If the Bush administration’s proposed 2003 defense budget is adopted, it would fix many of the problems of the Clinton years. Military pay and benefits would rise to market parity, readiness accounts would be bolstered, science and technology funding would increase. There is even a modest increase for procurement. That’s solid progress, made more remarkable by the fact that there’s a war on.
But in at least one way, the proposed 2003 budget reflects troubling continuity with the past: it fails to replace aging aircraft at the rate required to prevent further erosion in the force. The air fleets of the military services have grown so decrepit that they look more like a “revolution in museum affairs” than a revolution in military affairs. The average age of Air Force jets has increased from 13 to 22 years since 1990. The average age on Navy planes is now, for the first time in history, higher than the average age of warships. Army and Marine units are operating helicopters so old that they have become a threat to safety and readiness.
The Navy says that its average aircraft is engineered to have a service life of 23 years, meaning that if the age of its air fleet is anywhere above half that number, it’s gotten into a danger zone. In fact, the average life of Navy aircraft today is 18 years, and that number is expected to rise to 20 years by 2005. In the case of the Air Force, every category of its aircraft except bombers have either exceeded maximum desirable averages or are within months of doing so. In fact, even if the Air Force’s entire program of record is executed as planned, average fighter age will rise from 14 years today to 18 years in 2020.
There isn’t much mystery about how this happened. The Clinton Administration sat on its hands while the fleet aged rapidly for eight years. But at least Clinton inherited a relatively young fleet. Bush did not. There’s no excuse for proposing a Navy budget that funds less than half the number of planes needed to arrest the aging trend. Nor is there any excuse for waiting longer to replace the Air Force’s 40-year-old tankers — especially when they made joint air operations over Afghanistan possible. Unlike all the Clintonesque bull sessions about transformation, aging aircraft is a problem any voter can understand. The Bush Administration needs to fix the problem before it becomes a political liability.
-Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D. is Chief Operating Officer at The Lexington Institute and is Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University
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