jolly Green II Combat Rescue Helicopters to replace its Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawks.
The 2023 NDAA would prohibit the use of any funds “to terminate the operations of, or to prepare to terminate the operations of, a production line” for the type.
The bill would also authorise the US Navy (USN) to enter into new fixed-price procurement contracts for the Sikorsky CH-53K heavy lift helicopter, which the service is acquiring for the US Marine Corps (USMC).
The US Navy’s fleet of EA-18G Growlers – modified Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets – provide airborne electronic attack support to the joint force.
The NDAA would mandate a minimum fleet of 158 EA-18Gs – the same number now operated by the USN, according to Cirium data. It would also direct the USN and USAF to develop a strategy “for continuously and effectively meeting the airborne electronic attack, training and combat requirements of the joint force”.
Additionally, the bill would require creation of a joint land-based electronic-attack aircraft squadron.
The NDAA draft would restrict the USAF from retiring 707-based E-6 Mercury airborne command aircraft, of which Cirium shows the USAF has 16. Without specifying types, the draft would stipulate that no E-6s may be retired until a suitable replacement reaches initial operating capability.
Lockheed Martin F-35
The Pentagon will continue adding to its tri-service fleet of fifth-generation Lockheed F-35 stealth fighters, and will in fact receive more jets than it requested. The NDAA agreement includes funding for 38 F-35As for the USAF, an increase of five over the service’s request for 33.
The USN also appears set to receive additional F-35Cs, with funding approved for 16 of the type; three additional compared to the presidential budget request.
As written, the NDAA would approve the USMC’s request for 15 short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs. The bill represents a total fiscal year procurement of 69 F-35 airframes.
House and Senate lawmakers did not agree on some aircraft programmes, which were noted in the NDAA’s legislative summary.
The NDAA draft does not, for instance, include a House proposal that the USN receive an additional $350 million to acquire more F-35Cs.
Congress also failed to agree on a rule prohibiting the USN from reducing its Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 85 (HSC-85), a reserve unit that provides expeditionary aviation support to special operations troops and maritime search and rescue. Jack McCain, son of the late senator and naval fighter pilot John McCain, is an aviator in HSC-85, which operates Sikorsky MH-60H Sea Hawks.
Following publication of the 2023 NDAA, McCain on Twitter described the squadron as bearing “the brunt of the Navy’s flying combat work and [special operations] support for 20 years”.
Story updated 13 December to include additional details on F-35 procurement figures included in the 2023 NDAA.