It remains one of the "hallmarks" of Jimmy Carter's disastrous presidency; the "Hollow Force" of the late 1970s, when U.S. military readiness fell to precipitous lows, limiting our response options to situations around the globe.
Carter himself discovered the consequences of those military cutbacks during the defining moment of his term--the Iran Hostage Crisis. When he asked how many B-52s the Air Force could muster for a strike against Iranian targets, Carter was told "four," and only if the necessary number of KC-135 tankers (for in-flight refueling) were available. Needless to say plans for a long-range strike against Iran were quickly scrubbed.
Since then, the term "Hollow Force" has become a rallying cry for military spending programs, to prevent our armed forces from falling into a similar state of disrepair. It's also become a campaign weapon for more than a few Republican politicians, used to bludgeon their Democratic opponents.
But is a new "Hollow Force" era approaching (at least for the Air Force?) In the July issue of Air Force magazine, reporter Megan Scully suggests that day may have already arrived. Her article, "Worse Than the Hollow Force," traces the sharp decline in the readiness rates among Air Force aircraft over the past seven years.
Thanks to an aging aircraft fleet, a dramatic increase in operations tempo and soaring maintenance costs, the percentage of Air Force assets deemed fully mission capable (FMC) is now at a daily average of 56%, a decline of 17 points since 2001. In other words, just over half of the Air Force's fighter, bomber, tanker, transport, and support aircraft are capable of performing their mission without extensive maintenance, or the replacement of parts.
While much of the readiness decline is rooted in the War on Terror and old airframes that need replacement, Ms. Scully also notes that politics are at work as well. For example, the Air Force would like to retire all 85 of its KC-135E tankers (which are almost 50 years old); 30 of the "worst actors" in the C-5 fleet (long beset by maintenance woes) and a number of C-130E transports, which date to the early 1960s. But last year Congress only allowed the retirement of 29 KC-135Es and 51 C-130Es--with the stipulation that the aircraft be maintained at a state that would allow them to be recalled to service. Not surprisingly, virtually all of those aircraft are assigned to various Air National Guard (ANG) units, making them a concern for various Congressmen and Senators.
The cost of that mandate is measured in millions of dollars--money that could be better spent on new aircraft, or other, equally pressing defense programs. Making matters worse, many of the aircraft being maintained for possible recall have already been grounded by the Air Force, due to excessive wear and tear on the airframe. And getting those birds back in the air would prove costly; keeping the KC-135Es in operational service would require an investment of at least one billion dollars, and (as Ms. Scully notes) the Air Force would still be stuck with a 53-year-old tanker at the end of the day.
In the interim, the service is cutting other airframes that have ready replacements, or less political support. The U-2 is scheduled to leave the inventory over the next five years, allowing the Air Force to replace it with high-altitude UAVs. Additionally, the F-117 Nighthawk is also facing retirement, replaced by the F-22 Raptor.
While Ms. Scully is a talented reporter, we should point out that Air Force magazine and its parent organization, The Air Force Association (AFA) clearly have a dog in this fight. It's hardly a surprise that the AFA is firmly behind the service's attempts to "recapitalize" its aircraft fleet, and retire older airframes to help pay for the upgrades.
Still, there's something fundamentally wrong with the current process for mothballing aging aircraft. Congressional efforts to preserve airframes on the ramp (along the jobs and tax dollars that come with them) are inherently wasteful and unethical, a type of earmark wrapped in aluminum or titanium. And sadly, a solution for this problem--like retirement of those aging aircraft--will likely be deferred for another day, another Congress and another administration.