U.S. Air Force pilots are flying some planes so old they were built during the Eisenhower administration, and Congress is delaying new appropriations to modernize America’s aging fighters, bombers, and other military aircraft.
The average age of today’s Air Force fleet is 24 years.
Big B-52 bombers, which played a critical role in America’s recent efforts to liberate Iraq and stabilize Afghanistan, are over 45 years old.
Worse, many of these bombers rely on KC-135 aerial refueling tankers that are just as old.
The U.S. military critically depends on C-130 cargo planes for rapid deployment. Yet these planes -- many built at least 25 years ago -- are crippled by serious wing cracks and have been grounded or restricted in the loads they can deliver. Giant tank-carrying C-5A cargo aircraft -- about 35 years old -- are also parked on runways owing to heavy maintenance requirements.
The bottom line: The United States is fighting the war on terror with an old and rapidly aging Air Force warplane inventory -- and there is no quick cure in sight.
The results can be catastrophic.
In 2002, Maj. James Duricy was killed after ejecting from his F-15 when the warplane lost part of its tail while flying over the Gulf of Mexico. The F-15 was about 30 years old. An investigation showed that part of the old aircraft’s internal structure had corroded. Eventually, the vertical stabilizers had to be replaced on almost half of the U.S. Air Force’s F-15 fleet.
The Duricy was a victim of what military experts call the “weapon systems procurement holidays of the 1990s” – when the U.S. government took advantage of the end of the Cold War, called it a “peace dividend” and didn’t appropriate the necessary funds to modernize its aging fleet of military planes.
And the procurement curve of new hardware, particularly in the fighter department, cannot keep up.
According to a recent report in Air Force Magazine, even if the Air Force gets all the new fighters on its wish list -- 381 F-22 Raptors and 1,763 F-35 Lightning IIs -- for decades it will still have to rely on a record number of older fighters to meet the contingencies of national defense.
By sheer necessity, the USAF must lengthen the service lives of its 1980s-vintage fighters -- F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s -- with substantial structural changes and new state-of-the-art black boxes.
We are not talking about squeezing two or three more years out of the aging fleet, but keeping some of the refurbished warplanes serving until the 2030s -- meaning pilots could then be flying jets 50 years old or older.
It’s one thing to burn through taxpayer dollars to keep vital, albeit old, warplanes in the air -- and another to simply toss good money after bad on planes that will not fly. So argues U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a member of the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee.
The lawmaker says the Air Force reported spending about $4 million daily and $1.7 billion annually to maintain 330 aircraft “they can’t use and are not planning to use.”
Included are a mix of ancient KC-135 tankers, C-130 air lifters, F-117 fighters, U-2 reconnaissance planes, and C-5As.
It’s not the Air Force brass’s idea to nurse along this old iron. Restrictions on retiring the nation’s oldest aircraft are written into law -- thanks to some members of Congress who worried that deep-sixing the planes would make bases in their district or state targets for the dreaded base closing process.
Predictably, the old aircraft also provide lucrative jobs for defense contractors.
U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., for instance, lobbies hard for continuation of the effort to modernize the oldest C-5s, which is performed at a Georgia-based Lockheed Martin Corp. factory. The price tag for upgrading each C-5 is about $75 million.
In another example of parochial interests perhaps overriding the big picture, Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee chairwoman Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., has urged retention of the C-5s based at Travis Air Force Base in her district.
Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., the ranking member of the Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, has been the most vocal proponent of letting the Air Force manage its own inventory of warplanes.
“Congress has been micromanaging the Air Force,” the lawmaker argues. “Several provisions in the 2007 defense authorization law bar the Air Force from getting rid of old planes.
“One requires the service to have a total of 299 C-5s and C-17s available at all times. The Air Force is also prohibited from retiring more than 29 KC-130Es in 2007 and must maintain tankers and F-117A fighters retired after Sept. 30, 2006, ‘in a condition which would allow recall to future service.’
These provisions tie up parts that could be used to repair planes in better working order. They also force maintenance crews to care for aircraft that will never fly again.”
Akin endorses the straightforward plea of Lt. Gen. Donald Hoffman, the military deputy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, who recently told lawmakers: “We would like permission, as the other services have, to manage our fleet.”
In the meantime, the embattled Air Force has had to resort to self-help. According to Gen. Bruce Carlson, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command, the service will be downsizing the number of its personnel so it can afford to invest in newer aircraft. On the boards: a plan to cut the ranks by 57,500 airmen by 2011.
The savings from the force reduction will be invested in new aircraft, said Carlson, who explained: “We simply have to recapitalize the fleet to be ready to fight the next war.”
Why the drastic measures? The answer can be easily gleaned from some dire numbers.
Today, more than 800 aircraft -- 14 percent of the fleet -- are grounded or operating under restricted flying conditions. This fact has had an impact on overall combat readiness, which has declined by 17 percent, according to Maj. Gen. Frank Faykes, deputy assistant secretary for budget, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Financial Management.
The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review spelled out that the Air Force must have 86 combat wings to do its job. According to USAF officials, it has about 81 combat wings’ worth of forces now.
To help get up to snuff, the Air Force says it needs, among a host of things, 1,763 F-35s to replace the F-16 and A-10. But the pace at which F-35s will come online is troublesome.
As F-16s pass their planned life expectancy and must retire, the new F-35s won’t appear in operational service for another six years.
Furthermore, USAF budget documents indicate that the service can afford only 48 F-35s a year over the FYDP (Future Years Defense Program). If that number is not ramped up, it will take about 40 years to buy all the F-35s required.
Meanwhile, the expensive patch-and-fix of the so-called “legacy” aircraft grinds on, and there’s nothing simplistic or cheap about it.
A good example is the F-15. Even though the USAF will replace a large portion of F-15Cs with the F-22 Raptor, the service will still need to supplement the F-22s with the F-15 beyond 2025.
By that time, the F-15 will have been in service for more than 50 years, and those still in the air will be more than 35 years old, according to Air Force Magazine.
Selected F-15s will undergo expensive renovations that include replacing the aircraft’s analog radar; installing a new combined Global Positioning System/Inertial Navigation System; new radios; digital video recorder; new identification, friend or foe systems; and a helmet-mounted targeting system.
Add to the package new Pratt & Whitney engines, new wiring, new ribbing under weapons stations, and tinkering with the flight-control system.
Remember those tank-killing A-10 “Warthogs” that blasted Saddam Hussein’s forces in the Gulf War? They’ve been in the U.S. inventory since 1975.
Some 223 are getting all-new wings, with replaced flight controls, new fuel pumps for the fuel tanks in the wings, and new wiring.
The workhorse F-16s have proved more nettlesome in the service-life extension process. The structural upgrade replaces some bulkheads, wing skins, and other pieces, but there’s a built-in limit on remanufacturing. The F-16 is made with large amounts of composite materials, designed for a certain life expectancy.
And even that life expectancy has been pushed beyond the envelope. Originally expected to be flying about 250 hours a year, those aircraft deployed to combat have averaged 300 hours per year or more.
All of which means that until scores of new aircraft are procured, many pilots will continue to fly jets that were built before they were born.
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