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The USA's Aging Aircraft Fleets

F/A-18C Hornet
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Defense Industry Daily has discussed the issue of the USA's aging aircraft fleets, and the consequences as the average age of those fleets continues to grow: rising operating costs, uncertainty re: fleet availability, retention issues, electronics issues, effects on procurement budgets, et. al. This issue is closely related to the defense industry cost/death spiral, in which each successive generation of equipment costs significantly more in inflation adjusted terms than its predecessors, and often has higher maintenance burdens. This leads to fleets being kept in service for longer periods, both to justify the costs and to keep the overall numbers up. The issue is a global one, but the effect on the USA is coming to a head in the coming 2 decades.

An article about the B-52 Avionics Midlife Improvement Program discussed the consequences for the USAF's bomber fleet. In "Aircraft Geriatrics," Seapower Magazine takes a closer look at the consequences on the front lines for the US Navy and Marines' aircraft fleets. The services already have the oldest fleets in their history, and even in the unlikely event that the Pentagon gets all of the aircraft it asks for, their average aircraft age will continue to rise. Right now...

"Pilots of the Navy's electronic warfare aircraft were told in recent years not to maneuver their planes aggressively, and the Marine Corps' 40-year-old CH-46 helicopters were placed under weight restrictions for months. The Navy today is struggling to keep its P-3C Orion patrol planes flying despite fatigue cracks and other maladies that threaten to curtail their remaining years of service..." [read the rest]


Yeah, it's bad. It's the primary reason the Air Force is cutting about 60k personnel and making other changes like limiting military moves (the Air Force spent $1.5 billion last year on PCS moves alone).

The military is pouring a lot of money into biofuels as well, since rising fuel prices have hit the military just as hard as the rest of us.

If Iraq continues much longer, the Army and Marines could be facing a huge equipment crisis since equipment is being worn out much, much faster than was originally anticipated.

Only one plausible mechanism exists to reverse the trend observed by this article: the spiral of a World War. Leading up to, and through, and just after each WW, our collective fleets had never been younger in average age. Between all wars, our fleets aged, our ability to fight was economically squeezed ... until the next Big Conflict broke out.

Your garden-variety Lib, upon being tapped on the knee with such a juicy morsel will immediately trumpet, "You see! War is a pretext for the McShrub Chevronhaliburton Chimphitler military industrial complex to pull America into an illegal war against a harmless foe, to prop up untenable pork politics and economically infeasible military expenditures [blah blah] and the draft [blah blah] France [...] EU [...] UN peacekeepers". Well you know what I'm talking about.

Yet at some level maybe it is a factor. A Standing Army that becomes a Sitting Army that becomes a Slumbering Army that becomes a Reserve Army ... eventually becomes a Dessicated Army that is forced by Popular Politics to re-use its equipment for so long that it deprives the War Museums of their relics. I think that the Iran/Afghan wars have kept our military from slipping into the Slumbering-to-Dessicated state, but certainly by trying to make it see that 'fighting Iraq' was of so little 'size' that we could get on by manning it largely with the Reserve Army - Congress kept its blinders on, and hasn't really lept in to fund a New Army in any significant way.

Thus this article.

Hence my conclusion. It will take something substantially larger than 2,500 killed in 4 years in Iraq, a few dozen billion gallons of jet fuel and bunker oil and a whole lot of schlepping to spur Congress into allocating significant funds to re-arm, re-place, and re-fit our Armed Forces.

Not that I like the conclusion - but what, I ask those reading this comment - what mechanism exists, truly that might allow the reversing of this insidious Ageing Trend? The Dems?!?


Conflict of any kind creates faster than anticipated wear, since "anticipated wear" does not include provisions for combat usage. One could keep the fleet in better shape by never fighting with it, therefore. Post-9/11, not an option. Pre-9/11, not an option either (the Gulf War led to early retirement of the C-141 Starlifter heavy lift fleet, Bosnia/Kosovo put tons of extra wear on the C-17 fleet that replaced it, etc.) Good symptom of the peacetime army corruption/mentality at work, however.

GoatGuy, it's not quite so either/or. There are significant bureaucratic/organizational mechanisms that push the military toward more expensive solutions at all levels, and result in poor decision-making.

The military/industrial/ political complex is in fact real, just as there really is a "poverty industry." Both tend to pursue objectives that make a lot of sense for the individuals running the institutions, and not so much for the purposes those groups are charged with. Hardly surprising - just google "Public Choice Economics" or see relevant articles here and here.

Throwing up our hands and saying "the solution is more money" is an abdication of our responsibility as citizens, and a recipe for poor results besides.

In the defense sector, James Fallows' 1981 book National Defense remains a very important book in its field despite its limitations, and this presentation outlining The Defense Death Spiral is another worthwhile starting point.

Conflict of any kind creates faster than anticipated wear, since "anticipated wear" does not include provisions for combat usage.

This really isn't true in tactical aviation. A cycle is a cycle, a carrier trap is a carrier trap, regardless of whether or not the aircraft returns with or without it's ordinance. In fact, you could make the argument that training sorties or mundane patrols cause more wear since, for instance, the gross weight of the aircraft on landing is higher than it would be without it's ordinance.

The EA-6B Prowler, CH-46 Sea Knight, and P-3C Orion are all 30-40 years old. Yet the reason they haven't been updated/replaced is... Iraq? Sorry, that's just dumb.

Better questions:

  • Why are 30-40 year old EA-6B aircraft the USA (and indeed, NATO's) only electronic jamming/warfare aircraft? They're always on call because they're always wanted, but the EF-111 was retired and the EA-18G is still a few years away (around 2009). How did we get to this situation?
  • CH-46 Sea Knight has been the USMC's main helicopter since Vietnam. Its replacement is the $100 million per aircraft MV-22 Osprey, which has a number of tactical limintations. How did that happen?
  • P-3C Orion fleet. Study the saga of its failed replacement efforts, and ask why.

Joe, others:

I respect your analysis and opinion - yet I fault your argument from an angle that continues to bother me, which is rampant among those pontificating in the blogosphere: convolved proclamations of the problem(s), but a dearth of positions delimiting plausible solutions.

For instance, "'Throwing more money at it' is an abdication of responsibility", is of this genre: it deflects the possibility that yes, indeed, more money will in some part solve the stated problem - and duct-tapes the straw man to the wall by appealing to the broadly felt sense that the government, if left to its own, ranges from incompetent to wantonly wasteful.

But let's look the thickness of a C-note deeper, eh? Serial number 001 of a just-developed piece of military ordinance or equipment costs what ... a gazillion times what the same contraption would cost if delivered by the thousand, or million. The military avidly pushes DOWN the acquisition cost of its ordinance as it takes bids for more to be produced. Indeed, rather than to allow the 'development' to be eternally profitized, contrary to "common sense", the military funds and underwrites development itself. So long as we are in a 'buy the minimum' or 'defer the purchase' mode, the few pieces of materiel we do obtain will be - predictably - exorbitantly expensive. S/N-001 syndrome.

It therefore is entirely logical that should the military actually double its expenditure on equipment and systems, the actual delivered quantities would more than double through economies of scale, efficiencies of building mid-rate production plants, rather than hand-crafted one-at-a-time operations (which is now how most of the retrofits and other band-aid programs are run). Indeed, acknowledging that scaling-efficiencies are in large part the core of "the solution", to its merit the military continues to eliminate or retire 'parallel' technology paths. One joint attack fighter, not 2 or 3 or 5 of them, etc.

So then let me state it again: of the possible solutions to your article's problems, I pose that little except the impetus borne by all-out war will focus the mind-set of both the Congress and the American People in authorizing extraordinary expenditure to rearm and upgrade the military significantly. Extraordinary expenditure gets you past S/N:0001 issues, and in turn focusses the armamentum into quickly mothballing its most decrepit bubble-gum-and-bailing-wire systems, making way for the new.

Sorry to have chided you on simply analyzing the problem and not providing much in the way of ideas for solving the issue - complex though they may be - but as I see it, what is the point of blogging at all, if it is only but to stand at the side of the road and report the slow death of the people trapped in the overturned car? GODDAMIT - get out there with your jaws-of-life, or a crowbar or tire-iron, and talk up the ideas that might work!

[On the other hand, I do know that by NOT actually forwarding 'solutions' you get buy-in by us bitjockeys to write up our own contraversial solutions. Maybe that's your goal: to stir the waters, to get people to argue the merits of their plan. As 'Cicero' who I converse with has often pointed out - in writing effective Blog pieces, he has to couch his points as questions, leaving the answers and discussion to the army of commenters who take up the standard and sally forth with their ideas. Is that true for you too, Joe?]


[JK: stickler, you're on the Winds banned list, as is clear to you and has been for some time. Your comments will be deleted when found, irrespective of content. Capice?]

"How on earth is it possible, when the United States is spending more on defense than the rest of the world combined, that we face such grinding equipment problems like this?"

Procurement. The branches want big flashy budget items guarunteed to run over budget and the Congress want their districts to get expensive contracts no matter what the Pentagon wants (or doesnt want) and nobody wants to spend their money on things like transport planes.

Look at the V-22 Osprey fiasco as case in point. They were designed in 1986 with a test budget of 2.5 billion dollars. It is now 20 years and 30 billion dollars later and they are just being deployed- while failing to meet all of their targetted requirements for lift, load, and speed. Oh, and they have a nasty habit of crashing and killing everyone aboard. Not great for a troop transport.

Meanwhile the navy (who generally seem to be the branch least likely to piss their money away for some reason) decided to replace their helicopter fleet with the MH-60S SeaHawk, basically just updating the proven Blackhawk and specializing as needed.

Osprey- 19 marines, ~$100 million/ea
Seahawk- 11 passengers, ~$25 million/ea

The Osprey flies faster in transit but much slower in landing... oh and it cant be repelled out of and doesnt have hatch gunners. Not good news for an airframe designed to drop troops under fire. Meanwhile the Blackhawk has been doing this for years successfully.
This is exactly the kind of lunatic procurement that costs lives, not to mention eats up budget that could be used more wisely.

A couple of other things to add to the equation:

First, personnel costs have risen rapidly, not only due to pay and benefit increases but also from health-care costs (it takes about $110k per year just to keep the average active duty military person on active duty). So today, personnel is taking a much bigger piece of the budge pie.

Second, the military has switched from single-role equipment to multi-role equipment, driving up development costs. Take the JSF, for instance, which has many customer requirements to satisfy. Satisfying the various requirements in one airframe makes development much more difficult and expensive - so do changing requirements. This trend toward multi-role equipment, particularly aircraft, continues. It's why the EA-6b was kept instead of the EF-111 (the 111 couldn't shoot HARM). It's partly why the HH-47 was chosen over the S-92 and US-101.

Third, changing requirements caused by the end of the cold war and the GWOT. The F-22 (now FA-22) was originally envisioned as an air superiority fighter when first conceived decades ago. Now, however, the aircraft must meet multiple requirements and it now looks like it will be an air superiority fighter and a double-digit SAM killer.

Fourth, although defense budgets continue to rise, they are historically low when compared as a percentage of GDP. Although not the best comparison, I think increasing the procurement budget would help.

Fifth, technology is expensive. For example, the HH-47 will cost more than $75 million each, but most of that cost is because of the advanced systems that will be bolted on the aircraft. System's integration and software is time-consuming and expensive, not to mention testing.

Sixth, defense contractors sometimes over promise and under develop. Partly this is due to the military requirements not being realistic to the estimated budget.

The solutions are not easy. Some costs simply cannot be avoided such as when the cold war ended and cold war systems in development needed changing. The biggest part of the problem, and therefore the biggest potential solution, lies in Congress who is generally more interested in how the defense budget will impact their individual states or districts as opposed to actual military utility. Unfortunately, I see little chance of reforming the way Congress does business. Increasing the budget will help, but Congress, as they always do, will earmark much of it away or spend it on stuff the military neither wants nor needs.

Odd the article doesn't mention ...

The P3C is obsoleted, replaced with the c-130, which is being built today.

The FA 18c is new, being phased in as the main strike aircraft on all carriers.

the ch46 is currently in production building replacements, about 6 a month.

Proves the lack of need for such junk as the Osprey.

The F-22 is going operational, replaces the f-15, the f-35 is supposed to replace the harrier, f-18 and f-16. Funding in place, programs ongoing.

I don't see the bleakness that is attempted to be portrayed by the article, I ask, for what purpose are they doing this? There are some old planes in the fleet, always will be.

> Let me state this: we've been in a situation of extraordinary expenditure for the last six years now, while the ruling party refused to raise taxes to pay for it.

When the answer is always "raise taxes", it's hard to believe that the question is relevant.

I'll take the new deficit hawks seriously when they start talking about reducing spending.

[JK: stickler, you're on the Winds banned list, as is clear to you and has been for some time. Your comments will be deleted when found, irrespective of content. Capice?]


You're wrong on all factual counts.

[1] The P-3C is still flying, and has never been replaced by C-130s. It will eventually be replaced by the P-8 MMA (a 737 derivative) and the BAMS UAV (platform to be announced, but the Global Hawk is a strong contender).

[2] The F/A-18C is a 1990s upgrade set for a 1980s fighter. The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, a larger aircraft with only about 25% commonality, is new.

[3] The Ch-46 is no longer in production. This is why the recent supplemental budget replaced crashed CH-46 and CH-53 aircraft with MV-22 Ospreys (and see Mark's comments, above, in #8).

Goatguy, the solution to this issue would fill several books. Most readers are unaware the issue exists, and so this step is necessary. But throwing money at an organization whose dysfunctions make it prone not to spend money well is a recipe for making those dysfunctions worse, and still not getting the required results.

Goatguy and Joe,

Some of us are interested in these issues, but as citizens, not as specialists. I'll read the post & comments, but generally try and adhere to Mark Twain's caution about opening one's mouth and removing all doubt.

What about the F-16? From what I've heard, that project took on considerable political opposition to consciously, and very successfully, buck the death-spiral. And the plane is celebratedly multi-role to boot. Could that (technical and political) approach work again, and if so where?

I'd love to blame this on Rummy world but the reality is this is a result of Congress procuring on the basis of what is good for the district and state not the military. The officer core at the procuremnt level has completely bought into it as it is future career developement.
As much as I do not like much of Joe's political blindness everytime I checked his work on procurement and weapon systems it has more than stood up so I'd stop bickering w/ him on this issue. The real problem is going to be not only getting proper weapons back up to speed but the relucatance to fund them after the Iraq fiasco and fallout from it winds down. Technological advances are going to be competing for funds w/ the demands for more boots on the ground.

I'd just like to point out the obvious: we have been spending hugely unnecessary sums on military ordnance for years. Replacement of this unnecessary burden will further indebtedness and undermine the US economy. We didn't make the USSR implode, they did it to themselves. As are we now, with far less cause. I wonder will our government ever be run by people who live in the empirical world?

Including the deaths of 911, 80 times as many people have died just from largely avoidable car wrecks. There is no enemy about to overwhelm us from outside. All our enemies are inside, stealing jobs and pensions through financial manipulation, and hounding us with their lunatic religious beliefs.

Tom (#17), all our enemies are most assuredly NOT just on the inside. There are simply no words for the foolishness of such a statement, if you meant it as written.

Like any significant organized form of humanity, we're a long way from ideal and could use significant improvement. Frighteningly, one of the things I've seen looking at the international defense market is how many countries are much more screwed up than the US system.

Of course, you don't become a champion by settling. Or stay one.

Anonymouse, The F-16 approach might work well for the US Air Force, as part of a true high-low mix. As short-range air-air missiles have become extremely deadly, and radars to carry medium range missiles have become smaller, the options and potential effectiveness at the lower end are expanding. A lightweight, inexpensive fighter that could do a number of things decently well, accept targeting pods et. al. that would extend its abilities, and get capability upgrades as Moore's Law improves weapons and avionics, might be a winning option over the long term.

The Navy and Marines would have a problem, however.

The US Navy has put all of its future force eggs in the F-35 basket to be its high-end fighter (F-35C), and the Marines must have the difficult-to-develop F-35B STOVL to replace Harrier jets on America's 8+ LHA/LHD ships that cost $1+ billion apiece and need something flying from their decks. About 9 allies are also on board the F-35 project at varying levels of investment and certainty (T1 - Britain; T2 - Dutch, Italy; T3 - Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway; Obs - Israel, Singapore) and would take it badly if it was canceled. As it is, however, rising costs are prompting reassessments.

Unfortunately, there's also an F-35 performance question mark. For various reasons, the F-35 appears to be more of an improved 21st century A-7 Corsair than a 21st century F-16. Very questionable re: taking on front-line fighters like the Su-30 family on acceptable terms, so-so at close air support where the A-10 really shines, good strike but you need the more expensive F-22 for high-threat scenarios, and trades stealth plusses for shorter range and less carrying capacity compared to the older (and admittedly more expensive) F-15E Strike Eagles. It seems to be emerging as a jack of all trades, master of none except its ability to substitute for dedicated reconnaissance aircraft.

The problem with this set is that it makes the F-35 very questionable for a number of high-end tasks (taking on increasingly-advanced air defense missiles, air-air against more modern opponents), but way overkill for many of the lower-end tasks likely to make up the bulk of its missions. For 90% of the missions over Iraq, for instance, an F-35 is overkill and inferior to various less expensive and/or specialized options. So if it can't handle the high end and is sub-optimal at the other end, what's the point, exactly (beyond promotions in the DoD, congressional district work, possible export dollars)?

The F-22/ F-35 concept may have been imagined as similar to the F-15/ F-16 high-low mix, but the execution was different. The F-16, like its contemporary the A-10, was designed to be outstanding in one category: the F-16 as a lightweight dogfighter, the A-10 for close air support. Both faced oppositionj because they contradicted the Pentagon's "multi-role" fetish. Ironically, Moore's Law eventually let the F-16 become a fully multi-role fighter, as the required computing power and radars shrank down to its size and targeting pods like the Israeli LITENING hit the market. The A-10 never became multi-role, just remains tops in the world at what it does. By focusing rather than trying to do it all, trade-offs were made clearer and cost was kept down. The F-35, in contrast, was made explicitly to the Pentagon's "multi-role" preferences and will be outstanding in no category except reconnaissance.

A good example of "shared service design" and "multi-role" imperatives saving money on the specific F-35 project, perhaps... but leading to questions on a macro scale because of the other options they rule out (in this case, a true lightweight USAF fighter or lightweights plus specialty options, or a truly effective high-end Navy fighter), and issues of threat fit.

This is why I've gone from believing the F-22 was ridiculous and the F-35 an example of the "right" way, to a complete reversal of both opinions after 3 years of repeated study and poking into the issue. The F-22A is the indispensable airplane - but it needs a companion at the low end and the F-35 looks more and more like a bad choice. The thing is, the F-35 is excellently designed as a military-political-industrial complex procurement trap (better than the F-22, for instance) even if it's sub-optimal as an aircraft.

The tilt-rotor V-22, which will cripple US Marine Corps' transport aviation for a generation, is a far worse example, of course. But whereas the solution to the V-22 is pretty clear (buy new medium and heavy helicopters at about half the cost with better carrying capacity, invest in R&D into gyrodyne and compound helicopter tech like Sikorsky's X2), the fighter fleet issue is much tougher and I wanted to illustrate the difficult choices facing us now that we're at this juncture in the process. Those difficult choices are, after all, part of the reason the Navy & USMC aircraft average age will continue to climb.

An interesting tidbit I read (possibly on but I forget where) - the designer of the plane was quoted as saying something along the lines of this: "I knew that as the project neared completion, there would be an attempt to jam more electronics and more capabilities into the plane, increasing cost, complexity and weight. So, I specifically designed it with as little empty internal volume as possible, to limit how much extra junk could be crammed in there." He also said that the reason for developing the F-16 was that the trend for longer range aircraft was to build bigger, heavier planes so they could carry more fuel. The F-16 took the opposite approach, reducing weight as much as possible to make what fuel it could carry inside its blended body take it further. I think both approaches show considerable wisdom and wish more projects today were treated similarly.

The F-16 and A-4 were both designed by people obsessed with keeping weight down. They're also some of the best performing and yet cheapest aircraft of their respective eras. Then you have aircraft like the F-15E which took an existing plane and modified it for a new role, very successfully. Why have these type of low-cost, low-risk approaches been lost? I'm all for new-generation aircraft but I think existing aircraft which have been shown to excel in their role should be upgraded whenever it's appropriate. I heard that the reason the F-14s were so maintenance intensive was the old, decaying wiring inside the planes. If the planes had been remanufactured with new wiring, the newer engines and modern electronics, they would still be top-of-the-line fighter/attack jets for much less than the F-18E/Fs cost.

OK Joe #18. What State threatens us?

We are surrounded by four seas and two weak neighbors. From where do we feel conventionally threatened, so that we need to augment our conventional forces? Guerrilla forces fighting in their own homelands do not constitute a threat to our own homeland unless you equivocate. Our own unnecessary interventions abroad have caused destabilization abroad, but no state threatens us militarily.

Our weakness is economic, exacerbated by counter productive military adventures. We can't fix the rest of the world, it would be nice if we could fix ourselves.

Speaking as someone who works with acquisition, I would suggest that the price tags of these systems go up because the requirements are preposterous. A previous commenter mentioned the requirements creep going on with the F-22. In my world, take a look at the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS). It is a total catastrophe. $500M of R&D poured into it and nothing to show for it at all. It's a disaster and the money keeps pouring in.

Take a look at the way the Navy and Marine Corps outsourced their IT systems under NMCI. It's a colossal failure.

Over-specified systems cost a ton of money, plain and simple. The people writing requirements need to figure out that we're fighting barbarians, not technological equals.

Howard Johnson is right! (anyone get that reference?)
#22 Our force structure is largely determined by domestic politics and an internal military-industrial-congressional axis of self interest. We have no National Policy or Grand Strategy: I think it reasonably follows that there is no sense in procurement. The system is corrupt, with uniformed and civilian bureaucrats gliding between private buracracies and public brueacracies and back through a revolving door. And lets not forget the corrupt, ill informed boobs, we call congressman.

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