HOMELAND SECURITY

National Guard Chief Frets About Aging Aircraft

9/1/2011
By Grace V. Jean
When terrorists attacked the nation on 9/11, F-16 fighters from Joint Base Andrews, Md., scrambled to defend the skies over Washington. Since then, the District of Columbia Air National Guard’s 113th Wing has dispatched its jet fighters more than 3,000 times to intercept aircraft that have strayed into the national capital region’s restricted airspace.

The wing also has routinely deployed squadrons and personnel to fight overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq. The high tempo is taking a toll on the “Fighting Falcon,” an aircraft that was produced in the 1980s. Air Force leaders in recent years have been warning that the aging fleet needs to be recapitalized. The F-16 is slated to be replaced by the F-35 Lightning II, but delays in the program and high costs could keep the F-16 flying much longer than planned.

“We want to make sure that we have a plan to have continuous and potent defense of the National Capital Region,” said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey R. Johnson, commander of the 113th Wing, District of Columbia Air National Guard.

The Air National Guard is flying some of the oldest equipment that is in the inventory, said Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau.

“When you deem something ‘legacy’ in this fiscally challenged environment, it means it’s at risk,” McKinley told National Defense in an interview at the Pentagon. From 2001 to 2011, the Air Guard lost more than 245 planes in its  inventory including 153 F-16s due to retirement, transfers or combat losses, he said.

The Guard potentially could lose many more F-16s because of the “legacy” status of the aircraft, McKinley added. “There’s really nothing in quantity on the books to replace that equipment,” he said.

The Air Force has decided to fund a “service life extension” program for the aging F-16 fleet. The plan, however, covers mostly Block 40 and Block 50 fighters, the bulk of which are not flown by the Guard, but by active-duty units.

“If those trickle down to us, or if F-35s come to us early in the F-35 production, we’re okay,” said Johnson. “But if they don’t trickle down and we don’t get in on the F-35 program early on, now we have concern over our force structure.”

Air National Guard units with air sovereignty missions, like the 113th Wing, will need to see that trickle down in the next four to five years, and perhaps even earlier for some units, depending on the status of their aircraft, he said.

“Three or four years is tomorrow, so we need to start planning right now,” said Johnson.

With another upcoming deployment to Afghanistan, the wing is busy training for combat and adapting to a batch of slightly newer model F-16 aircraft that it received from the New Mexico Air National Guard’s 150th Fighter Wing.

A portion of the wing’s previous fleet of Block 30 F-16s had suffered hail damage from a storm that blew through Washington in 2008. When the Pentagon last year decided to speed up the retirement of fourth-generation fighters, the 113th received 20 of the New Mexico Air Guard’s divested fleet of 21 F-16 Fighting Falcons. Though a year younger than the fleet it previously owned, the wing’s “new” aircraft are part of the Block 30 lot produced by General Dynamics, which sold its aircraft manufacturing business in 1993 to Lockheed Martin Corp. The main difference is that these airplanes have the “big-mouth” inlet — a larger air intake that gives the engine more thrust.

Despite having slightly younger aircraft to work with, the challenge for aircrews remains maintaining the 25-year-old fleet. The planes have some 6,000 flying hours on them, and though engineers say that they should last to 8,000 hours, the truth of the matter is that their age is beginning to show, Johnson said. Unusual electrical glitches and other problems keep cropping up and are indicative of flying a 1986 or 1987 vintage airplane, he said.

“The maintainers are doing a little more head scratching trying to figure some of these things out as the airplanes get older,” said Johnson.

The planes fly hard in combat, but they fly even harder in training, he said. “If we fly harder, they may not last as long,” he warned. “Even if we quit deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, I don’t think it’s going to make a huge difference. Could it make a six-month difference? Sure,” he added. But six months is not much time. “We still need a plan.”

Before the downturn in the economy, there had been some discussion about filling the potential gap with a “4.5-generation” fighter — an existing aircraft of which the Air Force could buy small quantities and fly until the F-35 was fully operational. That option fell off the table as it became clear that the Defense Department could not spare extra dollars.  

“I’m very concerned that, just because of the age of our fleet, some people might discard our Air Guard as out-of-date and incapable of being recapitalized. I’m not willing to accept that,” McKinley said. “But I know intuitively that that’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our Air Guard.”

Johnson said, “We’re certainly not pessimistic. We love our unit, we love our missions and we’ve got a great group of people, so we’re fortunate in that manner. We just have to wade through the turbulent waters.”

Topics: Aviation, Joint Strike Fighter, Tactical Aircraft

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