The Air Force Needs Its Old Planes To Last A Lot Longer

news

First flown in the 1970s, the Air Force could potentially fly the aging F-15 Eagle into the 2040s, according to a top Air Force official in charge of fighters and bombers.


It’s another sign the Air Force may have to keep planes in the air years longer than originally planned while it flies the smallest and oldest fleet in its history.

The average age of an Air Force plane is 27 years. In the interim, the aircraft have continuously flown combat missions for decades, and finding parts often becomes harder as the planes grow older, officials say.

The job to acquire, maintain and modernize more than 2,000 aircraft lands on the Fighters and Bombers Directorate at Wright-Patterson, a workforce of about 3,000 people across the country, said Brig. Gen. Michael J. Schmidt, who since April has been the directorate program executive officer.

Consider that the last B-52 Stratofortress rolled off the assembly line in 1962; the A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-15 and F-16 Fighting Falcon first flew in the 1970s; the B-1 Lancer in the 1980s; and B-2 Spirit bombers have flown two decades.

RELATED: Watch this Air Force general pass out during an F-35 budget brief »

“If you think about those (aircraft), to get those initial operation capability dates, the technology in them was older than that,” Schmidt said. “(It’s a) huge amount of work in sustaining these legacy fleet of aircraft.”

About 20 percent of B-1 bombers, for example, have a parts issue at any one time, a rate about twice as high as other military aircraft, he said.

“Out-of-production parts and vanishing vendors are things that we deal with on every single program, but of course the older the airplane the harder it is to go out and find someone in industry sometimes that is either willing to do it or has the capability to do it,” he said.

For some needs, the Rapid Development Integration Facility at Wright-Patterson has made equipment, Schmidt said.

At the same time, the Air Force faces a shortage of skilled workers in maintenance depots, the one-star general said. More than 25,000 employees work in three Air Force depots at bases in Georgia, Oklahoma and Utah.

Eagle in the skies

The Air Force has started fatigue testing of the F-15 to determine if it can as much as triple the original life span, Schmidt said.

“We’re going to figure out through this fatigue testing process what things are breaking and how much do we have to invest to sustain that airplane to maybe three times the life cycle and then make some decisions on whether we can afford to do that,” Schmidt said.

One of the reasons the Air Force needs to fly the F-15 longer is because it bought far fewer F-22 Raptors meant to replace the F-15, an aviation analyst said. Another is a slower-than-expected pace to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the Air Force expects to declare ready to join the fleet later this year after years of delays and technical challenges.

Eventually, the F-35A will replace the A-10 and F-16.

“The early death of the F-22 program, along with slower-than-expected F-35 procurement, means that last generation just simply have to last longer,” Richard Aboulafia, a Teal Group analyst in Virginia, wrote in an email. “Since the F-15 is a great all-around fighter and strike aircraft, it will stay in service for decades to come.”

In recent weeks, congressional lawmakers have asked the Air Force to explore restarting production of the Raptor. Once envisioned to field a fleet of 750 fighters, the Pentagon slashed the number to 187 out of budget concerns and the last stealth fighter was built in 2011.

Schmidt said he would let the decision-makers determine the need for the jet, “but the longer we wait the more expensive it gets and the harder it gets to reconstitute that group of suppliers.”

Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney, for example, no longer assembles the jet’s engines, he said.

F-15 questions

Keeping the F-15 flying through 2040 depends on how threats evolve, what missions are highest priority and the cost to keep the plane airworthy, another defense analyst said.

“Older F-15s are already gone from the force, because you can’t fly tight maneuvers at supersonic speeds for decades without it taking a toll on the aircraft,” Loren Thompson, a defense expert with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant, wrote in an email.

“It isn’t clear that non-stealthy planes like the F-15 will be able to safely transit hostile airspace 30 years from now — even with upgrades like new jamming equipment,” he added.

Like the F-15, the Fighters and Bombers Directorate modernizes aging planes with updated communications, radar, navigation and defensive systems and weapons and manages foreign military programs of Air Force aircraft sold overseas, such as F-15s to Saudi Arabia, F-16s to Iraq, and the A-29 to Afghanistan and Lebanon, Schmidt said.

The directorate has pushed program managers to work with the defense industry to install new aircraft technologies more quickly through an “open architecture” and worked with small businesses to bring in innovations, Schmidt said.

Air Force depots also have added new capabilities, such as work on F-16 computer software, in recent years, he added.

© 2016 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

U.S. Air Force photo

GENEVA/DUBAI (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump said he was prepared to take military action to stop Tehran from getting a nuclear bomb but left open whether he would back the use of force to protect Gulf oil supplies that Washington fears may be under threat by Iran.

Worries about a confrontation between Iran and the United States have mounted since attacks last week on two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane at the entrance to the Gulf. Washington blamed long-time foe Iran for the incidents.

Tehran denies responsibility but the attacks, and similar ones in May, have further soured relations that have plummeted since Trump pulled the United States out of a landmark international nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018.

Trump has restored and extended U.S. economic sanctions on Iran. That has forced countries around the world to boycott Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own.

But in an interview with Time magazine, Trump, striking a different tone from some Republican lawmakers who have urged a military approach to Iran, said last week's tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman had only a "very minor" impact so far.

Asked if he would consider military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons or to ensure the free flow of oil through the Gulf, Trump said: "I would certainly go over nuclear weapons and I would keep the other a question mark."

Read More Show Less
(Lockheed Martin photo)

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday he is appalled by a state DFL Party staff member's tweet referring to the recently-launched USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul as a "murder boat."

"Certainly, the disrespect shown is beyond the pale," said Walz, who served in the Army National Guard.

William Davis, who has been the DFL Party's research director and deputy communications director, made the controversial comment in response to a tweet about the launch of a new Navy combat ship in Wisconsin: "But actually, I think it's gross they're using the name of our fine cities for a murder boat," Davis wrote on Twitter over the weekend.

Read More Show Less
(U.S. Air Force/TSgt. Dana Flamer)

TAMPA — Minutes before the Acting Secretary of Defense withdrew Tuesday from his confirmation process, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke at MacDill Air Force Base about the need to coordinate "diplomatic and defense efforts'' to address rising tensions with Iran.

Pompeo, who arrived in Tampa on Monday, met with Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. and Army Gen. Richard Clarke, commanders of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command respectively, to align the Government's efforts in the Middle East, according to Central Command.

Read More Show Less
Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO — The trial of Navy SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher officially kicked off on Tuesday with the completion of jury selection, opening statements, and witness testimony indicating that drinking alcohol on the front lines of Mosul, Iraq in 2017 seemed to be a common occurrence for members of SEAL Team 7 Alpha Platoon.

Government prosecutors characterized Gallagher as a knife-wielding murderer who not only killed a wounded ISIS fighter but shot indiscriminately at innocent civilians, while the defense argued that those allegations were falsehoods spread by Gallagher's angry subordinates, with attorney Tim Parlatore telling the jury that "this trial is not about murder. It's about mutiny."

Read More Show Less

President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will "not to go forward with his confirmation process."

Trump said that Army Secretary Mark Esper will now serve as acting defense secretary.

Read More Show Less