America’s aging tactical Air Force — the jets that protect ground troops and strike hard-to-reach targets — is shrinking just as the Pentagon is cutting even more planes to achieve nearly a half-trillion dollars in spending cuts.
The trend has set off alarms among retired fighter pilots, some of whom wrote to Congress last month warning that U.S. “TacAir” is in trouble.
They fear the political pressure to drive down the deficit will mean there will never be enough money to replace 1970s jets with advanced aircraft to operate against rising militaries such as China’s, which last year unveiled its own stealth fighter, the J-20.
“With the exception of our airlift fleet, we have a geriatric Air Force,” said retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, a former F-15 Eagle pilot and Operation Desert Storm war planner. “We’re flying fighters that are 30 years old. What people seem to miss is, a fighter is not like an airliner, where you take off from Point A and go to Point B. Our pilots put six to nine [gravitational forces] on these things every day.”
Gen. Deptula, who now heads the Mav6 LLC aerospace company, pointed to a 2007 event that has come to symbolize the collection of elderly fighter jets: An Air National Guard F-15C, the premier air superiority jet, broke apart in the sky during combat training. The pilot ejected safely.
The Air Force grounded the entire F-15 fleet and later attributed the breakup to a manufacturing flaw in some aircraft dating back to the 1970s.
The total number of Air Force fighters, which include the F-16 Falcons, F-15 Eagles, A-10 Thunderbolts and F-22 Raptors, has fallen by nearly 25 percent, from 2,477 in 2001 to 2,004 today, according to service figures provided to The Washington Times. In 2001, the Air Force flew an even larger fighter force in 2001, counting 52 F-117 stealth fighters that were retired in 2006.
Today, it has 372 fewer F-16s and 263 fewer F-15s than in 2001, but 179 more F-22s, which have yet to see combat.
Budget cuts will drive the total lower.
Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley recently announced another retirement of tactical aircraft — 102 A-10s and 21 F-16s — to help meet demands of $487 billion in spending cuts over 10 years, as announced last month by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
Mr. Panetta said the Air Force would lose six, or 10 percent, of its 60 tactical air squadrons, coming on the heels of former defense chief Robert M. Gates‘ decision in 2009 to retire 255 older jet fighters.
Navy air doing better
The average age of an Air Force fighter is now 22 years, nearly double what it was in 1999, and an age at which fighter jets usually are retired. The service faces a shortfall of 100 to as many as 800 fighter jets by 2024. As a result, it is being forced to invest millions of dollars in older F-16s to extend their life spans.
“We’ve got to recapitalize our force if, in fact, we’re going to be able to provide the nation what it needs, what it’s come to expect, in terms of aerospace capability,” said Gen. Deptula, who took part in several Pentagon studies on the military’s future. “We’ve known about this for 20-plus years.”