Strike Eagle Pressure

Aug. 28, 2014

For one of the busiest wings in the Air Force, meeting growing requirements with fewer airplanes and less money has become a fact of life. A chronic demand to “do more with less” has consequences, however, and as the possible reinstatement of sequester looms over the Air Force budget, readiness is suffering.

The 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C., is the biggest F-15E Strike Eagle wing in the world and is in many ways representative of any large unit flying legacy fighters today.

When sequestration’s effects hit their initial peak in the summer of 2013, one of the 4th Fighter Wing’s squadrons was grounded, a situation piled on top of budget cuts that had already hurt flying hours, exercises, and maintenance. The wing’s F-15Es date back to the late 1980s and need a rising amount of attention and sustainment work.

A backlog of depot-level maintenance has hit the F-15s (Cs and Es) harder than other platforms, and senior USAF officials have acknowledged the situation probably won’t be fixed for some time. Overall, the Strike Eagle fleet at Seymour Johnson looks like a case study of all the problems sequestration can cause.

The 4th FW has two distinct but related missions and splits its 94 aircraft almost evenly between them. One is USAF’s only Strike Eagle formal training unit, comprising two squadrons with 20 and 24 jet aircraft, respectively.

The other 50 aircraft make up two operational squadrons that deploy for combat. They’re the newest F-15E models—an average of 24 years old—delivered between 1986 and 1990.

The Air Force’s other two F-15E operating locations—at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, and RAF Lakenheath in Britain—each have two Strike Eagle operational squadrons and draw pilots and weapon systems officers from the training program in North Carolina.

The most pressing issue facing the 4th FW today is a shortage of aircraft. The demands of four squadrons that need to fly regularly to meet requirements for student progress and operational qualification puts pressure on maintenance personnel to generate a steady stream of ready aircraft.

By all accounts, maintainers are doing an exceptional job with the aircraft on-site, but too many of their airplanes are stuck at USAF’s F-15 depot—Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex in Georgia—for the wing to schedule airplanes they way it would like to. Because of their age, hard use in combat, and other factors, the rate that F-15Es get through depot—where they will undergo tear-down inspections and major rework—has slowed.

Draw Down, Ramp up

Lt. Gen. Bruce A. Litchfield, commander of the Air Force Sustainment Center, at Tinker AFB, Okla., overseeing all three depots, acknowledged those challenges in an interview and identified the F-15 as the maintenance line most in need of attention.

“There are perturbations” to the depot’s long-term plans, he said. “That’s where we have to flex and that’s where we have to adjust—and that’s what drives inefficiencies.”

He offered an example. “Let’s say we are planning on drawing down a fleet of aircraft because we’re going to retire them, and so we don’t plan for them, and then all of a sudden we are asked to maintain them in the budget.” If the drawdown had already started, Litchfield said, “then we have to ramp back up, and that drives inefficiency … and it takes a while to respond. You can’t turn this big … [and] this complex an operation overnight.”

Those inefficiencies materialize on the Seymour Johnson flight line.

“Jet availability is an issue, and that’s because of the periodic depot maintenance,” said Col. Michael G. Koscheski, then the wing’s operations group commander. For now, the wing is simply flying the aircraft on hand more frequently. Koscheski said the wing is well aware that doing so is only a short-term solution to its availability problem.

The depot backlog also has a deep connection to sequestration, the harsh budget-cutting mechanism Congress enacted in 2012. The Air Force recognized immediately that slashing the budget would slow down the “throughput” rate at its three depots, creating a backlog that can only be fixed with time, because the depots have finite space and personnel. Moreover, in-depth maintenance takes so long and the depots have so many responsibilities involving various aircraft and other systems that changes can take months or years to implement.

Lt. Col. Dylan Wells, Koscheski’s deputy, described the challenging conditions facing the wing’s F-15E maintainers. He said the training units want to have 12 Strike Eagles available to perform a full day’s worth of flying operations. As of May, five of the smaller squadron’s 20 jet aircraft were at the depot. That meant maintainers could only work on three of the remaining 15 aircraft for the squadron to stay on track with its training curriculum.

“What they do at [programmed depot maintenance] is amazing. It’s obviously a must-pay bill,” Wells said. “We’re very thankful that process is in place, but it does make it hard, especially for our maintenance brethren, to keep a stream of those jets available.”

The backlog will stay in place for about a year, though, as Warner Robins deals with sequestration and overhauls its maintenance and management procedures to perform better. Doug Keene, a longtime Warner Robins employee and now the special assistant to the complex’s commander, said last year’s budget cuts, civilian furloughs, and a government shutdown all hurt the depot’s ability to deliver aircraft on time. But he insisted the depots take some responsibility for not being as efficient as they should have been.

Keene said his complex has made a number of changes since January that are already improving maintenance flow times and quality. However, the process of implementing those changes, coupled with the aircraft backlog, will take nine to12 months to work through.

“If you go look right now, we are producing F-15s at a 60 percent increase in throughput than where we were just five months ago,” Keene said in June. “We are producing airplanes at much higher quality than we were producing. When F-15s go out to functional test, they usually have to fly two, three, four times” to ensure the repairs all work.

“We’re now seeing more and more airplanes start to release [back to their squadrons] the first flight. We’re seeing airplanes move through there in a much quicker time because they are arriving at functional test with much higher quality.”

He said it will take “months to recover” from the buildup of jet aircraft, “but I’ll tell you, our F-15 line is already producing at a rate” such that if there were no backlog, “we would already be producing airplanes really about on time. Our problem is we have to produce somewhat faster” to work off the “additional airplanes that are here.”

Col. Darrell C. Steele, the maintenance group commander at the 4th FW, is feeling the strain. Instead of having three or four aircraft at Warner Robins at a time, the wing had 10 of its aircraft at the depot as of July 9 and was about to send another, he said. That’s created more work for the 2,200 or so maintainers under his command, all to keep a smaller number of F-15Es flying. One of the wing’s training squadrons has been particularly hard-hit by the availability crunch.

That’s not by design. Steele said it’s more difficult to make up disruptions in a training pipeline than at an operational unit. The problem was, the training squadron was already slated to send many of its aircraft to depot when sequestration hit, leaving it without options.

“That’s just a function of who was at depot when sequestration happened,” he said.

Steele also explained the trade-offs maintainers are forced to make as a result of having fewer airplanes on-site.

Burning Hours

“We’re going to meet all the maintenance requirements, OK, but it’s going to burn hours off those tails a little bit quicker than we’d wanted to,” he said. “We’re not able to stand them down and do as much preventive maintenance as we might want to. I think it’ll be a challenge meeting our requirements going forward.” The situation is “hindering our flexibility” in meeting the requirements of the flying hour program.

Flying aircraft more often while also having more in depot limits the number available for maintenance and weapons load training, Steele said, to keep the aircraft available for flights.

Two other issues are on the minds of F-15E operators and maintainers: possible Strike Eagle upgrades and the advent of the F-35 strike fighter.

Though the F-35 is a single-seat aircraft—unlike the two-seat F-15—the Strike Eagle is one of the specialties USAF will have to mine for F-35 pilots. So far, the Strike Eagle community has not been heavily raided to find F-35 pilots.

Wells said his group has only lost four to six pilots per year to the F-35, which the Air Force is expected to declare operational in 2016. A wing the size of Seymour Johnson’s Strike Eagle enterprise—between 120 and 150 pilots—can absorb that attrition.

“We have not sent anyone that’s not top tier,” Wells said, “but the numbers are so small, … we haven’t felt a huge impact.”

Moving high-quality operators to the new platform while leaving the legacy fleet well-manned seems to be a priority for the Air Force—and not just in the F-15 community. The largest F-16 organization in the continental US, the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw AFB, S.C., has gone through a similar experience in recent years.

Col. Paul Murray, the 20th’s director of operations, said in an interview that he’s seen some six officers leave the wing per year to transition to the F-35. Like his counterparts at Seymour Johnson, Murray said the rate is sustainable because of the wing’s large size.

Legacy fighter wings such as the 4th and 20th need to stay sharp. Their aircraft are still frontline combat assets, and the Air Force expects to keep flying the F-15 and F-16 for many years.

That will mean keeping F-15s and F-16s relevant with upgrades, although Air Combat Command has said it will have to be highly selective about the improvements installed and the number of jets to get them.

Asked to name their upgrade of choice for the F-15E—regardless of affordability—Koscheski and Wells separately mentioned the desire to improve its engines. The Strike Eagle is capable of running on two different power plants: the F100-220 and the F100-229, both built by Pratt & Whitney. The -229 motor is more powerful and is installed on some of the aircraft operated out of Mountain Home and RAF Lakenheath, but all of the 4th Fighter Wing’s aircraft use the less-powerful -220 engine.

An aircraft equipped with the F100-229 can produce 58,000 pounds of thrust, compared to 50,000 with the F100-220, according to an Air Force fact sheet. The Strike Eagle can fly with a maximum gross weight of 81,000 pounds—comparable to the F-22 and far more than any other legacy fighter in the Air Force inventory.

Capt. Reid Thompson, an F-15E pilot, and weapon systems officer Maj. Anthony Breck said the -229’s additional thrust would give their fighter 30 to 60 minutes more flight time or allow it to carry more munitions, compared to a jet aircraft flying on the F100-220.

The performance difference is evident in operations from high-altitude fields, they said. The Strike Eagle may need to be lightened by removing some fuel or weapons in order to take off with the older engine.

Koscheski suggested the possibility of leaving his two training squadrons in their current configuration and upgrading the motors on the operational aircraft based at Seymour Johnson to keep costs down. An engine replacement isn’t in the Fiscal 2014 budget, however.

B-52 of the Fighter Force

The Strike Eagle is in the process of receiving a variety of avionics improvements, most notably a new radar, digital video recorder, and electronic warfare system known as EPAWSS. Those are all geared toward keeping the F-15 up-to-date with the threat.

Communications and data links are a key requirement. The F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters have a unique and stealthy voice transmission system that legacy fighters don’t have. The Strike Eagles will have to communicate and share data with the F-22 Raptor, and eventually the F-35, because the Air Force plans to fly all into combat together.

The technology mismatches should be taken care of in several years through the Air Force’s fifth to fourth generation gateway program to allow F-22s and F-35s to communicate with each other and legacy fighters without compromising stealthy operations.

In the meantime, Seymour Johnson’s Strike Eagle pilots are getting plenty of exposure to those newer aircraft and many others through an East Coast exercise called Razor Talon. That exercise, managed by the 4th FW and held roughly each month, regularly draws F-22s from JB Langley-Eustis, Va., and F-16s from Shaw, as well as Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8B Harriers from bases across North Carolina.

F-35 strike fighters may also make an appearance at Razor Talon in the not-too-distant future. The Marine Corps is in the process of moving all pilot training for its short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B fighters from Eglin AFB, Fla., to the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, S.C.

Koscheski, the 4th FW ops group commander, said he expects the F-15E to remain a central Air Force asset for years. He said manyStrike Eagles with initial life expectancies of 8,000 hours could be reinforced to withstand up to 30,000 hours of flight time, and he predicted the aircraft “is going to end up being the ‘B-52 of the fighter force’ because there’s really no Plan B.”

Gabe Starosta is the managing editor of the defense newsletter “Inside the Air Force.” His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Mission to Mali,” appeared in the November 2013 issue.