House Republican appropriators pushed back hard Friday against the Air Force’s proposal to retire scores of aircraft in the next fiscal year — in some cases long before newer models will be available to replace them.
The $194 billion fiscal 2023 budget request for the Air Force would be substantial — a 7 percent hike over the fiscal 2022 enacted level. The Air Force’s share is $169.5 billion, and the Space Force’s is $24.5 billion.
The service would buy dozens of new aircraft and other systems, including the first of its fleet of B-21 Raider nuclear-capable bombers.
But Republicans on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense were more focused Friday on the Air Force’s proposal to retire in fiscal 2023 some 150 aircraft and send 100 MQ-9 Reaper drones to another, unnamed government agency, which could mean the CIA.
At the House panel’s hearing, GOP members made the case that it is too risky to retire large numbers of planes before the service knows that more modern replacements are coming on line.
GOP members of the Defense panel put hard questions about these decisions to the Air Force’s leaders: Secretary Frank Kendall, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond.
For example, Ken Calvert of California, the subcommittee’s top Republican, said he was “deeply troubled” by the overall Defense Department budget request. He criticized, in particular, the Reaper decision and a proposed slashing of 33 F-22 fighter jets from the inventory.
Kay Granger of Texas, the ranking Republican on the full House Appropriations Committee, asked skeptical questions about the Air Force’s decision to request just 33 F-35A fighter jets, almost half the level Congress has been ordering in recent years. The F-35 final assembly occurs at a plant in her district, and some of the jets will be based there as well.
Republicans Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Steve Womack of Arkansas took aim at the Air Force’s proposal to retire 15 of its 31 E-3 AWACS early-warning aircraft as it prepares to welcome the likely replacement, the E-7 Wedgetail — but not for another four years.
Arizona Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, whose district is home to 89 A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, argued in favor of continuing to rely on A-10s, which are known as “Warthogs,” and replacing their wings to modernize them.
The Air Force, by contrast, has fought Congress unsuccessfully for years to phase out the planes. On Friday, Brown said the Air Force removed A-10s from Syria because of concerns that they could be taken out by Russian aircraft.
The A-10 “is not survivable against modern threats,” Kendall said.
For fiscal 2023, the service wants to retire 21 Air National Guard A-10s from Fort Wayne, Ind. The Air Force leaders tried to explain that enemy anti-aircraft missiles could easily shoot down AWACS aircraft, just as these missiles can threaten A-10s.
Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum, the panel’s chair, backed up the service’s proposed retirements.
“This is a bold plan, and I am with you on that,” she told the Air Force brass at the outset of the hearing.
The Republicans, for their part, said they are not opposed to modernizing the service’s aircraft. Rather, they said, they worry that a capability gap will arise between old programs and new ones — and, they contended, this risk is being taken merely for lack of money.
Cole made that point with respect to retiring almost half the AWACS aircraft before the replacement plane is ready.
“This idea of retiring this many now and hoping that we’ll have what we need in four years is a big risk to me — and one that I think is not wise to take,” Cole said. “Again, we are putting you in that spot, in my view, by not giving you the budget that you need to add capabilities or replace capabilities in a timely fashion.”
Womack concurred: “I do believe we need to increase spending in order to buy down some of that risk.”
Texas Republican John Carter made a similar point.
“It looks like you’re just taking down an awful lot of platforms in hopes that we get to the future quickly, but our history is, we don’t,” Carter said.
In the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress allowed the Air Force to retire a substantial number of aircraft: 160, although the law barred retirement of A-10s.
Judging from the sound of lawmakers so far this year, Congress may not be quite so open to jettisoning older aircraft in the forthcoming fiscal 2023 authorization and appropriations bills.