Tactical

House defense bill pushes US Air Force on jet trainer availability

WASHINGTON — The House’s proposed version of the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act includes provisions that would push the Air Force to make available more pilot training aircraft — both old and new — and tap the brakes on some future fighter retirements.

The bill, which the House Armed Services Committee advanced early Thursday, includes an amendment from Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, that would aim to speed up the Air Force’s acquisition of the delayed T-7A Red Hawk training aircraft.

The committee wants a briefing by next March from Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall on how it might speed up procurement and fielding of the T-7 and its simulator training systems. This should include consideration of speeding up a Milestone C production decision, identification of additional authorities or resources that would be needed, and a list of what might be holding the Air Force back from accelerating the timeline, the amendment said.

The Boeing-made T-7, which has struggled with safety problems and schedule and testing delays, is now expected to reach initial operational capability in spring 2027, three years later than originally planned.

And with the T-7 years away from training new pilots, the Air Force will keep flying longer the older T-38 Talon, which the T-7 is meant to replace.

But the T-38 is also plagued by an ongoing shortage of its J85 engines, and lawmakers raised concerns over its consequences. These engine backlogs are worsening the Air Force’s current pilot shortfall, the bill says, because it restricts how many sorties the T-38 can fly and the number of new pilots the service can train.

The bill would require a briefing from Kendall by the end of January 2024 on the status of the T-38 fleet and its engines. This briefing should include airworthiness and readiness rates for the T-38 and its engines, a strategic maintenance plan for the T-38 and information on how the T-7′s delays have affected the Talon and how the Air Force plans to increase the number of sorties the T-38 can fly to produce more pilots.

An amendment to the bill would also restrict the Air Force’s ability to retire F-16 Fighting Falcon jets until the service provides more information on its future plans for the fighters, although the Air Force is not planning to retire F-16s in 2024.

Lawmakers want Kendall to send them a report spelling out any plans to divest F-16C or D fighters during the most recent future years defense program. And beginning in 2024, the Air Force would not be able to divest or prepare to divest any of those fighters until six months after the delivery of this report, the amendment said.

An amendment from Rep. Don Bacon, R-Nebraska, would also prevent the Air Force from ending the fighter mission of any Air National Guard fighter squadrons until 180 days after submitting a plan for recapitalizing all such squadrons.

This plan should lay out options for modernizing these guard fighter squadrons and replacing their aircraft with relevant and more capable fighters, the amendment said, and make sure each squadron has the required minimum number of fighters to meet the needs of combatant commanders.

The amendment also said the plan should consider temporarily reassigning fighters from other components of the Air Force to the guard squadrons, when necessary. Lawmakers also want to hear what funding would be needed to put this plan in place.

And the bill would continue to prevent the Air Force from using any funds to terminate, or get ready to terminate, the production line for the HH-60W Jolly Green II combat rescue helicopter.

The Air Force originally planned to buy 113 of the Sikorsky-made HH-60Ws. But as the service grew concerned a traditional search-and-rescue helicopter would be too easily shot down in a highly contested combat zone in a future war, the service sought to scale back that total purchase to 75, with the final 10 procurements in 2023.

Lawmakers last year bumped up the Air Force’s planned HH-60W procurement by another 10 helicopters and moved to stop the service from winding down its production line. If this provision again makes it into law, it would hold open the possibility of building more Whiskeys, as the helicopter is nicknamed.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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