After Decades Of Lagging Modernization, The U.S. Air Force Is Losing Its Edge
At its inception in 1947, America’s youngest military service could rightly claim to be the force of the future. The U.S. Air Force was born of an idea that long-range bombing would transform the character of warfare. Air-power advocates had been making that claim since the early days of manned flight. After the massive bombing campaigns of World War Two and the advent of atomic weapons, Washington was ready to agree. The newly independent Air Force didn’t just become co-equal with the other branches, it became first among equals — a trend that was amplified by the appearance of long-range ballistic missiles. Back then, when military analysts thought about the world of tomorrow, they thought first about the Air Force.
But that was then. This is now, as described by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh at an air-power convention last month: “Airplanes are falling apart… There are just too many things happening because our fleets are too old. They’re just too flat old.” The force of the future has become the force of the past, thanks to a quarter-century detour from the steady modernization of Cold War years that has saddled the service with the oldest fleet in its history. At an average age of 27 years, it is not uncommon for Air Force planes to be older than the pilots flying them. And in the case of larger planes like bombers and tankers, some airframes will eventually reach ages that span more than half of the era of manned flight.
(Disclosure: Several companies that build and/or maintain Air Force planes contribute to my think tank; some are consulting clients.)
Take the B-52 bomber, still the most common heavy bomber in the Air Force’s active fleet even though about 90% of the 744 built have been retired. The B-52 flew for the first time only months after I was born on October 26, 1951. The last one produced, an “H” variant, left the factory on the day I turned 11 in 1962. Last Sunday I turned 63 — which means the youngest B-52 in the fleet is 52 years old. And yet the B-52 “Buff” (as airmen call it) is still the backbone of the nation’s manned nuclear deterrent, not to mention a key player in most conventional bombing campaigns. It is a tribute to the Boeing BA -0.1% engineers who designed the plane during the early years of the Cold War that on any given day, three out of four Buffs are still ready for combat.
That respectable readiness rate probably won’t last though, because the Air Force plans to keep operating B-52s until at least 2040 — making it the first plane in history to remain flying in significant numbers a century after it was conceived. By comparison, the 27-year-old B-1B Lancer and 20-year-old B-2A Spirit that round out the heavy bomber fleet are downright youthful — even though their readiness rates are inferior to that of the venerable B-52. But how many Americans realize that the nation’s entire heavy bomber fleet for striking distant adversaries and sustaining nuclear deterrence numbers fewer than 170 planes, a third of which aren’t available on any given day, and that the newest bomber in the fleet was delivered in 1997 — before Google and Facebook even existed?
The advanced age of the bomber fleet is traceable to premature termination of the B-2 bomber program when the Cold War ended; a plan to produce 132 planes was ended at 20, and then no new bombers were developed for two decades. But the problem of aging aircraft infects every part of the Air Force. Consider the tanker fleet, which refuels aircraft in the air and thus enables them to conduct extended operations over remote locations. Most of the 400-plus tankers in the Air Force inventory are KC-135Rs based on the same design as the now retired Boeing 707 jetliner. The last KC-135 was purchased in 1965, so it too averages over 50 years of age. The Air Force also operates 59 newer KC-10A Extenders — if you can use the word “newer” to describe airframes with an average age of 30 years — but the service has said it may need to retire all of the Extenders to meet congressionally-mandated savings targets for the rest of the decade.
If that happens, the joint force will have to rely on vintage KC-135s until a next-generation tanker begins joining the fleet after 2020. But it will take decades for the new aerial refueler, dubbed Pegasus, to replace all the aged tankers in the fleet, and meanwhile the service will have to keep the older planes airworthy. The cost of maintaining the tanker fleet doubled over the last ten years as corrosion, parts obsolescence, and other age-related maladies became more widespread. If the KC-135 remains in service until 2040 as currently expected, major items such as the aircraft’s skin may have to be replaced due to the structural strain of heavy use in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Air Force’s fighters rely on such tankers to extend their relatively limited ranges, but the fighters have age problems of their own. Both F-15 and F-16 fighters have begun to exhibit signs of structural fatigue, with two F-15s lost on routine missions and dozens of F-16s grounded due to the discovery of metal cracking. Fighters typically are subjected to much greater stress than bigger planes and thus are not expected to last as long, so the fact that every type of fighter in the operational inventory except the newer F-22A averages over 20 years of age is a reason for real concern. Production of the F-22 was terminated by the Obama Administration at a fraction of the Air Force’s stated requirement, and then ramp-up of the next-generation F-35 was delayed year after year, so it looks likely the Air Force will be operating a decrepit collection of Cold War fighters for many years to come.
A similar situation prevails in the fleets of airborne sensor aircraft and training aircraft, with the most commonly used trainer approaching an average age of half a century. Even the airlift fleet, which has recently gotten an infusion of state-of-the-art airframes in the form of the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III strategic (jet) airlifter and the C-130J tactical (turboprop) airlifter, contains hundreds of vintage Cold War planes assigned mainly to reserve units. The Air Force has made good progress on replacing or refurbishing its airlifters, but some planes are flying with analog electronic systems that predate the information age; budget constraints are limiting the service’s ability to modernize deficient “avionic” systems so that they can continue to comply with regulations for operating in civil airspace.
Air Force maintainers have done a masterful job of keeping their decaying fleet ready for combat. However, as Brian Everstine noted in the October 13 Air Force Times, the service faces a shortfall in the number of skilled maintenance personnel as aging aircraft require ever-increasing support. The budgetary burden of keeping vintage aircraft ready for combat against increasingly well-equipped adversaries such as China threatens to undermine the service’s ability to buy next-generation systems. For instance, the Air Force plans to spend $10 billion over the next several years to modernize equipment on its 20 B-2 bombers; B-2s are the most lethal and survivable bombers ever built, but having to spend so much money on so few planes inevitably diminishes the service’s ability to keep its edge in other areas.
And therein lies the most fundamental problem that aging aircraft pose for the Air Force. Its success as a military service depends on staying ahead of the capabilities that potential enemies field, and yet there comes a time when installing new sensors, datalinks, munitions and other items on legacy airframes simply isn’t sufficient. You can’t turn a Cold War tactical aircraft into a fifth-generation fighter by simply adding new stuff. B-52s might remain relevant for decades to come in fighting enemies like ISIS that lack air forces or air defenses, but their ability to deter or defeat rising powers like China is doubtful. The longstanding political practice of protecting military benefits and bases at the expense of modernization is beginning to take a toll on the Air Force’s ability to accomplish core missions; once America loses global air dominance, it will be difficult to prevail in any other facet of modern warfare.
Source: WASHINGTON 10/27/2014 – (forbes.com)