Cover Story: In the Air - Aging Aircraft

National Journal
Sydney J Freedberg Jr
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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.

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