Here’s a surprise: In eight years of constant operations since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the US Air Force has lost more than 160 aircraft to accidents and enemy action.
These losses have accumulated quietly because they have occurred in ones and twos. USAF has also been flying its fighters and airlifters at rates much higher than expected, accelerating the wear and tear on its old air fleet.
Inadequate budgets, meanwhile, have made it possible for USAF to buy few, if any, replacements for aircraft lost or retired because of their age, soaring maintenance costs, or safety concerns.
The cumulative impact has been a significant reduction in the total air fleet and a growing concern about the Air Force’s future ability to meet the demands of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention those generated by USAF’s other global responsibilities.
A B-52 taxis on the airfield at Andersen AFB, Guam. (USAF photo by A1C Miranda Moorer)
The Air Force “has some concerns with the continuing and ongoing operations we’ve got in the AOR,” said Col. Valentine J. Dugie, referring to the US Central Command area of operations that includes both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re trying to manage through that with the assets that we have, to do the mission that we need to do,” added Dugie, director of operations, integration, and resources on the Air Staff.
The demand on manned Air Force aircraft is increasing, particularly for the airlift and tanker force. The push to get 30,000 additional ground forces and their equipment into Afghanistan in six months, and the growing use of intratheater airlift to supply remote outposts because of the mountainous terrain and lack of roads, will place even greater demand on the shrinking fleet this year.
Aircraft attrition comes in several forms. Perhaps the most dramatic examples have been the 26 aircraft destroyed in combat or through accidents in the Central Command theater. Those losses include many different platforms from both the combat and mobility fleets, with C-130s being a specific source of concern.
When aircraft destroyed in accidents outside the war zone are included, the Air Force has lost “a little over 160” aircraft since 9/11, Dugie said. One hundred eighteen were manned aircraft, the rest, UAVs.
392nd Air Expeditionary Group maintainers inspect damage to an A-10 hit by an Iraqi missile. (USAF photo by SSgt. Shane A. Cuomo)
The losses directly linked to the conflict began with Operation Enduring Freedom. On Dec. 12, 2001, a B-1B bomber returning from a combat mission to Afghanistan crashed in the Indian Ocean near Diego Garcia. Losses have continued apace, and include an F-15E that crashed last July 18 during coalition operations in eastern Afghanistan.
A Navy ship rescued all four of the B-1’s crew members. The Strike Eagle’s pilot and weapon systems officer died.
The cost in airmen’s lives has been even more tragic than the cost in equipment, and the men and machines have proved equally hard to replace. Overall, 103 Air Force personnel had died supporting the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan by December 2009, more than half of them on the ground.
Most of the aircraft losses were in accidents outside the combat theater, however, often the consequence of the risk involved in realistic training for combat.
Examples include the midair collision Feb. 20, 2008, of two F-15Cs during training over the Gulf of Mexico, destroying both aircraft and killing one pilot. Last year, two F-16s collided Oct. 15 during night training over the Atlantic, resulting in the loss of one fighter and its pilot and severe damage to the other jet aircraft.
Some losses can be attributed to the fact that the average age of Air Force aircraft is the oldest in its history. Front-line fighters, including F-15s, are 25 years old—as is the fleet overall.
Several F-15Cs have been lost due to structural failures in flight, including one that broke in half during training maneuvers.
But even two F-22 Raptors, the only new fighter the Air Force has been able to buy since 9/11, have been destroyed in test flights. In all, 68 fighters have been lost—almost an entire wing’s worth of aircraft.
The training accidents get into a fiscal “gray area,” Dugie said. Even though they are not actual combat sorties, they often involve direct preparations for combat deployments—which can warrant funding for replacements in the supplemental appropriations that Congress has used to pay for the wars.
“We have gotten Congressional support for replacing some of those losses of aircraft,” the colonel said, specifically for new C-130Js to replace old Hercules, and HH-60s to replace the seven CSAR and medevac helicopters lost since 2001.
“The challenge we have is on the CAF [combat air forces] side, the fighters and bombers,” Dugie added. “We are no longer buying brand-new F-16s, F-15Cs and Ds, or A-10s. So every loss … is a potential loss in overall capability.”
Much of that attrition has been offset by use of what are called backup inventory aircraft (BIA), which are aircraft added to a squadron beyond its normal operational allocation.
A fighter squadron that has 12 to 24 operational aircraft assigned usually has two or three more listed as BIA. They can be used to replace an airframe that goes into extended maintenance, he explained, or as replacements for destroyed assets. “A lot of our tactical aircraft losses, we replace with the BIA aircraft,” he said.
But there is a limit to that resource and the Air Force is conducting an analysis to determine “where we stand as far as BIA,” Dugie said.
Airmen at Andersen watch as both pilots safely eject from a B-2 bomber as it crashes shortly after takeoff in 2008. (USAF photo)
At the same time, “the Air Force is in the process of trying to recapitalize, modernize, some of its fighter fleet.” To do that, service leaders want to “retire some of those legacy platforms and replace them with new ones.”
“It’s no surprise to anyone that recapitalization of our forces, of our geriatric Air Force, is a huge priority,” Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaisance, said at an Air Force Association breakfast in December.
Examples include phasing out F-15Cs as F-22s become available, and the plan to eventually replace F-16s and A-10s with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which still is in developmental testing.
However, using up the backup inventory raises concerns about balancing assets and operational risk.
If the service runs out of backup aircraft, the Air Force would “start eating into our seed corn, getting into actual capability loss and degradation,” Dugie said.
Based on the initial analysis, Dugie said, the Air Force has “probably not” reached the point where its combat capability declines with every aircraft that is lost. “But it really gets into a balancing act … on what you need to do to continue an operation.”
On top of the actual losses from accidents and battle damage, the Air Force has suffered the effective loss of 35 aircraft because the intensified operational tempo is burning up the maximum flight hours in many of its aircraft much faster than expected.
That accelerated use began long before 9/11, Dugie noted, and forces aircraft into early retirement.
“If you really look at this, we have been in there [the Central Command] conducting operations, whether they be combat or monitoring missions, with a lot of these aircraft since Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” in 1990 and ’91, he said.
Just since Fiscal 2007, the records show the Air Force has been flying five to 10 percent “over and above what we normally would fly in a year’s time.”
Consistently overflying programmed hours has had the effect of eliminating what the Air Force calls “aircraft equivalents.” The cumulative impact of using up the service life on a group of aircraft is exactly the same as losing a number of individual aircraft to accidents or attrition.
“On the CAF side, that equates to about 15 airplanes, and on the MAF [mobility air forces] side, about 20,” Dugie said.
Note: Does not include unmanned aircraft.
Hardest hit of the combat platforms are the A-10s and F-16s. The most heavily ridden mobility assets include C-130s and tankers, he said.
The tankers, of course, are key to maintaining the strategic airlift to the distant war zone and the long-duration fighter patrols in theater, which require multiple in-flight refuelings.
Soaring maintenance costs and safety concerns directly attributable to the tanker’s age forced the Air Force to send the last of its oldest KC-135Es, to the boneyard last September.
“Having to retire the Es took a very big chunk out of the refueling side of the house. … The remaining portion of the fleet has to take up that slack,” Dugie said.
Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, then commander of Air Mobility Command, said the retirements left USAF with 474 tankers, but the service needs a minimum of 520 and could use up to 640.
Unfortunately, the KC-X replacement program has been delayed for nearly a decade—and getting the first new tanker could take another decade.
Overall, retirements and losses have led to a reduction of more than 600 active, Guard, and Reserve aircraft since 2001.
Dugie said the Air Force is “accelerating retirement of the oldest aircraft” in an effort “to realize our modernization, … to try to free up dollars to be able to help with that recapitalization.”
The Navy tried a similar approach in the 1990s, retiring dozens of ships early, but never gained enough money to buy the required number of new ships, which are more expensive. As a result, the fleet shrank to the lowest level since just before World War I. The concern is that a similar thing could happen to the Air Force: DOD and Administration planners could “pocket” the money saved by retiring the old airplanes without actually funding their replacements. USAF’s plan of a few years ago to cut its end strength to pay for modernization failed in just that manner.
The Air Force announced last year that it intended to retire early a total of 254 of its oldest F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s.
Avionics specialists perform maintenance on an F-15E. Four Strike Eagles have been destroyed since 9/11. (USAF photo by A1C Renishia Richardson)
Deptula noted that the fighter force is getting some relief from the rapid increase in the number of UAVs, or remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), as he prefers to call them.
“The principal tasking for some of our fighter forces over the last 18 months has been for ISR, not for strike,” Deptula said.
The fighters are using their targeting pods for ISR in support of ground forces. “That’s a good thing,” the general said, but suggested that mission should be done by RPAs instead.
Additional MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs and the manned MC-12 ISR aircraft are increasingly filling in. Some of the aircraft being retired have become excess because better aircraft have arrived, such as the F-22s replacing F-15s.
“You don’t need a one-for-one trade,” Dugie said. “But you’ve got to take some risk to accelerate retirement of some of the older aircraft to fund and to man the other planes you’re trying to recap.”
Another issue the Air Force is struggling with because of the heavy operational commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan is training. “Aircrew training and maintaining proficiency is always a challenge, particularly when you look at the AOR and the way they operate there,” Dugie said.
One way the Air Force is dealing with the problems of “tired iron,” is to move increasingly to training with simulation, which has gotten so good that the service can perform multiship exercises and “distributed mission operations” with different types of aircraft and even tactical controllers on the ground.
In some cases, “I’ve got nobody in the air. Everyone’s in a simulator,” he said. Most of the fighter missions in the combat theater are considered “not supportive of training folks to meet their wartime mission,” he said.
An F-15E lands at Bagram Airfield while two F-16s prepare for takeoff from the flight line at the Southwest Asia base. (USAF photo by SrA. Felicia Juenke)
Although the pilots become proficient in a narrow window of their overall mission tasking, such as close air support, they are doing nothing to maintain their skills in others missions, like air-to-air or suppression of enemy air defenses.
When a squadron returns from up to half a year in the theater, “they are not currently qualified to go out and do their full wartime mission.”
Regaining that full mission qualification could take three to six months, Dugie said—and because some fighter squadrons are on a “one-to-one dwell,” they would be returning to the theater in 180 days.
“From an Air Force perspective, the future is going to be interesting, as well as challenging,” said Dugie in understated fashion. “We’re doing the best we can.”