Air Force leaders argue need to retire old aircraft

Mothballing oldest planes would save $1.7 billion a year in maintenance costs, service officials say.

Air Force leaders made another appeal Wednesday for the authority to retire scores of their oldest aircraft that they said cost $1.7 billion a year to maintain, money that could be used to buy urgently needed new planes.

The appeal by Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley drew bipartisan support from senior members of the House Armed Services Committee, but opposition from some members who have parochial interests in some of the aged aircraft. Wynne noted the Air Force's air fleet is the oldest in history, with an average age of about 25 years.

"We ask for your continued help in managing our fleet without congressional interference," he said.

Moseley said the three-year-old congressional restrictions force him to retain B-52 bombers and KC-135 aerial refueling tankers that are over 45 years old and costly to maintain, C-130 cargo planes that have serious wing cracks and are grounded or limited in the loads they can carry, and C-5A cargo aircraft that have low availability because of heavy maintenance requirements.

"Our desire would be to manage our fleet ... to work our way through that old iron," he said. Because of the restrictions, "we are wasting $1.7 billion a year" to support airplanes, many of which cannot fly, complained House Armed Services Air and Land Subcommittee ranking member Jim Saxton, R-N.J. That view was supported by Armed Services ranking member Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., in a statement read by Saxton.

Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., did not take a position on the restrictions, but noted in his opening statement that 14 percent of the Air Force's fleet "is either grounded or had mission-limiting restrictions" while the service is cutting flying hours, reducing its personnel and has an unfunded requirements list totaling $16.9 billion.

Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Chairman Vic Snyder, D-Ark., asked the Air Force officials for proposed legislation to lift the restrictions and other changes in the law they might need. The committee passed and the House approved language in last year's defense authorization to lift the restrictions, but the relief language was removed in the conference with the Senate.

The restrictions on retiring the oldest aircraft originated when some members of Congress feared that losing the planes would make bases in their districts or states more vulnerable to the 2005 base closing process. It has survived because those airplanes represent jobs for defense contractors or for the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve personnel who fly and maintain them.

That was evident during the hearing when Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., urged continuation of the effort to modernize the oldest C-5s, which is done at a Georgia-based Lockheed Martin Corp. factory, and Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairwoman Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., supported retention of the C-5s based at Travis Air Force Base in her district. At the same time, Tauscher supported continued purchases of the Boeing-built C-17 transports, which are produced in California.

But Moseley said the Air Force could not buy more C-17s unless it could retire the oldest C-5s. The general also said his priorities for the limited procurement funds were the new airborne tanker, a new search and rescue helicopter, space systems and the next generation long-range strike aircraft.