Aging Aircraft Problem

Any discussion of the wisdom of maintaining capital equipment is usually based on economic arguments. For example, if the cost of maintaining the equipment on a monthly or annualized basis exceeds the capital, interest, and amortization charges on replacement equipment, the decision to purchase the replacement is straightforward. Often the replacement equipment offers an improved productivity as well.

In the case of Air Force aircraft, safety-of-flight considerations also enter into the decision to repair or replace. Fortunately, inspection and maintenance procedures and the Aircraft Structural Integrity Program (ASIP) have been developed to reduce the likelihood of structural failure during the design service life. However, several external political changes, including the end of the Cold War, have caused the Air Force to change their approach to force management. As a result, the Air Force budget to develop new aircraft systems has been reduced. Because strategic policies have not been altered greatly, Air Force managers have concluded that the only way to meet the mission demands is to extend the service life of some of their aircraft forces.

Ultimately these factors will impact the force planning process. The Air Force aging aircraft problem can be best understood by examining the existing force management process, future force projections, and the current structural condition of the many types of aging aircraft in the Air Force inventory. In this chapter, force management processes and future force projections are summarized, followed by the committee's assessment of the process, including ASIP. A summary of the current structural condition of the many types of aging aircraft in the Air Force inventory is provided in Chapter 3. The committee's assessments of key technical issues related to the aging aircraft problem are discussed in Chapter 4.


Modernization Planning Process

The Air Force modernization planning process (AFMPP) is the mechanism for supporting the five core competencies—air superiority, space superiority, precision employment, global mobility, and information dominance—provided by executive guidance documents. Aircraft systems are involved primarily in three of the five competencies: air superiority, precision employment, and global mobility.

The AFMPP integrates the elements that provide the foundation for the five competencies into a coherent modernization plan that reaches 25 years into the future. The foundation elements included in the modernization plan are

  • readiness and sustainment

  • research, development, test, and evaluation

  • logistics

  • information technology

  • equipment and facilities

  • manpower

The effectiveness of the aircraft systems (as well as other systems) in providing those competencies is determined largely by how well the foundation elements are integrated and addressed.

The key focus of the AFMPP is ''modernization." Historically, the Air Force has been the world's technological leader in aircraft systems. This has been achieved through a robust science and technology program combined with frequent replacement of aging systems with new or modernized systems. This rapid replacement has slowed significantly in recent years because of budget constraints and affordability considerations. The result has been a shift to increased upgrading and life extension of many systems beyond what was typically done in the past.

The extended use of many aircraft results in increased maintenance and repair costs because of structural cracking and corrosion problems. In most cases, older aircraft spend longer times undergoing depot maintenance, with a resulting severe impact on readiness. Furthermore, extended aircraft service places increased importance on forecasting when the system must be replaced, either because of obsolescence or economic reasons (or a combination of both). If a system must be retired before the expected forecast service life, readiness could be impacted severely because a replacement system would not be ready in time to close the gap. Extended production lead times and budget exigencies for new systems make it even more important that the Air Force accurately determine, with a high degree of precision and confidence, the expected structural life of aircraft systems and the economics of sustaining them.

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