Cover Story: In the Air - Aging Aircraft

National Journal
Sydney J Freedberg Jr
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Sydney J Freedberg Jr
March 14, 2008, 8 p.m.

The gleam­ing icon of Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary su­prem­acy is the jet fight­er, stream­lined and leth­al as it shrieks through the sky. On Novem­ber 2, 2007, one of those fight­ers broke in­to pieces in the air. The pi­lot ejec­ted safely, but the Air Force groun­ded an en­tire class of air­craft — 441 A/B and C/D mod­els of the F-15 Eagle air su­peri­or­ity fight­er — for most of two months. Train­ing flights were can­celed, home­land-se­cur­ity patrols were trans­ferred to oth­er air­craft, and pi­lots were stuck on the ground in sim­u­lat­ors while main­ten­ance crews con­duc­ted a series of fren­zied in­spec­tions.

“There were daily con­fer­ence calls with the ac­ci­dent in­vest­ig­a­tion board,” said Maj. Joe Har­ris, com­mand­er of the Air Na­tion­al Guard’s 142nd Air­craft Main­ten­ance Squad­ron in Port­land, Ore. “We were re­leased to fly, and then they groun­ded us again.” Get­ting their base’s 20 F-15s back in the air took Har­ris’s mech­an­ics “over 5,000 hours” of work, he said — 250 hours per plane.

The prob­lem: A key struc­tur­al ele­ment in many early F-15s — in­clud­ing six of the 20 at Har­ris’s base — had been man­u­fac­tured too thin and thus did not con­form to spe­cific­a­tions. The de­fect was so slight that no one no­ticed for two dec­ades. But the F-15 that cracked up in flight had been in con­tinu­ous ser­vice for 27 years. That trans­lated in­to 5,600 flight hours, thou­sands of jar­ring takeoffs and land­ings, and count­less high g-force turns. The wear and tear had simply ad­ded up. The av­er­age age of the 441 groun­ded F-15s? Twenty-five and a half.

Those F-15s are not alone. The av­er­age age of the Air Force’s core fight­er, the F-16, is 16.7 years. The av­er­age age of the Navy’s F-18 is a re­l­at­ively youth­ful 13.6 be­cause the Navy bought more fight­ers in the 1990s than the Air Force did. Both ser­vices, nev­er­the­less, are re­ly­ing primar­ily on fight­ers built dur­ing Pres­id­ent Re­agan’s de­fense buildup. Even the mil­it­ary’s own no­tori­ously op­tim­ist­ic budget pro­jec­tions call for buy­ing new planes at such high prices — and there­fore at such low an­nu­al rates of pro­duc­tion — that some 1980s-vin­tage air­craft will have to stay in ser­vice through the 2020s, when they will be more than 40 years old.

Large-bod­ied air­craft tend to last longer than hard-man­euv­er­ing fight­ers, but many of the mil­it­ary’s big planes date back to Pres­id­ent Kennedy’s buildup. The av­er­age age of the B-52 bomber is 46.6 years, older than most of its pi­lots. The KC-135 tanker that both the Air Force and Navy rely on to re­fuel oth­er planes of every type in-flight? De­pend­ing on the mod­el, it av­er­ages 46 to 48 years old.

On Feb­ru­ary 29, the Air Force awar­ded a long-delayed con­tract for a re­place­ment tanker to a con­sor­ti­um of Northrop Grum­man and EADS, the de­fense arm of Europe’s Air­bus. The los­ing bid­der, Boe­ing, has filed a form­al protest. Even if the pro­gram pro­ceeds on sched­ule, the last KC-135s may not be re­placed un­til they are 80 years old. “These air­planes could fly as late as 2045,” said Ben Robin­son, a re­tired bri­gadier gen­er­al who now heads the plane’s main­ten­ance pro­gram at Boe­ing. “The last crews, their par­ents haven’t met each oth­er yet.”

Costs Per Flight-Hour Rising

To be sure, over the past two dec­ades, the armed ser­vices have in­ves­ted bil­lions of dol­lars in mod­ern­iz­ing, up­grad­ing, and ex­tend­ing the work­ing lives of their 1980s-vin­tage air­craft. But they can­not just pop out old, tired parts and snap in new ones: The pro­cess is more like pulling one strand on a sweat­er and hop­ing that the whole thing doesn’t un­ravel. To re­pair the F-15s, for ex­ample, mech­an­ics had to peel back the air­craft’s steel skin and pull off its ribs just to get at the faulty part (a lon­ger­on), and then put everything back to­geth­er. By one es­tim­ate, re­pla­cing the $12,000 part cost $250,000 in labor.

Swap­ping out a more com­plex com­pon­ent can cost mil­lions. The 1960s-vin­tage KC-135 tankers, for ex­ample, later ac­quired more-power­ful, fuel-ef­fi­cient en­gines. “You’ve got a more power­ful en­gine, there­fore you’ve got to have a stronger en­gine strut that con­nects the mo­tor to the wing,” Boe­ing’s Robin­son ex­plained. “You need dif­fer­ent hy­draul­ic pumps be­cause the hy­draul­ic pumps are driv­en off the en­gines. You’ve got a more power­ful air­plane, and the rud­der needs to be more ef­fi­cient. In the cock­pit it­self, all of those en­gine in­stru­ments had to be up­dated.” The air­craft even got new alu­min­um skin on their un­der­bel­lies, Robin­son said, be­cause “there’s a lot of cor­ro­sion right be­low where the re­stroom was.”

Once in place, the new parts break down less of­ten — not just be­cause they un­der­go less wear and tear but be­cause main­ten­ance crews are re­pla­cing mech­an­ic­al or hy­draul­ic mov­ing parts with sol­id-state elec­tron­ics. But the high-tech com­pon­ents re­quire a high­er de­gree of skill from the mech­an­ics. “What they’re do­ing is more com­plex, and the de­mands placed on them con­tin­ue to in­crease,” Har­ris said. “It’s tough­er and tough­er to re­cruit in­to those ca­reer fields.”

Between new com­plex­it­ies and old parts, it takes more work to keep few­er planes less ready. “In my 10 years with the F-15, the cost per fly­ing hour has doubled,” Har­ris said. In fact, the cost per flight hour has climbed for every one of the 14 ma­jor air­craft types in con­tinu­ous ser­vice since the 1980s (a trend ag­grav­ated by rising oil prices). All 14 have lower read­i­ness rates than they did in 1991.

Many air­craft have to be flown at less than their design lim­its. “We’ve placed re­stric­tions on them to pre­serve the struc­tur­al life of the air­plane,” said Maj. Gen. Paul Selva, dir­ect­or of stra­tegic plan­ning for the Air Force. But en­gin­eers and main­tain­ers can guard against fu­ture prob­lems only to a cer­tain ex­tent. Last Novem­ber’s F-15 crackup was only the latest ugly sur­prise. The young­er and more nu­mer­ous F-16s suffered a series of crashes, traced to en­gine faults, in the late 1990s; and 63 F-16s are cur­rently groun­ded with struc­tur­al cracks. A KC-135 crashed in 1999 be­cause of a fail­ure in its flight con­trols. “We’re es­sen­tially con­duct­ing a grand ex­per­i­ment,” Selva said. “We’ve op­er­ated most of the air­planes we’re fly­ing bey­ond their ori­gin­ally de­signed life span.”

At some point, the mil­it­ary needs to start buy­ing new air­craft to re­place those built when Re­agan was in of­fice. But after the Cold War ended, Pres­id­ents George H.W. Bush and Clin­ton cut the mil­it­ary pro­cure­ment budgets sharply even as the price of new high­er-tech air­craft con­tin­ued to es­cal­ate. Crunched between shrink­ing budgets and rising costs, the Navy and the Air Force made very dif­fer­ent de­cisions — not only on how many planes they bought but also on what kind of wars they bought planes for.

The Tor­toise and the Hare

In the heady days of the 1980s, the Air Force and Navy moved on par­al­lel tracks. Both bought hun­dreds of short-range, high-per­form­ance fight­ers and struggled to de­vel­op longer-range, lar­ger-pay­load bombers de­signed to evade en­emy radar, spe­cific­ally the Air Force B-2 and the Navy A-12. When pro­cure­ment budgets shrank, the same roof fell on both ser­vices. Fight­er pro­cure­ment dropped from a peak of 399 in 1986 to just 60 in 1993, the B-2 was cut back from a planned 132 planes to just 21, and De­fense Sec­ret­ary Dick Cheney can­celed the A-12 al­to­geth­er.

The Navy de­cided it could no longer wait for the de­vel­op­ment of stealth air­planes, with their un­gainly radar-dif­fus­ing shapes, which made them dif­fi­cult to land on air­craft car­ri­ers, and their radar-ab­sorb­ent coat­ings, which made them dif­fi­cult to main­tain in salty sea air. In­stead, Navy plan­ners fo­cused their mod­ern­iz­a­tion pro­gram on a heav­ily up­graded F/A-18E/F Su­per Hor­net, a plane 30 per­cent lar­ger — and cor­res­pond­ingly more ex­pens­ive — than the ba­sic F-18, and able to carry more bombs and fuel but still lack­ing the range, pay­load, or stealth en­vis­aged for the can­celed A-12.

The Air Force, by con­trast, bet all of its chips on stealth. Dis­ap­poin­ted by the hand­ling and main­ten­ance prob­lems of its F-117 stealth fight­er and B-2 stealth bomber, the ser­vice in­ves­ted heav­ily in a “third gen­er­a­tion” of stealth that would com­bine radar-eva­sion with high-agil­ity aero­dy­nam­ics, su­per­son­ic speed, and man­age­able main­ten­ance. While it poured ever more bil­lions of dol­lars in­to this Holy Grail fight­er, the F-22 Rap­tor, the Air Force all but stopped buy­ing more F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fal­cons.

The two ser­vices’ pur­chas­ing pro­files di­verged dra­mat­ic­ally. Navy fight­er pro­cure­ment plunged from 171 planes in 1986 to just 36 planes in 1993, and then grew to a steady cur­rent rate of 40 to 50 F/A-18s of vari­ous types per year. The av­er­age age of its fight­er fleet rose, but only from 11 years in 1986 to 13.6 today.

By con­trast, Air Force fight­er pro­cure­ment crashed to the ground: 228 planes in 1986, 24 in 1993, zero in 1995. Pur­chases did not climb back up to 21 planes a year un­til 2003 — but all 21 were F-22s, in ser­vice at last. In the mean­time, however, the av­er­age age of Air Force fight­ers has climbed from less than 11 years in 1986 to more than 20 today. What’s more, the F-22s cost so much to build — $122 mil­lion to $180 mil­lion apiece, not count­ing the two dec­ades of R&D ex­penses — that the Air Force budget can­not buy enough to re­place its 1980s-vin­tage air­craft plane for plane.

Stick­er-shocked ad­min­is­tra­tion budget­eers have slashed the F-22 planned buy to 183 air­craft. Air Force gen­er­als have in­sisted they need 381 — enough to have two full squad­rons of 24 F-22s ready to de­ploy abroad at any giv­en mo­ment and eight more squad­rons either re­cov­er­ing from de­ploy­ment or gear­ing up to go, plus train­ers, test planes, and spares in case of crashes. One Hill staffer told Na­tion­al Journ­al that the Air Force’s clam­or for more F-22s had es­cal­ated in­to “open war­fare” between the gen­er­als and their ci­vil­ian su­per­i­ors in the Of­fice of the Sec­ret­ary of De­fense.

“We have had a couple of people get way off the re­ser­va­tion and say, ‘It doesn’t mat­ter what the Con­gress and the sec­ret­ary of De­fense say, we’re go­ing to buy the [381] air­planes,’ ” ad­mit­ted one seni­or Air Force of­fi­cial who de­clined to be named. The Air Force has to at least get one point across, the of­fi­cial said: “If you can’t sup­port us on 381, don’t make a pre­ma­ture de­cision to close the pro­duc­tion line, be­cause if you close the line, you’ve fore­stalled any oth­er op­tions.”

Cur­rent spend­ing plans punt this de­cision by fund­ing neither con­tin­ued pro­duc­tion nor the shut­down of pro­duc­tion fa­cil­it­ies. Con­gress is likely to in­sert more F-22s in­to the de­fense budget. But even the Air Force’s dreamed-of 381 planes, bought at the cur­rent rate of 20 planes a year, will not re­place its 441 F-15s for dec­ades. “They still plan to keep 177 of the F-15C/D ver­sion through 2025, some of them by then 40, 45 years old,” said Mark Bass, the Boe­ing ex­ec­ut­ive in charge of sus­tain­ing and mod­ern­iz­ing the F-15s. “That is based on the Air Force even­tu­ally pro­cur­ing 381 F-22s.” And what if they don’t get 381? “They don’t have that in their plan,” he said.

Light­ning Strikes

Some re­lief ar­rives for the Air Force in 2013, in the form of its first squad­ron of the F-35 Light­ning. Con­ceived in the 1990s as the Joint Strike Fight­er and im­posed by the De­fense De­part­ment on re­luct­ant Air Force gen­er­als and Navy ad­mir­als, the F-35 is in­ten­ded to be cheap enough that the two ser­vices, com­bined, can buy 2,443 in three vari­ants. Meet­ing that cost tar­get has meant sac­ri­fi­cing some of the high-per­form­ance at­trib­utes of the F-22, es­pe­cially its su­per­son­ic dog­fight­ing cap­ab­il­it­ies, and fo­cus­ing the F-35 on more-pro­sa­ic ground-at­tack mis­sions.

“You had to sac­ri­fice some of the total dom­in­ance in some of these mis­sion areas,” said Maj. Gen. Charles Dav­is, the Air Force of­ficer in charge of the joint ser­vice pro­gram. As for the price tar­gets, “since the con­tract was signed back in 2001, the cost of the air­plane has ris­en about 38 per­cent,” mostly be­cause of the rising price of spe­cialty metals on the glob­al mar­ket. “With­in factors we can con­trol, we’re do­ing a pretty good job,” Dav­is said. “Is it ever go­ing to be the $39 mil­lion air­craft [pro­posed in the ‘90s]? No. That was prob­ably un­real­ist­ic.”

If the F-35 ma­ter­i­al­izes more or less on cost and on sched­ule, it will be the plane the Air Force re­lies on to re­place its 1,200 F-16s and the Navy re­lies on to re­place about 1,000 early-mod­el F-18s. By 2030, the Air Force will at last have the all-stealthy fight­er force it dreamed of in the 1990s. Both the F-22 and F-35 are de­signed to avoid de­tec­tion: Their shapes min­im­ize radar re­flec­tions, their en­gines hide the heat of the ex­haust, and their weapons stay con­cealed un­til launch. But the Navy in­tends to fly its F-35 vari­ant along­side its F/A-18E/F Su­per Hor­nets, which, des­pite some “low-ob­serv­able” fea­tures, have to carry their bombs and mis­siles dangling from the wings, a dead giveaway on radar.

In­stead of stealth, the Navy plans to use high-powered jam­mers to baffle en­emy radar. It is in­vest­ing in an “elec­tron­ic at­tack” ver­sion of the Su­per Hor­net, the EA-18G Growl­er, to re­place the 1970s-vin­tage EA-6B Prowl­ers used today. The Air Force, by con­trast, re­tired its elec­tron­ic at­tack air­craft years ago and is re­ly­ing on Navy jam­mers while it waits for its all-stealth fleet.

“The Air Force does not be­lieve that air­craft lack­ing stealth will be able to sur­vive in the fu­ture,” said Loren Thompson, a de­fense-in­dustry con­sult­ant and ana­lyst at the Lex­ing­ton In­sti­tute who has close ties to Air Force of­fi­cials. The So­viet Uni­on col­lapsed be­fore Mo­scow could build the in­ter­lock­ing sys­tem of ad­vanced Suk­hoi fight­ers and long-range sur­face-to-air mis­siles that the F-22 was de­signed to de­feat. But Rus­sia’s cash-strapped de­fense in­dustry has sold some of its tech­no­lo­gies abroad, al­low­ing China, in par­tic­u­lar, to raise the risks for any non­stealth air­craft op­er­at­ing with­in a few hun­dred miles of its ter­rit­ory. As Suk­hois and SAMs pro­lif­er­ate, Thompson said, “the Air Force doesn’t un­der­stand why the Navy doesn’t feel a great­er sense of ur­gency about mov­ing bey­ond the ex­ist­ing Su­per Hor­net.”

Navy Capt. Mark Dar­rah, chief of fight­er mod­ern­iz­a­tion for the Nav­al Air Sys­tems Com­mand, ac­know­ledges that the Su­per Hor­net is not stealthy. “We know that,” he said, but “when we look at sur­viv­ab­il­ity, it’s a mul­ti­faced is­sue, and the ob­serv­ab­il­ity of an air­plane is just one as­pect.”

The Navy’s prob­lem with stealth is Moore’s Law, re­fer­ring to the rap­id im­prove­ment in com­puter chips. Be­cause stealth has to be built in­to the ba­sic struc­ture of an air­craft, the de­gree to which a plane re­flects radar beams back to en­emy re­ceiv­ers re­mains es­sen­tially the same throughout its 20-plus years in ser­vice. The com­put­ing power avail­able to those radar re­ceiv­ers to dis­tin­guish faint sig­nals from back­ground noise, however, doubles every 18 months. “Sig­nal pro­cessors are get­ting faster all the time,” said Nor­man Fried­man, a mil­it­ary ana­lyst and his­tor­i­an who is a lead­ing crit­ic of stealth. “There may be some reas­on to be­lieve Moore’s Law is go­ing to top out, but how much money do you want to bet on that?”

The Air Force’s prob­lem with jam­mers is that by defin­i­tion they emit en­ergy. If the jam­ming does not blind the en­emy, it gives away your loc­a­tion in­stead. The F-22 and F-35 will ac­tu­ally have sig­ni­fic­ant elec­tron­ic war­fare ca­pa­city built in, but as long as their jam­mers are on, their stealth is ef­fect­ively off. Still, F-22 and F-35 pi­lots will at least have a choice between pass­ive stealth and act­ive jam­ming; their Su­per Hor­net col­leagues have jam­ming, or noth­ing.

At best, the Air Force and the Navy will end up with two very dif­fer­ent but com­ple­ment­ary fight­er fleets, each op­tim­al for a dif­fer­ent kind of en­emy, each a hedge against the fail­ures of the oth­er. At worst, neither will be able to af­ford enough planes for its chosen ap­proach to work at all.

What We're Following See More »
Latest Count: 12 Trump Campaign Staffers Had Contact with Russians
1 days ago
Mueller Seeks Documents from DOJ
3 days ago

Special counsel Robert Mueller "is now demanding documents from the department overseeing his investigation." A source tells ABC News that "Mueller's investigators are keen to obtain emails related to the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the earlier decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the entire matter."

Trump May Be OK with Dropping Mandate Repeal
3 days ago

"President Donald Trump would not insist on including repeal of an Obama-era health insurance mandate in a bill intended to enact the biggest overhaul of the tax code since the 1980s, a senior White House aide said on Sunday. The version of tax legislation put forward by Senate Republican leaders would remove a requirement in former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law that taxes Americans who decline to buy health insurance."

Media Devoting More Resources to Lawmakers’ Sexual Misconduct
3 days ago

"Members of Congress with histories of mistreating women should be extremely nervous. Major outlets, including CNN, are dedicating substantial newsroom resources to investigating sexual harassment allegations against numerous lawmakers. A Republican source told me he's gotten calls from well-known D.C. reporters who are gathering stories about sleazy members."

Trump to Begin Covering His Own Legal Bills
6 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.