The US Air Force and US Navy's fleet of tactical fighters will continue to rapidly age unless alternative modernisation plans are adopted, warns the US General Accounting Office (GAO) in a new report, coinciding with the new administration of President Bush ordering a top-to-bottom review of defence programmes before approving any increase in funding.

The GAO says the planned procurement of 3,700 new Boeing F/A-18E/Fs, Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22s and Joint Strike Fighters at a cost of up to $338 billion will not keep pace with fleet ageing over the next 25 years. "Older aircraft are not expected to be replaced by newer aircraft at a rate high enough to reduce average age," says the report.

The USAF will have to contend with the cost of maintaining a fleet that will jump in average age from 13 to 21 years by 2011, while USN fighters will average 11 years compared to a target 7.5 years. "By 2025, air force aircraft will have an average age of 16 years. This is greater than in 1997, when the modernisation plans began," says the GAO.

USAF plans call for the acquisition of 1,763 JSFs stretched out over 21 years, forcing it to run on F-16C/Ds, which will each be 22 years old on average by 2011. The problem is compounded by the absence of any replacements for the air force's other older aircraft, such as the Lockheed Martin F-117 and Boeing F-15E, which by 2025 will average 34/35 years old.


President Bush has ruled out any immediate rise in the previous administration's proposed $310 billion defence budget for 2002 until the review is complete, a process which will include the three main fighter programmes. While JSF is numerically the most important programme, it is also the must vulnerable if funding is to be diverted to higher priority bomber and missile defence efforts.

GAO notes that 80% of JSF development costs have yet to be appropriated, while production remains 100% unfunded. By comparison, research, development, test and evaluation of the F-22 is around 95% funded, while 30% of the USN's planned buy of 584 F-18E/Fs by 2010 is approved.

The Department of Defence (DoD) says it "partially concurs" with the report's recommendations and adds that upgrades are in the works to ensure force levels are maintained. The GAO estimates $1.34 billion is needed for the USAF's planned F-16 Falcon Structural Augmentation Roadmap and the USN's F/A-18C/D service life extension, of which the DoD admits only $1.5 million has been requested so far.

Source: Flight International