Air Force depots have become geriatric wards due to the increasing age of USAF fleets and the need to keep them flying past their economic lifetimes, and the service has even had to start planning a life extension program for its newest fighter, the F-22, according to Air Force Materiel Command chief Gen. Donald J. Hoffman.
In an interview, Hoffman said the Air Force has been lurching from one potentially fleet-grounding mechanical issue to another with its legacy combat forces. He noted the need to unexpectedly rewing the A-10 fleet, fix numerous F-16s with cracked bulkheads, and cope with last year’s grounding of F-15s due to longeron problems.
Hoffman said the Air Force will “get through” the current spate of structural problems, but he can’t provide any assurances that such events won’t become the rule.
“Is there another event behind any of those? Sure, could be,” Hoffman said. “We could have the whole fleet back on the ground with another event.”
Living with a mixed fleet of fairly new, fifth generation fighters and aged legacy aircraft will pose many tactical and logistical challenges, Hoffman noted. It will cost more to keep aircraft flying when they keep breaking in new ways. Funds are short for the upgrades that could make them cheaper or easier to maintain, though.
He noted that a new radar in the F-15E offers a profound reduction in mean time between failure rates. Over time, the new radar “pays for itself” in cost avoidance. However, it’s “going to take us 20 years to actually install it,” given the funds available. After only a few years, he said, he’s certain that USAF will face a “vanishing vendor” issue wherein some of the parts will be out of production. The upgrade would more sensibly have been done over three or four years, but the lack of up-front investment dollars blunts the savings.
As a result, Hoffman thinks the Air Force should adopt a new strategy for upgrades. They should be smaller and more focused—sized to be completed “within a FYDP” or future years defense program.
“Maybe we ought to have two major programs instead of one humongous” one, Hoffman said, specifically noting that the C-5 re-engining and avionics upgrade is probably an overly ambitious program to do all at once. Shortening the deadlines will also make upgrades easier to afford, and get technology into the field more quickly. Stretching them out risks obsolescence before most of the fleet is improved, he said.
“Get the learning curve up, make it efficiently, and then get out, and move on to the next,” he said.
Although he feels confident USAF can keep old aircraft flying safely for a long while, the real issue is “whether they’re still relevant” militarily.
The F-22 may be the newest aircraft on the ramp, but within a decade, the first operational models will near their planned service lives of 8,000 hours, Hoffman said. To reduce wear and tear on the Raptors and get them to last longer, the Air Force reduced the amount of close-in dogfight training that F-22 pilots do.
Further, “I’ve tasked the system to think forward into the later ’teens about what a life extension program would look like on that aircraft,” Hoffman said. He thinks the wings could be replaced, but the complex composite materials and sophisticated electronics would be trickier.
Still, “we’ll be retiring [F-22s] while we’re still flying A-10s. Something doesn’t seem quite right about that.”
Because upgrades can only be installed on a few aircraft at a time, common configurations might be possible within a wing or in blocks, but a common fleetwide configuration will be almost impossible to achieve, Hoffman said.
The F-35 will be built over such a long period of time that Hoffman fully expects many variations to be in service at once, although efforts will be made to keep the cockpit as common as possible. New pilots need to “step to [a] jet that looks the same every day.”
Day 1 Vs. Week 2
Fighting with a mixed fleet will require the Air Force to sort its capabilities into “Day 1, Day 2” systems that can penetrate enemy airspace, and “Week 2” capabilities that can only operate when defenses have been beaten down, Hoffman observed.
“In extremis,” he said, the Air Force may have to “put more risk on the operators.”
To defeat enemy defenses, Hoffman said USAF will have to think in terms of persistent systems that will have to be survivable—through stealth, speed, or standoff range—or expendable items such as drones or missiles whose loss can be tolerated. He prefers to frame the choices in that context rather than in terms of “stand in [and] stand off.”
Hoffman said he can envision a stealthy unmanned air vehicle dedicated to air defense suppression, in conjunction with the expendable Miniature Air Launched Decoy. He also sees the F-22 and F-35 radars as communication devices and jamming sources, given their high power and focusable beams.
Future technologies that will help the Air Force leap ahead of potential adversaries include lasers and the ability to operate in—and possibly control—the weather, Hoffman asserted.
“I predict that someday, weather will be our friend,” he said, just as today, if given a choice, the US acts at night, because “others can’t operate in the night to the extent we can.” Weather control he called “the holy grail” of defense technologies.
Other future revolutionary watersheds include the ability to destroy hard and deeply buried targets, and cyber weapons.
In fact, today, cyber combat “is limited less by technology than it is by policy,” Hoffman noted. Despite long effort with hypersonics, “I think we’ll be in the experimental lane for quite a while” with ultrafast speed. Meanwhile, he thinks engine technology of today may have gone as far as it can go, with few big improvements in efficiency or power still to be captured.
Combat Air Forces in Crisis
The Air Force’s combat fleet is in crisis in large part because the Pentagon hasn’t applied a consistent formula for deciding how many aircraft are needed, what capabilities they should have, or how often they should be bought. Now, there aren’t enough, and most of the inventory is aging out.
So said retired Gen. Gregory S. Martin, former head of Air Force Materiel Command, who noted that most of the choices made in the last decade about USAF’s future combat inventory were arbitrary, based on cost rather than strategy. He urged that the Air Force adopt a firm formula, with measurable elements, that will clearly justify the pacing of new aircraft buys.
“Where we may have gone astray as a nation [is] in following basic principles of force structure development and force sizing and force structure replacement,” Martin said.
“We are in a crisis … brought about by not having a rule set that is basic, easy to articulate, and [able to] … sustain a modernization or recapitalization program.” The Navy, he said, has been successful in laying out and defending such a plan, based on the number of carrier traps each aircraft endures. The commercial airline industry uses a standard based on number of flights, after which aircraft are retired because new technology offers operating savings.
Martin was speaking at a press conference called to unveil a new study, “Combat Air Forces in Crisis,” prepared under the auspices of the AFA-supported Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies. It was researched and written by the institute’s director, Dr. Rebecca Grant.
Standard methods of calculating the right numbers of aircraft haven’t kept up with either new threats or the condition of the combat air forces, Martin noted, and don’t properly take account of the need for force rotation, forward presence, the cost of ownership of old airplanes, or the simple fact of technological obsolescence.
“Old models and simulations … may not work, or may not produce … quantifiable solution sets,” Martin said.
He advocates a “back to basics” approach that sets new benchmarks for what shares of the combat air forces should be given over to given core missions.
There are some “immutables,” Martin asserted: Air superiority should account for 20 to 25 percent of the combat inventory; 25 to 30 percent should be for attack; and the rest—45 to 50 percent—should be multirole aircraft “that can swing and do both [missions] acceptably.” National strategy regarding how many wars need to be fought at once, interpreted through joint commander plans, will then dictate the numbers needed.
To keep the fleet technologically fresh and mechanically reliable, Martin said that fighters need to be replaced after 25 years of service, while bombers and “heavies” such as tankers and airlifters can be kept for 35 to 40 years.
Unfortunately, the combat air forces have all at once hit the age at which they must be replaced and at which they’re becoming technologically less relevant, because of the long hiatus in buying new aircraft. In the future, Martin said, the Air Force might buy aircraft at a slower but steady rate, to keep average age down, and apply improvements until big technology advances demand new designs.