Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to participate in today’s discussion of aging military equipment. I will limit my remarks to military aircraft, the area where aging equipment raises the most serious operational and budgetary concerns.
Let me begin by commending the subcommittee for addressing a neglected but important issue. As you know, coverage of military procurement matters in the general media tends to be superficial and sporadic. Many Americans do not realize that only 3% of the federal budget is spent on weapons procurement, or that the nation devotes about twice as much of its wealth (6% of GDP) to gambling as it does to defense (3%).
What I would like to talk about today is a different kind of gamble, the risk that America increasingly is taking by sending its military personnel to war in obsolete, aging aircraft. Let me begin with a story.
An Aging Air Force
Every year the U.S. Air Force holds an “Aerospace Power Demonstration” at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. I attended in September, and it was really impressive. But let me tell you a little bit about the aircraft displayed on that day.
The first plane that flew over was a KC-135, the most common aerial refueling tanker in the Air Force fleet. It’s basically a military version of Boeing’s venerable 707 jetliner. The Air Force has over 500 KC-135s in its fleet. On average, they’re 38 years old. The KC-135 was refueling a B-52H bomber. B-52s make up over a third of the service’s long-range bomber fleet. The average B-52H in the active fleet is 37 years old, and has accumulated over 14,000 hours of flight. But the Air Force plans to keep the planes flying for another 30-40 years.
The next plane the crowd saw was a propeller-driven C-130 refueling helicopters. Like the KC-135 and the B-52, the C-130 was designed in the early 1950’s. I don’t know what the average age of the Air Force’s 500 C-130s are, but I do know this: many of them are so far beyond their planned design life that the Air Force and Navy no longer try to predict when they will need structural repairs; they just wait until cracks appear and then fix them.
The helicopters being refueled by the C-130s were MH-53 Pave Low aircraft. The original airframes were produced between 1966 and 1973 -in other words, over a quarter-century ago.
Of course the crowd at the Aerospace Power Demonstration saw some much newer aircraft, such as the B-2 stealth bomber. But the Air Force only bought 21 B-2s and does not expect to get any more new bombers until after the year 2030. Which means the bomber force will keep aging for the next three decades, and can only be kept potent though continuous upgrades of existing aircraft.
The average Air Force plane is now 20 years old, and 40% of the active fleet is at least a quarter-century old. I’ve included a graph on the next page of my statement to demonstrate just how decrepit much of the fleet is becoming. When planes get this old, they start to experience three interrelated types of problems.
First, corrosion and fatigue begin to reduce their availability, as more and more time needs to be spent inspecting and repairing them.
Second, the cost of acquiring and installing replacement parts becomes higher and higher because the number of qualified suppliers and maintainers has dwindled and their special skills must often be used inefficiently.
Third, since the technology in the planes is getting older, they and their crews are increasingly likely to be lost in combat.
The end result is that the nation spends more and more money on a less and less capable air fleet. Support costs may not have the budgetary visibility of B-2 production, but year after year they add up. That’s one reason why operations and maintenance spending now consumes more of the Pentagon’s budget than R&D, procurement, military construction and family housing combined.
In fairness to the Air Force, it must be said that the service is fielding an excellent replacement for its workhorse C-141 transports, the highly capable C-17 — and just in time, since the average C-141 has accumulated over 38,000 hours of flight time and is subject to flying restrictions due to structural problems.
The Air Force also has a planned replacement for the F-15 fighter, the F-22 Raptor. It’s timely too, because the F-15 was designed 30 years ago, before the advent of low-observables technology. The average F-15 is 14 years old today and has used up about half of its 8,000-hour design life. The air-superiority variants of the F-15 are older, with some of the earlier models in the reserves now exceeding 20 years of age.
Whether the Joint Strike Fighter will materialize as planned to replace the F-16 fighter (average age, 10 years) is anyone’s guess. But not all aging aircraft require a new program start. The C-130 airlifter remains a remarkably versatile aircraft. We just can’t keep flying the same tired airframes and avionics forever.
Army and Marine Corps Helicopters
Let me turn now to the Army and Marine Corps helicopter inventories, which exhibit many of the same symptoms of advanced age seen in the Air Force.
The Army’s top modernization priority is the stealthy RAH-66 Comanche armed reconnaissance helicopter. Comanche’s radar reflectivity is less than 1% that of the aircraft it will replace, and its heat and acoustic signatures have been cut in half. Its digital avionics, advanced sensors and other features will allow it to replace the Army’s entire fleet of light-attack and scout helicopters with far more effective, maintainable aircraft.
But to say Comanche has been a long time coming would be an understatement. This year marks the 20th anniversary since the Army first formally stated a requirement to replace its Vietnam-era light-attack and scout copters. Since that time, the service’s fleet has been growing steadily older:
* There are about 500 AH-1 Cobra light-attack helicopters in the total Army, and on average they are 29 years old. Army policy sets the useful service life of such combat aircraft at 20 years.
* There are also nearly 900 Kiowa OH-58 scout helicopters in the active-duty force and reserves. Most are Vietnam-vintage “A” and “C” variants that lack basic survivability features such as self-protection, crashworthiness, tolerance to ballistic damage and chem-bio defense. Average age: 30 years.
* Finally, about 40% of the Kiowa fleet are rebuilt aircraft in the more capable “D” configuration with an average age of 9 years. These are much better than earlier Kiowas, but they aren’t stealthy, they can’t keep up with the Apache heavy attack copters, and they have other limitations.
The existing inventory of Army light-attack and scout helicopters is obsolete. It requires too much maintenance and support to keep operational, and it delivers too little capability to function effectively in the battlespaces of the next century. But with Comanche not scheduled to become operational until 2006, it’s a safe bet much of the current fleet will still be flying in 20 years.
The Marine Corps faces a similar problem with aging copters, but the solution to its most pressing needs is already at hand in the form of the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. The Osprey will replace two aircraft:
* The CH-46E Sea Knight medium-lift helicopter, which has an average age of 30 years and is operating with restrictions on its
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