The NDAA and the Air Force: A Preliminary Look
Any document with a 23-page table of contents is going to be a challenge, not just to the everyday citizen but to someone who spends time analyzing.
Exactly such a challenge is posed by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2013, passed by the lame-duck 112th Congress on New Year’s Eve and signed by President Barack Obama on Jan. 3.
Perhaps Otto von Bismarck is quoted too often on this point, but he was right: “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.”
It’s not so easy to read them after they’re made, either.
What stands out about the NDAA as it relates to the Air Force is that the law, which covers fiscal year 2013 ending Sept. 30, bears no resemblance to the Obama administration’s budget proposal, made nearly a year ago, covering the same period. The budget proposal process is extensive, requiring months of work by hundreds of people in several agencies. It even includes preparation of separate shopping lists for what the service branches think they can afford and for what they think they can’t. Much of it is often for naught.
Despite strains between the active-duty Air Force and the Air National Guard (ANG), the administration wanted to dispose of its Guard-only C-27J Spartan tactical airlifters: the program of record is for 36 C-27Js, of which 21 have been paid for and 16 delivered. Air Force leaders want to retire them all, along with 16 C-130 Hercules airlifters seen as excess to current force structure needs.
The NDAA says no, without naming the C-27J or C-130. “During fiscal year 2013, the Secretary of the Air Force shall retain an additional 32 fixed-wing, intra-theater airlift aircraft beyond the number of such aircraft proposed to be retained in the Secretary’s total force structure proposal provided to the congressional defense committees on November 2, 2012.”
This will mean the ANG will continue to operate units like its 179th Airlift Wing in Mansfield, Ohio, which has a full inventory strength of four C-27Js. By tradition, an airlift wing in the past would have had 45 to 60 aircraft. While observers agree that the Guard does a superb job employing its assets – the 179th has been to Afghanistan with the C-27J – some analysts argue that the United States simply has far more military units and installations than its force-structure plans call for.
As an economy measure and to avoid redundancy with the U-2 “Dragon Lady” reconnaissance aircraft, the administration’s budget proposal called for retirement of RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 30 unmanned aircraft systems. The move would not have affected other versions of the Global Hawk in use with the military. Again, the NDAA says no. The USAF will not be permitted to retire the RQ-4Bs. For a variety of practical reasons, it will also be unable to use them to completely replace the U-2.
The NDAA requires the USAF to “maintain a total aircraft inventory of strategic airlift aircraft of not less than 275 aircraft.” That’s a nod to supporters of both the C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III, which have been rivals for funding for many years, but a decline from the figure of 316 mandated in 2010, when it was not yet clear that C-17 production for the USAF was ending. According to the Air Force Almanac, the service has 94 C-5s (42 C-5A, 43 C-5B, two C-5C, seven C-5M) and 212 C-17s (of 223 projected) for a total of 306 airframes.
Air Force leaders would like to hasten the upgrade program that will give it more modernized C-5M versions but would also like to put to pasture a couple of dozen of its oldest and costliest-to-operate C-5A models, which date to the mid-1960s. The NDAA permits neither. The act instructs the service to take any older C-5s (meaning C-5A models) that might be removed from duty and to keep them “stored in flyable condition” so that they “can be returned to service.” It prohibits using the older C-5s “to supply parts to other aircraft” under most conditions.
The NDAA also prohibits something the USAF hasn’t recommended – retirement of more than six B-1B Lancer bombers. The service must maintain 36 as combat-coded B-1Bs. Most airmen praise the newfound flexibility of the B-1B, but would like to make the fleet leaner to cut operating and maintenance costs.
The NDAA restricts the service from canceling or modifying the controversial Avionic Modernization Program (AMP) for the C-130 Hercules airlifter, although AMP is seriously over budget and behind schedule. The effort to modernize and standardize cockpits of older C-130s has run into one obstacle after another. Some in the Air Staff would like to scrap AMP and issue a new contract to update the Hercules fleet.
The NDAA requires the Air Force and Navy to provide Congress with “initial operating capability” dates for the F-35A, F-35B and F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. This may be a sign of impatience with a program that is finally starting to take off: training of F-35A and F-35B pilots is under way at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and a nearly operational-standard F-35B has been delivered to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.
The NDAA specifies that the “next- generation long-range strike bomber” be nuclear capable and be certified to use nuclear weapons within two years after initial operating capability. This seems to amount to a stamp of approval for Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh’s request for a new bomber, but the act is vague about funding.
The NDAA requires within 180 days of passage a report on education and training and promotion rates for Air Force pilots of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). This is a response to drone pilots and sensor operators who often view themselves as second-class citizens behind crewmembers of manned aircraft.
The act establishes a “National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force” to have members appointed by both the executive and legislative branches. “The Commission shall undertake a comprehensive study of the structure of the Air Force to determine whether, and how, the structure should be modified to best fulfill current and anticipated mission requirements for the Air Force in a manner consistent with available resources.” The intent clearly is to contribute to better relations between the active-duty USAF and the reserve component, which consists of Air Force Reserve Command and the Air National Guard. The commission will owe a report to the president and Congress on Feb. 1, 2014. Separately the bill establishes new positions for assistants to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for National Guard and Reserve matters. Some observers would argue that the JCS staff is large enough already.
Missing from the NDAA is any language about the five squadrons of about 110 A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter-bombers the Air Force has been intending to retire. Members of the affected A-10 units say they expect to lose their aircraft essentially because the NDAA did not save them. Welsh has promised a visit to the A-10 units to help ease the pain.
Meanwhile, the administration is hard at work on its fiscal year 2014 budget request.