Three decades ago, when Steven Pennington entered the Air Force, the service was facing such deep budget problems that squadrons were running out of toilet paper. It was the nadir of the infamous “hollow force” era, the post-Vietnam hangover that saw military readiness fall to calamitous levels.
“In some ways, the problem is worse now,” charged Pennington, now a colonel serving as the Air Force Operations Group commander at the Pentagon.
The Air Force has seen readiness decline by 17 percentage points across its fleet since 2001, and readiness is down 12 percent in just the past three years. The areas most affected are in the “older airplane arena,” Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff, said recently, because tankers and other old aircraft continue to log many flying hours decades into their service lives.
Today, however, the Air Force is still flying many of those same airframes from the early 1980s and is managing the oldest fleet in its 60-year history.
“When you look at the 17 percent degrade of the readiness rates,” Moseley told reporters in April, “you begin to see you are getting higher failures, higher cost per flying hour, more maintenance action per flying hour—all of the things that are attendant whether you have a ’57 Chevrolet or a ’57 KC-135.”
High Usage RateIndeed, Air Force plans devised years ago called for deploying only two of the service’s 10 air and space expeditionary forces at a time. But since the outset of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Air Force has been sending far more to the fight than that. The deployment level spiked as high as 4.5 AEFs’ worth of personnel and equipment during the initial invasion in Iraq, said Maj. Gen. Paul J. Selva, USAF director of strategic planning.
The high utilization level forces expeditionary units to share between 10 and 15 percent of their airframes and other assets with other deployed units, Selva said.
Back at home stations, nondeployed units are lending higher numbers of supervisory personnel and senior noncommissioned officers to the units heading to a theater. This reduces the number of experienced airmen with needed technical skills at the home bases.
The result of all these factors is a continued downward trend in readiness. Before operations began in Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly 70 percent of the Air Force’s units were ready to deploy. (The rate will never be 100 percent, because the AEF system builds in recovery and “spin-up” time before and after deployments.)
“We’re flying about the same flying hours that we were 10 or 15 years ago, but we’re doing it with about 1,300 less airplanes,” Moseley said. “So as your fleet ages and you hold constant the utilization rate on the airplanes and they’re old airplanes [that] have a tendency to break, ... that’s where the 17 percent comes from.”
Moseley and other Air Force officials estimate that the service will need $45 billion right out of the gate and a whopping $20 billion annually over the next 20 years to right the force. The extra money, Moseley said, would allow the Air Force to keep up with rising O&M costs while also buying needed aircraft faster. Higher purchase rates serve a number of purposes. They eventually drive down per-unit costs and allow reliable new airframes to replace problematic older ones.
At the same time, USAF airmen also are performing nearly 100 percent of the missions for Operation Noble Eagle. Every day, there are more than 100 fighters, a dozen tankers, and a “handful” of E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft committed to this homeland air defense mission, Moseley said.
As the aircraft age, the cost to keep them flying continues to increase. Service officials estimate that operation and maintenance costs have grown by a staggering 180 percent in the last decade, largely due to extensive and continuous repairs required on the airframes.
Delicate BalanceRebuilding old airplanes, Pennington said, is like running a car well beyond its life expectancy. It also forces the service to strike a difficult balance between maintaining what the Air Force has now and attempting to invest in the future. In the end, it is often the future investment that gets the short shrift.
The need for more resources—for personnel, equipment, and aircraft—is something service leaders are attempting to drive home in the media and to Congress. But as service officials campaign for more cash, the Air Force is finding itself in a de facto competition with the Army and Marine Corps.
Air Force officials, however, stress the folly of using USAF and Navy accounts to fund increases in the Army and Marine Corps budgets. There is a strategic danger in fixating on the immediate needs in Iraq.
Airpower provides worldwide deterrence even while the military has more than 100,000 ground troops tied down in Iraq. Curtailing aircraft buys would be “extremely shortsighted and costly” to the country in the next 20 years, the Air Force asserts. “If we do not replace our aging combat aircraft with sufficient numbers of advanced, modern platforms, we will surrender a deterrent of immeasurable value.”
The Air Force needs more than money to solve its vexing readiness problem, however. Congressional restrictions on retiring older aircraft continue to bedevil the service as it pays hefty bills to maintain aging airplanes that USAF hoped to send to the “Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., years ago. (See “Under Lockdown,” September 2006, p. 54.)
Many of the aircraft date back to the procurement heydays of the 1960s, when the Air Force bought, on average, more than 600 new airplanes a year. Across the fleet, the average airframe dates to 1983.
The money spent maintaining obsolete aircraft would be better spent on new equipment. “Those maintenance guys who are stretched pretty thin don’t need to go out and turn the tires and check the interiors of those broken airplanes,” Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Kane, director of plans and programs for Air Mobility Command, told Air Force Magazine last year. “Those are combat ineffective aircraft that we’re maintaining on the ramp.”
For instance, the Air Force owns 75 percent of the oldest C-130 aircraft in the US military’s fleet—at an average age of 42 years. As of April, 53 C-130 aircraft were grounded or had flying restrictions placed on them because airframe stress made them unsafe for flight.
The Air Force this year hopes to retire all 85 of its KC-135E aircraft—and is asking Congress not to get in the way of doing so. Those Stratotankers now average 49.4 years old—and all must be grounded by the end of Fiscal 2010 because their Expanded Interim (strut) Repairs will expire.
Last year, Congress allowed the Air Force to retire 29 of the KC-135Es and 51 C-130Es, but required the service to maintain all of the airframes at a state that would allow them to be called back to service, if necessary. They also limited retirements of B-52 bombers to 18 airframes and required the Air Force to maintain no less than 44 combat-coded aircraft.
For all the current readiness woes, Air Force officials stress that the service is ready to fight. Like their brethren in the other services, the Air Force can respond to current operational demands with the best trained—and best equipped—force it has ever fielded.
If the Air Force had to deploy to fight a war in the Pacific region or elsewhere, it would be riskier than it needs to be, Pennington said. Forces, he acknowledged, may not have adequate equipment to respond as rapidly or efficiently as they could under less austere circumstances.
Greater risk in wartime typically translates into more deaths, higher costs, and longer battles.
“The question is: How long can we sustain this and still be ready to do what the nation needs us to do?” Selva said. “I have not seen a period in my career where that question has been quite so pointed.”
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