U.S. Navy Struggles to Keep its aging Aircraft Fleet Flying.

Author:Kennedy, Harold
 
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As wave after wave of combat aircraft roar off the decks of U.S. carriers in the Arabian Sea to attack targets in Afghanistan, the Navy and Marine Corps are wrestling with the increasing age of their air fleets.

The average Navy airplane is now 18 years old, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a Senate budget hearing earlier this year. Some are considerably older. The F-14 Tomcat first flew in 1970. The S-3B Viking entered service in 1975.

"For the first time, our average aircraft age exceeds the average age of our combatant ships," said Adm. William J. Fallon, vice chief of naval operations.

Most Marine helicopters are more than 25 years old, said the corps' assistant commandant, Gen. Michael J. Williams. "Some of our younger pilots are flying the exact same aircraft that their fathers flew."

The reason for this increasing age, Rumsfeld explained, is that the two services have not been able to buy enough new planes every year. He cited this example: To maintain its required 4,200 aircraft at an average age of 18 years, "the Navy needs 180 to 200 new aircraft per year at a cost of $11 billion."

The 2001 budget amendment, however, would provide 97 aircraft at a cost of $8.4 billion, Rumsfeld noted, and the 2002 budget would add 88 airplanes at a cost of $8.3 billion.

As the average age of the Navy's aviation force goes up, "there has been a corresponding increase in the costs of operations and maintenance," Fallon said. "Specifically, the cost of aviation depot-level repairables--which is driving the cost of maintaining our aircraft--has risen an average of 13.8 percent per year."

To help stem these costs--and to keep aircraft flying safely as long as possible--the Naval Air Systems Command in 1999 established an Aging Aircraft Integrated Product Team. The team, which is headquartered at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., has been assigned to spearhead efforts to improve readiness and reduce lifecycle costs for Navy and Marine Corps aircraft.

The team is pursuing a systems-engineering approach, said its leader, Robert P. Ernst. "1 don't have a large staff," he told National Defense. The team consists of 16 fulltime personnel, with others working part-time. It includes representatives from the major aircraft programs operated by the two services.

The focus of the team is to find new and better ways to counter the problems caused by age, Ernst explained. Chief among the targets are faulty wiring, corrosion and fatigue, he said.

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