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