Vice chief of staff: Air Force needs newer planes

Aging aircraft, space assets and infrastructure present huge problems for the current and future Air Force. Those issues are set against the backdrop of a shrinking workforce and financial constraints, as the military fights a long war against terrorism threats.

“Airplanes are old, satellites are old, and structures on our bases are old,” said Gen. John Corley, the Air Force’s vice chief of staff. “We will not win this global war on terror without the right people and if I don’t give them the right tools.”

Corley gave the opening keynote address at the Air Force Information Technology Conference Aug. 14 at Auburn University’s Montgomery, Ala., campus.

Since 1969, the average age of an Air Force plane has tripled from eight years to 24 years, Corley said. Even newer platforms are losing their luster. For example, F-117 stealth fighters are now 20 years old. B-1 bombers are 19 years old, and the Air Force’s B-2 bombers have an average age of 12 years.

KC-135 tankers present the most egregious example of an aging fleet. The refueling aircraft were developed during the Eisenhower administration, and now most of them are 45 years old. Despite its age, a KC-135 takes off every 100 seconds for a mission somewhere around the world.

Corley warned that even under the best scenario current budgets will not allow the Air Force to replace aircraft at a sufficient rate. By the time they are retired, many KC-135s will be more than 80 years old. “The mother of the last pilot to fly a KC-135 has not even been born today,” he said.

Global Positioning System satellites are also getting older. Block II satellites are an average of 10 years old, and the oldest is more than 15. The satellites were launched with a life expectancy of 12 years.

As for bases, the average age of the Air Force’s 170,000 buildings is 33 years, Corley said. He warned about the danger of allowing this trend to continue. “Whether it’s space, infrastructure or aircraft, we’ve got to fix this recapitalization piece,” he said.

The conference centered on the theme “Dominating Cyberspace” and focused on how the Air Force is changing to incorporate new technologies, contend with new threats and deal with new financial realities.

Technology is crucial to fighting asymmetric threats in the war on terrorism, Corley said. New technology enabled the tracking and killing of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq in June, he added.

In preparation for the attack on Zarqawi, an unmanned aerial vehicle performed hundreds of hours of surveillance. In an instant, communications technology diverted F-16 jets from their mission countering improvised explosive devices so they could link up with a refueling tanker in midair. Then they dropped a laser-guided bomb, followed by a GPS-guided weapon, on the house in which Zarqawi was meeting with other insurgent leaders.

The mission also highlighted airmen’s changing roles. One of the two F-16 pilots was a reservist performing only his 10th combat sortie. Corley said the reservist’s involvement was the result of the service’s Total Force Integration in which members of the active-duty military, Air National Guard and Reserves work together seamlessly.

“It’s not a strategic reserve anymore. It’s part of an operational reserve. That’s the way we think,” Corley said.

However, budgetary pressures are causing the Air Force to cut 40,000 personnel. In addition, Air Force personnel are being called on to perform missions outside their traditional roles to relieve stress on the other military services, Corley said. Those missions include interrogations, convoy operations and detainee security.

Those trends are likely to continue. “This long war and these budgetary pressures are going to require that we become better,” Corley said.

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