Cracks in America's Air Defenses

On the morning of Nov. 2, 2007, four Missouri Air National Guard F-15 Eagles — the primary fighter aircraft for air defense over the continental United States — roared out of Lambert Field, Missouri on a routine combat-training exercise.

A few minutes into the flight, the four pilots each made a couple of four-to-five “G” warm-up turns. Then at an altitude of 18,000 feet, one of the pilots, Major Stephen Stillwell, closed to within 9,000 feet of the flight leader’s jet. “Fight’s on,” Stillwell transmitted over the radio.

The flight leader immediately broke hard right in an eight-G turn.

Stillwell also turned, accelerated and began increasing the aircraft’s G load to 7.8.
Suddenly, his aircraft began shaking violently, and within seconds the F-15 literally broke in half.

Fortunately, Stillwell — though injured in the jet’s crackup — was able to eject and survive.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, the Air Force grounded all of its F-15s, the first of other groundings of America’s front-line air superiority fighter over the past several months. It was soon determined Stillwell’s F-15 came apart during the mock dogfight because the jet’s fuselage was cracked. Stress fractures were discovered in other F-15 Eagles during subsequent inspections.

The sad fact is that our primary air-supremacy jets are old, metal-fatigued, and coming apart. Many were built more than two decades ago before many of the pilots flying them today were born. “Now one third of that force is grounded and headed to the boneyard,” says retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Jim Cash.

The groundings could not have come at a worse time: The Air Force is heavily involved in round-the-clock operations over Iraq and Afghanistan. The force is flying in support of classified special operations worldwide. It is responsible for defending American airspace. China is undertaking a military rebuilding program, as is Russia. And for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Russian air force has resumed long-range bomber patrols far beyond Russian airspace, even going so far as buzzing a U.S. carrier strike group operating in the Pacific in early February.

Simply put, the necessity of Air Force recapitalization and modernization has reached the stage of a here-and-now crisis. Not simply because of the current global workload, but because of the expense involved in rebuilding an air arm (the money has to come from somewhere), the time and R&D required to do it, and the ability to rebuild an aging force of combat aircraft able to project power away from our own airspace and capable of knocking down anything any real or potential enemy may be able to throw at us 10, 20, even 30 years from now. 

The Air Force is asking for $144 billion — of President Bush’s proposed $515 billion Fiscal Year 2009 Defense budget — for “people, readiness, infrastructure, and modernization,” says Maj. Gen. Larry O. Spencer, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for budget. That figure doesn’t include an additional $19 billion in “unmet needs” for specific programs.

But not everyone agrees on the best track to take in terms of new airplanes.

For instance, when considering fighters, some experts say the stealthy F-22 Raptor ($160 million a copy, not adjusted for inflation) — already coming online and designed to replace the metal-fatigued F-15 (around $30 million a copy, depending on the model) — is the answer. Other experts argue F-22’s are simply too expensive.

The also stealthy F-35 Lightning II designed to replace jets from three services (the Air Force’s F-16 and A-10, the Navy/Marine Corps’ F-18, and the Corps’ AV-8 Harrier jump jet). F-35 won’t be operational for a few more years. In its three-service variants, it will be able to launch from ships or short fields, interdict enemy ground forces, and provide close-air-support for friendly ground forces. The F-35 is not designed specifically as an air-supremacy fighter like the F-22, but it will be able to out-dogfight just about anything the bad guys can put up and at a lower cost than the Raptor. 

Another cost factor lies within production orders: If, for instance, the U.S. places a single order with a contractor for new fighters and that order is cut by half or a third (to save money) the cost of each individual aircraft in the adjusted order naturally increases to absorb the otherwise-unamortized costs. Either way, modernizing the Air Force is very expensive, yet very necessary.

The problems go much deeper than just the Air Force’s fighter arm. The force also maintains bombers, tankers, transports, spy planes, unmanned aerial vehicles, rescue helicopters, satellites, intercontinental ballistic missiles, huge bases and underground fortresses, an enormously complex computer network system, and virtually anything else necessary to carry out the Air Force’s official mission: “to fly and fight in air, space, and cyberspace.”

Let’s consider air delivery: According to one senior official at the Pentagon, the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command “flies an average of about 900 sorties a day world-wide. That’s a takeoff about every 90 seconds.”

Then there is the bomber fleet: Aircraft like the Cold War-era B-52 are over 50 years old and should be retired. And the stealthy B-2 (at over $1 billion, not adjusted for inflation) is so expensive, one Air Force source told me, “We almost can’t afford to fly them in combat.”

What about refueling tankers? According to Gen. Cash, “If we don’t rebuild our aging tanker fleet, the lack of operational tankers will increasingly make it impossible to move our military worldwide in a timely manner.”
Cash adds, “The Air Force is procuring approximately 60 pilot-manned aircraft [all types] per year and the fleet consists of roughly 6,000 aircraft. It does not take a mental giant to understand that to modernize the force will take 100 years at that rate. This is completely unacceptable.”

To pay for the skyrocketing costs of maintaining our current Air Force, airmen are being cut from the force at an alarming rate, and at a time when many airmen are needed to pull ground-force duties (filling in gaps for overextended Army forces in Iraq), and more airmen will be needed to continue delivering ground forces overseas to fight the war on terror.

Our initial piece in this series, Defense Spending Crisis, discussed the criticality of spending at least four percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) for defense. However, some senior Air Force sources are telling us that percentage actually needs to be increased to at least six percent of GDP. But few Americans have any real frame-of-reference for understanding — Americans see a video of the Air Force knocking out a terrorist hideout, and wrongly assume we are invincible — and none of the presidential candidates are talking about it.

In a speech last year delivered at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium, Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley said, “Our aircraft will face increasingly lethal anti-access systems, weapons, sophisticated integrated air defense systems, enhanced surface-to-air missiles, advanced fighters, avionics, and air-to-air missiles.”

Cash agrees, adding the Air Force is “not alone” in its need to be rebuilt. “Some will tell you that our Army and Navy are in even worse condition,” he says.

Bad, but not worse, as we will see in the coming weeks; our land, sea, and special-operations forces, are just as desperately in need of recapitalization and modernization.