WASHINGTON At a time the nation is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force is battling another enemy: age.
The average age of military aircraft during the Vietnam War in 1973 was nine years. Today, the average age is 24 years, and venerable planes such as the KC-135 Stratotanker and the B-52H Stratofortress are well into their 40s, nearly twice as old as some of their pilots.
"These are geriatric airplanes," said Lt. Gen. David Deptula, an F-15 fighter pilot who's now Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Today, more than 800 aircraft, 14 percent of the fleet, are grounded or operating under restricted flying conditions. In turn, overall combat readiness has declined by 17 percent, in part because of "the aging fleet and our ability to get those airplanes in the air," Maj. Gen. Frank Faykes said at a budget briefing in early February.
The age issue has alarmed the Air Force leadership, which is pushing against rising budget pressures to modernize and restock the fleet.
"It was a looming crisis," said Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. "And now, because of Iraq and Afghanistan, it's a looming disaster."
Air Force leaders argue that their fleet needs to be modernized with next-generation fighters.
But critics of the costly new aircraft programs argue the Pentagon could save billions of dollars and serve its needs by renovating or modernizing the existing fleet. Air Force officials counter that new state-of-the-art planes are needed to maintain U.S. air superiority against emerging threats, such as the worldwide proliferation of missiles and new fighters being developed by countries such as Russia and China.
Deptula told a story to illustrate the problem.
In 1979, when he was a young pilot at Kadena Air Base in Japan, he flew a fresh-off-the-assembly-line F-15; the super-hot fighters had entered service only five years before. Twenty years later, he was flying the same jet to enforce a no-fly zone over Iraq, when half the lights in his cockpit flashed on, signaling a serious malfunction.
"I had never seen anything like this," he recalled. After he landed, the maintenance team discovered that wiring insulation had disintegrated after years of decay, causing an electrical short.
"The question is what's going to go wrong next," said the three-star general. "We have never flown fighters this old. If you're driving a 28-year-old car, you can expect some problems. And 28-year-old cars don't go flying around at 700 miles per hour and pull 9 G's."
In 2002, Maj. James Duricy died after he ejected from his F-15 when the aircraft lost part of its tail while flying over the Gulf of Mexico. The Air Force subsequently has replaced vertical stabilizers on nearly half its F-15 fleet after discovering that so-called water intrusion was corroding the internal structure.
Nearly every other legacy aircraft in the fleet shows the wear and tear of years in most cases, decades of service. Moreover, the aging process accelerates dramatically for the fighters, tankers, transports and helicopters pressed into action in Iraq or Afghanistan, often because of the stress of combat maneuvers or the sandy, wind-tossed environment of the Middle East.
Fighters past their prime
Some key workhorses average 45 years old and an equipment update to cost billions.
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