November 6, 2007

Time For The F-22

The Pentagon has grounded its mainstay of air defense after an F-15 fighter disintegrated in flight during a training mission in Missouri. The pilot survived, but the F-15 fleet may not. Most of the 688 aircraft have already lived far beyond their design life, but Congress has shown great reluctance to spend the money necessary to upgrade to the F-22:

The Air Force has grounded its entire fleet of F-15s, the service's premier fighter aircraft, after one of the planes disintegrated over eastern Missouri during a training mission, raising the possibility of a fatal flaw in the aging fighters' fuselage that could keep it out of the skies for months.

Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, ordered the grounding Saturday after initial reports indicated that the Missouri Air National Guard fighter plane had broken apart Friday in midair during a simulated dogfight. The pilot ejected and survived.

Although the 688 F-15s in the Air Force's arsenal are gradually being replaced by a new generation of aircraft -- the F-22 -- they remain the nation's most sophisticated front-line fighters. ...

The health of the F-15 fleet has long been a concern for Air Force brass, who repeatedly have warned that the two-engine fighter has exceeded its expected life span and is straining under the workload imposed by the counter-terrorism duty.

In addition, Moseley has repeatedly raised concerns that the plane is inadequate for increasingly sophisticated air defense systems being developed by potential adversaries like China and Iran.

The Air Force has not completed its investigation into the accident. If the probe shows faulty maintenance as the problem, then the fleet can return to duty. However, if they find metal fatigue caused the problem, the fighters will stay on the ground for a much longer period of time, and with much costlier repairs to get them back into the air. The Pentagon has warned of metal fatigue in the past, especially with the increased missions flown by the aircraft since 9/11, both at home and abroad.

Congress has remained skeptical of the need to build replacement fighters. They have called the F-22 a throwback to Cold War requirements, but the Pentagon has testified that the design has been modified to meet new strategic concerns, such as terrorism and newer defense systems produced by China and Russia. The F-22 combines new capabilities with American stealth technology, an expensive mix, but one critical to future issues of national security.

With the fleet of F-15s beginning to hit middle age, Congress clearly has to start taking some action to prepare for the transition away from the aging fighter. We cannot indefinitely rely on aircraft used repeatedly over decades in high-stress flying missions. The disintegration of the flight in Missouri took place in a routine training mission, not a high-powered dogfight against enemy aircraft. With metal fatigue a known issue already in this fleet, delaying their replacement allows a window of vulnerabilty that should be absolutely unacceptable to Americans. Our entire military strategy relies on air supremacy -- and if the F-15 can't deliver that any more, then we have allowed that strategy to slide into obsolescence.


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