Worse Than the Hollow Force

July 1, 2007

Three decades ago, when Steven Pennington entered the Air Force, the service was facing such deep budget problems that squadrons were running out of toilet paper. It was the nadir of the infamous “hollow force” era, the post-Vietnam hangover that saw military readiness fall to calamitous levels.

“In some ways, the problem is worse now,” charged Pennington, now a colonel serving as the Air Force Operations Group commander at the Pentagon.

The vagaries of operating the oldest fleet of aircraft in the service’s history and the pressures of high operational tempo have sent readiness rates plummeting and pushed operation and maintenance costs to record levels.

The Air Force has seen readiness decline by 17 percentage points across its fleet since 2001, and readiness is down 12 percent in just the past three years. The areas most affected are in the “older airplane arena,” Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff, said recently, because tankers and other old aircraft continue to log many flying hours decades into their service lives.

Today’s problem is unique because, even during the hollow force era, Pennington and his fellow airmen were flying F-4s and other aircraft that, by the standards of today, would be considered brand-new. And by the early 1980s, large numbers of next generation aircraft—including A-10s, F-15s, F-16s—were entering into service.

Today, however, the Air Force is still flying many of those same airframes from the early 1980s and is managing the oldest fleet in its 60-year history.

The average age of an Air Force aircraft is now 24 years. Many of the oldest types—including C-130E cargo airplanes and KC-135E tankers—do not even fly because of flight safety concerns.

“When you look at the 17 percent degrade of the readiness rates,” Moseley told reporters in April, “you begin to see you are getting higher failures, higher cost per flying hour, more maintenance action per flying hour—all of the things that are attendant whether you have a ’57 Chevrolet or a ’57 KC-135.”

The readiness problems for the fleet are being exacerbated by continuous heavy usage for missions in both the United States and abroad. The constant deployments, officials say, have accelerated the “service life consumption” even for many newer platforms. As the aircraft continue in heavy use as they wear out, it “takes more money and more time” to operate them, Moseley said.

High Usage Rate

Indeed, Air Force plans devised years ago called for deploying only two of the service’s 10 air and space expeditionary forces at a time. But since the outset of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Air Force has been sending far more to the fight than that. The deployment level spiked as high as 4.5 AEFs’ worth of personnel and equipment during the initial invasion in Iraq, said Maj. Gen. Paul J. Selva, USAF director of strategic planning.

Now, the Air Force routinely maintains between 2.5 and 2.75 AEFs’ worth of manpower and materiel in theater—still far above the number the Air Force had planned. This has a cumulative effect.

The high utilization level forces expeditionary units to share between 10 and 15 percent of their airframes and other assets with other deployed units, Selva said.

Back at home stations, nondeployed units are lending higher numbers of supervisory personnel and senior noncommissioned officers to the units heading to a theater. This reduces the number of experienced airmen with needed technical skills at the home bases.

The result of all these factors is a continued downward trend in readiness. Before operations began in Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly 70 percent of the Air Force’s units were ready to deploy. (The rate will never be 100 percent, because the AEF system builds in recovery and “spin-up” time before and after deployments.)

The decline has been steep, and perhaps even more troubling, it has been accelerating. In 2001, 73 percent of the Air Force’s units were rated “green,” or fully mission capable. That rate fell to 68 percent in 2004 and is at 56 percent today. “Unless significant changes are made to our budget, hard work alone will not be able to keep more precipitous declines at bay,” officials wrote in a statement. Some service officials postulate that the percent of units considered ready to deploy could eventually bottom out in the low 40s.

“We’re flying about the same flying hours that we were 10 or 15 years ago, but we’re doing it with about 1,300 less airplanes,” Moseley said. “So as your fleet ages and you hold constant the utilization rate on the airplanes and they’re old airplanes [that] have a tendency to break, … that’s where the 17 percent comes from.”

This is a “trend line that is in the wrong direction,” the Chief added.

Moseley and other Air Force officials estimate that the service will need $45 billion right out of the gate and a whopping $20 billion annually over the next 20 years to right the force. The extra money, Moseley said, would allow the Air Force to keep up with rising O&M costs while also buying needed aircraft faster. Higher purchase rates serve a number of purposes. They eventually drive down per-unit costs and allow reliable new airframes to replace problematic older ones.

The Air Force typically flies more than 430 sorties of all sorts per day over US Central Command’s area of responsibility, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan. By April, that translated into more than 82 percent of the coalition’s 353,373 sorties for Operation Iraqi Freedom and 78 percent of the coalition’s 211,427 sorties for Operation Enduring Freedom.

At the same time, USAF airmen also are performing nearly 100 percent of the missions for Operation Noble Eagle. Every day, there are more than 100 fighters, a dozen tankers, and a “handful” of E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft committed to this homeland air defense mission, Moseley said.

The Air Force is currently in the middle of major programs to upgrade some of its oldest platforms, such as the C-5B, which has avionics and engine modernization programs on the books. (See “Life With the C-5,” June, p. 58.) Modernization and service life extension programs have kept aircraft flying years past their expected service lives, in some cases. This results in unexpected repairs, such as from blown engines and rust spots.

As the aircraft age, the cost to keep them flying continues to increase. Service officials estimate that operation and maintenance costs have grown by a staggering 180 percent in the last decade, largely due to extensive and continuous repairs required on the airframes.

Older aircraft have known problems, such as overstressed center wing boxes on C-130Es, but old fleets are also plagued with “the unknown unknowns,” the Air Staff’s Pennington said. “We simply haven’t had airplanes that have flown this long [and] that you’re going to continue to fly,” he noted, making it increasingly difficult to predict what might break next.

Delicate Balance

Rebuilding old airplanes, Pennington said, is like running a car well beyond its life expectancy. It also forces the service to strike a difficult balance between maintaining what the Air Force has now and attempting to invest in the future. In the end, it is often the future investment that gets the short shrift.

Under the current topline, USAF can’t afford to fully fund both modernization of existing equipment and recapitalization with new hardware. “The budget won’t allow us to do that,” Pennington said.

The need for more resources—for personnel, equipment, and aircraft—is something service leaders are attempting to drive home in the media and to Congress. But as service officials campaign for more cash, the Air Force is finding itself in a de facto competition with the Army and Marine Corps.

The ground force services keep the highest profile in Iraq, have suffered the most casualties, and have subsequently benefited from heightened Congressional support. This has resulted in generous plus-ups to Army and Marine Corps equipment repair and replacement accounts.

Air Force officials, however, stress the folly of using USAF and Navy accounts to fund increases in the Army and Marine Corps budgets. There is a strategic danger in fixating on the immediate needs in Iraq.

“Perhaps more so than any other capability of the joint force, the ability of US airpower to respond quickly and violently, throughout the depth and breadth of their territory, keeps potentially rogue regimes from following their worst instincts,” reads Air Force testimony submitted to a Senate Armed Services subcommittee April 26.

Airpower provides worldwide deterrence even while the military has more than 100,000 ground troops tied down in Iraq. Curtailing aircraft buys would be “extremely shortsighted and costly” to the country in the next 20 years, the Air Force asserts. “If we do not replace our aging combat aircraft with sufficient numbers of advanced, modern platforms, we will surrender a deterrent of immeasurable value.”

The Air Force, Selva stressed, provides the bulk of US airpower that “potentially sets the conditions for victory.”

The Air Force needs more than money to solve its vexing readiness problem, however. Congressional restrictions on retiring older aircraft continue to bedevil the service as it pays hefty bills to maintain aging airplanes that USAF hoped to send to the “Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., years ago. (See “Under Lockdown,” September 2006, p. 54.)

Many of the aircraft date back to the procurement heydays of the 1960s, when the Air Force bought, on average, more than 600 new airplanes a year. Across the fleet, the average airframe dates to 1983.

The money spent maintaining obsolete aircraft would be better spent on new equipment. “Those maintenance guys who are stretched pretty thin don’t need to go out and turn the tires and check the interiors of those broken airplanes,” Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Kane, director of plans and programs for Air Mobility Command, told Air Force Magazine last year. “Those are combat ineffective aircraft that we’re maintaining on the ramp.”

But lawmakers, who do not want to see aircraft and missions stripped from bases in their district, have stalwartly refused to permanently stand down many ancient B-52 bombers and other older platforms.

For instance, the Air Force owns 75 percent of the oldest C-130 aircraft in the US military’s fleet—at an average age of 42 years. As of April, 53 C-130 aircraft were grounded or had flying restrictions placed on them because airframe stress made them unsafe for flight.

“Worst Actors”

Meanwhile, the Air Force would like to retire approximately 30 of the so-called “worst actors” in the C-5 fleet and possibly use that money instead to pay for more C-17 Globemaster IIIs, which are being used heavily during ongoing operations.

The Air Force this year hopes to retire all 85 of its KC-135E aircraft—and is asking Congress not to get in the way of doing so. Those Stratotankers now average 49.4 years old—and all must be grounded by the end of Fiscal 2010 because their Expanded Interim (strut) Repairs will expire.

Keeping the old tankers flying after their EIR expiration date will cost the Air Force an additional $17.3 million per aircraft—totaling a pricey $1.4 billion for the entire fleet. And at the end of the day, those KC-135s would then average 53 years old.

Last year, Congress allowed the Air Force to retire 29 of the KC-135Es and 51 C-130Es, but required the service to maintain all of the airframes at a state that would allow them to be called back to service, if necessary. They also limited retirements of B-52 bombers to 18 airframes and required the Air Force to maintain no less than 44 combat-coded aircraft.

“The freedom to divest our inventories of these aircraft will provide us the flexibility to recapitalize your Air Force with more current and relevant capabilities,” according to the April 26 USAF testimony.

For all the current readiness woes, Air Force officials stress that the service is ready to fight. Like their brethren in the other services, the Air Force can respond to current operational demands with the best trained—and best equipped—force it has ever fielded.

The problem, however, centers on future contingencies.

If the Air Force had to deploy to fight a war in the Pacific region or elsewhere, it would be riskier than it needs to be, Pennington said. Forces, he acknowledged, may not have adequate equipment to respond as rapidly or efficiently as they could under less austere circumstances.

“Could we do it? Certainly, we could do it,” Pennington said. “We just have greater risk.”

Greater risk in wartime typically translates into more deaths, higher costs, and longer battles.

Selva noted that the Air Force’s ability to respond to another contingency varies, based on where and when it would be called to fight. A new, large-scale campaign could require leaving units already deployed in Southwest Asia in place and activating Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units to augment a surge scenario elsewhere in the world.

“The question is: How long can we sustain this and still be ready to do what the nation needs us to do?” Selva said. “I have not seen a period in my career where that question has been quite so pointed.”

Megan Scully is the defense reporter for National Journal’s CongressDaily in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to National Journal and Government Executive. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Under Lockdown,” appeared in the September 2006 issue.