For Fighters, a Moment of Truth

Dec. 1, 2005

The Air Force must soon answer basic questions about the future size and composition of its fighter force. Defense leaders have long postponed decisions about whether the bulk of USAF’s fighters should be replaced or, alternatively, rehabilitated. They can’t delay much longer, however. Unless USAF takes decisive action—and soon—the capability of its fleet will suffer, and the Air Force may not be able to discharge its commitments.

The Air Force wants 381 F/A-22 Raptors as its high-end fighter element and about 1,700 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters as its backbone force. At this point, however, Pentagon officials have declined to approve more than 179 Raptors, meaning that F/A-22 production would come to an end in 2008. Meanwhile, production of the F-35 would not start until 2011, so there would be a three-year gap in fighter-building.

In the meantime, the age of existing—that is, “legacy”—fighters is creating serious problems. Fleet maintenance not only grows costlier each year but also puts more and more strain on ground crews, which are chronically overworked. Additional repairs mean more money must be diverted from enhancements such as targeting systems, affecting capability. And there are only so many times a tired fleet can be patched up before even bigger problems set in.

Mindful of the great gap in capability between fourth and fifth generation fighters, the Air Force had planned to replace more than 800 F-15Cs, F-15Es, and F-117s—all fourth generation aircraft—with 381 F/A-22s, the first of the fifth generation types. However, recent events have scrambled the picture somewhat.

Big Choice

The date is fast approaching when Air Combat Command must make a choice. It can either assume that it will get a sufficient number of new airplanes (and thus eliminate the need for more service life extensions on its fighters, now averaging about 20 years old), or it can assume the opposite and so begin a broad, expensive renovation of the existing fleet—something ACC would rather not do.

“We kind of know what that date is,” said ACC Commander Gen. Ronald E. Keys. However, he declined to specify what it is.

“I don’t want to spread panic,” Keys said, half-jokingly. The date is not “mathematically achieved,” he added, but it is based on growing experience with USAF’s old fleet, which routinely presents new and unpredictable problems.

With respect to planned procurement of the F/A-22, Keys declared that 381 is still “our number,” but he conceded that the recent cuts of the planned buy of Raptors to 179 means “we’re going to have to rethink that.”

Keys laid out his views in a series of September press interviews about the status of his forces.

He said his effort to plan the force has been frustrated this year. They have been hit by a double whammy of a stretched-out Quadrennial Defense Review and the base realignment and closure process. Initially, plans called for the Pentagon to wrap up its QDR this fall, but now the actual end point has been pushed off to February. The review is supposed to confirm or recast service roles and missions, set priorities for the acquisition of new capabilities, and establish military paths for carrying out national strategy.

Few expect the QDR to specify exact numbers of F/A-22s and F-35s, but officials anticipate that it will yield clear guidance that will help determine the sizes of these inventories.

Supplementing the QDR, however, will be an “optimization” review of fighter aviation, set in motion by Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England. (See “Washington Watch: England Launches New Fighter Review,” October, p. 12.) Though it may influence the upcoming Fiscal 2007 budget, this review technically won’t be finished until next September.

That date comes very close to the point when Lockheed Martin will have begun accepting the last long-lead parts for the 179th Raptor. The inventory was slashed from 270 to 179 last December in a last-minute defense budget-cut drill.

As for BRAC, the Air Force had a strong need to know how many expensive installations it would have to continue operating in years ahead. Without that knowledge, USAF would not know how much money would be available for fighter modernization. Now, it appears that the BRAC issue has been mostly resolved. The big question that remains, said Keys, is this: “How much of the savings do we think we will actually be allowed to keep?”

Keys is eager to get the results of all of these analyses. “We need the QDR,” said Keys. “I need some direction, here.”

Pressed to offer his assessment of the long-term health of the fighter inventory, Keys said, “We’ll be … OK.”

So far, ACC has not encountered any major structural problems that would force the grounding of any type of fighter in the fleet—at least, nothing of the magnitude of Air Mobility Command’s problem with wing boxes on the C-130E.

Keys noted that most Air Force F-16s have just come through the Falcon STAR program, which addressed many issues of structural stress and fatigue. The F-16s aren’t “falling off any cliff,” said Keys. Moreover, he noted, the Air Force has made a decision to replace the computers and radars on some of the youngest F-15E fighters.

Train Wreck

However, Keys said, “there is always the opportunity for a train wreck” because of all the unknowns of operating a fighter force of unprecedented age.

He revealed, for example, that ACC has discovered wing cracks in some of its A-10 attack aircraft. Cracks have formed in some of the “thin-skinned” models that comprise 242 of the 356 A-10s in the inventory. (Later versions have a thicker wing skin.) According to Keys, the problem is serious enough to require him to reassess whether to go forward with a long-planned upgrade for the A-10, one that would include the addition of precision engagement systems and a possible re-engining.

“If I have to reskin the wings [as a result of the wing crack], that takes money away from precision engagement,” warned Keys.

The ACC commander said he’s worried that the situation could affect his training fleet. “What do you do with the training fleet if you take all the really good airplanes and make them operational?” he asked. “We have to make that determination now: Do I want to reskin those wings? … How much would that cost? … I’ve only got X amount of money, and every time I do something, now I have X-minus.?

Alternatively, the Air Force might try to solve the problem by accepting two different types of A-10s—one that can “go to high altitude, … work at high temperatures, etc.,” and one that can’t. Keys would prefer that whatever stays in the fleet be similarly configured “all-up” aircraft.

He also acknowledged that there are flight restrictions on his F-15Cs and F-117s, as well as some of his bombers. A flight restriction means the aircraft is prohibited from performing to the limits of its design because of some structural weakness that could cause catastrophic damage. For example, F-15Cs may not fly at maximum speed because of the fear that their elevators and stabilizers might become delaminated and rip off in a dash. Such an accident has already occurred.

The cost of keeping the aging machines going is getting higher and higher. As they exceed design lives, they experience failure in their “life of the aircraft” parts and systems—such as wiring bundles and stringers. To maintain the airplanes, fighter squadrons now routinely practice cannibalization, Keys reported.

Worse, ground crews are putting in very long days to keep the force flying. As a result, costly maintenance mistakes have begun to increase. “They’re working very long hours, very hard, just to hold things together,” Keys continued.


“Cannibalization is sort of a way of life in our Air Force right now,” Keys asserted. “Every time I deploy, if I’m going to take six airplanes, I might take a seventh or eighth airplane, and one of them is going to be a cann bird [that is, kept specifically to use for cannibalized parts]. As soon as it gets there, I start taking pieces off of it.” When new parts arrive, they are put on the sacrificial airplane, but the replacement process itself is risky. As Keys noted, “The probability of breaking it when you take it off is high.”

Ground crews are somehow turning airplanes that, given all their maintenance problems, shouldn’t be able to fly, he went on. There’s “no way” that USAF should able to sustain a fleet with the age problems of today’s fighters.

The numbers tell the story. Keys reported that, since 1990, maintenance man-hours per flying hour have increased by about 34 percent. Fighter mission capable rates are hovering around 75 to 80 percent.

Because of the age of the aircraft, Keys said, “all of the scheduled maintenance is starting to be eaten up by my unscheduled maintenance.”

Money also is being consumed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Keys noted that ACC is currently operating 16 expeditionary bases in or near the theater—it was 38 at the height of air operations in 2003—and they don’t come cheap.

The force is grappling with constant deployments, training, and the frustrations of working on airplanes that constantly break. Given all that, Keys is worried.

“What we see in our people, what we worry about, is the turbulence, the stress, the chronic tiredness of [our] force—that they start to overlook things that they would never overlook,” he warned. He further noted that, because of the constant drive to generate aircraft and the usual delays in doing so, some airmen are taking “foolish risks.”

Those risks usually fall into the category of skipping steps or exercising poor judgment, Keys said. Mistakes in maintenance—some that cost money, others that risk lives—and errors in judgment illustrate that the force is so “tired and busy, we’re forgetting our principles.” Due to the backbreaking pace and the constant frustration, “we’re needlessly losing very talented people,” he said.

The Air Force’s plan is to reduce the numerical size of the fighter force because the incoming F/A-22 and F-35, coupled with new, strap-on pods, munitions, and other capabilities for legacy fighters, will provide overall capability similar to that of today but with fewer aircraft. “The tag line is that, by 2015, we’ll be 25 percent smaller in fighter tails and 10 percent smaller in total tails,” Keys noted.

“Evil Spirits”

Each year, said Keys, USAF will retire the equivalent of a wing or two of older aircraft and replace them with newer ones, but not on a one-to-one basis. The first aircraft selected for the boneyard will be those with chronic maintenance problems—those “possessed by evil spirits,” Keys said. Next in line will be those about to enter a long and expensive programmed depot maintenance, the avoidance of which will save money.

Most likely, F-16s will be the main aircraft taken out of service, said Keys, “just because we have so many of them.” The F-15Es, being among the youngest fighters in the inventory, are “probably going to stay with us the longest,” while it’s still uncertain how many F-15Cs will be retained, although Keys mentioned 170 as a ballpark figure.

The F-15Es will get a new core processor, Keys noted, because “we’re about out of memory and processing power, and we need to update the avionics.” This upgrade is called the “Golden” F-15E. The increase in reliability that will ensue from the new equipment is more attractive than the increase in capability, he said.

“I don’t see that we’re going to run into any problems there,” Keys said. Some number of F-15Es will get an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. This will improve both targeting and mapping capabilities, but it’s not been established how many will get this aspect of the upgrade.

The Air National Guard has expressed interest in getting new AESA radars for their F-15Cs, but Keys said it will take a lot of analysis to see if that is justifiable. ANG wants the radar to increase its homeland defense capability—not only against aircraft but also against cruise missiles, which the current version of the F-15C cannot easily defeat.

Keys pointed out this problem: Once these aircraft are designated for homeland defense, it will be tough to call on them for an overseas deployment. “Then, … we’re back in the days of Air Defense Command,” he said, when such aircraft would be committed solely to sitting on alert in the continental United States.

“They don’t have the ability to penetrate and get in close against a fourth generation [fighter] threat,” Keys noted. “The F-15 is a great airplane, if you [the enemy] let me get within missile range of you, but, if you [the enemy] are shooting at me before I can shoot at you, then I have problems.”

Keys said ACC will install one such radar and evaluate its capability, but such upgrades are becoming unaffordable.

He said, “We’ve probably got 15 or 16 studies going on at ACC” that are designed to answer the question: “For my next discretionary dollar, where do I get my best investment credit?” He said he can no longer afford to look at ideas for enhancements that will only provide a few percentage points of additional capability in a system. To make the cut, the proposal must yield much greater dividends.

“I’m the guy who has to drive a stake through its heart, because we cannot afford to continue to spend money researching it, … testing it, and you go, ‘Yeah, it’s really good, [but] we’re not going to buy it.’ And there’s more of that to come.”

Buck Fifty-Three

Instead, Keys explained, he has to invest each dollar so that he “can get $1.53 worth of effect on the battlefield.”

Keys is loath to take the F-117 stealth aircraft out of the picture until he can be assured of getting a full-up replacement. The F/A-22, with its combination of stealth and speed, can do some of the F-117’s mission, but Keys sees the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System as taking on some of the duties, too.

The J-UCAS program, in Keys’ view, will not yield a production vehicle but “a production kind of technology.” He is not completely convinced yet that the contractors can build the aircraft small enough “so that stealth alone will allow them to survive” and yet large enough to “do the things that need to be done, like dropping larger bombs” and carrying enough fuel.

Keys doesn’t believe the J-UCAS will compete with the F-35 fighter. He believes the two are still, at this stage, “complementary.” Unmanned aircraft systems, he thinks, have a long way to go before they can truly compete with the F-35, with the main disadvantage being the lack of human brainpower that helps the fighter/fighter-pilot combination prevail. Without a doubt, Keys said, the unmanned systems will be valuable as adjuncts to manned strike forces, “so that, as I’m coming in [to the target area], I have not only the information from my sensors but the information from [those of] somebody who’s already been in there. … He knows a lot more than I know. So that enhances the capability of both.”

He also noted that the 25 percent reduction in the fighter fleet applies to manned aircraft. Still to be determined is how many unmanned combat aircraft systems will be entering the inventory. He’s perfectly willing to turn over the strike and fighter missions to an unmanned system if it can do the job.

“Once you get to the point where they can do everything a manned airplane can do, then, yeah, we ought to use it,” he said. “I wouldn’t want my granddaughter ‘going downtown’ … if some electronic gizmo can go down there instead of her.”

Keys said he doesn’t think there will be a fighter shortage in the next decade. The technology of the F/A-22, now being delivered to operational service, and in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, scheduled to begin deploying in seven years, is so good that each will be worth two or three of the ones it replaces, he said.

No Bathtub

He discounted the prospect that there will be a dangerous “fighter bathtub,” a shortfall of fighter tails predicted for the period 2008-18. (The term stems from the use of a USAF line chart, widely distributed in the last five years, showing the number of fighters in USAF service dropping, bottoming out, and then slowly rising again in the out-years as replacement fighters enter the force. The dip in the shape of the trend line—the bathtub—was identified as a period of potential risk as USAF may have more commitments than aircraft to meet them.)

“Frankly, when you’ve got an F/A-22 that’s 15 times better than the F-15, … and JSF that’s certainly going to be three [to] … 10 times better than an F-16, … you really can’t make a case that you’ve got to have a one-for-one or even a one-for-two” replacement rate, Keys asserted.

However, he warned that it would be foolish to assume that even the best technology can solve all problems.

“You can have an infinitely capable airplane, but, if you need it in two places at the same time, it doesn’t work,” he said. “My problem is, my work pops up in different places.”

It has become fashionable in QDR-related studies and analyses to assume that the Air Force, having helped “win decisively” in one major theater war, will simply “swing” to another for a “swift defeat.”

“That’s pretty … bold talk,” Keys said. “People who say, ‘Just swing the force’ have never swung a force.” There are always difficulties pulling up stakes and redeploying swiftly, especially from one war zone to another, he said. It would help to have more than a minimal number of aircraft.

He went on, “Anything I put in my budget is less than I need.” Keys added that, given unlimited funds, he would first buy 381 F/A-22s; second, give money to Air Force Space Command to “fix up” a “couple of space capabilities”; and third, give more money to maintenance accounts, “to get all my legacy airplanes up and fixed, once and for all.”

He said the F/A-22 no longer needs to demonstrate that it’s ready for service, and it has silenced critics who, at various times, have complained that it either doesn’t work or is a Cold War relic. “It works perfectly,” Keys said, as proven in operational tests. Moreover, he went on, “I’m buying the F/A-22 for whatever happens 30 years from now. … I think we’ve won that argument. … So now the argument is how many do you need.” He said the Air Force is unshakable in its belief that “381 [Raptors] … in exchange for 880 or [so] existing fighters is a pretty good investment trade. So that’s our number. We believe it.”