HASC Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces 8 June Hearing
On 8 June, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, led by chairman Rep. Joe Courtney, held a hearing on “Air Force Projection Forces Aviation Programs and Capabilities Related to the 2022 President’s Budget Request.” Ms. Darlene Costello, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technologies and Logistics, Lieutenant General David S. Nahom, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs and Lieutenant General S. Clinton Hinote, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration and Requirements were in attendance as witnesses. In their presentation to the Subcommittee, the witnesses provided an overview of current and future platforms and capabilities. Their presentation highlighted a smarter, faster acquisition process that brings integrated and adaptable systems into the fold, achieving an integrated approach for the Air Force.
According the witnesses, for the United States to project power across both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, a fleet of tanker aircraft is essential. In line with the purview of the Subcommittee, much of the hearing centered on concerns over the KC-46A Pegasus tanker and its numerous existing shortcomings. (The FY 2022 budget calls for the procurement of 14 additional KC-46As.) The service aims to have a dual tanker fleet of KC-135s and KC-46s, divesting from the KC-10. In his opening remarks, Ranking Member Wittman highlighted the platform’s struggles “to date, the KC-46A has problems holding the fuel it has, delivering fuel it provides, and in some cases, has the potential to severely damage receiving aircraft.” Ranking Member Wittman identified the contract structure as an important flaw, highlighting several other issues with the program, including spares costs, and called for a contract review. Ms. Costello remarked that while the contract structure could have been done better, it would be more costly to re-do today.
Both witnesses and Subcommittee members commented on the Strategic bombing modernization, diving into the “divest to invest” theme of the FY 2022 budget. It was made clear that risk is not equivalent across Air Force portfolios. When discussing the seventeen B-1 bombers designated for retirement to generate funds for the B-21 program, Lt Gen Nahom pointed out that the Air Force looked for the oldest and most labor-intensive aircraft to divest so that the existing manpower and resources can be focused on maximizing the remaining forty-five B-1s, offering a better level of readiness to combatant commanders. Questions about the B-52 engine modernization program were raised, and Ms. Costello highlighted that virtual prototyping will be used to ensure the viability of using a transformed commercial engine for the B-52. Ms. Costello also reiterated that the most important strategic bombing effort is to get the B-21 design confirmed and into production.
Members raised concerns over tactical airlift capabilities and the sacrificing of Air National Guard readiness to serve active force needs. In addressing these concerns, Lt Gen Nahom asserted that the Air Force looks at the whole of the force and does not make reserve sacrifices for the benefit of the active. Regarding tactical lift, witnesses said the Air Force is future-focused, and is looking at vertical lift, a capability that requires shorter runways and is harder to target. In a contested environment, this would be a valuable survivability advantage. As well, a new vertical lift capability for the service could play a significant role in Air National Guard responsibilities and missions down the road.
Questions about electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) threats from great power competition prompted witnesses to point out that the Air Force is taking an incremental view to advances in EMS and the Air Battle Management System (ABMS), the Air Force’s component of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) concept. As well, the F-22, F-35, and KC-46 are to be the core of power projection for the joint force, and accordingly, will be built into ABMS. Regarding the EMS wing, there are lots of new tools in the pipeline and the Air Force is interested in creating a more programmed, “on the fly” EMS capability.