The youngest B-52 bomber rolled off the assembly line 50 years ago. Remarkably, it’s still flying.
Like many of the aircraft still used by the U.S. military, the B-52 is telltale example of America’s geriatric aviation force. At a time when our military is asked to do more with less, fiscal constraints have hampered its modernization and recapitalization strategy. Heritage is highlighting these challenges as part of Protect America Month and a three-part America at Risk video series.
The B-52 might be among the Air Force’s most recognizable planes. Its maiden flight was in April 1952 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower occupied the White House and the Cold War posed the greatest threat to America’s security. Today it is still flying out of Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.
It’s not the military’s only aging aircraft, however. Along with tankers and fighters, America’s aviation force today is jeopardy of sacrificing dominance in the air environment that came with advancements in the 1960s and 1970s. Simply modernizing and updating those aircraft won’t provide the same edge.
David A. Deptula, a retired three-star general, has witnessed this “geriatric aviation force” firsthand. He earned his wings and flew an F-15 for the first time in 1977. Thirty years later, another Deptula boarded the aircraft. His son, Lt. David A. Deptula II, flew the same F-15 at Kadena Air Force Base in Japan.
The Wall Street Journal documented the amazing father-son story last fall to illustrate the challenges facing the aging force. The elder Deptula recounted for Heritage how the fighter was originally designed for a 4,000-hour service life. That was later extended to 8,000 hours.
“We have really flown these aircraft well beyond what originally would be believed as their replacement lifetime,” Deptula said of the F-15s. “And now, because of some of the fiscal constraints that are being imposed on the Department of Defense, there is consideration being given to extending the lifetime even further.”
Before retiring from the Air Force in 2010 as a lieutenant general, Deptula traveled to Kadena for a high-aspect mission with his son. He flew the F-15 and saw firsthand some of its deficiencies compared to newer aircraft like the F-22 and F-35.
He knows the risks associated with flying an older aircraft as well. While serving as the joint task force commander in 1998 and 1999 for Operation Northern Watch, he flew 82 combat missions over Iraq. On one mission, as he was headed to a tanker to refuel, the master caution light came on, revealing a problem with the plane. His fuel gauge went to zero. Meanwhile, he was 500 miles away from his base. Fortunately, he was able to land safely.
“The insulation was so old it simply had deteriorated to the extent where it came off and all of the wiring shorted out,” Deptula explained. “Those are the kinds of things that happen when airplanes get to certain ages.”
While his aircraft was grounded, another set of airplanes traveled from Kadena Air Force Base in Japan, on other side of the world, to replace the one that was being repaired.
In the years that followed, the Air Force was forced to ground its entire F-15 fleet after one fighter disintegrated during a training mission in Missouri in 2007.
Deptula worries that fiscal constraints imposed on the military — including $492 billion of mandatory defense cuts on the horizon — will result in future challenges.
“I hear people talk about, well you know, the U.S. military spends more money than the next 17 nations combined,” Deptula said. “Well, the next 17 nations combined are not committed to maintaining peace and stability around the world. We are.”
Heritage’s James Jay Carafano, an expert on defense and national security issues, worries that under the Obama administration, the military will continue to suffer from ill-advised budgeting.
“Today’s air forces are the oldest in the history of U.S. air forces,” Carafano explained. “Replacing old airframes and ensuring the U.S. maintains its superiority over potential adversaries is a national security priority. Yet Obama has done little to show he takes the challenge of modernizing the air fleets seriously.”
This is the second of a three-part series on the risks of budget cuts to America’s military. It was produced and directed by Will Lamborn. Brandon Stewart and Alison Meyer assisted with production. For more videos from Heritage, subscribe to our YouTube channel.