Warplanes: April 4, 2005

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The F-22s salvation from massive program cuts (from 277 to 179 planes) is becoming more likely. This is due to a variety of factors, some political, some in terms of capability, and some of which are logistical.

The big factor is the fact that the Air Forces current tactical fighters are not getting any younger. The Air Force is looking at an average age of 27 years old per aircraft despite modernization plans. This is not good news. Old airplanes have a lot of stressful flight hours on them. Unlike airliners, a percentage of these flight hours are often spent pushing the envelope of an airplanes performance. Making 9-G turns is not conducive to a long service life for an airplane. Things wear out faster. The edge-of-the-envelope moves take their toll, and in some cases (like Indias force of MiG-21s), aircraft fall apart. There is another reason older aircraft are a pain for the Air Force: They require much more maintenance. Often, the maintenance takes longer due to being more extensive. This costs money and time not to mention stretching maintenance personnel. The man-hours and money spent to completely overhaul an older F-15C could be used to operate newer F-22s.

There are other reasons. The manufacturing base is needed, and this is presented by both the Air Force (which needs aircraft) and politicians (who want jobs in their districts). The Air Force also is wanting a means to keep new aircraft coming in case there are delays in getting the F-35 into production (which was the case with the F-22). If the older plans (for 277 aircraft as opposed to 179) are followed, it will add $10.5 billion to the program cost making each of the 98 F-22s on the chopping block cost about $107 million each. This is why Northrop was able to offer a guaranteed fixed price of $500 million per plane for 20 additional B-2s. In that case, Congress declined to buy them. Older aircraft production lines (for the F-15 and F-16) are still in place, albeit they now are primarily building the F-15 and F-16 for export orders. Often, these aircraft are being customized an F-16 variant for Israel will have a much different electronics suite than one for Singapore. South Korea is buying a variant of the F-15E, which will be customized for that country.

Finally, older aircraft have restrictions placed on them. Currently, over two thousand planes in the Air Force are operating under flight restrictions of one sort or another. This is not so much done to avoid losing aircraft, but to protect the pilots. Training a pilot takes years, and costs millions of dollars. Plus, experienced pilots have knowledge that is at times, irreplaceable. Ask country that has fought an air war in the last century. While this often escapes the notice of many, it is a consideration the Air Force keeps in mind. A new F-22 will cut maintenance costs and will be more reliable than aging aircraft, and this will make 277 new F-22s a better option than continuing with the F-15C. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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