Attrition: The Great Fighter Shortage Comes Up Short


April 30, 2010:  The U.S. Air Force has decided that its looming fighter shortage, caused by delays in the F-35 program, and the aging of its F-16 and F-15 fleet, is not as bad as they believed. Two years ago, before the F-35 development got delayed even more, the air force predicted being short 800 fighters in the next decade or so. But now the shortage is believed to be no more than 185 (in 2024), and this could be avoided if production of F-35s was speeded up.

The F-35 delays have been growing over the last few years, and the air force was already developing a refurbishment program for its F-15 and F-16 fighters. This could also involve recalling some fighter retired as a result of post-Cold War downsizing. The air force is also tacitly acknowledging that, with the introduction of JDAM, and GPS guided shells and rockets by the army, many fewer warplanes are needed for bombing. The end of the Cold War eliminated (literally) the mighty Soviet Air Force, which the U.S. Air force and Navy were planning on defeating with a large number of fighters. But no potential enemy has anything like the Soviet fighter force, and is not likely to any time soon. Moreover, the United States still has many allies with first class fighters, and pilots. Air force and navy air power planners don't like to admit it, but they could probably defeat likely enemies with the current (and refurbished) force even if the F-35 suffers further delays.

 Meanwhile, most of the American F-15s are over 20 years old. Refurbishment will extend their useful life from 8,000 flight hours, to 12,000 hours. The F-16C, which was originally designed for a service life of 4,000 hours in the air, took advantage of advances in engineering, materials and maintenance techniques to extend that to over 8,000 hours. The air force could have bought new F-16s and F-15s to avert the shortage. But that's 5-10 times more expensive than refurbishing existing aircraft. The navy is planning a similar refurbishment program, to keep numbers up.

This also reveals that the American fighter refurbishment program is ahead of those available among potential enemies. Aging combat aircraft are a worldwide problem. A year ago, the Chinese Air Force began retiring its first Su-27 fighters, or at least the airframes. These aircraft were bought in the early 1990s, and 24 of them had reached their service life of 5,000 flight hours. "Service life" is a limitation all aircraft have, although it can often be extended. In addition to the F-16 and F-15 extension programs, the U.S. A-10 also had its service life extended from 8,000 to 28,000 hours. Same deal with the B-52, which had its useful life more than doubled, via several refurbishments, to 28,000 hours. Engines, electronics and other components have different service lives. But the retired Chinese Su-27s were stripped of most components, for reuse as spare parts.

Russian warplanes have, historically, had short service lives. This includes all components, especially engines. The MiG-29 was designed to last only 2,500 hours in the air. A refurbishment program has since been developed to extend that to 4,000 hours. The MiG-29 was a watershed design for the Russians in the 1970s, who were beginning to build more sturdy aircraft on the Western model. Thus the Su-27s, which were designed a few years after the MiG-29, had the longer, for Russian aircraft, service life of 5,000 hours. Before that, most Russian aircraft were only good for 2-3,000 flight hours.

The Chinese Su-27s, which normally have two pilots assigned (a common practice worldwide) apparently allowed each pilot to get 120-130 hours a year in the air. That's less than Western pilots get, but twice what pilots used to get in communist countries. That's because these nations had Russian aircraft that would be quickly worn out if you allowed the pilots to fly them as much as their Western counterparts. But the Russians saw the error of their ways before the end of the Cold War, but not in time to re-equip their air force with pilots trained to a Western standard.




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