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No Cash for Air Force Clunkers

August 24, 2009
A KC-135 Stratotanker aircrew refuels four F-15 Eagles over Afghanistan.

A KC-135 Stratotanker aircrew refuels four F-15 Eagles over Afghanistan.

Some day some future historian will look back at the Peace Dividend of the 1990s, and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the next decade as what put the nails in the coffin of manned airpower. Having wasted two decades trying to deploy the perfect fighter, the USAF is belatedly playing catch up, likely too late as ancient planes greatly exceed their reasonable lifespans and the drones displace traditional jets in many roles.

A glaring example of the decrepit state of the once state of the art American Air Force, is its ancient fleet of KC-135 aerial tankers. Here is Danger Room’s own Noah Shachtman detailing how “Ancient Jet Keeps the U.S. Air War Flying“:

I’m in front of a matte-gray jet, designed to deliver gas to the rest of the American air armada as it buzzes over Central Asia and the Middle East. Every day, the KC-135 tankers here haul a million pounds of fuel. Without them, the fighter jets, bombers and airborne haulers circling above Afghanistan and Iraq would drop out of the sky. That’s a pretty heavy burden for a bunch of old-timers — this plane was built in 1960.
“And this is one of the newer ones,” says Captain Nick LaPlant, as we walk past rusting flaps and visibly loose panels. “It’s absolutely amazing it stays in the air still.”…

Taking a tour of these planes only reinforces the utter and complete negligence of the folks in the Pentagon and in Congress who have managed for the better part of a decade to screw up the project to replace these creaking gas-haulers. The nearly $100-billion contract for the next generation of tankers has not been awarded yet, despite countless attempts. And the current crop will be around for a whole lot longer.

The Air Force’s tanker fleet is the core of its unmatched expeditionary strategy. Without aerial refueling the whole thing falls apart. How this simple bit of logic escaped the USAF leadership, with their visions dazzled by superfighters and dogfighting near to space, is unknown. Clearly the F-22 Raptor has played a major part in the decline and fall of the Airpower as we know it.

The decades long delay in the F-22 Raptor’s entry into service likely destroyed its chance to be deployed in adequate numbers, but has given the new unmanned aerial vehicles the opportunity to shine in our current wars. During the same period the Navy, desperate to find a replacement for its aging F-14 Tomcat, wasn’t so particular, so they updated the proven and affordable F/A-18 Hornet into a brand new fighter. Selling the advanced jet to Congress as just an “upgrade” to the old design, they avoided mandatory tests and deployed just in time for the start of the War on Terror. Though test-flown years after the first Raptor (1990 versus 1995), the Super Hornet beat the stealth jet into service (2001 versus 2003), as well as into combat (2002 versus ?), which the more costly plane has yet to see.

Rather than being an asset to the Air Force, the Raptor has become its albatross, sending it into a procurement death-spiral, perhaps irreversibly so. Decades of wasted billions have given the service a weapon in far fewer numbers than it required and useless for the type of conflict the military is fighting. Ironically, the F-22 has left America’s youngest service dying of old age, as we see with the KC-135 tanker force. You can also add to the list the backbone of the bomber force, the venerable B-52s, as well as the heart of the transport fleet, the C-130 Hercules design, all of which were ordered in the Eisenhower Administration.

The MQ-9 Reaper has the ability to carry both precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles.

The MQ-9 Reaper has the ability to carry both precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles.

Belatedly, some relief is on the way, with the new F-35 Lightning II set to deploy in the middle of next decade. Yet as with the Raptor, the USAF is betting the farm on this untried plane geared to replace a half dozen older planes. Much like the older super-jet, it will have to face newer austere budgets in an era of economic downslide. Once again this is good news for the drones. Until then, the ancient fleet of F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, A-10s, and AV-8Bs, backed by the ancient KC-135s will soldier into another decade, just as they have for many decades.

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