Few documents illustrate the plight of the US Air Force’s aging aircraft problem better than this new report today by the Government Accountability Office. GAO’s auditors focused on the future of the air superiority alert mission, a legacy of 9/11 that is amazingly still neglected. But the report also implicitly reveals the extent of the looming “fighter gap” in ways I haven’t seen before. Consider this one paragraph (see page 28).
The remaining F-15s returned to service by spring 2008, butAir Combat Command officials told us that in light of the accident andsubsequent grounding they are concerned about the number of F-15s that will beable to remain in service and meet the Air Force’s operational needs up totheir scheduled retirement date in 2025. When we discussed this issue duringthe exit conference of our review, Air Force and NGB/ANG officials acknowledgedthat the end of the F-15s’ useful service lives could occur earlier than 2025if the aircraft are increasingly used for overseas deployments or othermissions. During discussions for the fiscal year 2010 programming cycle, theAir Force sought approval from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to retire137 F-15s and 177 F-16s earlier than originally planned. Depending on when andwhere the Air Force retires these F-15s, removing them from service early couldfurther affect the number of aircraft that will be available for unitsperforming ASA operations. In comments on a draft of this report, DOD indicatedthat extending the service life of its F-15 and F-16 aircraft is also anoption; however, the Air Force has yet to determine the extent to which suchactions are viable.