Replace aging aircraft or risk irrelevancy, general says

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. (AFPN) -- The commander of Air Force…

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. (AFPN) — The commander of Air Force Materiel Command, which is responsible for delivering war-winning capabilities to the rest of the Air Force, said during a visit to Air University here that Air Force officials must develop and buy new aircraft or risk the service becoming irrelevant.

The Air Force must be careful not to be outclassed in the next war, said Gen. Bruce Carlson shortly after speaking with Air War College and Squadron Officer School students Feb. 27 about the importance of recapitalizing the Air Force’s aging fleet to maintain air dominance.

“Soon we could be flying against aircraft and air defense systems that our older aircraft were not intended to fly against,” General Carlson said. “And if we don’t have the freedom to operate in hostile territories, we risk fighting the next conflict on our home territory.”

The recapitalization crisis Air Force leaders see today is a side effect of the United States winning the Cold War, General Carlson said. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States took on the title of the world’s only remaining superpower. As a result, national priorities shifted away from defense projects.

“The decision was made to reduce the defense budget for more domestic priorities because there was no longer a threat,” the general explained. “This is when we went on what has been called a ‘procurement holiday.'”

Unlike Army and Marine Corps assets that were able to reconstitute after Operation Desert Storm in 1991, General Carlson said the Air Force has remained in an almost constant state of “war” for more than 17 years.

Leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, Air Force aircraft were charged with enforcing the no-fly zones in Iraq for more than a decade as part of operations Northern and Southern Watch. Additionally, Air Force aircraft also spearheaded NATO’s strategic bombing campaign against the Serbian government in the Balkans in the late 1990s.

In recent years, General Carlson said, required maintenance on the F-15 Eagle has skyrocketed to 600-700 hours more than official estimates. Last November, one of the older F-15 models assigned to the Missouri Air National Guard broke in half during a routine training mission, prompting the Air Force to ground the entire F-15 fleet for several weeks.

“We’re getting into unknown territory because we’ve been flying airframes longer than expected,” General Carlson said. “We didn’t build these aircraft to last this long, and we didn’t expect to see corrosion of this magnitude. The F-15 is expected to remain in service until it’s more than 40 years old. At this rate, maintenance costs are going to kill us.”

In an Associated Press report last week, one senior Air Force official talked about the serious effects caused by the high operations tempo and G-force stress on older fighters. Gen. John Corley, Air Combat Command commander, said flight hours on aircraft like the F-15 could be compared to “dog years.”

As China continues to modernize its military forces and Russian aircraft continue to test American responses near Alaska and Japan, the Air Force is at a critical point in maintaining air, space and cyberspace dominance, General Carlson said.

“There are others out there who are trying to build up their airpower so they can exert their will over us,” he said.

On the aerial refueling front, Air Force leaders made a major announcement Feb. 29 that Northrop Grumman had been awarded a contract to produce up to 179 tanker aircraft at a cost of approximately $35 billion. The new KC-45A aerial refueling aircraft is slated to replace the 50-year-old KC-135 Stratotanker that currently provides air bridge capabilities for the entire Air Force inventory.

“It is the first step in our critical commitment to recapitalize our aging fleet to move, supply and position assets anywhere. In this global Air Force business, the critical element for air bridge, global intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and global strike is the tanker,” said Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Duncan McNabb in making the announcement.

“The tanker is the number-one procurement priority for us right now,” General McNabb said during the announcement of the tanker contract award. “Buying the new KC-45A is a major step forward and another demonstration of our commitment to recapitalizing our Eisenhower-era inventory of these critical national assets. Today is not just important for the Air Force, however. It’s important for the entire joint military team and important for our coalition partners as well. The KC-45A will revolutionize our ability to employ tankers and will ensure the Air Force’s future ability to provide our nation with truly Global Vigilance, Reach, and Power.”

While senior Air Force officials continue to ask Congress for approximately $20 billion in additional funding over the next few years, General Carlson said he will be working to “reinvigorate” the acquisition process and to focus on development, acquisition and sustainment programs that will follow the lifespan of Air Force airframes from cradle to grave.

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