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Nearly half of USAF aircraft fleet has passed design service life, says air force official

31st January 2024 - 11:42 GMT | by Flavia Camargos Pereira in Kansas City

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The F-15C was manufactured from 1978 to 1992. (Photo: US Air Force)

The US Air Force has been operating helicopters and combat, ISR, transport and training platforms that have been in service for three decades or more, with 44% of its fleet having already passed its design service life.

The US Air Force (USAF) has been investing billions in acquiring new capabilities and modernising its fleet, however, the age of its current aircraft inventory has become a major concern. For three decades, the branch has been operating helicopters and AEW&C, combat, ISR, transport and training platforms.

Speaking during a recent webinar conducted by the US-based think tank CSIS, Lt Gen Richard G. Moore, US deputy chief of staff for plans and programmes, claimed that 44% of the USAF fleet had passed its design service life.

In order to match Chinese military and technological advancements, the branch has plans in place to procure new systems in the coming years and phase out more than 250 aeroplanes in FY2024.

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The divestments would enable the service save nearly US$3 billion in sustainment efforts, according to a US DoD report on Force Structure Changes for the Fiscal Year 2024 Defense Budget. USAF plans, however, have not been not fully accepted by US Congress.

The report recommended retiring 42 A-10, three A-29 (EMB-314 Super Tucano), one B-1, two C-130Hs, two E-3s (AWACS), three E-8s, two EC-130Hs, four EC-130Js, 57 F-15C/Ds, 32 F-22s, 37 HH-60Gs, 24 KC-10s and 52 T-1As.

“The purpose is to modernise and pivot towards great power competition, and get past the things that are holding us back from being able to compete,” Moore noted.

Shephard Defense Insight notes that the C-130H Hercules transport aircraft entered service with the USAF in 1974 and is operated by the National Guard and Air Force Reserve. It has been upgraded since 2017 under a two-stage programme called C-130H AMP.

The C-130J Super Hercules, meanwhile, is the latest model of the C-130 Hercules and features a new propulsion system, a new two-person flight station and updated avionics. Its production began in 1996 with the first unit being delivered in 1999.

Moreover, 60 KC-10s were built for the USAF from 1979 to 1987, of which 59 remain in service. They have undergone a series of upgrade and sustainment programmes to remain in operation.

In terms of fighters, the F-15 in the C and D versions was manufactured from 1978 to 1992, while the production of the F-22 took place between 1999 and 2010.

The C-130H Hercules is operated by the National Guard and Air Force Reserve. (Photo: USAF)

The USAF modernised the F-15 C/D in order to maintain it in service until 2026. The branch also started in 2003 an F-22 improvement programme with plans to operate the platform by mid-2050s.

Additionally, the A-10 production began in 1974 and continued until 1984. In 2007, Boeing was awarded a $1.1 billion contract to build the replacement wings to allow the aircraft to continue flying into the 2030s.

The B-1, in turn, was first designed in the 1960s, with the B1-B version being delivered from 1985. The platform has been intended to be replaced by the B-21 Raider bomber from 2025.

In the case of the E-3 AEW&C aircraft, it was manufactured from 1977 to 1992. In the mid-2000s, the USAF conducted mid-life upgrade options to extend its life into 2035.

The E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, concurrently, began to fly in 1988. The air force started retiring the E-8C fleet in 2022.

The HH-60G was another platform that entered service with the branch in the 1980s. The helicopter has been replaced by the HH-60W since 2019.

The KC-10 tanker, in turn, was built from 1979 to 1987 passing through a series of upgrade and sustainment programmes since then while the T-1A Jayhawk was delivered in the 1990s and improve the 2010s.

All of the decades-old capabilities should be replaced by new-generation platforms such as the B-21, KC-46A Pegasus tanker and F-35 multirole combat aircraft.

“We have got to get those airmen and those dollars away from things that do not mean anything to this [current] task, and we have got to pivot them to the future,” Moore highlighted.

F-35 multirole combat aircraft. (Photo: US Air Force)

Moore pointed out that, during the Desert Storm operation in 1991, the USAF had in its inventory 4,000 fighters that has been in service for about eight years. At the time, the branch’s pilots were flying from 18-to-20 hours a month. 

“We were ready for great power competition against the Russians,” Moore remarked.

Currently, the service has 2,000 fighters, with an average of age of 28 years old, and its pilots have been flying from six-to-eight hours monthly. 

“We are ready not for great power competition, but for counterinsurgency warfare,” claimed Moore.

While US Congress has considered the air force’s retirement plans risky, in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY 2024, lawmakers determined that the F-15 should be divested by September 2029.

Moreover, representatives and senators prohibited reductions of the C-130 fleet assigned to the National Guard, as well as on B-21 bombers equipping USAF squadrons.

The NDAA also stated that no T-1 would be retired before the service takes certain measures. It included submitting to the congressional defence committees a written assessment of how the divestment of the aircraft may affect other training programmes and initiatives.

Flavia Camargos Pereira

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Flavia Camargos Pereira


Flavia Camargos Pereira is a land reporter at Shephard Media. She joined the company in …

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