Losing Altitude

Budget-pressed Air Force leaders sweat over replacing aging aircraft.

Study the flight line of a modern Air Force base, and you can catch a glimpse of history's most potent instrument of global power projection. It includes sleek F-15 and F-16 fighters, batwing B-2 stealth bombers, massive C-17 strategic transports, barrel-chested C-130 tactical airlifters and KC-10 midair refueling tankers. You might even spy a new F/A-22 stealth fighter.

Look closer, however, and you will understand why Air Force leaders are starting to lose sleep at night.

For all their capability, the F-15s and F-16s are based on 1970s- and 1980s-era designs. The Air Force intended to buy 132 B-2 bombers at $230 million apiece, but in the end capped production at only 31 for $2 billion each. Some of the C-130s and KC-10s are approaching 40 years of age and are developing stress fractures.

Two thousand of the fleet's 6,000 airplanes are under some sort of flight restriction on any day, primarily due to aging. As for the new F/A-22, the Air Force originally intended to buy 760 for $35 million each. Now it will buy just 180 at $330 million apiece, to replace more than 800 F-15s.

Legendary aerospace executive Norm Augustine once concluded that the Air Force eventually would be able to afford only one new albeit supremely capable aircraft. That recalls the military adage that, at some point, quantity-or lack thereof-has a quality all its own.

"The Air Force's No. 1 challenge is recapitalizing our aging systems. We need to find the right balance between acquiring new systems and keeping our legacy systems flying," acting Air Force Secretary Michael Dominquez told the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this year, noting the difficulty of modernizing a force that is engaged in ongoing combat. This "is made all the more demanding by the huge shortfalls we face this year in our personnel and operations accounts."

The Air Force's top acquisition priority remains the F/A-22. The fiscal 2006 budget requests $3.8 billion for 24 aircraft, and $480 million for research and development. Cost pressures forced the Air Force to cut last year's plan to buy 275 F-22s to just 178. While the new number helps with the constrained budget, officials concede that it will not adequately replace existing F-15s and other aircraft.

"If we lay out the actual Air Force requirement, I would ask for about 380 F/A-22s to replace between 800 or 900 legacy airplanes," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper told the Senate earlier this year. "If we can't . . . then we'll have to come back and ask Congress to fill in some of those blanks with legacy aircraft."

The Air Force's fiscal 2006 budget request includes $2.5 billion for the next-generation Joint Strike Fighter, $3.6 billion for 15 C-17 air transports and $344 million for upgrades to the B-2 fleet. Officials concede, how-ever, that their most urgent need is to find an alternative to the discredited leasing deal for new midair refuelers.

"The urgency of recapitalizing the tanker fleet, in particular, grows every day," said Jumper. "If I lose sleep over one thing at night, it's the aging aircraft problem and corrosion problems we have, and they are especially acute in our tanker fleet."