WATCH: Kelly Chairs Airland Subcommittee Hearing on Air Force Modernization

This week, Arizona Senator and combat pilot Mark Kelly, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee, highlighted the challenges facing the Air Force as it seeks to modernize during a hearing to review the service’s annual budget proposal.  

In his opening remarks, Kelly emphasized the need for a modernized force to maintain the capabilities required to respond effectively to current threats facing our country. He also pressed Air Force leaders about sustainment costs for the F-35, delays in their tanker programs, concerns about the Air Force’s plan to truncate the HH-60W program, and other challenges. 

“We should not understate the difficulty of the tradeoffs that have been made as you seek to modernize our forces to maintain our competitive edge with our most advanced adversaries, while also maintaining necessary capabilities to respond to the threats that we face today,” said Kelly during his opening remarks

Sen. Kelly delivers remarks during a Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee hearing 

Click here for the full hearing. Click here to download the video of his opening remarks. See below for a complete transcript of his opening remarks: 

Sen. Kelly: The hearing will come to order.   

I want to welcome our witnesses and give you our thanks for testifying in front of this Subcommittee today. General Spain, General Harris, welcome. Secretary Hunter, General Moore, welcome back.  

The budget request in front of us today was developed under the tight constraints of the Fiscal Responsibility Act. And some of your sister services were pushed into even more painful decisions than the Airforce had to make, but we should not understate the difficultly of the tradeoffs that have been made as you seek to modernize our forces to maintain our competitive edge with our most advanced adversaries, while also maintaining necessary capabilities to respond to the threats that we face today.  

Perhaps most notable is that the Air Force has proposed to divest 250 aircraft in fiscal year 2025. Now, each of these proposed divestments has their own arguments for and against, but the broader picture is an Air Force that is shrinking. It’s an Air Force that’s forgoing the modernization of some legacy platforms, including F-15, F-16, and F-22, and directly divesting of others, in order to invest in fielding a highly capable future force. The details of that highly capable future force—and the threat that is driving you there—are difficult to talk about in an unclassified setting. But what we can say is it will be a smaller but better force that is betting on future programs like Collaborative Combat Aircraft to reach the capacity we will need.  

In addition to risks in these modernization plans themselves, we need to be up front about the risks we are taking to get there. This year’s budget request proposes to retire 190 fighters and attack aircraft and procure only 60. That would be 130 fewer tactical aircraft for pilots to maintain proficiency and 130 fewer aircraft across which to spread those flight hours. That would mean 130 fewer tactical aircraft to provide forces to meet the combatant commander’s needs. And I see no reason to believe that these demands will fall for the foreseeable future.   

The merits of each proposed divestment must be considered separately, not all aircraft are created equal, and those disparities only grow over decades of service life.  

We do understand the pressures the Air Force is under in the procurement account and elsewhere. Two of the three legs of the nuclear triad are under your umbrella, presenting an enormous, fixed wedge in your plans. And of course, the other side does get a vote. The most stressing threats don’t lend themselves to incremental improvements, let alone standing still.    

Finally, the Air Force is embarking on a significant structure overhaul to optimize itself for Great Power Competition. The ambition is laudable, and I look forward to hearing your testimony on your vision for these efforts.  

I look forward to hearing from our Air Force witnesses about the challenges and opportunities they face in modernizing the Air Force, as we finish our scheduled hearings before we mark up the DOD authorization request. Anywhere we look in the Air Force program, we can see tradeoffs that are being made in this request between strategy and budget. That includes with the Compass Call aircraft, where we are replacing the current fleet with a smaller number of upgraded aircraft that won’t be delivered until 2029.    

It also includes the Air Force’s plan that would have truncated the HH-60 Whisky program after fiscal year 2023.  We need to hear how this reduction in the inventory objective for these forces would affect the Air Force’s ability to rescue downed pilots and aircrews in future conflicts.

I am especially interested in hearing from the witnesses how the Air Force plans to manage its multiple modernization programs in ways that expeditiously deliver the capabilities our warfighters need, while protecting taxpayer dollars and avoiding too much risk to supporting combatant commander requirements. These should include the F-35 fighter; the B-21 bomber; the KC-46 tanker; and a new program to procure “Wedgetail” aircraft to replace some of the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft; also the Advanced Air Battle Management System, or ABMS, which seeks to replace the E-8 JSTARS capability, and is the Air Force’s contribution to the Defense Department’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) program.      

The F-35, the core of the tactical air forces for the next few decades, has very real availability, affordability, and modernization challenges. It seems the Air Force has recently made some hard decisions when it comes to F-35 upgrade efforts, accepting a diminished capability in order to hopefully regain at least some momentum and avoid parking a large number of jets while the TR-3 software matures.  

It also sounds like the Air Force is doing some hard prioritization on Block 4 capabilities to bring the schedule back to where it needs to be, but whatever that capability set is going to be, it needs to be locked in soon, so we understand what the demands are going to be on the engine and cooling systems of the aircraft.   

Finally, we need to ensure that subsequent Air Force investments yield the capabilities necessary to compete in any future conflicts, such as hypersonic missiles, the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, and others. We cannot ignore needs to recapitalize other existing capabilities that give our forces a competitive edge, such as our tanker forces. We will also take into account such lower visibility, but very important capabilities such as the investments we need to make to ensure adequacy of training ranges for our 5th generation fighters and other next generation systems.  

I’m going to stop there and get to our questions, but I want to thank our witnesses again for their service and for appearing before the committee.