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Air Force woes -- Part 2

By WINSLOW WHEELER, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Aug. 8, 2008 at 11:37 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 (UPI) -- Since the start of President George W. Bush's first administration in 2001, while remaining shrunken, the overall U.S. Air Force inventory has aged further.

The negative trend that analyst Franklin C. "Chuck" Spinney found in the late 1990s has not reversed; it has worsened, and, even assuming flawless execution, the current trend is for it to worsen further -- and at a dramatic rate.

The unclassified data Spinney used for his analysis are not publicly available, and it has not been possible to update Spinney's analysis using the type of data he had access to.

However, surrogate data are available from the Air Force Association. Each year its journal, Air Force Magazine, publishes an Almanac that presents data on the "age of the Active Duty Fleet." The 2001 Almanac shows the average age of the total Air Force "active duty fleet" -- all types of aircraft -- to be 21.2 years, a then historic high. The 2007 Almanac shows the same current "active duty fleet" to have further aged to 23.0 years, a new historic "high."

An additional $200 billion above previously planned budgets has bought an older inventory. In the future, the average age of U.S. Air Force aircraft will be significantly older.

Perhaps the most important measure of readiness to fight effectively in the air is pilot skill. One way to measure that is the number of hours each month pilots get to practice air combat in the air -- "flying hours." The anecdotal evidence to update Spinney's findings is discouraging.

In 2006 U.S. Air Force representatives informed the author that F-22 pilots receive just 10 to 12 hours of air combat training in the air per month. U.S. Air Force budget justification data assert that F-16 pilots receive 16 to 18 hours per month.

In the late 1990s U.S. Air Force fighter pilots were receiving 18 to 20 hours per month. During the Vietnam War, 20 to 25 hours per month was considered just adequate. In the 1960s, when they were at the height of their proficiency, fighter pilots in the Israeli air force were getting 40 to 50 hours per month. Anywhere from 10 to 18 hours per month, now being provided to U.S. Air Force fighter pilots, is completely inadequate.

In wartime, one would hope and expect air combat training hours to rise. Instead, U.S. Air Force pilots receive fewer than they did before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an amount that is wholly inadequate.

Is the U.S. Air Force more capable following the influx of money it received during the two terms of the Bush administration?

The standard U.S. Air Force position on these issues is, and always has been, that the technology it pursues may cost more, but it more than compensates for any force shrinkage and brings extraordinary results on the battlefield.

The Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor is a typical example. As an air superiority combat fighter, it depends on the efficacy of a technological road that has not proven itself in real war.

However, the "beyond visual range" radar-based air war that the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor is highly specialized to fight, a hypothetical construct, is yet to be proven workable, let alone effective, in real-war aerial engagements involving more than a very few contesting aircraft.

Moreover, some serious experts, including the designers of highly successful combat aircraft such as the McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle, Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon and the Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt-Warthog, argue that the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor is a huge disappointment in the actual performance characteristics that count in real-world aerial warfare.

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(Part 3: Assessing the F-22)

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(Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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