Is the F-15 grounding really the USAF’s fault?

As the F-15 grounding has dragged on I have become increasingly concerned the US Air Force was going beyond the prudent demands of safety to make a very public and political point that its fighter fleet is getting old. Even before an Eagle broke apart in flight on 2 November USAF leaders were lobbying hard for funding to buy more F-22s than the 183 planned to replace its aging F-15s.

After the press briefing on the F-15 accident investigation at the Pentagon on 10 January I accept the Air Force has been correct to be cautious, but I remain convinced it is exploiting the Eagle’s issues to reinforce its case for more Raptors. I also firmly believe the grounding and its consequences are the USAF’s own fault.

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The Woracle listens as Gen Corley (left) defends his F-15 grounding decision

As for the crash and its cause, having seen the evidence presented (check out flightglobal’s special report) it was clearly a nasty accident that the pilot was lucky to survive. And, with an average age of 25 years, the Eagles clearly have worrying fatigue issue made worse by sloppy manufacturing processes (by today’s standards) back when McDonnell Douglas built them.

Where I draw the line is at Air Combat Command chief Gen John Corley’s remark at the press conference that the while US Air Force will have to hold on to its aging F-15s for several more years the US Navy was able to retire its similar-vintage F-14s a couple of years ago. Not because it is a false statement – but because it is patently disingenuous.

The USAF has had to hold on to the F-15s because its replacement, the F-22, took so long to develop and costs so much to produce. The US Navy was able to retire its F-14s because it chose to upgrade its F/A-18 rather than take the time and spend the money to develop an all-new so-called “fifth generation” fighter.

I can be argued the Navy had no other choice after the debacle of the A-12, but voluntary or not it has worked out well for naval aviators. They have new-build fighters coming off the Boeing production line at more the twice the rate of the F-22 and, in the Block 2 Super Hornet, they have perhaps the most capable multi-role fighter now flying.

The USAF’s “big bang” approach to replacing the F-15 – putting all of its development and procurement resources into a totally new platform – may have resulted in a superb and stealthy fighting machine, but one that is so expensive it will replace only a fraction of the Eagle fleet. It is an “all or nothing” approach the Air Force is repeating with the F-35, which is intended to replace not only the F-16 but also the A-10.

Air Force leaders have repeatedly dismissed the idea of buying new F-15s and F-16s from production lines that are still delivering aircraft to export customers – aircraft that are more capable than those the USAF itself operates. By doing so, they hold themselves hostage to the procurement costs and development hurdles of the F-22 and F-35.

Corley also made the point that the “brittle bone” problems of a fatigue-aged fleet “are systemic and go beyond the F-15″. So watch out – once the USAF has convinced DoD and Congress to let it keep buying F-22s, we will start to hear more tales of woe about F-16 bulkheads and A-10 wings…

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“Remind me, how do I get into this thing?” (USAF photo)

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5 Responses to Is the F-15 grounding really the USAF’s fault?

  1. Felix 12 January, 2008 at 12:51 pm #

    Buying more F-22s would bring the unit cost down. If we’d bought the number the program was designed around the unit price would be totally affordable. Even F-15s would be too expensive if we’d only bought 180 of them. I’ll never understand why a person would want to hobble our soldiers by not giving them the best equipment available. But hey, what do they care it’s not their backsides on the line.

  2. Gary 13 January, 2008 at 2:08 am #

    I’ll just start off by saying that the USAF’s procurement record has been less than perfect. But the bottom line is that Russia is developing their fifth generation fighter and the F-35 will be no match for it. We really need the capabilities of the F-22 to counter this fighter that will be exported around the world. F-22s will have to be procured in an adequate number in order for us to maintain our air superiority advantage. Perhaps the USAF should start actively seeking what programs, (Airborne Laser for example), they could shift funds from in order to procure more F-22s.

  3. scott 13 January, 2008 at 2:50 am #

    I am glad to see someone else thinking the same way I am. The AF is milking this for all it’s worth, and some of the comments by Gen Corley call into question both his professionalism and competence. The F-15 has questionable longerons in some cases. Well, inspect and replace as required, with Boeing picking up the tab, since MCD-MAC (now part of Boeing) screwed up. This is not a new problem with military aircraft, both the F-16 and A-10 also have some structural issues. Oh, and by the way, so does the F-22, the savior of the AF. See http://www.airforcetimes.com/news/2007/11/airforce_raptor_rust_071112w/

    for details.

    For the record I was a Reagan Republican, now an independent. If you can show me someone who has ANYTHING that can come close to taking a F-15 armed with AIM-9Ls and AIM-120s (other than the more capable F-15s we are selling our allies but will not buy ourselves), then I will concede the point and fight for F-22s. However, the unmanned air-to-air UAVs will be out in a few more years, making the F-22 a very expensive airshow attraction. Better to spend the money on the refueling fleet upgrade first, and keep the F-15s in the mix until the 2012-18 life expectancy comes to an end.

  4. B. Perry 13 January, 2008 at 6:29 am #

    I take major issue with many of the comments made above. As a former Naval Officer with a brother who still flies F-15′s I think I can speak with some authority on this subject.

    The Navy ended up with the F/A-18E/F simply because it was the cheapest option. Naval Aviation has long struggled to fund topflight aircraft and in the early 90′s after the A-12 debacle it was quite clear that NATF was a pipe dream budget wise. Two proposals were left on the table Super Tomcat 21 and the E/F. While it was clear that the upgraded F-14 would be far more capable the E/F was chosen on cost grounds. And while the Navy has an excellent aircraft in the E/F it still has range issues and is at best equal to the Rafael, Typhoon, etc. It isn’t stealthy which means that penetrating modern air defense networks (like the one being quietly assembled by Iran with Russian help) is problematic at best.

    The F-22 by contrast is a game changing airplane. Having the F-22 in the inventory gives us the same kind of advantage in Air to Air that the F-86 enjoyed over the P-51. Quite simply no other fighter on the planet can even come close.

    And yes we will be hearing about cracks in the rest of the fleet. The average age of the Air Force fleet is appallingly high and the demands of the war on terror have been adding hours at a rate that was never forecast. Aircraft don’t last forever and the Air Force is long overdue for force recapitalization.

    You can complain about the cost of the F-22′s and F-35′s but history has shown us that military aviation is rarely served by buying the cheapest alternative available. Continuing to buy a decades old design will not ensure that US Forces can continue to meet and defeat the best our enemies have to offer. The F-22 and F-35 by contrast can continue to guarantee the air dominance that we take for granted today in the decades to come.

    P.S.
    Scott above asked for an airframe that could compete with the F-15 AIM-9L combination. Typhoon, Rafael, and the latest Russian fighters are but a couple of examples.

  5. scott 13 January, 2008 at 4:22 pm #

    As Mr Perry says, the Typhoon could probably compete with a F-15 above 20,000 t if the F-15 was only equipped with AIM-9Ls. Put the AIM-120 into the equation and it becomes no contest. If you are talking a guns or -9L only fight, the F-106 could take them both above 30k

    As long as the AF wants the most expensive fighter that they can buy, without regard to cost overruns, to airframe and electronics problems, I will have a hard time believing that they have the country’s best interests at heart. Radar binding (stealth) aircraft are great, but they have limited utility and tend to be quite expensive. The Typhoon and other aircraft are already equipped to defeat this technology, leaving the air to air utility in question. As far as air to ground, as the F-117a showed, once you suppress the air defenses of a country, who cares if you show up on radar or not. If the bad guys have no operational radar, it’s a moot point, so you only need enough for the defense suppression mission.

    Also, your P-51 vs F-86 comparison is one generation short. When air to air UAVs show up, the F-22 will be dog meat. No matter what you do to the aircraft, it will still be limited by the pilot. Put one up against a UAV with a 11g turn limit and wait for the parachute.

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