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Why Is Retiring Aircraft and Ships So Hard for Congress?

Lawmakers shouldn't stand in the Pentagon's way.

Words: Steve Ellis
Pictures: Aaron Burden

Lawmakers continue to curtail reasonable requests from Service Secretaries to retire weapon systems, chiefly aircraft, and ships. But if the Pentagon says it doesn’t need any more of something, or that the ones they have are no longer useful, lawmakers should not substitute their military judgment for that of the service chiefs making those requests.

This issue isn’t limited to just hardware. At an even more granular level, lawmakers prohibit the movement of certain units from one installation to another in efforts to protect home-state projects that might date back to the early Cold War days: an annual General Provision in the fiscal year 2023 Defense Appropriations bill prohibits, “relocating any organization, unit, activity or function of DOD into or within the National Capital Region.” Also tucked into the General Provisions of the appropriations bill each year is a prohibition on “disestablishing the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron of the Air Force Reserve.” That squadron is in Mississippi, for folks who are wondering. And Congress wants the Air Force Reserve to keep it there, reflecting the Magnolia State’s enduring ability to leverage congressional earmarks and appropriations to its benefit every year.

The Pentagon must not be viewed as a jobs program benefitting the states and congressional districts with the most powerful members representing them.

The FY23 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) also includes another prohibition on the “reduction of deployed and non-deployed strategic delivery vehicles and launchers.” That’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles for those uninitiated in the arcane language of appropriations bills and is to protect the viability of missile silos in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado, which we argue represents unwise congressional interference in Air Force operational decision-making.

For reasons like these, Taxpayers for Common Sense has a pro tip for budget watchdogs everywhere: always read the General Provisions. Furthermore, the Pentagon must not be viewed as a jobs program benefitting the states and congressional districts with the most powerful members representing them.


Congressional authorizers and appropriators use their powers to block retirements of military aircraft often. This can take the form of blunt-force language in the NDAA to statutorily forbid the reductions. It can also be done by a more surgical strike in a Pentagon spending bill. In an appropriations bill, beyond the prohibitions of General Provisions, lawmakers can also specifically deny the use of federal funds to take an action or even, in extreme cases, plan to take a particular action.

In the latest NDAA, the US Navy and the Air Force were both stymied regarding several aircraft retirements or inactivations. Legislators prohibited the navy from taking several actions relating to the EA-18G “Growler” aircraft in Section 121. Specifically, lawmakers prohibited the following: retirement of aircraft, reducing unit personnel or sustainment activities, placing an aircraft in storage or inactive status or in a status considered “excess to requirements.”

The legislation does make an exception for Growlers that are no longer mission capable. In the case of the E-6B aircraft, the Secretary of the Navy is prohibited from retiring or preparing to retire any of them. The Air Force was also allowed to retire or inactivate some of the airframes they requested, but not all. For instance, they were allowed to reduce the A-10 “Warthog” inventory by 18 airframes from 171 to 153. (For context, the Air Force requested a reduction of 21 airframes.)

However, the Air Force may not retire a single F-22 fighter, although the secretary requested an inventory reduction of 33 airframes. The Secretary of the Air Force is further prohibited from reducing funding for unit personnel, from declaring a F-22 in “excess to the requirements” or decreasing total aircraft inventory below 184 aircraft unless a plane is declared to be no longer mission capable. Other prohibitions disallow changes to the C-40 fleet (also prohibited by the Pentagon spending bill with an exception for aircraft that are no longer mission capable), HH-60Ws, E-3s, and F-15s.

The NDAA allows the Air Force to make force structure changes — though not necessarily all the requested changes — to Air Refueling Tankers, KC-135s, and C-130s. Some inventory changes, such as for the E-3 and KC-135 are allowed, but only after the Secretary of the Air Force submits a report or plan.


The final NDAA prohibits retiring several ships the navy wished to inactivate (besides the Littoral Combat Ships, which I’ll get to in a minute) and, for good measure, prohibits retiring others that the navy doesn’t seem to have requested. After much debate in the House of Representatives, the bill prohibits the retirement of more than four of the current inventory of the brand-new Littoral Combat Ship.

The final Pentagon spending bill goes further in one of those pesky General Provisions, and prohibits decommissioning five specific Littoral Combat Ships, meaning that only two Littoral Combat Ships in all may be retired as requested.

The ongoing debate about whether or not to retire brand-new Littoral Combat Ships pits Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Michael Gilday, who believes many of the ships cannot meet their specific missions, against parochial concerns of lawmakers representing contractors who built the ships or the homeports where the ships are located.


CNO Gilday testified last year and said:

“[T]he primary reason why the nine LCS [Littoral Combat Ship] ships [are on] the retirement list has to do with an anti-submarine warfare system. That was the primary battery, main battery, of that ship, that did not work out technically. So after about a year and a half study, I refuse to put an additional dollar against a system that wouldn’t be able to track a high-end submarine in today’s environment.”

And that’s the crux of the argument to allow the retirement of legacy systems: maintaining systems that can no longer do their mission (or never could in the case of Littoral Combat Ships), while still buying the systems to replace them, is the opposite of fiscal responsibility.

In those rare cases where the Pentagon wants to divest a weapon system, lawmakers should get out of the way.

Steve Ellis

Steve Ellis is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which is a nonpartisan budget watchdog that has served as an independent voice for the American taxpayer since 1995. It works to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and that government operates within its means.

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