Attrition: Deleting The Weakest Links

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April 3, 2022: The American defense budgets for 2023 have been set and the Ukraine War has provided some useful lessons to apply. For the navy this means more aggressively retiring the failed LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) vessels. For the air force the lesson has been that they need only one stealth fighter and the F-35 stays while the older F-22 is retired to the boneyard. The air force is also leaving the elderly A-10s alone because the Ukrainian experience shows that the A-10 could still be very useful in a situation where the control of the air was contested.

The U.S. Navy has made it official that its ambitious but poorly implemented LCS program is rapidly fading away after more than a decade of effort to build at least fifty of them to replace 51 very successful Perry-Class frigates and 26 smaller mine warfare ships. By April 2022 only seventeen LCS ships will be in service with only eleven fully capable. Six have operational limitations because of engine problems and are unable to go overseas or do much more than act as patrol ships in the Caribbean, interdicting illegal drug smuggling. By early 2022 six of the older LCS ships will have been retired early, four of them of the type that have debilitating engine (combining gear) problems.

It appears that the navy is going to end up with about 18 LCS ships rather than the 55 originally planned. The failure of the LCS was not unusual because the U.S. Navy has, since the 1980s, had an impressive and disastrous number of new ship designs that failed. The LCS failure was not sudden, but the result of a growing number of construction defects and design flaws that have caused the planned number to be produced or kept in service revised downward five times. The latest reductions may be the last, because a replacement ship has already been selected and ordered.

The problems began to appear when the navy was unable to decide which of the two competing LCS designs to select. One was the Lockheed-Martin monohull Freedom-class and the other the General Dynamics trimaran Independence-class. The first LCS built, the traditional monohull USS Freedom, completed its sea trials and acceptance inspections in 2009. The ship did very well, with far fewer (about 90 percent fewer) problems (or "material deficiencies") than is usual with the first warship in a class. USS Independence (LCS-2) was laid down by General Dynamics in late 2005 and commissioned in January 2010. There were problems. The corrosion and hull cracks were expected eventually but appeared much earlier than anticipated.

The fatal flaw in the monohull Freedom-class was not confirmed until 2020 when two Freedom-class ships had engine failures at sea and had to return to port at slow speed. The problem was with the ball-bearings in the combining gear, which was needed to achieve top speed by combining the power of both the diesel and gas-turbine engines. Currently all the Freedom type LCS ships can only use the diesel engines. The navy believes it has a fix, but implementing it takes several months and involves removing a lot of equipment from the engine space to reach the combining gear for ball-bearing replacement and other adjustments. This was just a temporary fix. Because of the uncertainty four Freedom class ships that were under construction or launched and ready for sea-trials, were indefinitely delayed until the full extent of the combining-gear problem could be determined. Warships using diesel (for economical slow cruising) and gas turbine (for rapid acceleration) engines have been around for decades and a bad combining design should not have happened. Both types of LCS had their own problems as well as problems common to the overall LCS concept. The navy is already producing a new class of frigates, based on the proven Italian FREMM design and built in the United States using a shipyard owned by the Italian developer of FREMM. The LCS became too expensive and too unreliable to keep in service. Only the best of the more reliable and useful twin-hull Independence class ships will remain in service until the end of the decade when dozens of the FREMM Constellation class frigates are entering service.

The air force wants to retire the F-22, the first stealth fighter and arguably still the most advanced and capable in the world. It is also very difficult and expensive to keep flying. The F-22 was also way over budget, which is why 195, instead of 75o, were built. The F-22 is expensive to maintain with the cost per flight hour for maintenance over $70,000. That’s about three times what it costs for the F-16. The new F-35 stealth fighter is cheaper to build and maintain.

Reducing the maintenance costs of the F-22 proved insurmountable. While it requires 19-man hours of maintenance for each F-16 flight hour, the F-22 requires 34 hours. The manufacturer originally said it would be less than ten hours. Most of this additional F-22 expense (and man-hours) is for special materials and labor needed to keep the aircraft invisible to radar. The main problem is the radar absorbent material used on the aircraft. The B-2 had a similar problem, which was eventually brought under control. But even then, the B-2 cost more than twice as much to operate than the half-century-old B-52. The B-2 and F-22 use different types of radar absorbent materials, so many of the B-2 solutions will not work for the F-22. But some of the F-35 materials did.

The F-22 cost more than three times as much as the aircraft it was to replace. The air force wants to build more than 187 production models and has allies in Congress who want the jobs (and votes) continued production will generate. But the Department of Defense was reluctant to spend that kind of money, especially when there are so many other programs, like electronic warfare aircraft, UAVs and upgrades for F-15s and F-16s, seeking funds.

In 2010 the Department of Defense decided to terminate F-22 production at 187 aircraft. This resulted in each aircraft costing (including development and production spending), $332 million. Just the production costs of the last F-22s built was $153.2 million. Added to the cost of the last few aircraft was a $147 million fee the Department of Defense agreed to pay if the production line was shut down. This goes to pay for shutting down facilities and terminating contracts with hundreds of suppliers.

The F-22s will be sent into retirement at AMARC (Aerospace Maintenance and Recovery Center) and stored at a high level of readiness, so F-22s can be restored to service in a few months. The United States has been storing retired aircraft in air bases located in dry desert areas since the 1940s when it had the largest air forces on the planet. That meant lots of still usable aircraft could be retired inexpensively for later return to service or use as a source of spare parts. It was noted that since World War II most military aircraft ended up being scrapped, not shot down or lost in accidents. Some nations, particularly the United States, created an intermediate status for retired aircraft; storage. The main American storage site is AMARC. This is the “boneyard”, and aircraft stored at AMARC would, if armed and operational, be the third largest air force in the world. This facility, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base out in the Arizona desert, stores nearly 5,000 military aircraft no longer needed for active service. Every year, some are recalled, refurbished and sent back to work. But most get "harvested" for spare parts until what's left is chopped up and sold for scrap. Stored aircraft that are revived have to meet strict standards similar to those applied to new aircraft.

AMARC was set up in 1985, consolidating boneyard operations already there and from other locations in the United States. In that first year, it delivered spare parts worth half a billion dollars. While the airframes, stripped of all their more valuable parts, are worth only about 25 cents a pound as scrap, some of the parts are worth their weight in gold. Engines, which often comprise a third (or more) of an aircraft's value, are the most valuable single items. And each engine consists of thousands of parts, some of which are worth quite a bit, even if the engine is no longer in use by any aircraft. Other nations cannibalize their retired or obsolete warplanes, but few have organized the operation as efficiently as the United States.

Spare parts from AMARC have kept the ancient A-10 ground attack aircraft flying. Entering service in 1977, the A-10 was not able to demonstrate its effectiveness until the 1990s and ever since the army and marines have been able to block air force efforts to retire all A-10s. Instead, the A-10 was upgraded and received new wings to replace the ones weakened by decades of flying, often in combat. The upgrades included the ability to use smart bombs and the latest upgraded involved new bomb racks that enable each A-10C to carry sixteen GBU-39 smart bombs that are laser guided and the most popular weapon used to support ground troops. The A-10 can carry seven tons of bombs and the sixteen GBU-39s, with their new bomb racks only weigh less than five tons.

The second favorite weapon is the built-in A-10’s 30mm autocannon. Originally designed to use armor piercing shells, these were replaced with high-explosive shells for ground support. Just the sound of the low-flying A-10 firing its 30mm autocannon was considered a useful weapon by the ground troops as it would demoralize the enemy troops who survived the firepower.

The air force could not justify using any other fighter to replace the A-10 and efforts to find a substitute have failed. Some designs, like the B-52 heavy bomber, are irreplaceable and the A-10 is another one of them.

The army doesn’t have to worry about retiring anything because they tend to wear out equipment or lose it in combat. The air force and navy have lots of big-ticket items that often don’t work well enough to keep.

 


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