Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
September 1, 2005
Page 1

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Longstanding problem remains key worry


Speaking during his last week as Air Force chief of staff, Gen. John Jumper said the issue that troubles him most is a fleet of combat and support aircraft that is increasingly hobbled by age and costly to maintain.

This is what keeps Jumper awake at night, more so than the threat of terrorism or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, he told reporters at an Aug. 29 roundtable. The event was his last press conference before a Sept. 2 change of command ceremony at which Vice Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley ascends to the Air Force’s top post.

“The thing that, [as] I depart, worries me the most is the recapitalization of our force,” Jumper said. “We have continued to deal with an aging force that suffered from a lack of procurement during the decade of the ’90s. And we are now facing problems with airplanes that we have never seen before, just because of the age of aircraft.”

Jumper cited in particular a problem with the center wing box on C-130 cargo aircraft, engine attachment and strut defects on the oldest KC-135 air refueling planes, and material fatigue issues that have forced flight restrictions on F-15 fighters.

“We are having to deal with these aging airplane issues that take an increasing amount of the budget,” Jumper said this week. “We need to get on with recapitalizing. And that’s the part we’re working hardest on here in this Quadrennial Defense Review.”

The outgoing chief was referring to an ongoing Pentagon review of the future force structure that is to be delivered to Congress next February.

The challenge of maintaining aircraft of unprecedented old age and getting them overhauled or replaced has dogged Air Force chiefs for more than a decade. In the early 1990s, Franklin Spinney -- then an official in the Pentagon’s program analysis and evaluation (PA&E) directorate -- wrote a briefing called “Anatomy of Decline” that documented how perpetual optimism in planning the future fighter force would result in skyrocketing maintenance costs for old aircraft the service could not afford to replace. Meanwhile, new aircraft quantities would be cut and expensive recapitalization put off time and again, the controversial analyst said.

Spinney has since retired from government service but many defense experts agree his forecast has come to pass.

In 1995, a secret “Defense Program Projection” composed by others in PA&E found that aging tactical aircraft run a growing risk of losing their structural integrity if further schedule slips in procuring new fighters occurred (Inside the Pentagon, May 11, 1995, p1). The F/A-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programs -- on which the Air Force relies to replace its F-15, F-16 and A-10 aircraft -- have since experienced a number of delays in their production schedules.

The Air Force rewinged several of its F-15Cs in 1996 after discovering serious cracks in the main wing spars (ITP, April 18, 1996, p1). In 1999, Air Force planners concluded the F-16 fleet -- the service’s staple combat aircraft -- was “broken,” and launched a major initiative to extend the plane’s service life (ITP, May 20, 1999, p1).

Jumper’s predecessor as chief of staff, retired Gen. Michael Ryan, expressed great concern during his tenure about aging aircraft and insufficient spare parts (ITP, Sept. 28, 2000, p2).

In 2003, Jumper and then-Air Force Secretary James Roche created an “air worthiness board” to assess the viability of the service’s aging airplanes (ITP, Feb. 20, 2003, p3).

“At 23 years of age, our aircraft are older than we have ever seen in our United States Air Force,” Jumper said at the time, appearing at an air warfare symposium. “And we’re dealing with issues that we have never had to deal with before in corrosion, in skin replacement, in frayed electrical wiring, in unanticipated component failures.”

At that time, the average age of the A-10 was 21 years, the F-15C was 18 years, and the F-16 was 13 years.

“Even with planned aircraft procurement, this average age is expected to increase to 29 years by the year 2013,” Roche said in a speech at the same 2003 conference. “That’s assuming our programs stay on track.”

Air Force leaders have long argued that the new F/A-22 and F-35 aircraft will be so capable that one-for-one replacements for the fleet’s aging planes would be unnecessary -- a position Spinney argued was making a virtue out of necessity, given the much higher cost of the new fighters.

“When you are getting new airplanes like the F/A-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, it’s very hard for a guy like me to argue that you need the same number of those as you have F-15s and F-16s because the capability is so profoundly more than you had before,” Jumper told reporters this week.

Yet the high cost also has made the new planes convenient targets for budget cuts over the years, as the Pentagon and Congress sought funds to modernize other platforms and weapons across the services.

If the Air Force fleet shrinks too much, there simply may not be enough planes to perform simultaneous missions in different operations around the globe, Spinney and other defense experts have worried.

The question “becomes how many places do I think I’m going to have to be at one time,” Jumper said this week, noting his service had constructed 10 equally capable “air expeditionary forces” that can rotate in and out of missions around the globe. Using the AEF approach, different packages of aircraft can substitute for one another effectively in the same missions, Air Force officials say.

Analysis has “led us to the conclusion that we can be significantly less in certain categories, especially in fighters,” Jumper said. “And we won’t lose [capability] -- in fact, we will be more capable. And we can do it with fewer fighters and still be where we think we’re going to have to be.”

But he added a caveat: “How well did we plan for the ’90s? Not very well. So we need to make sure that we have that in mind, as well.”

Noting the quadrennial review has not yet concluded, Jumper declined to say how much the combat aircraft fleet might be reduced while retaining sufficient capability to perform assigned missions worldwide.

Fighter aircraft are not the only area of concern. Speaking two years ago, Jumper noted the KC-135E tankers “were brought into the inventory during the Eisenhower administration.” Visiting Tinker Air Force Base, OK, one can walk up to KC-135s on the depot line and “peel the skin and the layers apart and powder comes out the middle,” Jumper said.
“Corrosion is overtaking these airplanes and [creating] fatigue cracks in ways we have never been able to anticipate.”

Following an acquisition scandal in which an Air Force plan to lease new tankers was ultimately scrapped, “we need to get on with the tanker issues,” Jumper said this week. An analysis of alternatives is complete and about to be released, he said.

Jumper said the Army’s evolving plans for modular units and its Future Combat System family of vehicles could affect the quantity of C-130s and other airlifters the Air Force fields, balanced against other lift alternatives in the Army and Navy. He also hinted a desire to see tankers take on a new mission -- namely, to refuel cargo aircraft in flight -- which might alter the mix of airlift and tanker planes the service requires.

—Elaine M. Grossman

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