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.
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.