Catastrophic Failure

Jan. 1, 2008

It was a chilling event. The aged F-15C, flying a peacetime mission, broke up without warning, even though the aircraft had not been violently maneuvering. The pilot was forced to eject at high speed.

These words do not refer to the recent F-15 crackup above Missouri (see “Washington Watch: The F-15 Incident,” p. 8). No, the mishap spoken of here occurred in 2002 over the Gulf of Mexico. The doomed F-15C was flying at 24,000 feet when part of its tail broke off. Maj. James A. Duricy punched out at 900 mph and was killed. Investigators said the tail had corroded over the years. The fighter had gotten old.

That, please note, was six years ago. The Nov. 2 mishap in Missouri might be sobering—USAF cited a “catastrophic structural failure” and grounded many F-15s—but it certainly was not new. USAF has been warning about aging aircraft for many years.

Evidently, the warnings haven’t registered. National leaders—be they in the White House, Defense Department, or Congress—have failed to address the issue in any truly definitive way. Indeed, Washington’s apathy toward USAF’s geriatric fleet comes close to outright negligence.

The Secretary of the Air Force, Michael W. Wynne, reports the average age of an Air Force aircraft in 1973 was eight years but today is 24 years and headed toward 26.5 years in 2012. The problem goes well beyond the F-15 to include most of the major aircraft types—bombers, tankers, and transports no less than fighters.

USAF’s 505 KC-135 refueling tankers average more than 46 years of age. Many C-130 transports are grounded due to poor reliability and concern for their in-flight safety. C-5A cargo aircraft have low availability because of frequent maintenance.

The roots of the problem are many and tangled, but no one doubts that things began to go off the rails during the so-called “procurement holiday” of the 1990s.

Problems first emerged in the 1989-93 presidency of George H. W. Bush. In his four years as Pentagon chief, Dick Cheney—now Vice President Cheney—curtailed USAF’s F-15 program, postponed the F-22 fighter, terminated the B-2 bomber at only 20 aircraft, and cut the C-17 airlifter.

A get-well aircraft modernization was supposed to begin in the late 1990s, but it was again delayed by a widespread post-Cold War desire to reap a “peace dividend” by cutting defense spending. The Clinton Administration bought a few F-15s and F-16s for attrition reserve, but it also reduced the planned F-22 program from 648 to 339 aircraft and further delayed it.

When President George W. Bush arrived in 2001, USAF was poised for a long-deferred fleet recapitalization. Then, Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, enamored of military transformation, restrained aircraft modernization once more. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began to soak up defense dollars.

Today, more than 800 aircraft—14 percent of the USAF fleet—are grounded or operating under various flight restrictions. Older fighters in the near future won’t be up to fighting modern air defenses or modern fighters.

The Air Force is “going out of business,” said Wynne. He added, “At some time in the future, [aircraft] will simply rust out, age out, fall out of the sky.” Indeed, it is already happening.

No one can claim there was not fair warning of the danger. As far back as 1996, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, USAF Chief of Staff, noted “the term ‘aging aircraft’ takes on a new significance when [you are] keeping fighters in the inventory 25 to 30 years.”

In 1999, Gen. Richard E. Hawley, head of Air Combat Command, observed that, “We are flying the oldest fleet of airplanes that the Air Force has ever operated. … Old airplanes break in new ways. … The older it gets, the less predictable it gets.”

Fogleman’s successor, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, in 2000 expressed deep concern about fleet age and the high cost of finding the proper kinds of spare parts in sufficient numbers to support readiness.

In 2005, near the end of his tour as Chief of Staff, Gen. John P. Jumper warned, “The thing that … worries me the most is the [stunted] recapitalization of our force. … We are now facing problems with airplanes that we have never seen before.”

What is to be done? Some Air Force officials suggest that, at this late stage, the service cannot truly solve the problem but rather engage in damage limitation. This would entail two basic moves, both of which are simple but not easy. They are:

Expand procurement. Top Air Force officials have declared that, to properly fund the hardware accounts, service spending must rise by at least $20 billion per year for at least the next six years—and probably for longer than that. New aircraft would enter the inventory at an accelerated pace.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, USAF Chief of Staff, has made replacing the aged KC-135 tanker his highest priority. USAF seeks 381 F-22s—not the 183 that has been allowed by the Pentagon—and 1,763 F-35s. These fighters would replace many old F-15s, F-16s, F-117s, and A-10s.

Dump old airplanes. Keeping the old, flying clunkers is a money-burner, given their high maintenance and upgrade costs. The Air Force wants to mothball more of the old B-52 bombers, KC-135E tankers, and C-130E lifters.

This will require the cooperation of Congress which, mostly for parochial reasons, barred many such retirements from local bases. Moseley said such restrictions force him to retain airplanes that can neither fly nor fight but which nevertheless require regular and expensive upkeep.

In both areas, the Air Force will have to do some high-stepping. There is no assurance of success even then.

Without some dramatic change in Washington, USAF may have no choice but to retrench, lower its expectations, and accept higher risk in meeting its obligations. Then, the Air Force really would be going out of business, at least in the sense to which we all have become accustomed.