Last week was in many ways a typical week for the U.S. Air Force. Aging F-15 and F-16 fighters developed during the Nixon Administration conducted combat and training missions, supported by KC-135 tankers built in the 1950s. Airborne surveillance was provided by E-3 AWACS radar planes that debuted in the first year of the Carter Administration. And fifty-year-old B-52 bombers awaited orders to bomb insurgent positions in Afghanistan.
What made last week a little different than usual was news of two letters that senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee sent to the Pentagon, criticizing programs intended to replace some of the oldest planes in the Air Force’s fleet. One letter, from committee chairman Carl Levin and ranking minority member John McCain, complained about rising costs in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, and requested an estimate for terminating the program. Another letter, from McCain alone, warned that Congress would not tolerate cost overruns in the KC-46 program to develop the Air Force’s next-generation aerial refueling tanker.
The F-35 is supposed to replace thousands of single-engine F-16 fighters, which in addition to being old lack the stealth features needed to evade increasingly agile surface-to-air missiles. The KC-46 is supposed to replace hundreds of Eisenhower-era tankers that comprise most of the aerial-refueling fleet. Without the new fighters, the Air Force will gradually lose its capacity to operate in hostile airspace. The service was buying a more capable twin-engine fighter designated the F-22, but that program was terminated at barely half of the Air Force’s stated requirement, so now the F-35 must carry more of the burden — unless it too gets killed. The service also has a handful of tankers designated KC-10s that are newer and better than Eisenhower-era KC-135s, but the newer tankers themselves are decades old and too few in number to perform most refueling missions.
Whatever the merits of the senators’ complaints about cost may be, it is hard to imagine they warrant rethinking the two most important aircraft modernization programs the Air Force currently is funding. It has taken the F-35 a decade to get to its current point in development, and it is still years away from being fielded. Starting over would eliminate any chance the Air Force has to stay ahead of emerging powers like China in air power, not to mention wasting many billions of dollars. It has taken a similar amount of time to get the tanker program going — partly because Senator McCain resisted earlier modernization initiatives like leasing — and the prospect of starting over once again on that program is too painful to contemplate. Nobody really knows how much longer the existing tanker fleet can safely fly.
This new setback for Air Force modernization is just the latest installment in a long-running saga that has left the service with a decaying inventory of Cold War combat aircraft. Every new plane it has tried to buy for the last generation has gone awry, from the B-2 bomber to the E-10 radar plane to the F-22 fighter, so the air fleet is losing its edge. You can’t defer modernization for a generation without the capabilities of the force eventually being compromised. China and Russia are not standing still. We need to get on with replacing old aircraft, before America’s global air dominance becomes a thing of the past.
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