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American Warplanes Occupy Old-Fly Zone

Aging aircraft are marvels of engineering yet also the subject of growing concern

March 23, 2003|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Some of the world's most sophisticated and deadly weapons have been launched against Iraq by jet-fighters and bombers that are decades old, in many cases far older than the pilots who fly them.

With few exceptions, such as robotic spy planes, the aircraft in the U.S. arsenal were developed during the Cold War era of the Truman, Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. Even the newest, including the F-117 stealth fighter that made the first strikes Thursday, flew in the Persian Gulf War 12 years ago.

The oldest in the fleet and the workhorse of the Iraqi bombing campaign, the eight- engine B-52 bomber, was put on the drawing board toward the end of World War II and first flew during the Korean War. The last B-52 built rolled out of Boeing Co.'s Renton, Wash., factory 41 years ago.

Some defense industry analysts say the fleet is so old that there are planes in danger of falling apart. But the Pentagon insists that its fighters and bombers -- with an average age of 22 years -- are more capable than ever, having been continually upgraded with new electronics, engines and weapons.

The Pentagon spends about $2 billion a year upgrading its air forces. Companies spend billions of dollars more annually developing new electronics for military aircraft, work that has sustained the defense industry in Southern California.

Once focused on aircraft manufacturing, defense companies such as Raytheon Co. in El Segundo and Boeing's operations in Orange County have shifted to researching and developing new and more advanced components for aging planes. Hundreds of engineers at Northrop Grumman Corp.'s El Segundo unit and Lockheed Martin Corp.'s legendary Skunk Works in Palmdale are working on upgrades to B-2 Spirit stealth bombers and F-117 fighters. Modifications and upgrades are tested at Edwards Air Force Base near Lancaster and at the Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, Calif.

Many analysts say that fitting old craft with new gear more than does the trick.

"The airframe for these planes were built 15 to 20 years ago, but their guts have been consistently rejuvenated," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst for Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group Corp. "They're infinitely more effective than they ever were."

Dissenters, including some Pentagon officials in private conversations, say they are increasingly uneasy about the aging fleet, particularly because of the potential for the aircraft to fall apart from structural fatigue and corrosion, consequences of old age that have plagued the country's aerial firefighting fleet.

"It may seem like the most powerful air force in the world, but plane for plane it's more like a collection of museum pieces," said Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "The upgraded F-15s have all sorts of new things

Thompson recalled a story an Air Force general told him a few years ago: The general, in charge of patrolling Iraq's northern "no-fly" zone, was flying an F-15C when the cockpit electronics suddenly went blank. After the plane barely made it back to base, the maintenance staff discovered that the wiring insulation had turned into powder. The general said he was stunned when he later discovered he had flown the same plane two decades earlier.

"What worries the Air Force is that we haven't faced serious challenges, so we have not had the urgency to buy new aircraft," Thompson said, noting that the next-generation fighter jet, the F-22, has been in development for more than a decade yet isn't expected to be operational until 2006. "Meanwhile, structural fatigue and corrosion [are] becoming a major issue."

Certainly, with an aging fleet comes the headache of maintaining it with a shrinking inventory of parts and supplies that are no longer made, difficult to find or costly to remake. The problem is so acute that it's common practice at Air Force and Navy maintenance facilities to cannibalize planes, according to government documents.

Using Aircraft for Parts

In a 2001 report, the General Accounting Office noted that from 1995 through 2000, Air Force and Navy repair crews spent 5 million hours -- the equivalent of 500 maintenance personnel working full time for five years -- taking 850,000 parts from some aircraft to replace defective or damaged equipment in others.

The report, which cautioned that the armed services probably were grossly underreporting incidents of cannibalization, noted that in one case, 136 parts from a single C-5 transport plane were used to repair other aircraft.

The shortage of parts reflects changes in priorities since the end of the Cold War, analysts said. And that is reflected in how the Pentaon spends its budget.

"During the Cold War, when we had powerful adversaries, we were focused on developing newer, better and faster weapons," said Christopher Michel, a former Navy P-3 Orion mission commander who now runs, a Web site for military personnel.

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