Air Force Can’t Keep Planes in the Sky

(Washington, DC) – Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson (R-TN) today expressed concern for United States Air Force personnel who are being forced to fly planes with parts borrowed from other planes. In an April 1999 report issued by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the cannibalization of B-1B, F-16 and C-5 aircraft was described in detail.

According to GAO, because of a lack of spare parts, Air Force personnel are forced to take spare parts from aircraft as they complete a mission and install them in other aircraft before they can leave on a mission. While this practice – called cannibalization – is not unheard of in the military, it has grown exponentially in recent years. In its report, GAO estimated that it took 178,000 man hours to remove parts from working planes and put them on broken planes, just to meet the needs of our active military – that’s 43 people working full time for 2 years.

Senator Thompson said, “Apparently, the cannibalization of equipment for maintenance purposes is a traditional problem in the military. But, what the GAO report shows us is that the problem is more than twice as serious as it was a few years ago.” GAO has reported that based on 1998 data, the problem has more than doubled in recent years.

GAO has reported in the past on the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) poor management of its inventory, pointing to the fact that it maintains too many spare and repair parts. Notwithstanding DoD’s oversupply of spare parts, a $500 million spare part shortage for B-1B, F-16 and C-5 aircraft occurred because of poor estimates by Air Force officials, and this had a direct and dramatic impact on air missions completed by Air Force pilots. This shortage meant that 12 percent of F-16 sorties depended on cannibalized parts, 54 percent of C-5 sorties depended on cannibalized parts, and an astounding 96 percent of B-1B bombers took off only after cannibalized parts were installed.

Senator Thompson continued, “Our fighting men and women need the right tools at the right time to do their jobs. The Air Force should develop more reliable data on the number and type of parts that will be needed to keep our pilots safe and our planes in the air.”

A United States Air Force 81st Fighter Squadron Captain at the Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, who recently testified at a congressional hearing, talked about his experience in dealing with limited supplies: “Sometimes the aircraft will break and we’re unable to accomplish the mission and that will slow the whole process of trying to get that young fighter pilot the experience that he requires. And that is directly related to the fact that sometimes the parts aren’t available.”