Some of the B-52 long-range bombers that so relentlessly pounded
Taliban and al Qaeda fortifications in Afghanistan are more than
40 years old, and the U.S. Air Force plans to keep flying them for
another four decades. If they do, officials said, it will be like
bombing Osama bin Laden with aircraft built by the Wright brothers.
The Air Force knows that it has problems with aging aircraft, and
it is seeking new solutions for them. "We have 6,300 aircraft,
and they’re all aging," said Col. Rosanne Bailey, director
of the service’s new Aging Aircraft System Program Office,
at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Ohio. Bailey is scheduled
for promotion to brigadier general later this month. The Aging Aircraft
SPO was established in 2001 as a wing-level organization, within
the Aeronautical Systems Center, to develop and implement a comprehensive
modernization plan for the Air Force’s fleet of planes, she
The average Air Force aircraft is more than 22 years old, Lt. Gen.
Michael Zettler, deputy chief of staff for installations and logistics,
told a recent Pentagon news briefing. The average age will continue
to rise, he said, even if the service is able to acquire new generations
of platforms, such as the F-22 air dominance fighter and F-35 Joint
Strike Fighter. "If we buy all the aircraft that are in our
future years defense plan, the average age will grow to 30 by 2015."
The older an aircraft, the more difficult and expensive it is to
maintain, the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. John P. Jumper, told
a DFI International seminar in Washington, D.C.
"We have more than 100 Boeing 707 platforms right now at our
logistics facility at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, just for
corrosion and aging aircraft problems," he said. "Those
airplanes that used to spend four or five months in depot status
are now spending upwards of a year in depot status, just because
of the aging problem." Jumper said he would like to replace
the B-707s with B-767s.
The age factor affects all categories of aircraft in the Air Force
fleet, officials said. They cited these examples:
During the Cold War—when some of these aircraft were designed—nobody
gave much thought to the problem of aging aircraft, said Bailey.
Back then, airplanes were expected to last about 20 years, she said.
When something went wrong, you fixed it as simply and quickly as
possible, she said. And when the aircraft reached the end of its
service life, you retired it and sent it to the aircraft "bone
yard"—the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center
at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, near Tucson, Ariz.
Off to the ‘Bone Yard’
As the name suggests, the "bone yard" stores and recycles
retired U.S. military aircraft. At last count, its inventory included
4,600 Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft
of all types, lined up in row after row on dusty tarmac. Some are
used for parts. Others are sold to U.S. allies.
Approximately 365 B-52s were dismantled during a three-and-a-half-year
period to comply with the conditions of the 1991 Strategic Arms
Reduction Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union,
officials said. The bombers were destroyed, using a 13,000-pound
guillotine blade to sever fuselages.
Since the end of the Cold War, few new aircraft have been ordered.
And of those that were purchased, procurements were sometimes reduced.
For example, the Air Force originally planned to buy more than 100
stealthy B-2 Spirit bombers, but ended up ordering only 21. They
were delivered between 1993 and 1999.
As a result, the Air Force is forced to keep its existing fleet
of aircraft much longer than first anticipated. The challenge, Bailey
said, is to "keep them flying and to keep them relevant."
That’s not an easy task, officials said. As aircraft age,
they begin to encounter, in varying degrees, fatigue cracking, corrosion
and wear, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, the previous Air Force chief of
staff, told the House Armed Services Committee. At the same time,
he said, "the industrial base that supports older aircraft
is drying up, as aerospace companies leave niche markets—particularly
in electronics, where commercial systems have long ago abandoned
technology still in use in the Air Force." As a result, spare
parts are becoming increasingly difficult to find, particularly
for older platforms.
Since 1997, the Air Force has taken a number of steps to address
this problem, Ryan said. "First, we have fully funded ‘depot-level
repairables’ accounts, which are used by operating units to
‘buy’ spare parts from Defense Department and Air Force
sources," he explained.
"Second," Ryan said, "we increased inventory levels
of critical spares by the obligation of certain working capital
funds, and we are programming budget authority to pay for these
spares as they are delivered.
"Third, we are working to consolidate Air Force depots and
to make the parts system more efficient, to keep down the costs
of spare parts ...
"Fourth, we are modernizing critical subsystems in our older
aircraft, where it is no longer cost effective to make repairs on
individual components, or where manufacturing sources for component
repair are no longer available." Some examples:
To modernize the 17-year-old B-1 Lancer long-range bomber, the
Pentagon wants reduce their numbers by a third, from 93 to 60.
The estimated $165 million in savings would be used to upgrade
the remaining aircraft, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche told
a Senate armed services subcommittee.
Low Mission-Capable Rates
"The B-1 aircraft’s mission-capable rates have remained
between 51 and 62 percent during fiscal year 2000 and fiscal year
2001," he said. The Air Force plans to use the savings "to
modernize the B-1’s precision weaponry, self-protection
systems and combat reliability," Roche said.
The Air Force plan would involve shutting down an Air Force B-1
wing in Idaho and Air National Guard units in Georgia and Kansas,
which quickly raised objections on Capitol Hill.
The Northrop Grumman Corporation has proposed building 40 new
B-2 bombers over the next decade at a cost of $29.5 billion. That
would bring down the average cost per aircraft from more than
$1 billion to $545 million in fiscal year 2000 dollars, according
to Northrop Grumman spokesman Jim Hart.
Roche, however, is not interested. He would prefer, he said,
to spend that money on a wide array of Air Force needs, including
upgrades for the existing B-2 fleet, which has a 20-year-old design.
"Modernizing the B-2’s stealth technology will improve
its maintainability by 8 percent," he said. "And the
B-2 requires significant upgrades to cockpit displays and in-flight
replanning tools before we can fully capitalize on the tremendous
advances inherent in our new precision-guided weapons."
The Aging Aircraft SPO was stood up to coordinate the Air Force’s
efforts to modernize its fleet, explained Col. Michael R. Carpenter,
chief of the SPO’s Aging Aircraft Planning Division. The
SPO—which has about 250 people—has three major thrusts,
First, he said, the office is focusing its efforts on the "ilities"—such
as reliability and maintainability—that are affected by
aging, he said.
Second, Carpenter noted, the SPO is encouraging more sharing
of technologies and solutions among the air logistics centers,
product centers and system program offices.
Third, Carpenter explained, the office is supporting "cross-cutting"
programs that affect several platforms. Some examples: The Large
Aircraft Infrared Countermeasure program is used as a defensive
system on C-17, C-130 and C-141 aircraft. The Common Low Observable
Verification System is employed for a number of stealth aircraft.
And the Joint Ejection Seat Program affects several current Air
To accomplish its mission, the SPO works with other ASC units,
such as the Propulsion Development System Office and the Training
Systems Product Group, on projects such as the Engine Structural
Integrity Program at Tinker Air Force Base, in Oklahoma.
The SPO cooperates with the Air Force Research Laboratory, based
at Wright-Patterson, to develop new technologies to improve availability
and affordability of aging systems, Carpenter said. One solution
that the lab has developed is known as the Mobile Automated Scanner
(MAUS) IV. The MAUS—pronounced "mouse"—is
designed to detect aircraft corrosion, fatigue cracks and other
problems associated with aging, Carpenter said.
"Without taking the skins off the aircraft, MAUS can ‘look’
inside to see if there is corrosion and how extensive it is, so
we can determine if it’s safe to fly or has to be fixed
right away," he said.