Aging F-15s: Ripples Hitting the F-22, F-35 Programs
Over the last several months, “Aging Aircraft: USAF F-15 Fleet Grounded” has covered the sudden loss of the USAF’s F-15 A-D Eagle fighter fleet, in the wake of an accident in which one of the USAF’s plane’s broke in half in mid-air due to structural fatigue. The ripple effects have been wide-ranging within the existing fighter fleet, as other aircraft were diverted to cover F-15 missions. Pilot re-certification very nearly became a nightmare of its own. The largest effects, however, may play out on the procurement front. If many of the USAF’s F-15s, which were supposed to serve until 2020, must be retired, how should they be replaced?
The US Air Force Association’s February 2008 Washington Watch feature details some of the considerations, and ripple effects, underway:
“On Dec. 12, 28 Senators and 68 members of the House of Representatives wrote to Pentagon chief Robert M. Gates, urging him to keep buying F-22s, at least through the end of the 2009 Quadrennial Defense Review. They said that, in light of the F-15 groundings and reports indicating that “significantly more than 220″ Raptors are needed to fulfill national strategy, ending F-22 production now would be, at best, “ill advised.”… In late December, Pentagon Comptroller Tina W. Jonas directed USAF to shift $497 million marked for F-22 shutdown costs to fix up the old F-15s instead. The move effectively set the stage for continued F-22 production.
…Lockheed Martin has in recent times built F-22s at a rate of 24 a year. The company officials said it would be relatively easy to ramp back up to that figure, and that its facilities could be revamped to reach 32 a year. However, if USAF needed the fighters faster, costs could go up… Asked to identify the longest-lead item in F-22 production, Lockheed said simply, “titanium.”…
Of the Air Force’s hundreds of F-15s, about 180 F-15A-Ds were supposed to remain in service into the mid-2020s. Replacing them with F-22s – above and beyond the 183 Raptors now planned – would require buying at least 20 a year to be minimally efficient. At that rate, it would take nine extra years of production to replace the F-15 fleet fully. Raise the rate, and replacement time would decrease. At 30 per year, the F-15s could be wholly replaced in six years.
However, USAF is also struggling to fund the F-35 fighter. It needs to build 110 per year to replace the F-16 in a timely manner, but can only afford 48 per year in its budget…”
It should also be reiterated that even though about 33% of the USAF’s F-15 Eagles remain grounded, the rest have been certified as still fit to fly – albeit with caveats like no flight above Mach 1.5, and restrictions on certain maneuvers outside of actual combat. In light of that fact, why is there so much buzz over fleet replacement, given the additional costs?
One of the primary motivations is that there’s no guarantee the F-15A-D fleet won’t suffer from similar mechanical issues in future. Inspections have been performed, but one of the key risks of aging aircraft is unanticipated mechanical issues in places you haven’t looked before. The F-15 accident in Missouri that triggered the multinational grounding was a prime example. Uncertainty has its own costs, and using the F-15 Eagle fleet in ways designed to reduce stress on the airframe even further would create problems of their own. For instance, it would be possible to restrict the F-15A-D fleet to domestic overflight, cruise missile defense, et. al., and hope the lower stress and flying hours can nurse the fleet along. The aircraft’s electronics and armament make them very well suited for that role, even if they’re in marginal flying condition. On the other hand, this course of action would add to the load on other USAF aircraft, and create related personnel issues.
The question before US lawmakers boils down to this: are the uncertainties created by the F-15A-D fleet’s condition so great that extra money for proactive early replacement is now necessary – or is the risk of nursing that fleet along considered acceptable, in order to pay for other defense programs?
- DID Spotlight – Aging Aircraft: USAF F-15 Fleet Grounded
- DID FOCUS Article – F-22 Raptor: Procurement & Events (updated)
- DID FOCUS Article – F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Events & Contracts 2008 (updated)