April 13, 2009—Overall, the Air Force fleet is aging out—at a much faster pace than it can get replacements. Across the board, the fleet stands at an average 24 years of age, the oldest it has ever been. The Air Force now plans to eliminate 250 of its oldest fighters, presumably a mix of F-15s and F-16s, in Fiscal 2010 under the budget mandate announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates April 6. Under that same mandate, the service will buy only an additional four new F-22 air dominance fighters, capping the Raptor force at 187 aircraft. DOD does plan to accelerate production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the Air Force expects to receive its first production model sometime next year—ramping up from 48 per year to around 102 per year over 2010 to 2014. However, one question is whether that acceleration rate will give the Air Force enough iron to ameliorate a fighter gap? The gap hits the Air National Guard, which handles the bulk of the homeland defense air sovereignty mission, particularly hard beginning in 2015, if not sooner with the earlier fighter reduction. The Total Air Force has 1,200 F-16s that are on average 19.4 years old. Its 407 F-15 air superiority fighters—those the 187 F-22s are replacing—are even older at 26.7 years. As for USAF's elderly KC-135 tankers, which on average are 47 years old, Gates has said the KC-X replacement program can move forward, but he is adamant about selecting a single contractor—and that, so many influential lawmakers believe, could doom the program again.
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