WASHINGTON — The Air Force would be allowed to cut aerial refueling tankers in the initial draft of the National Defense Authorization Act that a House Armed Services subcommittee will consider this week — though not as many as the service had hoped.

In a briefing with reporters Monday, committee aides for the HASC seapower and projection forces subcommittee said the proposed 2023 NDAA would lower the minimum number of tankers the Air Force is required to have in its fleet, from the current level of 479 to 466. The subcommittee is scheduled to mark up its section of the bill Wednesday.

A U.S. Transportation Command study in 2018 found that if war were to break out, the military would need at least 479 tankers in its fleet. Congress wrote that number into law when it passed 2019′s NDAA.

But the Air Force is trying to trim multiple aircraft in its fleet to free up resources to modernize elsewhere. Last week, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said at a Heritage Foundation event the service would ask Congress to lower its tanker requirement to 455, which he said would be “adequate” to respond to a threat from China as well as other missions.

The proposed tanker number in the House NDAA would essentially split the difference.

The Air Force is now bringing on the KC-46A Pegasus tanker to replace the older KC-10 Extender and KC-135 Stratotanker. The service’s proposed 2023 budget would leave the overall number of tankers unchanged at 483, with 24 new KC-46s replacing 10 retiring KC-10s and 14 retiring KC-135s.

But if this provision makes it into the final version of the NDAA, it would open the door to further tanker cuts.

The proposed section of the NDAA would also grant the Air Force’s request in its proposed 2023 budget to cut its C-130 fleet from 279 to 271. The Air Force is aiming to retire older C-130H Hercules transport aircraft at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, while replacing some with newer C-130J Super Hercules.

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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