Below are some excerpts from a recent Defense Industry Daily report on aging aircraft in the USAF. It is a good summary of the problems facing the Air Force in this regard. It also provides a great deal of links to other articles covering the issue.

  • Aging Array of American Aircraft Attracting Attention

    • The current US Air Force fleet, whose planes are more than 23 years old on average, is the oldest in USAF history. It won’t keep that title for very long. Many transport aircraft and aerial refueling tankers are more than 40 years old – and under current plans, some may be as many as 70-80 years old before they retire. Since the price for next-generation planes has risen faster than inflation, average aircraft age will climb even if the US military gets every plane it asks for in its future plans. Nor is the USA the only country facing this problem.

    • “The B-52H with tail number LA1023 was built in 1961…. It is the first of 18 B-52Hs selected by Air Combat Command to retire. Every two weeks a B-52H will be retired, alternating between here and the 2nd BW in an effort to maximize funding for the aging assets. “It is easier and cheaper to modify and maintain 76 planes, than to keep all 94 up and running,” said Master Sgt. Curtis Jensen, 5th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron production superintendent.”

    • They’re talking about aircraft that can’t fly but must be kept per Congressional directives, which includes a number of C-130E Hercules and KC-135E Stratotankers. “One C-130E Hercules from the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, is so old and in such bad shape it cannot safely fly. Yet U.S. Air Force maintainers must tow it around the tarmac every so often to make sure its tires don’t go flat, and crank up the engines every month to make sure they still run…. More than 20 percent of the service’s C-130Es are grounded or have significant flight restrictions…”

    • Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne], speaking at a Washington think tank Sept. 19, said that the service’s stay-within-its-topline bootstrap approach isn’t arresting the aging aircraft problem, and the inventory age is still rising, from 23.9 years today to 26.5 years by 2012. The Air Force’s older fighters aren’t up to defeating a modern air defense system or modern foreign fighters, Wynne said…”

    • Most serous: flaws relating to aging aircraft can pop up without warning, as they did with an F-15C Eagle in a fatal 2007 crash. When they do, whole fleets of that type can be grounded until the problem is identified and fixed.

My only complaint is that the article does not put the aging aircraft problem into the larger context of ongoing procurement fights. It’s not just that the Air Force’s aircraft are getting old and, in some cases, literally falling out of the sky (e.g. the F-15). It is that they Air Force is unable to replace those aircraft. So, while the F15’s are either falling out of the sky or grounded, and while the F-117 stealth fighter has been retired, the F-22, which is supposed to replace both aircraft, is under constant threat of cancellation at worst, or at best procurement numbers that are nowhere near what the Air Force says that it needs.

Likewise, as the KC-135 tanker fleet ages, the Air Force has had one scandal after another in its attempts to procure a replacement, so much so that there has even been talk of outsourcing at least some of the air refueling mission to private contractors.

Finally, as the B-52s age and slowly fade from service, half of the entire B-1 fleet, which was built in the 1980s, has been retired. And of course, the recent crash of a B-2 takes the stock of those aircraft from 21 to 20. While there are rumors from time to time that the Air Force may let a new contract for the development of a new strategic bomber, there appears to be no replacement for the 1950s-era B-52 anywhere on the horizon. With the new conventional wisdom in the U.S. defense community being that airpower is irrelevant to insurgency, combined with the assumption that insurgency will be the only kind of conflict the U.S. will face from now on, I would be surprised to see any serious movement for a new strategic bomber. B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s providing close air support from thousands of miles away, from 50,000 feet, for hours on end, using GPS-guided bombs has apparently not been impressive enough a feat to prove their relevance.

What’s more, with the F-117 retired, the F-22 only just entering service, and the F-35 not in production yet, the Air Force is left with no tactical stealth aircraft. In fact, the 20 B-2’s are the nation’s only real fleet of stealth aircraft at the moment, and they were grounded for a period of weeks earlier this Spring after a B-2 crashed in Guam. It is a shame that the nation that developed a technology that has served it so well in recent conflicts is allowing itself to be caught during a dangerous time in international affairs with such a small force of stealth aircraft.

The Air Force is in bad shape. And the problem is not just aging aircraft alone. It is aging aircraft combined with reluctance to procure replacements, combined with new conventional wisdom that downplays the role of airpower even while airpower is proving essential to the current fight, combined with the Air Force’s own inability to explain it’s own relevance to the current fight and possible future fights in a way that is persuasive. As the Air Force continues to whither, one day soon American political leaders will wake to find that they do not have the capability they need or desire to respond to fast-breaking international crises. At the moment in which an F-22 or a B-52 replacement is most needed, it will not be possible to quickly develop and procure one, and American policy objectives may go unmet because we failed to maintain the Air Force we had, let alone improve it.

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