The F-15 Incident
December 18, 2007—The debate in Washington over the future of USAF fighter forces took on an urgent tone in late fall, when the service grounded its F-15 force “indefinitely” after the discovery of stress cracks in many of the fighters. The cracks were discovered during precautionary inspections after an F-15 disintegrated during a training flight.
The accident served as a chilling reminder, if one was needed, that the bulk of USAF’s front-line fighters are aged and desperately in need of replacement. Some in the capital, however, apparently saw the grounding as a theatrical service ploy meant to cadge more new fighters from Congress.
The accident occurred on Nov. 2. A 27-year-old Missouri Air National Guard F-15C of the 131st Fighter Wing broke up during a mild maneuver in a dogfight sortie about 125 miles south of St. Louis. The pilot ejected but sustained injuries. All 668 F-15s—A, B, C, D, and E models—were grounded the next day. Air Combat Command said “catastrophic structural failure” caused the loss, and investigators focused on longerons just aft of the cockpit. A full report on the accident’s cause is expected in January.Three USAF F-15s had crashed previously during 2007.
Gen. John D.W. Corley, ACC commander, lifted the grounding order in early December, saying that the Air Force had no choice because the “workhorse” F-15 is needed to make good on USAF’s duty to “provide unrivaled combat airpower” for the nation. In doing so, he acknowledged accepting “a degree of risk.” The grounding was “the right thing to do,” Corley said, adding that the decision was “not made lightly.”
However, Corley reinstated the grounding for the A to D models as more analysis of the crash aircraft—as well as inspections of grounded Eagles—turned up more cracks. The E models were allowed to continue operations.
By mid-December, eight aircraft had been determined “hard broke,” meaning they could not fly without extensive reconstruction, and USAF leaders were scrambling to figure out what to do if the fleet couldn’t be restored to flight status.
The capabilities of the F-15, the first of which went operational in 1975, have begun to degrade in recent years. Age-related problems have barred the Air Force from flying the fighter to its maximum design performance level. After decades of hard maneuvering—much of it in combat—the Eagle’s structure has become fatigued. Grounding is a standard action in cases where the causes of a catastrophic failure are unknown.
However, some F-15s—notably those deployed to war operations in the Middle East—remained on alert, ready to fly, because their mission couldn’t easily be handed off to other types of fighters. In some cases, Air Force F-16s and Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets covered for the Eagles while they were out of action.
Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the USAF Chief of Staff, told reporters on Nov. 16 that he had been “accused by some people of parking these airplanes to make [the] case” that the Air Force needs to buy more than just 183 F-22 Raptors to replace F-15s. The Air Force has long said it needs a minimum of 381 F-22s, but it has been directed to buy the smaller number as a budgetary consideration.
According to Defense Daily, Moseley said it would have been “unconscionable” to keep the Eagles flying if there was a chance that some fleetwide problem could put more pilots’ lives at risk. Moseley did not identify who had made such accusations, but a service official said his remark stemmed from private conversations with members of Congress and the Pentagon leadership.
Moseley said Corley told him that “we are in uncharted territory with this fleet,” and that it is becoming increasingly hard to predict, in Moseley’s words, “what is going to break next.” Corley noted a lack of “decent predictive or forensic tools” that can predict catastrophic failures in a fleet that has long outlived its planned operational life, Moseley reported. Israel, Japan, and Saudi Arabia all grounded their own F-15 fleets pending the outcome of USAF’s investigations. South Korea and Singapore, whose F-15Ks are brand-new, did not.
Top Air Force officials said it would take more than six months to get most F-15 pilots back up to speed, since they were beginning to lose their certifications in the type.
Zeal of the Converted
Retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, a foremost advocate of “boots on the ground,” has determined that the Air Force is the key to national security in the coming decades. He has delivered a blunt warning that, if the service continues its downward slide, the nation will be in deep trouble.
McCaffrey is a former Gulf War division commander and national drug policy “czar” and currently a military pundit. He maintains that the Air Force over the next 20 years must be the principal instrument for deterring and containing the power of a rising China and resurgent Russia.
For all that, he adds, the Air Force is in a state of decay because of prolonged neglect by Pentagon leaders.
“The US Air Force is badly underfunded, its manpower is being drastically cut and diverted to support of counterinsurgency operations, its modernization program of paradigm-shifting technology is anemic, and its aging strike, lift, and tanker fleets are being ground down by nonstop global operations with an inadequate air fleet and maintenance capabilities,” McCaffrey wrote.
He added that today’s USAF is too small, “has been marginalized in the current strategic debate,” and has “mortgaged its modernization program to allow the diversion of funds” to prosecute a war—in Iraq—with inadequate support in Congress.
The next Administration, McCaffrey said, must fix the Air Force’s condition “or we will place the American people in enormous peril.”
McCaffrey’s epiphany came after extensive tours of Air Force facilities last summer. His findings were contained in an after-action report to the staff of the US Military Academy at West Point, where he is an adjunct professor.
Over the last few years, McCaffrey has promoted increasing the size of the Army, and in this latest report calls for a level of 800,000 Army troops—nearly twice its level of recent years—but the comment seemed an afterthought compared to his emphasis on the Air Force and the Navy. Those two services, he said, are most critical in deterring China and Russia in the Pacific, especially given the Bush Administration’s pullback from overseas bases—a move McCaffrey derides as one never challenged in Congress and fatally flawed.
Absent the rehabilitation of the Air Force and Navy, both China and Russia will soon pose “a national survival threat” to the US, McCaffrey asserted.
He listed seven procurement priorities for the Air Force, that don’t directly match the Air Force’s own ranked list.
The F-22 will guarantee American air dominance for at least 25 years, McCaffrey said, but has been shortchanged because it has “minimal value” in fighting insurgencies. USAF should get at least 350 Raptors and the fighter should “never” be made available for sale overseas.
The Air Force needs “600 plus” C-17s, McCaffrey said. The C-5 Galaxy “must be retired—these planes are shot.” Absent forward bases, the C-17 is crucial to being able to deploy US forces worldwide.
Unmanned aerial vehicles and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance assets should be under the control of the joint air component commander in any theater, McCaffrey said. He called UAVs a “100-year warfighting leap-ahead” that has fundamentally changed warfare.
If USAF were to lose its space supremacy, McCaffrey warned that the whole military enterprise would revert to “WWII era capabilities.” He said Air Force space assets are underfunded and inadequately defended.
Cyber weapons are “the poor man’s weapon of mass destruction,” and this area needs strong joint attention that should be led by the Air Force, McCaffrey said.
The bomber fleet isn’t big or modern enough, McCaffrey said. The B-52 should be retired in the next three years, but restarting the B-2 line is too expensive. A new bomber is the right solution, he argued.
Lastly, he voiced support for the Airborne Laser as part of the broader national missile defense.
McCaffrey had high praise for USAF people, calling the service “the most effective, dedicated, and well-trained Air Force we have ever put into combat. Their courage and leadership are simply awesome.”
He said he plans to study and speak on Air Force issues for the next two years and will make periodic reports on what he finds.
Real Raptor Numbers
In the wake of the F-15 grounding (above), a group of senators has urged the Pentagon to discard its arbitrary goal of buying just 183 F-22s, and flesh out the Air Force with a full complement of 381 of the stealth superfighters, as the service has long maintained it needs.
The senators also requested, by the middle of this month, a detailed explanation of the Pentagon’s tactical aviation plans, and politely insisted on the public release of several long-suppressed studies that validate USAF’s Raptor requirements.
The six, all Republicans, were Sen. Orrin Hatch and Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah; Sen. John Thune of South Dakota; Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia.
In a Nov. 9 letter to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, the senators expressed worry over recent reports that India and Russia have agreed to partner on developing a fifth generation fighter to rival the F-22, as well as reports of a Chinese stealth fighter being developed, “with almost certain Russian assistance.” The news is “especially disconcerting,” the senators said, in light of Russia’s “propensity … to sell advanced weapons to our potential adversaries.”
Such developments buttress the Air Force’s argument that it needs 10 squadrons of 24 operational F-22s as “the minimum number of Raptors required” to offset the rising air-to-air threat, the senators wrote. To field that number, the Air Force has maintained it needs 381 aircraft, a figure it has stuck to for the last five years.
“The recent grounding of our entire F-15 fleet due to concerns over the structural integrity of the aircraft” gives further urgency to a Congressional rethink of tactical aviation, the lawmakers wrote.
The group asked England to provide his own “thoughts and analysis” on the right F-22 procurement number, as well as a detailed briefing by Jan. 15 “on the tacair mix required to execute the national military strategy through 2020.”
The senators noted that during the Bush Administration’s tenure alone, there have been three separate, taxpayer-funded studies on how many F-22s are needed to fulfill American military strategy, none of which supported the 183 number.
“It is our understanding,” the senators wrote, that the studies all concluded that “a far larger number than 183 Raptors will need to be procured.” They asked England to provide the full reports to Congress and make public the studies’ conclusions. They also asked him to explain in his January briefing “why Raptor procurement should be limited to 183.”
England has launched several high-visibility efforts to analyze the Air Force down from its F-22 target, the most notable one being a study he commissioned from Whitney, Bradley & Brown, Inc., in August 2005. The firm had previously supplied England with a blueprint for slashing and consolidating naval aviation assets, and his marching orders were to find similar efficiencies in the F-22 program.
However, the following April, it leaked out that the WBB study had determined there was actually a need for at least 40 to 60 more F-22s than the Bush Administration was planning.
Defense analyst Loren B. Thompson, in a Nov. 14 editorial run on UPI’s newswire, said burying the studies supporting a larger F-22 buy is a case of policy-makers “ignoring expert analysis because it doesn’t match their personal preferences.” He added that “perhaps it is time for Congress to see what the experts found, so that it can come to its own conclusion about how many F-22s the nation really needs.”
The F-22 is built in Marietta, Ga. Hill AFB, Utah, is a maintenance facility for the fighter, and its F119 engines are serviced at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.