WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday urged the Air Force to temporarily shift some of its fighters from active-duty units to guard and reserve squadrons to maintain balance as the service retires older air frames.
The letter, which was signed by 16 senators and 27 representatives, asks Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to consider a concept called “fleet leveling” as a temporary solution to ensure the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve does not lose some of its fighter squadrons or experience.
“Absent intervention, the ANG is slated to lose two fighter missions in the next [few] years or will be forced to continue operating with older models,” the lawmakers wrote. Reps. John James, R-Mich. and Don Bacon, R-Neb., and Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., were the lead lawmakers on the letter.
The Air Force is in the process of retiring its fleet of rugged but aging A-10 Warthog attack aircraft by the end of this decade. Two guard squadrons will lose their A-10s in the process — the 107th Fighter Squadron at Michigan’s Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which is in James’s district, in 2027 and the 104th Fighter Squadron at Maryland’s Warfield Air National Guard Base in 2025 — but the Air Force has not yet identified an aircraft to replace them. Many of the lawmakers who signed the letter represent states or districts that could be affected by the retirements.
If the Warthogs there retire before a replacement fighter is found, James and the other lawmakers worry the squadrons at Selfridge and Warfield would lose their missions and lead to a loss of experienced, “combat-proven,” and hard-to-replace pilots, maintainers and support personnel.
Other signatories to the letter include Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Debbie Dingell, R-Mich., and Lisa McClain, R-Mich., as well as Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Ben Cardin, D-Md., and John Kennedy, R-La.
The Air Force has for years struggled to train and keep enough pilots and maintainers, and the lawmakers worry the problem could be exacerbated if these guard squadrons lose their Warthogs without a replacement mission. This would force the service to spend significant amounts of money and effort training replacements, they said.
“It takes more than a decade to produce an experienced fighter pilot,” they wrote. “Unlike the active component, closing [a guard or reserve] fighter squadron results in the permanent loss of hundreds of deeply experienced personnel. That experience, and the millions of taxpayer dollars invested to train them, are lost forever.”
Fleet leveling would be a “stopgap measure” to maintain the guard and reserves’ combat capacity while industry builds more fighters to replace the retiring jets, lawmakers said.
A temporary shift of fighters could also help reinforce other guard squadrons that fly older and outdated F-16s and F-15Cs, the lawmakers said.
“Should these pilots be called to service at the request of combatant commanders or our military at large, fleet leveling will ensure that these pilots are ready and able to answer the call,” they said.
Air National Guard director Lt. Gen. Michael Loh has also backed leveling the fighter fleet to strike a more even balance of jets across the service’s components. During a panel at the September 2022 Air Space Cyber conference hosted by the Air and Space Forces Association, Loh pointed out that the guard makes up 27% of the service’s fighter force, yet it has less than 7% of the service’s F-35s and less 11% of its F-22s.
“Right now, there’s huge pressure on the fighter fleet, and we’re at a capability and a capacity issue,” Loh said at the 2022 AFA. “How do we get after that? Level the fleet. … We’re sitting on A-10s, F-15Cs, [older] F-16s, both [the guard and reserve]. We need a strong, healthy recapitalization plan.”
Noah Sadler, a spokesman for James, said the congressman is trying to bring Boeing-made F-15EX Eagle II jets to Selfridge.
An amendment to the House’s version of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, which was proposed by James in July, would require the Air Force to buy two more F-15EXs and send them to a guard base without a replacement for its retiring Warthogs. The Senate’s NDAA does not have a similar provision, but James hopes it will end up in the final version.
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.