The hidden cost of an aging fleet

General John J. Hoffman, chief of Air Force Materiel Command, has a realistic view of how a geriatric fleet with varying degrees of combat utility is going to fly and fight.  In an interview related by Air Force magazine’s executive editor John Tirpak, General Hoffman paints a bleak but pragmatic picture of the materiel challenges facing the United States Air Force.

In an interview, Hoffman said the Air Force has been lurching from one potentially fleet-grounding mechanical issue to another with its legacy combat forces. He noted the need to unexpectedly rewing the A-10 fleet, fix numerous F-16s with cracked bulkheads, and cope with last year’s grounding of F-15s due to longeron problems.

Hoffman said the Air Force will “get through” the current spate of structural problems, but he can’t provide any assurances that such events won’t become the rule.

“Is there another event behind any of those? Sure, could be,” Hoffman said. “We could have the whole fleet back on the ground with another event.”

— John A. Tirpak.  “Washington Watch“, Air Force magazine, May 2009.

One of the prime challenges facing USAF is a lack of funds for fleet modernisation and recapitalisation.  In today’s funding environment, there is a very real possibility that today’s upgrade programs will take so long to approve and execute, that they will be obsolete by the time the capability is fielded.

He noted that a new radar in the F-15E offers a profound reduction in mean time between failure rates. Over time, the new radar “pays for itself” in cost avoidance. However, it’s “going to take us 20 years to actually install it,” given the funds available. After only a few years, he said, he’s certain that USAF will face a “vanishing vendor” issue wherein some of the parts will be out of production. The upgrade would more sensibly have been done over three or four years, but the lack of up-front investment dollars blunts the savings.

And worst of all, some of today’s close air support systems will still be considered front-line aircraft when the F-22 starts retiring.

Although he feels confident USAF can keep old aircraft flying safely for a long while, the real issue is “whether they’re still relevant” militarily.

The F-22 may be the newest aircraft on the ramp, but within a decade, the first operational models will near their planned service lives of 8,000 hours, Hoffman said. To reduce wear and tear on the Raptors and get them to last longer, the Air Force reduced the amount of close-in dogfight training that F-22 pilots do.

Further, “I’ve tasked the system to think forward into the later ’teens about what a life extension program would look like on that aircraft,” Hoffman said. He thinks the wings could be replaced, but the complex composite materials and sophisticated electronics would be trickier.

Still, “we’ll be retiring [F-22s] while we’re still flying A-10s. Something doesn’t seem quite right about that.”

The F-22 faces an additional challenge as it ages, because it incorporates a lot of composite materials.  In aluminum aircraft, when a major structural part ages out, the aircraft can be dissasembled, the part replaced, and the aircraft riveted back together.  But composite aircraft can’t be taken apart and rebuilt so easily.  They have no rivets or plates that can be pulled apart easily.  The composite material forms a seamless woven shell.  Carving up the aerodynamic shell to refit major structural parts, refurbishing or replacing them, and then rebuilding the composite weave, is something that has never been done on a composite airframe to date.  The Raptor will be among the first.  (This is also, incidentally, a challenge that will be faced by Boeing’s brand new 787 Dreamliner, another composite-heavy airframe.)

In the long run, though, the Air Force faces some hard choices about the kind of aircraft it can expect to field on Day One of a war, and which airframes will be too weak or vulnerable to put in harm’s way right away.

Fighting with a mixed fleet will require the Air Force to sort its capabilities into “Day 1, Day 2” systems that can penetrate enemy airspace, and “Week 2” capabilities that can only operate when defenses have been beaten down, Hoffman observed.

“In extremis,” he said, the Air Force may have to “put more risk on the operators.”

To defeat enemy defenses, Hoffman said USAF will have to think in terms of persistent systems that will have to be survivable—through stealth, speed, or standoff range—or expendable items such as drones or missiles whose loss can be tolerated. He prefers to frame the choices in that context rather than in terms of “stand in [and] stand off.”

The short version, one suspects, is that the F-22 and F-35 are the Day 1 and Day 2 systems.  Week 2 is all the vintage hardware and slow UCAVs that require the safety of a permissive environment.

The brass, bless them, are self-aware enough to realise how they got into this sad state of affairs.

The Air Force’s combat fleet is in crisis in large part because the Pentagon hasn’t applied a consistent formula for deciding how many aircraft are needed, what capabilities they should have, or how often they should be bought. Now, there aren’t enough, and most of the inventory is aging out.

So said retired Gen. Gregory S. Martin, former head of Air Force Materiel Command, who noted that most of the choices made in the last decade about USAF’s future combat inventory were arbitrary, based on cost rather than strategy. He urged that the Air Force adopt a firm formula, with measurable elements, that will clearly justify the pacing of new aircraft buys.

“Where we may have gone astray as a nation [is] in following basic principles of force structure development and force sizing and force structure replacement,” Martin said.

“We are in a crisis … brought about by not having a rule set that is basic, easy to articulate, and [able to] … sustain a modernization or recapitalization program.” The Navy, he said, has been successful in laying out and defending such a plan, based on the number of carrier traps each aircraft endures. The commercial airline industry uses a standard based on number of flights, after which aircraft are retired because new technology offers operating savings.

If any of this sounds vaguely familiar to Canadian readers, it is because that is exactly how our own NDHQ handles Canadian military procurement.  Like USAF, the CF doesn’t have a basic rule set, that is easy to explain—to politicians or the Canadian public—as to why we need X number of assets for mission Y, for an expected lifetime of Z years.  But don’t expect our own brass or their media boosters to wise up any time soon.  The problem, we are continually told, lies with our politicians and their inability to properly understand and fund the defence establishment.  As opposed to the chronic inability (not to mention sheer unwillingness) of the Canadian defence establishment to effectively communicate its roles, missions and requirements to the people that pay its salaries and buy its gear.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t expect politicians—who are overwhelmingly lawyers—to develop a sudden and burning interest in the minutiae of operational procedures and the assets that make them possible.  I do, however, expect that as a bare minimum, some members of the uniformed services might see the wisdom of boiling their roles and requirements down to simple-to-understand metrics, such that a lawyer, unschooled in the martial way of life, might be inclined to fund them.  Failure to do this is, in my mind, not entirely the fault of the lawyer.  It is the fault of the senior uniformed brass who, quite frankly, are negligent or incompetent in the execution of their duties if they cannot manage this task.  It is what they are paid to do. If they can’t do it very well, I’m not inclined to throw up my hands and sigh that we need better politicians.  The military has, historically, crafted its combat leaders from among the ranks of the enlistee pool.  It didn’t sigh and wait for steely men of courage to appear magically.  It taught Ordinary Joes what they needed to know, why they needed to know it, and when to employ it.  Likewise, the armed forces have to take a more active hand in trying to craft the political leadership that they need.  The CF (and USAF) need to build bridges across the mindspace divide, and help politicians understand what they do and how the newest billion-dollar gizmo will help.  Help demonstrably.  Help in neatly defined measurable ways.  If the US Navy can do it, other services can too.

There’s one other realm where a Canadian negative example may be instructive to the United States Air Force.  We have a lot of experience operating old, decrepit gear.  This is something I hear touted all the time, particularly in relation to our CC-130Es, and can’t quite understand why it is supposed to be a source of pride.  So we have some of the highest-time C-130s on the planet.  The ability to keep them in the air is due to some incredible work by the aircraft maintainers, and they have every reason to feel satisfaction at that effort.  Everyone else does not; in fact, they should feel an overwhelming sense of shame.

Airframes age every time they fly, every time stress is placed upon the wing box and spars, every time they climb into the thinner air above 10,000 feet, every time their cabin is pressurised and depressurised.  These are not vintage cars that get trotted out at shows and paraded to envious admirers a couple of times each summer.  These are working aircraft that have to be mission-ready every day, and certainly ready more often than they are not.  When they become breakdown-prone ramp queens, that inversion of work vs. reward has serious consequences.  Ancient aircraft get flight restrictions placed on them, like our oldest CC-130s.  That means that they are no longer capable of doing the job they are supposed to do, that they were bought to do.  They can no longer carry the maximum payload they were originally rated for.  They cannot execute the most demanding combat manoeuvres lest their wing boxes fail and they fall out of the sky.  They have to be treated more gingerly than their younger brethren, and in combat that might translate into the difference between life and death.  For every hour they spend in the air, they increasingly spend several times that on the ramp, undergoing maintenance.  So the maintainers work like dogs to keep them airworthy.  And this is where a modern air force frays at the seams, and eventually fails.

Faced with an ever-increasing maintenance workload, and no chance of getting newer assets, you have three choices.  Hire more maintainers to keep the work hours reasonable.  Fly the assets less often, reducing the maintenance workload.  Finally, since this is the military, you have the option of compelling the maintainers to work more often and for longer duration than they would like.  All three of these will work in the short term, but ultimately results in highly skilled technical trades voting with their feet.  They leave the service, tired of years of extraordinary, unrelenting, unrewarded effort.  This sad state of affairs is not cause for pride; it is a national disgrace.

Yet that is precisely what has been happening with the Canadian Forces since the mid-90s, and continues to happen into the present day.  The low-density, high-demand fields of vehicle, aircraft, marine and electronics technicians are being highly utilised, their workload is increasing exponentially, and the CF cannot recruit and train replacements fast enough to keep the finely-tuned apparatus of a modern force operating smoothly.  This is why we have ridiculous operational pauses every couple of years; to try and catch up.  But we never quite do catch up, because the workload—owing to the age of the assets—is always going up.  The trend never reverses, unless and until the old failure-prone assets get replaced by newer, more reliable gear.

This, then, is the forseeable (but entirely avoidable) future of the United States Air Force.  Let us hope the senior uniformed and political leadership have the courage to fix it.

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