WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- In the era of stealth jets and smart phones, the average Air Force aircraft has been flying since the Reagan administration.
Some, like the B-52, have been around considerably longer. As a young Air Force lieutenant, Ovidio Pugnale of Beavercreek first flew aboard the nuclear-armed bomber in November 1960.
Today, the B-52 remains a primary leg of nuclear deterrence and conventional warfare, and it is hardly the only aircraft dating to Pugnale's generation. KC-135 aerial refueling tankers date from the Eisenhower and Kennedy administration eras, and the glider-winged U-2 spy plane, still flying, was first built in the 1950s with later versions produced in the 1980s.
"The things were only designed for 10 years and they're flying 20, 30, 40 years," said Michael P. Bouchard, a University of Dayton Research Institute aerospace mechanics division leader who has worked on Air Force-paid projects at the university to manage aging planes. "It's not trivial."
Top Air Force officials fear that budget cuts -- including the sequestration -- will further delay modernization plans, forcing the service to patrol above global hot spots from the Korean peninsula to the Persian Gulf with antiquated aircraft.
"At a time when the Air Force is long-overdue for vital reconstitution following two decades of war, our inventory relies upon hundreds of aircraft as old as I am, and our force is at the smallest since its inception," Air Force Chief of Staff Mark A. Welsh said during an appearance before the House Armed Services Committee this month. "Sequestration forces us into the untenable table space of accepting further risk to our nation's defense by sacrificing key elements of the effective provision of air power -- people, readiness, modernization, and their foundational infrastructure."
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, who voted against the sequestration, said he's concerned budget cuts could reduce the pace of modernization and increase costs. The average Air Force aircraft is 25 years old.
"Obviously, the Air Force is very behind the other services in its modernization programs," said Turner, chairman of the House Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee. "The budget pressures could compound their ability to respond to some very grave needs in their fleet."
Ovidio Pugnale's family proves the point. Years after he piloted B-52s out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, his son Mark flew the same aircraft.
"By the time he was flying, I was retired," said the elder Pugnale, a 79-year-old retired colonel.
Some critics, though, says the Air Force has poorly handled multi-billion dollar acquisition programs in an era of post-9/11 wartime spending that more than doubled the defense budget in a decade.
"What we see in the Air Force is in some ways a microcosm of what we see across the Department of Defense, and that's getting less bang for your buck," said Benjamin Freeman, a national security investigator at the Project On Government Oversight in Washington. "If you're already not getting a good bang for your buck and you're already getting less bucks, that can't translate into anything but a shrinking fleet."
The service branch has handled acquisition programs "very poorly," he said.
"The whole acquisition process is just fraught with inefficiency and really going after technology far too quickly," Freeman said. "We're not getting the warfighter the aircraft they say they need."
Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., and a paid consultant to the defense industry, said it is not the maintenance of the aircraft that is the problem -- the service does a good job of maintaining its fleet, he said -- it is age of the fleet itself.
"Most people wouldn't want to get out on the highway in a 40-year-old vehicle," he said, "and in the case of the Air Force somebody might be shooting at you."
Top gun priorities
The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46 refueling tanker and a new long-range strike bomber rank at the top of new aircraft priorities. But those goals, which would cost nearly $400 billion for the F-35 to equip the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, and $52 billion for a new tanker, could feel the pain of spending cuts, according to the highest-ranking Air Force officials, along with moves to slash flying hours and pilot training.
They've warned of a maintenance backlog, as well as further delays in priority projects. Nothing, they say, is completely safe from budget cuts.
"There are a bunch of long-term recapitalization programs that are going to be at risk in this current period of budget austerity," said Barry Watts, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
A long-range strike bomber is particularly at risk, he said.
"Neither the B-52 nor the B-1 (bombers) are going to be able to penetrate modern air defenses and survive very long," he said.
Lt. Gen. Charles R. Davis, military deputy of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, said key programs are overdue for replacement.
"We have significant modernization that we have to undertake now to be able to replace key items in our inventory that will reach a service life, and that has to start now," he said in testimony Feb. 28 to the House Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee.
Davis told lawmakers the Air Force needs to replace a gravity-dropped B-61 nuclear bomb, the air-launched cruise missile, and the B-52.
"... Within the budget there is not the capability within our current constraints to be able to do all those programs, so there's very much the debate going on about where we begin, where we invest and which ones we take on next," Davis testified.
What's old is new
Edward Keating, a California-based economist with the RAND Corp. who has studied the aging fleets of the Air Force and Navy, said old planes aren't a new issue to the military.
"The Air Force has consistently had older and older airplanes throughout its history," he said. "But the Air Force has been pushing the envelope on age throughout its history."
The Air Force kept the fleet flying through maintenance depot work and technology upgrades, such as new avionics and engines, and not flying aircraft that pose safety hazards, he said.
The still-flying B-52 and KC-135s are examples of that, he said. According to the Air Force, the B-52H, the last model of which was delivered during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, has a life span beyond 2040, based on engineering tests. The B-52 still makes up the bulk of the nuclear and conventional U.S. bomber force with 94 aircraft out of a fleet of about 180, including more advanced B-1 and B-2 jets.
"The good news is that the men and women who maintain that airplane have done an assiduous job of replacing components on them," Keating said. "There are parts on it that are 50 years old, but there are all sorts of other things that have been upgraded many, many times."
Lt. Gen. C.D. Moore II, commander of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson, said in September the increasingly expensive cost to maintain an aging fleet could squeeze the Air Force's capability to buy and field new aircraft and systems. The center manages aging aircraft issues.
Among the most important priorities, he told a Dayton Area Defense Contractors Association audience, was how to "address those (rising operational) costs so we're not trading off modernization and future capability just to keep hardware operating. There's a balance there because if your weapon systems support costs are going up 6, 7, 8 percent per year, you will start squeezing out the best new capabilities of new platforms and you don't want to do that."
The University of Dayton Research Institute has for decades through millions of dollars in Defense Department funding studied the problem of aging military planes, from wing cracks to corrosion and outdated avionics to worn landing gear.
"The Air Force has almost 6,000 aircraft and probably a third of them are grounded or restricted for one reason or another," said John Ruschau, UDRI structural integrity division leader. "We've grown our research organization to meet a lot of these requirements that Air Force has."
The RAND Corp. developed a "repair-replace" model that weighs the cost of maintenance versus the expense to replace the aircraft with a new airframe. That tipping point is different for each aircraft, Keating said. While new aircraft are fewer in numbers, they are more capable, Keating and Freeman said.
Meanwhile, unmanned aerial vehicles have given the Air Force more flexibility.
"There's a whole class of unmanned aircraft that's new to the Air Force and those aircraft are able to fill some of the niches that manned aircraft cannot," Keating said.
The service branch, for example, flies MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers for intelligence, surveillance and controversial "hunter-killer" missions overseas that have targeted terrorism suspects.
A 'death spiral'
Despite the arrival of UAVs, the Air Force, like the other military branches, confronts a "death spiral" where manned aircraft become more and more expensive to maintain while the size of the fleet shrinks as the oldest models are sent to the bone yard.
New programs face the same spiral. The stealthy B-2 Spirit, for example, was slashed to 20 aircraft after the Air Force initially hoped to put 132 of the bat-winged bombers on the flight line, said Watts of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
When the first Bush administration stopped production, per-unit costs soared, driven mainly by research and development expenses distributed among fewer jets, Watts said.
"That's where you go from $800 million a copy, to $2 billion plus," he said. "Essentially, the problem is you have kind of a fixed research and development cost and when you spread that over 20 planes instead of 132, it pushes the costs up."
Similarly, the Air Force's stealth F-22 Raptor jet, a fifth-generation, super cruise fighter meant to take over the combat role of the F-15 Eagle, faced a hard landing on fleet numbers. An initial plan to buy 750 Raptors was slashed to 187, he said.
Thompson said fewer F-22s means that aging, non-stealthy F-15s, which first flew in the 1970s and remain easily detectable by radar, stay in the skies longer.
"The biggest problem here is as the fleet ages, technology is not standing still," he said. Potential adversaries have "all sorts of weapons and military systems" that weren't available two decades ago.
Thompson is an advocate for the F-35 to replace 1970s-era military fighter and ground attack jets. The Pentagon wants to buy 2,443 of the new jets for U.S. service branches, including a Navy carrier-based version and a Marine Corps vertical takeoff and landing variant.
"The most important thing the Air Force can do to maintain global air dominance is to keep the F-35 program on track," Thompson said. "Without the F-35, we won't control the skies anymore."
The F-35 has numerous critics, however, who say the jet hasn't met performance standards, remains years behind schedule in development, and costs too much. A Government Accounting Office report, for example, found the $396 billion program's costs skyrocketed 70 percent since 2007. It will become the Pentagon's most expensive weapons system in history.
"That program has had so many problems, so many delays, so many cost overruns from a taxpayers' point of view you've got to ask when is enough going to be enough," said Freeman, of the Project On Government Oversight. "At some point you have to cut back your losses, or at the very least you have to cut back the program."
Compounding development challenges, the Department of Defense has continued testing the F-35 at the same time production has begun, he said.
Thompson, a Lockheed Martin consultant, the F-35 is on a downward path to cost, by the end of the Obama administration, about the same as a new F-16 today.
"If they kill the program, it will cost four times as much to keep the existing planes going as it would just to buy the new one," Thompson said. "What happens is as the airplanes age, everything had to be replaced. It's usually cheaper to buy new planes." --
The Air Force has the oldest fleet in its history with an average age of 25 years. Some of the Air Force's older planes:
First flight: 1954
Last produced: 1962
Number remaining: 94
KC-135 refueler tanker
First flight: 1956
Last produced: 1965
Number remaining: Active duty, 167; Air National Guard, 180; Air Force Reserve, 67
U-2 spy plane
First flight: 1955
Last produced: 1989
Number remaining: 33
T-38 jet trainer
First flight: 1959
Last production: 1972
Number remaining: 546
F-15 fighter jet
First flight: 1972
Last produced: C and D models, 1987. E model: 2004
Number remaining (all models): 468
Source: Air Force Fact File, Boeing, Air Combat Command