Keeping the Old Horses Flying

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How the US Air Force Combat Command plans to Maintain its ‘Shooters’ Effective for Years to Come.

Reliability and safety problems encountered with aging fighters have already highlighted a problem the US Air Force is facing in recent years – the aging of its aircraft fleet. Despite the introduction of the F-35 Lightning II in the next decade and the potential increase in the procurement of F-22 Raptors, the Air Force will remain dependent on a combat fleet made primarily of old fighters and bombers, through the next two decades, or so.

Although the problematic F-15 A/B fighters, initially fielded in 1974 will be retired by 2010, the air force does not plan further retirement of F-15s, F-16s or A-10s for the next 16 years. According to current plans, the F-16s which entered service in 1978 will be retired by 2024 followed a year later by F-15C/Ds (part of which are currently being upgraded with new AESA radars). Recently upgraded A-10s introduced in 1973 will remain in service at least until 2028.

The Air Forces’ Strike Eagles (F-15Es) will be maintained at least until 2035 (after 68 years in service). Two of the bombers currently in service will be retired in 2040. B-1Bs which entered service in1986 will be phased out after 54 years while the B-52Hs which entered service in 1961 is expected to remain in active service for at least32 years, scheduled to be maintained in service for 79 years! The fleet of B-2 which entered service in 1993 is scheduled to be maintained in service at least for the next 50 years, until 2058.

Maintaining the operational effectiveness of such an aging fleet of aircraft presents a significant challenge and requires substantial huge investments. The USAF awarded contracts worth over $4 billions to modernize and upgrade its current fighters, 85% of the amount is dedicated to keep them flying. The remaining 15% will improve capabilities. According to Col. Robert Stambaugh, Wing Commander 312th, 326 th Aeronautical Systems, these upgrades focus on shortening the kill chain.

In the following pages, Defense Update reports how the USAF plans to maintain its ‘Shooters’ effective for years to come.