DAYTON, Ohio — The B-52 was born in a Dayton hotel room in 1948 when Boeing engineers put together a balsa-wood model of the proposed bomber for officials at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Seventy B-52s remain active in the Air Force's aging fleet. And with relatively few warplanes in production, the Air Force is scrambling to extend the lives of its fighters, bombers and tankers.
"The B-52 Stratofortress traces its origins to the late 1940s, yet it's going to be flying until the early 2040s," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the conservative Lexington Institute based in Arlington, Va. "That's nearly a century, and it tells you how unrealistic our current plans are for maintaining air power. We're basically flying into the 21st century with some very old technology."
The last B-52 was built in 1962. KC-135 tanker planes are also nearly 40 years old. The average age of all Air Force aircraft is 21.2 years. The only new aircraft coming off assembly lines are C-17 cargo planes and a few F-15 and F-16 fighters. The Air Force is hoping to begin production of the new F-22 fighter soon.
Thompson said that during the Clinton administration, the procurement share of the defense budget remained consistently below 20% for the first time since the 1930s.
"What that means is we didn't buy very many new aircraft," he said. "All sorts of things were stretched, delayed, cut back or canceled."
In the presidential campaign, George W. Bush and his running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, have accused Clinton and Vice President Al Gore of depleting military power. The Democrats respond that America still has the world's best-equipped fighting force and that money must be spent developing agility to deal with new kinds of threats.
Christopher Hellman, senior analyst with the Center for Defense Information, a watchdog group in Washington, said that while the fleet is aging, it remains capable.
For example, the B-52's mission has changed, he said. It is now used to launch cruise missiles far from enemy targets and does not have to be fast or stealthy.
Hellman also said the Air Force has about 90 B-1 bombers and 21 B-2 stealth bombers, and that bombs are also launched by F-15 and F-117 fighter jets. The problem-plagued B-1, which dates to the 1980s, was intended to replace the B-52.
Thompson said the United States has used its warplanes intensively in recent years, in the Balkans for example, making repairs and maintenance a "money drain."
"One of the reasons why we can't buy new aircraft is because it costs more and more and more to keep the old ones flying," he said. "And it's a little hard to get spare parts for an aircraft that hasn't been built for 30 years."
Thompson predicted that the problem will either result in the United States losing a war or scaling back on its military commitments overseas.
In congressional debates over new aircraft, local interests can be more important than party lines. The presidential campaign highlighted how the B-2, which Gore voted for as a senator from Tennessee, was opposed by former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio) and attacked as pork barrel spending by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz)..
Two southwest Ohio congressmen, Democrat Tony Hall and Republican David Hobson helped insert more money in this year's defense budget to maintain aging aircraft. The Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson is at the forefront of research into aircraft longevity.
The center's aging-systems office was created four years ago and has grown from investigating ways to prolong the lives of aircraft bodies to trying to stretch the longevity of avionics, landing gear, wiring and other systems.
Its $4.9-million budget this year is expected to grow to $25.7 million next year, thanks to the boost from Congress and transfer of some funds from work at other locations.
"We've been charged with looking at the entire aircraft now. We basically see this as being a growth industry," said Debbie Bailey, chief engineer at the office.
The center developed ways of using ultrasonic scanners to check for cracks and corrosion in the wings without removing fasteners and sheet metal. There are new compounds to inhibit rust, longer-lasting coatings and new bonding materials to repair metal.
"Instead of having to rivet a metallic patch on, you can glue a composite patch," Bailey said.
"We can find more stuff earlier and fix it while it's relatively cheaper," said David Campbell, a mechanical engineer who uses the new techniques at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. "The inspection times are going way down."