A Vicious Cycle: The U.S. Military’s Maintenance and Modernization Problem
On Jan. 24, Gen. Maryanne Miller, head of Air Mobility Command, took the stage in Seattle and accepted the ceremonial keys to a new KC-46 airplane. She begrudgingly acknowledged to the assembled Boeing employees that she was really just the understudy. The scheduled headliner — Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson — had a hiccup in travel plans and would miss the festivities.
“She is stuck at Hill Air Force Base. She was en route… But they had smoke in the cockpit, so they had to divert back in and take care of it,” Miller explained. “Of course, not a Boeing airplane!” she quipped to hoots and hollers from the factory floor workers.
There is something Shakespearean about missing the roll-out of a new plane because your old one catches fire. It shows how the U.S. military is caught precariously between maintaining its force for today and modernizing its fleet for tomorrow. The services are taking too long to field new systems, and that lengthened time frame necessitates longer maintenance of old systems. Navigating that tension is more important than just making it to industry events — it is about supporting America’s national security obligations with the tools the military has and surviving until it gets the tools it needs.
As a naval aviator, it was easy for me to watch Miller’s speech and laugh. (“HA! Take that, Air Force! Shoulda flown Southwest!”) It is harder for me to concede my own precarious relationship with aging aircraft. In 2003, as U.S. ground forces pushed north, I celebrated my 26th birthday over Baghdad in a Navy EA-6B — a jet four years my senior. That same afternoon, I launched off the USS Kitty Hawk, a Vietnam-era ship nearly old enough to have been commissioned by Wilbur and Orville. I celebrated my 40th birthday again at sea flying off the USS Eisenhower, a vessel that, like me, was christened in 1977. Frankly, I’m handling middle age better than she is.
While it might be amusing to imagine the Air Force secretary sadly popping champagne in her broken G5, the incident led me to reflect that my career, too, has relied on platforms pieced together like 1950s Buicks on the streets of Cuba.
But the first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. In a recent discussion at Brookings, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson briefed his plan for maintaining U.S. maritime supremacy. Buried in the Navy’s Design 2.0 document, in a list of objectives, is a telling sentence that charts a significantly different course for defense acquisition: “By the end of 2019, identify requirements across the family of systems to replace the F/A-18E/F and EA-18G [carrier based aircraft] by 2030.”
For someone not familiar with the defense acquisition process, it may seem like a reasonable goal to identify new technology this year for implementation in a decade. However, for comparison, just last Friday the Navy flew the final flight of the FA-18C, a fighter that first saw combat in Libya. (Not Obama’s Libya, Reagan’s Libya.)
The FA-18C flight is a case study in the pitfalls of delayed implementation. The plan was to replace the FA-18C Hornet with the F-35C. Unexpected delays in the F-35 collided with unexpected maintenance issues in the FA-18C. The “Hornet sundown” didn’t survive first contact with the maintenance of the old jet or the integration of the new one. Rightfully and admirably so, the Navy erred on the side of safety and pulled the plug on the Hornet earlier than scheduled. That decision probably saved someone’s life, but it leaves the nation shorthanded — the last FA-18C deployment happened prior to the first F-35 deployment. Richardson is correct to try and avoid that mistake the next time the Navy retires a fighter. It has a decade to figure out a solution.
Also of note: Lockheed Martin won the contract for the F-35 in October 2001, but the Navy version still hasn’t deployed. It couldn’t even field the jet in time to fight the longest war in U.S. history. Using this time scale, replacing the Navy’s fighter fleet in 11 years seems awfully ambitious. It will require decreasing maintenance requirements for aging platforms and increasing the acquisition pace for new ones, neither of which the Navy is particularly good at.
Admittedly, “across the family of systems” may refer to replacing some planes with other weapons systems, such as autonomous vehicles, cyber, directed energy, and intermediate-range strike weapons. That is pilot blasphemy, but I know it’s true.
When Richardson testifies about Design 2.0 before Congress he will presumably say that the Navy needs more FA-18s in 2020, and that it will replace those FA-18s by 2030. We will see what response he gets, but the only thing shocking about that sentence is its brutally honest admission that planes don’t last forever. Modern weapons systems are more expensive but also become obsolete more quickly. That is a without a doubt a hard truth to reconcile before a new Congress already apprehensive about the size of the budget. Nevertheless, responsible and realistic defense budgeting should welcome technological advances today and plan for their replacement tomorrow.
The Air Force rightfully brags about the Welch family, a proud Air Force clan in which three generations all flew the B-52. There may be time for the family to get a great-grandchild into the cockpit before the aging bomber’s 2040 retirement.
But today’s weapons are not the B-52: They have an embedded obsolescence. You might inherit your grandfather’s old hammer, but your kids won’t inherit your iPhone 5. The Navy should acknowledge that even its newest equipment has a shelf life. In the case of the FA-18 family of aircraft, 2030 is a reasonable expiration date and one the services should take seriously. If the U.S. military trades aircraft modernization for maintenance, it will look more like a Havana taxi company than the world’s preeminent fighting force.
If my grandchild flies one of my airplanes, it will mean things have gone terribly wrong. As the secretary of the Air Force can attest, they just don’t make jets like they used to.
Brendan Stickles is a Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He likes seeing old airplanes at airshows and flying new airplanes in the fleet. The views expressed are his alone and do not reflect the official position of the United States Navy.