President-elect Bush’s choice of a seasoned manager as Defense Secretary was a smart move, because the challenges the Pentagon faces are daunting. The Clinton Administration’s combination of global engagement with a “procurement holiday” has produced a rapidly aging, overworked arsenal. It now falls to Donald Rumsfeld to figure out how to recapitalize decrepit systems.
The problem is concentrated in aircraft fleets. During the Clinton years, air power became the centerpiece of U.S. strategy. But most categories of Air Force planes have exceeded their maximum acceptable average age or are within months of doing so, and similar situations exist in the other services. Here are the five most pressing problems.
1. A third of the Air Force’s long-range bomber fleet consists of B-52’s built in the 1960’s. Most of the other planes are B-l’s originally intended to serve as an “interim” bomber until the stealthy B-2 became available. The service’s oxymoronic “Bomber Roadmap” envisions operating these relics until after 2040. That may be the most dangerous defect in the entire U.S. force posture, because if access to foreign bases is lost the Air Force’s other strike aircraft will not be usable. In 1995 Mr. Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney signed a letter calling for further production of the B-2. They were right, and need to act now to buy a less expensive version of the nation’s only stealthy, long-range strike system.
2. The average age of Air Force fighters is 14 years. Some fighters are approaching 30 years of age. The commander of Operation Northern Watch recently found himself flying into Iraq in the same F-l 5 he first flew 20 years ago. The Air Force wants to replace the 1960s~vintage F- 15 with F-22 Raptors, but congressional micromanagement is distorting program decisions and driving up costs. Mr. Rumsfeld signed a letter in 1998 stating, “the stealth, agility, firepower and situational awareness embodied in the F-22 must be funded.” He needs to help Congress understand that.
3. Much has been made of two recent crashes by the Marine Corps’ new V-22 Osprey “tiltrotor.” Few people outside the Corps have noticed that the obsolete helicopters the V-22 is supposed to replace have been crashing at the rate of one every six months since the mid-1990’s. Marine Corps aviation is in a state of disarray, due mostly to aging airframes. The service’s future depends on replacing existing assets with the V-22 and a vertical-ascent version of the Joint Strike Fighter.
4. Electronic warfare (jamming) is critical to the success of air campaigns. Non-stealthy aircraft must have it to survive, and stealthy aircraft depend on it for an extra margin of safety. But the Navy’s EA-6B Prowler, the only dedicated jammer in the U.S. arsenal, is grossly overworked and in need of electronic upgrades to cope with new threats. The current airframe is likely to be replaced after 2015, but in the meantime it is essential to modernize Prowler with new wings and digital electronics.
5 . The Air Force provides the Army with airlift for rapidly responding to distant crises. But the average age of its 500 C-130 intratheater airlifters is 23 years, and the average age of C-5, C-17 and C-141 intertheater air-lifters is 25 years. The service considers 25 to be the maximum acceptable average age, so it needs to replace many planes in both categories over the next four years. Excellent replacements — the C-13OJ and C-17 — are already in production. But the service is so strapped for funds that both production lines are at risk. It needs to make a commitment to buv more of both planes now.
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