Robert MorleyColumnist

Brittle Bones: America’s Graying Air Force

March 4, 2008 | From

The U.S. Air Force is invincible, or so many think. But will age, that unseen enemy, soon leave it outgunned and outnumbered?

At the outbreak of World War ii, Britain was shocked to find its air force far inferior to Germany’s. Churchill reported that British leaders had critically underestimated the number, production rate and technological advancement of Germany’s military aircraft industry. While Germany had stealthily built a completely modern air force, Britain was in large part still spending its resources relying upon old World War i models. Along with other neglectful nations like France, Poland, Belgium and Holland, Britain saw its air fleet cut apart at the onset of the war.

The United States could soon find itself in a similarly precarious position.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the United States Air Force’s F-15 fighters “remain the nation’s most sophisticated front-line fighters,” playing critical roles protecting the continental U.S. and flying combat missions in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters.

But on November 2, a Missouri Air National Guard F-15 C fighter broke apart during a relatively mundane exercise. The crash led to the grounding of America’s entire F-15 fleet, including the newest Strike Eagle model. All 688 aircraft—over 35 percent of the total U.S. Air Force fighters—were stuck on the tarmac for more than two weeks, while the cause of the “catastrophic structural failure” underwent investigation.

Several hundred F-15s were later cleared to fly, but then had to be re-grounded on November 28, and then again in early December, after more problem aircraft were found. The groundings follow two separate crashes in June and another in May. Most recently, on February 1, 13 Hawaii Air National Guard F-15s were grounded following an ocean crash.

The spate of F-15 crashes is setting off sirens in some military circles.

Following the Missouri crash, Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, noted: “The whole fleet was already flying on flight restrictions due to metal fatigue. … In this case the planes that are grounded are supposed to be America’s top-of-the-line air-superiority plane. This is not like grounding some cargo plane. These are the sinews of our global air dominance” (emphasis mine throughout).

“This is grave,” reported one senior Air Force official. “Two hundred of our air-superiority aircraft are on the ground, and we are acting like it is business as usual.”

Gen. John D.W. Corley, commander of U.S. Air Combat Command at the time of the grounding, said, “This isn’t just about one pilot in one aircraft with one bad part. … I have a fleet that is 100 percent fatigued, and 40 percent of that has bad parts. The long-term future of the F-15 is in question.”

For three weeks in November, Canadian cf-18s were forced into the sky to protect Alaskan airspace while the American F-15s were grounded. Several times, the Canadian fighters scrambled to identify Russian bombers that, with growing frequency, have been testing U.S. airspace.

So why is the F-15 fleet in such precarious condition?

One big reason is that the current U.S. Air Force is the oldest in usaf history. According to Defense Industry Daily, the average plane age in the fleet is more than 23 years old. Many transport and refueling tankers are in excess of 40 years old, and current plans don’t provide for replacements until they are 70 to 80 years old. By 2013, the average fleet age is expected to rise to 29 years. Contrast those numbers with the air fleet’s average age of only 8.5 years in 1967.

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former fighter pilot who now serves as the head of intelligence for the Air Force, says that his son now flies the exact same F-15 as he flew back in the late 1970s. Deptula warns that the graying Air Force may be facing a “crisis.”

usaf Chief of Staff Michael Moseley concurs. “The F-15s and F-16s were designed and built in the late ’60s and ’70s. Some of them were produced up until the early ’80s. But they’ve led a pretty hard life. … In the F-15 case, we’ve got the airplane restricted to 1.5 Mach. It was designed to be a 2.5 Mach airplane. We’ve got it limited on maneuvering restrictions because we’ve had tail cracks, fuselage cracks, [and] cracks in the wings.”

Moseley says the maneuvering restrictions are affecting unit preparedness, and likens it to practicing for the Indy 500 by driving at 60 miles per hour—then accelerating the car to 200 miles an hour on the day of the race.

“It is not the time to be doing that on game day,” he says. Moseley worries about the health of the aging fleet and feels that the seriousness of this issue is “not well understood by those our airmen protect.”

The F-15s were supposed to last until 2025, but after 17 years of almost continuous use in the First Gulf War, Yugoslavia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wear and tear is taking its toll. Most people don’t drive cars that are even 17 years old, let alone operate computers that are that age. The F-15s average age is 25 years. When you start accounting for corrosion issues, metal fatigue, structural components not built to spec, and multiple computer upgrades and electrical rewirings over the years, it is easy to see why the F-15s are starting to have so many problems.

Much of the rest of America’s aircraft, like the F-15, are also simply getting old and wearing out. The F-16 “Fighting Falcon,” the lightweight, less-expensive companion to the F-15, for example, has an average age of over 17 years. But the problem with the F-16 is that it was not designed for a long service life. Now, after heavy use, it also is approaching the limits of its life expectancy, according to Lexington Institute’s Loren Thompson. The 1,280 of these aircraft in service make up the bulk of America’s fighters. Outside of the F-15 and F-16 models, the Air Force’s fighter fleet would be left with just 91 F-22s. The F-22 is a fifth-generation fighter. Although it is far more advanced than the F-15 or F-16, current plans call for the eventual procurement of only 183 units. F-22s currently cost about $135 million each, while F-15s and F-16s originally cost just $15 million and $10.2 million respectively (approximately $45 million and $30 million in today’s dollars).

The U.S.’s transport and refueling tankers are also earning a reputation as flying death traps. Old flying behemoths such as the C-130 and kc-135 are regular causes of concern for the Air Force. After cracks were discovered in the wing boxes of older C-130s, the Air Force grounded many of those transports. In fact, many planes on Air Force inventories are considered too risky to fly at all except in emergencies. In these cases, once a month the engines are fired up and the planes are pulled around the tarmac to keep the tires from going flat.

“This can’t go on,” Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said. “At some time in the future, they will simply rust out, age-out, fall out of the sky. We need, somehow, to re-capitalize this force.”

And as America’s Air Force ages and wears out, it is sucking in greater and greater amounts of resources to keep it flying.

Maintenance costs have increased by 38 percent from 1996 to 2006, and maintenance man-hours have increased 50 percent compared to hours of flying time. The workload for heavy repairs at aircraft depots is up a whopping 41 percent.

Wynne says that when you add up the rate at which the fleet is aging, the rising maintenance costs, personnel cutbacks and the prices of new equipment, it means one thing: Air Force America is “going out of business. It is simply a matter of time.”

Probably the most amazing aspect of the graying Air Force is that the U.S. spends more money on its armed forces than the whole world combined! But even with the hundreds of billions spent each year, battle readiness is deteriorating. Being the world’s policeman, fighting terrorism and continual wars for the past 17 years is taking its toll.

The signs are everywhere, and not just in the Air Force: America’s military is aging. The Navy and Coast Guard are in similar situations. America’s heavy ice-breaker fleet is down to three operational vessels, two of which are approaching the end of their operational cycles. The Coast Guard is sailing many 30- and 40-year-old ships and even World War ii-era vintage vessels including the 64-year-old cutter Acushnet, whose propeller separated completely from its shaft in December. Because of the ship’s age, no off-the-shelf spare parts were available; the fixes had to be custom built.

Increasing amounts of money and resources are needed just to maintain these war machines, and these are costs the American economy has not had to bear in the past on any sort of large scale. The problem is, America doesn’t have the money. All levels of American society—federal, state, local, corporate, personal—have unsustainable debt levels. America is broke—most just don’t realize it yet.

Hosea, talking to ancient Israel, warned that Ephraim’s military and economic might had largely faded, though the tribe was ignorant of it. “[Y]ea, gray hairs are here and there upon him, yet he knoweth not.”

Today, gray hairs are on America. Her age as a superpower is nearly over—America’s waning air superiority is just one example. New powers are destined to rise in Europe, China and Russia, and the Middle East—so says your Bible. For proof, read The United States and Britain in Prophecy.

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