October 29, 2009:
U.S. Air Force pilots and maintainers report that the maintenance needs of the F-22 are so complex that many problems cannot be fixed by squadron technical personnel. Specialists have to be brought in, keeping F-22s deadlined (not available for combat). All this is a big disappointment to the air force, and F-22 users.
A big selling point for new combat aircraft has been that they are cheaper to operate. This is a big deal, as it is with commercial aircraft. As part of this trend, the military is now borrowing more maintenance techniques from the world of commercial aircraft. This approach can cut maintenance costs 20-30 percent, or more, over the life of an aircraft. This makes more sense when you realize that the majority of warplanes have rather mundane careers.
First of all, few of them are ever in combat. From their first flight, until, twenty or thirty years later, when they are retired and broken up for scrap, they fly a very predictable routine of training flights. Just like a commercial transport spends years flying back and forth between two cities. A major innovation has been outsourcing the maintenance to firms that are paid to make the aircraft available for a certain number of hours. Air forces have been reluctant to use this approach, but that is changing. The savings are too great, and once a few air forces began doing it successfully, others were eager to follow suit. But the F-22 is too early in its lifecycle for this kind of maintenance solution.
Meanwhile, the new F-35, is built to allow for more efficient maintenance techniques. This includes components that are easier to get to, and greater use of computerized diagnostics, just like most automobiles in the last decade. All this reduces the number of man hours required per flight hour. That means fewer people to send overseas, and maintain (at great expense) in the combat zone. With all this, the maintenance required per hour of flight is now getting down to five. In the 1950s is was 30-40 hours, although that was about cut in half by the 1970s. The F-16 requires about 19 hours of maintenance per flight hour, and the F-22 will be under ten hours. This proved not to be the case, because the F-22 used a lot of exotic technologies for which there was no maintenance track record. Not a lot of F-22s are being built (probably under 200). So the F-22 is a special, and much more expensive, case.
The cost per flight hour has not been dropping as much, and is still up to $50,000 per hour. That's because components are still expensive, they still wear out, and the lower man hour costs mean that defective components are simply replaced. Half a century ago, more defective components were fixed on the spot. You hardly see that anymore.
Of course, the ultimate maintenance reduction is in pilotless aircraft (UAVs), which are half as expensive to maintain, because you don't have all that life support gear (for aircrew) to worry about. Most air force generals are looking at the latest generation of new aircraft (like the F-22 and F-35) as the last manned combat aircraft. It's looking like most future combat aircraft will be unmanned.