F-22 Raptors assigned to the 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. arrives at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England Oct. 5, 2018.

F-22 Raptors assigned to the 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. arrives at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England Oct. 5, 2018. U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew

Congress moves to save F-22s from the boneyard, once again

The compromise defense policy bill sets the USAF’s minimum fighter inventory at 1,112 planes.

Lawmakers are set to block the Air Force’s request to retire older F-22 Raptors, despite pleas from the service that it would cost too much money to get them battle-ready.

This is the second straight year Congress has denied the entreaty. Service officials have argued that Block 20 F-22s lack crucial modern weapons and would require billions of dollars to get them up to speed. Officials wanted to put the money toward the Next Generation Air Dominance program, its new, secretive fighter jet.

Congress released its $886 billion compromise defense policy bill late Wednesday night after weeks of negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers.  

The F-22 retirements were part of a larger Air Force proposal to shed more than 300 of its aircraft in fiscal 2024 and use the money for higher-end technology. The bill greenlights at least some of the other retirements, including of A-10 Warthogs and F-15C and -D fighters.

The defense policy bill also puts limits on several other Air Force divestment plans, including F-15Es, and requires the service maintain a total fighter inventory of at least 1,112 aircraft.

Congress is requiring a number of updates on the Air Force’s effort to build drone wingmen, known as collaborative combat aircraft, or CCAs. The bill requires Air Force and Navy secretaries to provide specific information on the key milestones and cost estimates for the program. 

Lawmakers also included several provisions on the Air Force’s troubled tanker program, the KC-46 Pegasus, in an attempt to keep the various fixes for the program on track. 

As the Air Force waits for its tankers to be fixed, Israel, which ordered four KC-46s from Boeing, is also waiting for its tankers to arrive. The bill asks for the Pentagon to look at any ways it can expedite the delivery to Israel and requires the Defense Secretary to consider deploying U.S. KC-46 aircraft to Israel.

The bill text puts a hold on the Air Force’s final acquisition strategy for its next purchase of tankers until it gives lawmakers “an updated tanker roadmap timeline to include procurement of the Next Generation Air Refueling System; the business case analysis of the Air Force; for the KC-135 recapitalization program; validated requirements from the joint staff for the contract competition under the KC-135 recapitalization program,” according to bill text.   

Lawmakers also included a provision to keep the Lockheed Martin production line going for the HH-60W combat rescue helicopter—a program the Air Force has truncated. The service has argued that these helicopters are “not particularly helpful in the Chinese” area of responsibility.

A vote on the defense policy bill is expected soon, first by the Senate and then the House, in hopes President Biden will sign it before the end of the year.