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.)