Bombers running short of spare parts

Some Texas and South Dakota lawmakers are concerned that B-1B bombers, which have played a major role in recent U.S. air wars, aren’t ready to fly missions because of shortages of spare parts and qualified aircraft maintenance technicians.

Their concerns, including a troubling increase in the warplane’s accident rate, were raised in a letter this month to the Department of Defense.

“I’m worried about the readiness of a major part of our defense of this country and want to know what the plan is to fix it,” said Texas GOP Rep. Randy Neugebauer.

The B-1′s starring role in fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has put heavy wear and tear on the fleet, the letter said.

“We’ve been a real workhorse,” Capt. Paula Bissonette, 7th Bomb Wing chief of public affairs, said. “Since 2003, we’ve maintained a continuous presence in Southwest Asia.”

In 2002, the Air Force cut the B-1 fleet from 92 to 67 aircraft, as well as the number of bomber bases from five to two: Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas and Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, the letter said.

By shrinking the B-1 fleet, the Air Force was supposed to be better able to maintain it, the letter said.

But the B-1 has proved popular with commanders in the Middle East, retired Air Force Col. Bill Ehrie, a former Dyess bomber wing commander.

Of the B-1, B-52 and B-2 bombers, it’s the B-1 that can carry the biggest payload and is the most maneuverable, Ehrie said. It can fly day and night — and in all kinds of weather. It can also fly longer without refueling and carry more weapons than most aircraft used in the war zone, he said.

To keep planes flying, the Air Force cannibalized the retired B-1s for spare parts. The military was supposed to also procure more parts for it, but funding has lagged.

The B-1′s popularity speeded up the use of the old parts, Ehrie said.

“Right now, they’re hurting for spare parts again, but the airplane is still the weapons system of choice in the theater,” Ehrie said.

The Air Force is strapped for funds as it tries to modernize aging weapons systems and fight a war, officials said. The B-1 must compete for funding with other weapons systems, including the new fighter planes, the F-35 and the F-22.

As spare parts dwindled, the service cut manpower to meet budget requirements, pulling skilled maintenance workers away from the B-1, Ehrie said.

“A lot of these workers either left the service or retrained or were transferred to new weapon systems,” he said.

When skilled workers are lost, workers who usually train younger, enlisted airmen are in short supply, he said.

So the chances go up for it to take longer to repair an airplane and for a technician to not know how and so need to find someone to tell him, he said.

“Now don’t get me wrong,” Ehrie said. “The men and women we have are fine people. But the level of supervision and skill sets is very, very thin.”

Also troubling is the increasing accident rates, the lawmakers wrote.

In 2000, B-1s were involved in one “class A” accident in which damages totaled more than $1 million, someone died or both, according to figures provided by Dyess. The planes also were in seven “class B” accidents with damages from $200,000 to $1 million.

In 2007, there was one class A accident and 13 class B accidents.

The Air Force has done preliminary work on a next-generation bomber but really doesn’t have one capable of replacing the B-1, Thornberry said.

(Contact TRISH CHOATE of The Abilene Reporter-News in Texas at choatet(at)shns.com)

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