Article Published in Aviation Week and Space Technology
Every year the U.S. Air Force puts on an “Aerospace Power Demonstration” in Florida to display to the public its proficiency in wielding the weapons of modern air warfare. It’s the service’s premier air show, and it’s quite impressive.
But for those who know a little about aircraft, the Aerospace Power Demonstration is becoming a striking display of something less positive: the greying of American air power. The “procurement holiday” that followed the end of the Cold War has produced a hangover in the form of an increasingly aged and maintenance-intensive air fleet.
Consider what the audience saw at last year’s show. The first plane that flew over was a KC-135 tanker, basically a military version of Boeing’s old 707 jetliner. The Air Force has over 500 KC-135s in service, but their average age is 38 years. It has plans to keep some of them flying until they’re twice that age.
The KC-135 was refueling a B-52H bomber. B-52’s are expected to make up over a third of the heavy bomber fleet for the next 30 years. Average age today: 37 years. The B-52 was designed in the early 1950’s, and the Air Force plans to retire the last one in 2037. That’s a design-to-demise lifespan of nearly 90 years – – sort of like flying a World War One biplane today.
The next plane that flew over at the air show was a C-130, refueling MH-53 helicopters. The helicopters haven’t been produced since the Vietnam War. Many of the Air Force’s C-130s are so far beyond their intended design life that the service doesn’t even try to predict when repairs will be needed. It just waits for structural cracks to appear and then fixes them.
Of course there were newer planes at the Aerospace Power Demonstration, like the stealthy B-2 bomber and the F-15 fighter. But the Air Force bought a mere 21 of the silver-bullet B-2s and has only minimal plans to preserve it stealthiness before new bombers are acquired in 35 years. The F-15s are still impressive fighters, but they are based on a non-stealthy 1960s design that other countries are now surpassing.
Is this really the air fleet that is supposed to police global security in the early decades of the next century? Sad to say, it is. Even if the service stays on track to buy 120 C-17s and 339 F-22s, the average Air Force plane will soon be over 20 years old. And if some bright budgeteer in a future administration succeeds in further delaying Air Force modernization – – well, don’t count on having air superiority for a while.
Aging aircraft aren’t just an Air Force problem. The Navy is making progress on renewing its venerable collection of carrier-based strike aircraft with the more capable F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. But the other carrier aircraft are a different story. The EA-6B Prowler, now the nation’s only airborne tactical jammer, hasn’t been produced in a decade. Average age today: 16 years. Rewinging and enhanced electronic warfare capabilities will keep it going until after 2010. But by that time the planes will be 30 years old, and attrition losses will reduce the number of aircraft below requirements. Lack of funds has prevented the service from thinking seriously about a replacement.
The same is true of the Navy’s collection of carrier-based support aircraft, some of which have not been built in 20 years. The cost of supporting so many specialized airframes is becoming prohibitive, but planning for a replacement has barely begun.
The situation with rotor-wing assets is somewhat less distressing. After a long wait, the Marine Corps is finally beginning to receive the versatile V-22 replacement for its CH-46E Sea Knight and CH-53D Sea Stallions – – and not a moment too soon, since the average age of both aircraft is around 30 years. The Sea Stallions require 38 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight (compared to five or six for the V-22).
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Army’s formal requirement to replace Vietnam-era scout and light attack copters, but the preferred solution, the RAH-66 Comanche, is still years from operational status. Meanwhile, soldiers continue flying in hundreds of AH-1 Cobras and OH-58 A/C Kiowas that are over 30 years old. Vulnerable, underpowered and poorly equipped, many of these aircraft are a danger to the soldiers they carry.
If this litany of geriatric airframes has a common thread, it’s that the nation can’t put off modernization of its military aircraft any longer. Further slippage in efforts to replace Cold-War military aircraft will put America’s military edge at risk, not to mention the lives of our warfighters.
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