For decades, the US Air Force has grown accustomed to such superlatives as unrivaled and unbeatable. These days, some of its key combat aircraft are being described with terms like geriatric, or decrepit.
The aging of the US Air Force, a long-simmering topic in defense circles, made a brief appearance in the presidential debates when Republican nominee Mitt Romney cited it as evidence of the decline of US military readiness. His contention that the navy is the smallest it has been since 1917 got more attention, thanks to US President Barack Obama’s quip that the navy also has fewer “horses and bayonets.”
However, analysts say the air force has a real problem and it will almost certainly get worse no matter who wins tomorrow’s election. It was created in part by a lack of urgency in the post-Cold War era and by design glitches and cost overruns that have delayed attempts to build next-generation aircraft.
Looming budget cuts limit the force’s ability to correct itself, they say, as China’s rise as a world power heightens its need to improve. Though the world’s most formidable air force never had much use for bayonets, it has got more than its share of warhorses.
The US probably could not have fought the air wars over Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya without the KC-135 Stratotanker, the air force’s main aerial refueler, which allows fighter jets to remain airborne on long flights. The US has former president Dwight Eisenhower to thank for that.
The KC-135 came into service during Eisenhower’s watch in 1956. The newest of the roughly 400 Stratotankers in service started flying nearly half a century ago, in 1964.
“We are in unknown territory,” said Lieutenant Colonel Brian Zoellner, who has been flying the KC-135 for 15 years and is head of operations for the 909th Air Refueling Squadron at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. “The unknown is at what point does the KC-135 become unusable.”
The KC-46A refueling tanker is being developed as a replacement, but probably will not start delivery for another five years. If Congress has its way, some Stratotankers could still be taking off well into the 2040s.
The F-15, the US’ workhorse warplane since the war in Vietnam, was designed to have a service life of about 5,000 flight hours. The air force has more than tripled that, to 18,000 hours. The F-16, another key fighter, has been in use since 1979. The air force began retiring the oldest ones two years ago.
Another 1970’s-era fighter is the A-10 Thunderbolt, which provides close air support for ground troops. It is now being re-winged because its old ones were riddled with cracks. The General Accounting Office estimates the cost of upgrading and refurbishing the aircraft will be US$2.25 billion through next year.
The air force is revamping its fighter fleet with the stealthy F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but production of the F-22 was cut short after its price tag swelled to nearly half a billion dollars per plane. Delays and escalating costs have also dogged the F-35, which is now the most expensive US Department of Defense procurement program ever.
The fabled U-2 “Dragon Lady“ spy plane is still being used to keep watch over North Korea and other hot spots. The first U-2 flew in 1955, and the legendary Skunk Works aircraft became a household name for its role in the Cuban missile crisis, not to mention the propaganda bonanza the Soviet Union got by shooting one down in 1960 and capturing its CIA pilot, Francis Gary Powers.
Many analysts argue the unmanned Global Hawk could do the job more effectively, but Congress has nixed that idea for now. More than US$1.7 billion has been invested in upgrading the U-2.
Iconic, yes. State-of-the-art, no. The venerable B-52, remembered by movie fans for its starring role in the 1964 Cold War comedy Dr Strangelove, remains the backbone of the air force’s strategic bomber force. It dates back to 1954 and was already losing its edge by the end of the Vietnam War, but nearly 100 B-52s remain in service.
The air force developed the B-1 in the 1970s as the B-52’s replacement. Then-US president Jimmy Carter killed it, former US president Ronald Reagan brought it back and none have been delivered since 1988.
Next up was the stealth B-2 Spirit, which first flew in 1989. Because only 21 were built, they ended up costing a prohibitive $2 billion each. The air force is now hoping to upgrade with what it calls the Long Range Strike Bomber, but it is not clear when it will be ready.