Navy, Air Force defend plans to retire planes and ships

Lawmakers worry it could leave the Pentagon unprepared for a near-term conflict

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said lawmakers are skeptical of retiring weapons built in their states. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said lawmakers are skeptical of retiring weapons built in their states. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 21, 2021 at 2:28pm

Retiring almost $3 billion worth of planes and ships is driven by both the need to invest in future capabilities and to get rid of equipment well past its service life, Air Force and Navy leaders told members of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on Wednesday.

The Air Force is seeking to divest $1.37 billion worth of equipment in fiscal 2022, including 42 A-10s, 48 F-15C/D and 47 F-16C/D model fighters as well as 14 KC-10 and 18 KC-135 tankers and 13 C-130H transports, while the Navy wants to retire $1.26 billion in assets, including two Ticonderoga-class cruisers and four littoral combat ships, according to the Defense Department’s budget request.

Retiring current assets to invest in future capabilities produces a familiar tension between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are leery of being caught unprepared if a sudden conflict emerges in order to finance the needs of a potential future one. Additionally, members of Congress tend to favor existing programs that produce reliable, good-paying jobs in their states and districts, even if the Pentagon says it no longer needs the end product.

“There's not a member of this committee that doesn't get pressure from other members who serve in the Senate to keep some of these systems," said Jon Tester, the Montana Democrat who chairs the Defense Subcommittee.

The Air Force’s decisions are based on extensive wargaming and modeling to figure out what its future inventory needs to look like to meet the future threat, said Lt. Gen. David Nahom, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs. Some older, “legacy” platforms won’t be useful in a future fight, even if they are potentially useful today.

The people piece

The average age of a plane in the Air Force’s fleet is 29 years old, Nahom said. Trying to extend the use of aircraft beyond their intended service life is expensive and uses up the time of maintainers that could be better used elsewhere, “a highly valuable resource we cannot afford to waste,” he said. Forty-four percent of the Air Force’s current fleet is already flying beyond its projected service life, he said.

Part of the challenge is the need to dedicate resources to programs under development to make sure they are ready when expected, he said.

Especially in recent years, new programs have tended to run into delays and cost overruns, which can eat up resources that are badly needed elsewhere.

Nahom cited the F-35, the Pentagon’s fifth generation fighter jet, as an example of this phenomenon. In 2010, Air Force planners expected to have almost 1,000 F-35s in active service by now, when the actual number is closer to 300. To fill the gap, the Air Force has upgraded some older fighters, extended the service life of others, and tried to maintain a capable fleet today while building the fleet it will need in the future, he said.

The B-21 stealth bomber isn’t expected to be ready until the 2030s, he noted, but it will play a key role, so it is important to prioritize the necessary funding to keep it on track.

“While painful, it is better to accept risk today when we have the ability, compared to the future when we may not have that luxury. Through that lens, and from our perspective, these divestitures are less about what we lose and more about what we gain,” Nahom said.

The Navy undergoes a similar process, and bases its decisions on fleet makeup on wargames and a model-based systems engineering approach, said Vice Admiral James Kirby, deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities.

“These new technologies are hard to develop,” Kirby said. “It’s not that the things we are talking about divesting aren’t valuable. They are valuable. They’re just less valuable than the things we need to invest in to have a capable force.”

Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the panel’s top Republican, wondered if a bigger budget would allow the Pentagon to reduce the number of retirements it envisions.

It’s not just a matter of more money, Nahom answered. The skilled maintainers and pilots who are repairing and flying older planes like the A-10 and F-16s today are needed on F-35s tomorrow.

“We’ve got to divest some, otherwise we run into a huge manpower problem,” he said. “The money is interesting, and very important, but the people piece is actually where I think is the most difficulty when you are talking about additional resources.”