Sustainment plan for aging fleet critical

Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio -- The average age of an Air Force aircraft is more than 25 years, which makes the current fleet the oldest in Air Force history - and it must keep flying into the foreseeable future.

An aging fleet in a pinched budget environment is making sustainment technology a critical priority as the Air Force works to maintain U.S. dominance of air, space and cyberspace. It is also vital to Airman safety and increasingly challenging and expensive to implement as fleet technology becomes more advanced and defense dollars become more precious.

To answer the need, Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, in June released a strategy that provides a road map for optimizing Air Force technology and helps guide DOD investment into Air Force sustainment programs.

The plan, dubbed the Sustainment Science and Technology (S&T) Strategy, spells out AFRL's view on how best to maintain existing Air Force assets and plan to sustain future assets in a range of areas, including structural and functional materials, fabrication processes, sensors and diagnostics, airframes, propulsion, space and manufacturing.

"From the S&T perspective, we measure success by how well the field is able to positively maintain the fleet and reduce the logistics footprint," said Masiello.

AFRL's sustainment program goals include research, development and transition of technologies so they meet and exceed safety standards, support and collaboration with major Air Force commands in their sustainment efforts, investing in new sustainment technologies, and evaluating emerging technologies that will improve future sustainment efforts.

"It'll go through a spiral development," said Joe Baker, AFRL sustainment lead. "Start with improving sustainment and making the job easier and move to harnessing digital capabilities and using risk-based approaches. Any technology we develop has to 'buy its way' into use in the fleet."

According to AFRL figures, as of 2012, the Air Force operates a total of 95 aircraft model/design/series, including 5, 551 aircraft, 38 different engines, 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, nine satellite constellations and 2,258 Air Force missiles. All must be sustained indefinitely, and each comes with its own unique set of issues, which are fixed, updated, maintained and cared for on flight lines, maintenance shops, and one of three depots by a host of Airmen, civilians and contractors.

"The best way I can describe it is that we are flying the fleet of tomorrow, today," said Baker. "Looking into the future we know we cannot recapitalize at the pace the Air Force originally planned, so AFRL is investing to help ensure our fleet is operational and economical for a long time to come."

S&T activities can include anything from improving aircraft damage detection, innovative repair techniques, rapid response to field issues, and creating options to improve aircraft satellite and system readiness.
"Our focus areas are where we believe there will be a significant return on S&T investment," said Baker. "Fleet availability is a priority. So with engines, for example, we are looking for ways to safely and economically avoid replacing components and reuse parts beyond their originally predicted service life."
As for future technology, AFRL is looking at ways to address sustainment even before a technology is acquired.

"We are working at developing a digital twin - exactly what it says - a digital match to each individual aircraft," said Thomas Lockhart, director of AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate. "By harnessing the digital age, we will be better informed to make improved decisions on how to most affordably maintain our fleet."

"The technology options AFRL provides give our warfighters an advantage on the battlefields of today and tomorrow," said Masiello. "Those options help ensure we are on the right side of an unfair fight against America's adversaries, and it's our mission to keep it that way."