Maintaining the aircraft taking part in air attacks against Yugoslavia is a battle in itself

DeeDee Doke/LONDON

As NATO's air campaign over Yugoslavia approaches its tenth week, the US Air Force is battling behind the lines with a multi-headed foe: maintenance.

"Flying hours have surged by over four times for some types of aircraft and maintenance activity has increased accordingly," the USAF in Europe (USAFE) told Flight International.

An analysis of specific costs and maintenance statistics is under way, USAFE says, but no details are yet available. However, "as an average, there are usually 20-25 % of the aircraft dedicated to Joint Task Force Noble Anvil undergoing maintenance" at any one time, USAFE says. "About half of these aircraft are undergoing routine scheduled maintenance."

A Lockheed Martin F-16 involved in the air war, for example, reaches its 200h maintenance cycle about three weeks earlier than normal. As of 30 April, Boeing F-15Es assigned to USAFE's only F-15 wing had already flown 406h above its annual allocation of 9,328 flying hours. Overall, USAFE aircraft have flown 69%, or 62,077, of the command's 90,439 allocated flying hours for the current fiscal year.

The "little bit of a crunch" on aircraft spares early in the campaign has eased "and now we've got all the priority we need. We're at the head of the line," says Col Pete Mooy, logistics director for the 16th Air Force at Aviano AB, Italy. USAFE faces another worry: a boost to the command's spares budget for the current fiscal year that was intended to relieve an existing "trough" could be eroded by the air war's demands.

"The longer we're at it, the costs to recover are going to be higher," Mooy says. "Now we've put a big demand on the same situation we were trying to recover from."

With only limited airlift available, USAFE has turned to ground transport and contracted private trucking firms to take parts and equipment to forward deployed locations. Since the conflict began, some Europe-based aircraft forward deployed for the Balkan air war have been returning to home bases for maintenance. To offer specialised battle-damage help and lighten the load on maintainers assigned to engaged aircraft units, USAF has dispatched Combat Logistics Support Squadrons from US bases to Aviano; RAF Lakenheath, UK; Spangdahlem AB, Germany; and Skopje, Macedonia. Each team specialises in one aircraft: F-15s, F-16s, Fairchild A-10s or Lockheed Martin C-130s.

"Aircraft are breaking, but overall, we're very healthy," says Lt Col Rhett Taylor, deputy logistics group commander for the F-15-flying 48th Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath. "A year ago, we couldn't have done this," she adds, referring to a spate of problems with the F-15Es' Pratt & Whitney F100-229 engines that grounded a significant portion of the fleet.

Recently, the USAFhas launched air attacks directly from Lakenheath and Spangdahlem, which typically send their aircraft to forward bases for combat missions. Mooy says launching combat missions from more bases has "pluses" and "minuses". "If we were only operating out of Aviano, we could have all the munitions at Aviano," he says. Stockpiles must be kept at "the right levels, and all the assets are limited."

Distributing the air war's missions among ever more distant points means adding "longer legs" for air refuelling. The plus points include being able to position maintenance crews closer to spare stockpiles, crew familiarity with equipment and, Mooy says: "It's a little cheaper".

Source: Flight International