Robins unit may offer hedge against fewer F-22s, future threats

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE — The prospect of buying fewer F-22 air superiority fighters and the expected lead time for bringing new F-35s on line are sending base officials back to the drawing boards.

The questions: Does squeezing another 4,000 flying hours out of aging F-15 C, D and E fighters make sense? If so, how would the service life extension be focused and structured? And ultimately — of prime importance for the local base — where would the work be accomplished?

Robins provides worldwide management, overhaul, modification and supply support for the Air Force’s F-15 fleet.

A revitalized fourth-generation F-15 could offer at least some hedge against future uncertainty and risk. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has told Congress that production of the fifth-generation F-22 should be curtailed at 187 aircraft — well short of what Air Force officials said they needed in previous years.

The original game plan for the F-22 — an ultra-capable, but expensive stealth fighter — called for 740 aircraft.

During the years and after factoring in different threats and scenarios, the total dropped to 381. By last summer, the target number was what the Pentagon called a “low-risk” 243.

Since that time, additional budget constraints and what Gates called a necessary focus on “fighting the counter-terror war we have” resulted in the most recent call for shutting down production at 187 aircraft. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz recently told Congress that 243 remains the requirement, although 183 is what’s affordable … but at additional risk.

The 830th Aircraft Sustainment Group at Robins may offer a counter to that risk, although no firm answers are available at this point.

One step is the teardown and inspection of an F-15D aircraft to evaluate wear and tear suffered by safety critical components.

“Although we have a robust inspection program at the field and depot levels, there are areas of the aircraft we cannot inspect because of access,” said Col. Stephen Niemantsverdriet, the 830th ASG commander.

The group is also updating computer models for the F-15C and D aircraft.

“That (will help us) more accurately represent the dimensional aspects of the aircraft structural components,” Niemantsverdriet said.

Several other ventures also are on the immediate horizon.

A tear down and inspection of an F-15C will start in June with the same objectives as the F-15D. Additional modeling on the F-15E — the newest of the F-15s — also is in the works, although a start date has not been determined.

A contract will be issued in July or August calling for full-scale fatigue testing of an F-15C.

“That will use an updated load spectrum or load cycles to support mission operations through 2025,” the commander said.

Those tests will determine if a service life extension program, or SLEP, makes sense and on which aircraft.

“At this point, we do not have a formal SLEP established,” Niemantsverdriet said. “But those efforts will give us the insight to whether a SLEP is required and what modifications will be needed.”