Defense notebook: Nation’s finances, plane retirements, fleet health debated

The nation’s bleak finances might finally be enough to convince Congress to allow the Air Force to retire some of its oldest and worst-performing aircraft.

For the last handful of years, Air Force officials have badly wanted to retire some of its C-5A cargo planes. Many of those massive cargo planes have reliability rates — Pentagon jargon for how often they are available to fly — below 50 percent.

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For the service, keeping some of those C-5As flying creates unplanned costs, taking away dollars during a time of declining Defense budgets. And it also means mechanics are pulled away from working on better-performing aircraft.

Keeping those C-5As operable means an “extra workload” on Air Force mechanics, Gen. Raymond Johns, U.S. Air Mobility Command chief, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee on Wednesday.

Johns and outgoing U.S. Transportation Command chief Gen. Duncan McNabb said the Pentagon wants to remove about 30 C-5As from the fleet, saying the move could free up $1.2 billion over five years.

Congress has for years blocked the air service from retiring a large number of the venerable Lockheed Martin-made cargo planes. But that could be changing, given America’s economic slowdown.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) has taken up the service’s cause, and no subcommittee member voiced opposition to retiring the planes. She says retiring the planes could help save money at a time when the nation “is facing a $14 trillion debt.”

Additionally, Ayottee and other subcommittee members voiced support for changing a provision in current law that requires the Air Force to maintain 316 strategic airlifters — big cargo planes. The Air Force would like to move to a fleet of around 300 planes.

McNabb said 301 cargo planes would be a “right-sized fleet.”


AIA calls for quick action on sweeping debt-ceiling package

Congress and the White House “cannot afford to delay” any longer on raising the debt ceiling, cutting discretionary spending and revamping America’s entitlement programs, says a top aerospace and defense trade association.

“The current crisis provides a great opportunity to tackle our growing fiscal challenges in a smart way that preserves our national security and economic strength,” Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) President Marion Blakey said Friday in a statement. “But there is no acceptable path forward that does not include action on entitlements, discretionary spending and the debt-ceiling.”

Congressional and White House officials “cannot afford to delay making these tough choices any longer, and as a country we cannot afford to default on our obligations,” Blakey said, “which would only lead to higher prices for all Americans for gas, mortgages and groceries and would imperil our future.”

Bleak picture sketched of health of Navy ships

House lawmakers and Navy officials are frustrated about the state of the sea service’s fleet of war ships.

“In the last four years inspection failures for Navy ships have nearly tripled. Currently, one in five ships inspected is either unsatisfactory or unfit for combat,” Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness subcommittee, said in a statement.

“Since 2007 inspection failure rates have risen from roughly 8 percent to 24 percent,” Forbes said, echoing statistics he highlighted during a Tuesday hearing. “Yet, this year alone, the Navy faces a $367 million funding shortfall for ship maintenance.”

Subcommittee ranking member Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam) said “significant challenges” face the Navy in reversing its course on the state of its surface ship fleet. This is especially important because she sees the Navy’s mission rate increasing in the future.

Part of the problem is a high deployment rate, Vice Adm. Bill Burke, deputy chief of naval operations for fleet readiness, told the subcommittee. Because ships are out so often, there is simply no time to perform “deep maintenance” on them, Burke said.

About 40 percent of the Navy’s surface ship fleet is typically deployed of late, a rate Burke said will “wear out” its war ships. About 20 percent of the service’s submarine fleet is now deployed at any given time, which Burke said is a healthy rate.

It will take “several years” to improve the situation, Burke told the panel.

Forbes, however, expressed frustration that Pentagon officials often tell lawmakers “everything is okay” with ship maintenance, only to later inform Congress about a $360 million ship maintenance shortfall.