Murphy's Law: The Curse of Ancient Aircraft

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March 19,2008: The end of the Cold War, and the rapidly escalating cost of new aircraft, has left most air forces with aging equipment. The average age of U.S. F-15C fighters is 25 years (the more recent two-seat F-15E fighter-bombers average 15 years). The F-16s are 17 years, the U.S. Navy F-18s are 14 years. The B-52 bombers and KC-135 tankers both average 47 years of service. The navys P-3C patrol aircraft average 28 years. The C-130 transports average 25 years old, and the gunship variant, the AC-130 average 41 years. Many large helicopter models have similar numbers. The major problem here, for air force commanders, is not that the aircraft are old, but that they continue to get the job done.

While the older aircraft can be maintained adequately for service, the costs are higher and so is the risk of an unanticipated component failure. But the much higher costs of new aircraft, and the lack of superior aircraft in the service of potential opponents, makes it very difficult to justify wholesale replacement of the older aircraft. Another looming threat is the appearance of a generation of radical new, pilotless, designs. Even many American air power experts believe that the current new aircraft will be the last ones to be manned. Unmanned aircraft, including ones capable of operating completely independently from human operators on the ground, are seen as the future. But that future is sill murky, and so is the case for replacing all the aging combat aircraft with new and improved manned models.

 


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