We don't know what caused the crash of a C-130 Hercules transport that was fighting the White Draw Fire in North Dakota on July 1. The crash killed four North Carolina Air National Guardsmen and injured two more. It temporarily stymied military participation in an ongoing air-to-ground battle with the sixty-some wildfires now burning throughout our heartland.
We do know this. No nation has ever before tasked its airmen to fly aircraft that are so old.
The first C-130 made its initial flight Aug. 23, 1954. The plane that crashed was manufactured in 1993.
We recently marked the 60th anniversary of the first flight of the B-52 Stratofortress bomber April 15, 1952. We celebrated the 40th anniversary of the initial flight of the A-10 Thunderbolt II, or Warthog, attack plane May 10, 1972. The F-15 Eagle air-to-air fighter will mark its 40th birthday July 27.
"The Air Force is operating a geriatric force that is becoming more so every day," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula in a July 4 interview. Deptula, a fighter pilot and Oakton resident, was until recently the service's top intelligence official. "Without adequate funding, our Air Force can go down one of three paths: we get smaller, we get weaker, or we get smaller and weaker."
The nation's air arm has only slightly more people today (about 320,000) than on the eve of Pearl Harbor — and fewer bombers. In 1955, 27 assembly lines in America were manufacturing combat aircraft. Today, there are three. Modern air operations rely heavily on air-to-air refueling, yet our standard refueler, the KC-135 Stratotanker, dates to a first flight Aug. 21, 1956.
We're approaching what Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus called a "perfect storm" of budget disasters, including a statutory requirement for the Pentagon to cut $500 million in spending, delays until after Election Day for a budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, and another emotional debate over the national debt ceiling. Those last two issues will come before a lame duck Congress, some of whose members will have been defeated at the polls.
The Air Force currently has no bombers in production and just one fighter. According to Air Force statistics, the average aircraft in inventory is 23.5 years old — not just the design but the actual airframe being used today — while our bombers and tankers average 50 years of age, our helicopters 30.
Our newest bomber, the B-2 Spirit, was delivered in the mid-1990s and relies on an on-board computer system based on the IBM 286. Our newest fighter, the F-22 Raptor, is plagued with oxygen-system issues and is not performing up to its potential.
"According to defense-program projections for future years, the Air Force will buy an average of 118 aircraft annually for the next few years," Deptula said. "At that rate, it will take 49 years to replace the aging aircraft we have now. If you remove those new aircraft that aren’t replacing current systems, then production will average 65 aircraft per year and it will take us 87 years to replace what we have now."
The need to recapitalize the Air Force has been growing on us since at least the late 1980s. In recent years, many experts believe we've spent too much on smaller aircraft and remotely-piloted vehicles intended for a war of insurgency like the one in Afghanistan, and not enough on sophisticated platforms needed for a "near peer" war with a developing nation-state like Iran or North Korea.
My view is that the only way to win a war of insurgency is to be the insurgent, and that we should have learned this at Lexington and Concord. Like most who follow military aviation developments, I'm concerned that our nation seems unwilling to invest in the long-range, land-based air power that is the decisive force in war and that may, one day, be essential to our survival.
About me: I'm an Oakton resident and an author of books, magazine articles and newspaper columns on military affairs. My current book is "Mission to Berlin," about bomber crews in World War II.