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Kirtland Commander Fears for Air Force's Future

By Charles D. Brunt
Journal Staff Writer
       If your primary mode of transportation these days is a 1965 Chevrolet, you can probably sympathize with Col. Robert Suminsby Jr., commander of Kirtland Air Force Base.
    But while you worry whether the old Chevy will last another year or two, Suminsby is fretting over the Air Force’s aging fleet of aircraft.
    “If we don’t buy new aircraft and satellites now, we simply won’t have an Air Force in another 20 years,” said Suminsby, who will leave Kirtland in July to become inspector general for the United States Air Forces in Europe at Ramstein, Germany.
    Satellites, the colonel noted in a recent interview, are part of the Air Force’s mission to “fly and fight in air, space and cyberspace.”
    Faced with keeping his 377th Air Base Wing running smoothly despite the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Suminsby has told community leaders the Air Force is facing “a slow-motion train wreck” as its fighters, air tankers, transports, bombers, reconnaissance planes and helicopters move toward — and often beyond — their projected service lives.
    Aging fleet
    Air tankers, the flying gas stations that give U.S. military aircraft their global reach, are the 48-year-old commander’s favorite example of the approaching crisis.
    “The oldest of our KC-135 tankers rolled off the assembly line in 1957, two years before I was born,” Suminsby said. “The newest was delivered in 1965, when I started first grade.”
    But didn’t the Air Force just ink an estimated $35 billion deal for a new fleet of KC-45 air tankers?
    Yes, Suminsby said, but there’s a catch. Boeing has already challenged the Air Force’s selection of Northrop Grumman and Europe’s EADS to build the KC-45 — a move sure to delay delivery of the planned 179 tankers .
    “If everything goes perfect with our new KC-45 acquisition — which isn’t likely — the last KC-135 will not retire until 2043,” he said. “We’ve never flown 80-year-old airplanes — no one has. So we’re headed into the unknown.”
    It’s not just air tankers that are getting old. The average age of the Air Force’s workhorse fighters — the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon — is more than 20 years.
    “At the end of the Vietnam war, the average military aircraft was about 8 years old,” Suminsby said. “At the end of Desert Storm, it was about 17 years old. Today, the average (Air Force) aircraft is nearly 25 years old, and that’s climbing steadily.”
    Suminsby admits he’d like Congress to fund all the Air Force’s needs, including its $18.8 billion “wish list.”
    But more importantly, he said, America needs to address two fundamental problems with the federal budget: the mismatch between our national security strategy and its associated costs; and burgeoning entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
    Security gap
    Suminsby says there’s a huge gap between the nation’s security strategy — which is to maintain the capability to fight two major conflicts concurrently or in rapid succession — and what it’s willing to pay to implement that strategy.
    “What the military has been asked to do — to be prepared to fight two major wars — has not really changed since the end of the Cold War,” Suminsby said. “But the amount of money allocated to meeting that mission has been going down steadily.”
    The other problem is the skyrocketing price tag on Social Security and Medicare, which are gobbling up an increasing amount of the federal budget. As baby boomers slip into retirement, that trend is likely to escalate.
    “As a military officer, my big concern is fixing Social Security and Medicare,” Suminsby said. “If we don’t fix those things, there won’t be anything left for a defense budget.”
    “There needs to be a national debate over what our priorities are,” he said. “That’s a debate our elected representatives should be having — with a lot of input from the people who pay the bills — the taxpayers.”
    But that debate, he said, is not likely to happen this year.
    “It’s particularly difficult, in a presidential election year, to have a meaningful debate about those types of things,” he said. “Things get boiled down to sound bites and bumper stickers, and that doesn’t lend itself to an informed public that can make smart decisions about what we expect the military to do.
    “But ultimately, the future of the Air Force depends on the outcome of that discussion,” he said.