After five years at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Air Force is wearing thin.
Dozens of aircraft are too old or fragile to fly safely. Others have restrictions on how fast or aggressively pilots can maneuver them. Humvees, air-control radars and support equipment also are wearing out at alarming rates - two or three times faster than planned.
"It's really approaching a crisis," said Loren Thompson, who regularly advises senior Pentagon officials. He is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington County, Va., think tank.
The average age of the Air Force aircraft fleet is about 25 years, a historic high. Aerial tankers average more than 40 years old. And pilots are flying the same B-52s that their grandfathers flew during the 1950s.
To address the problem, the Air Force may need $50 billion, Air Force officials estimate, and they will be going to Congress for the money in supplemental budget requests. That is in addition to the $300 billion spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I think this next supplemental or the [fiscal] '08 supplemental is an attempt to say that there's some things we've been overlooking," Gen. Ronald Keys said in an interview with defense reporters. He is commander of the Air Combat Command, based at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
While the news from the war zones focuses mainly on ground troops, the Air Force has not been sitting on the sidelines.
Every day, dozens of Air Force fighters, bombers, reconnaissance aircraft, rescue helicopters, cargo planes and tankers fly combat missions.
Fighters and bombers drop bombs and strafe targets almost daily. Nearly every convoy and patrol has a manned or unmanned aircraft overhead looking for insurgent ambushes and roadside bombs.
Most-used are transport planes - C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster IIIs. During December alone, these aircraft flew about 4,000 flights, an average of 130 per day, in Southwest Asia. They carried about 14,100 tons of cargo and more than 72,000 people, and those totals do not include flights to and from the region.
The most-used cargo plane in Iraq and Afghanistan is the C-130, some of the oldest airplanes in the Air Force.
Because of safety concerns, 27 C-130s are grounded and 44 have flight restrictions. That is about one in seven of the C-130s flown by the Air Force.
The cost of keeping older aircraft flying is rising faster than inflation, said Brig. Gen. Paul Selva, director of Air Force strategic planning.
The Air Force has submitted relatively small budget requests so more money could be funneled to the Army and Marine Corps to fix damaged Humvees and armored vehicles, buy improved body armor and bolster combat forces.
Now, Pentagon officials have given the Air Force a green light to start replacing its worn-out aircraft and equipment.
But the new Congress might not be willing to write a big check for the Air Force, Thompson suggested.
Some Democrats have questioned the need for more high-tech, high-cost F-22 stealth fighters, which the Air Force wants to use to replace its oldest fighters. An aborted tanker-leasing deal has soured others in Congress on giving the Air Force carte blanche.
Keys likened the aging-aircraft problem to owning a vintage auto.
"Most of us don't have 40-year-old cars, but if you do, I would imagine you drive them on Sunday afternoon when the sun is out. I've got a lot of 40-year-old cars, and I'm taking them to Indianapolis every day and it's on the backs of my great maintainers and our [repair] depots that we're able to do that," he said.
In some cases, replacement is not an option because aging planes such as the A-10 no longer are made.
Because so many of its fighters, cargo planes, aerial tankers and helicopters are old, the Air Force argues it is smarter to buy next-generation aircraft than to restart assembly lines to make obsolete replacements. The trade-off is that the Air Force gets fewer but more capable aircraft, each with a hefty price tag.
Selva said the Air Force cannot reset its inventory by replacing destroyed or worn-out aircraft with more of the same.
"Reset implies you go back to the status quo," the general said. "For the Air Force, that would be taking a step back."
Aging air fleet
B-2 SPIRIT STEALTH BOMBER
The most modern bomber in the U.S. Air Force is noted for its speed, range and abilty to penetrate defenses undetected.
Cost: $1.157 billion (1998 dollars)
Average age: 12 years
B-1B LANCER BOMBER
The backbone of the American long-range bomber force carries precision and nonprecision weapons.
Average age: 19 years
A-10 THUNDERBOLT II (WARTHOG)
The attack plane is designed specifically to support ground forces with weapons deployable from low altitude.
Average age: 25 years
B-52 STRATOFORTRESS BOMBER
The backbone of the U.S. force for more than 40 years is also used as a transport aircraft, for maritime surveillance and other missions.
Average age: 45 years
The aerial tanker is used to refuel Army, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft and also is used as a transport aircraft.
Average age: 45 years
--SOURCES: U.S. Air Force, Media General News Service
* James W. Crawley is national correspondent for Media General News Service.
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