One of the most common justifications for a new design aircraft is that the existing one is too maintenance intensive (even though it was undoubtedly considered a vast maintenance improvement over its predecessor!). Consider the F-14 Tomcat and its replacement, the F-18 Hornet. No one had any real performance issues with the F-14 Tomcat but it was considered to be too maintenance intensive. The F-35 was going to be a huge improvement in ease of maintenance over the F-18 Hornet (hasn’t happened but that was a major part of the justification). And so on.
What I’ve never seen discussed or considered is the concept of a maintenance upgrade instead of a new design. If you have an aircraft whose performance is satisfactory, why not just upgrade the maintainability? The systems that are considered high maintenance can be stripped out of the aircraft and replaced with whatever you were going to put in the new design.
Strip out the high maintenance components and systems and rebuild the aircraft with low maintenance components and systems. A good time to do this would be as the aircraft cycle through depot level maintenance availabilities. Consider what we’re doing to the Hornet to extend its life. We’re completely replacing the center barrel section of the aircraft among other major changes. Surely, we could perform maintenance upgrades!
Yes, it would be costly to strip out electronics, pneumatics, hydraulics, piping and tubing, etc. It would cost millions per aircraft but that’s hugely cheaper than hundreds of millions for a new aircraft.
Consider, again, the Tomcat. Compared to its successor, the Hornet, it had superior range, endurance, speed, more weapon hardpoints, greater weapons payload, better sensors, and was, purportedly, a better bomber in its Bombcat guise. The Hornet was less maintenance intensive and, let’s be honest, the Hornet’s main attribute was that it would ensure continued budget for the Navy.
What attributes is the Navy looking for in an aircraft, now? Why it’s range, speed, endurance, payload, and sensors. Hmmm …….
Of course, you can’t upgrade forever. The F4F Wildcat was a fine aircraft but we couldn’t have upgraded it forever and still be flying Wildcats today. At some point, the basic airframe is simply no longer viable. However, that point is well beyond where the Navy thinks it is. The F-14 Tomcat could have been upgraded for improved maintenance, sensors, and engines and the entire Hornet family could have been skipped. In the time it took, and the money it cost, to progress through the Hornet generation, the Navy could have taken its time and developed a successor to the Tomcat that would have incorporated stealth and whatever other functions were desired and that successor could be entering service now, fully tested, debugged, and combat ready.
|F-14 Bombcat - Skip the Hornet?|
We look fondly on the Hornet when we compare it to the F-35 but we forget that the Hornet is ill-suited to the Navy’s actual operational needs – and I’m being polite about the ill-suited part. The Hornet is a huge failure by any standard other than comparison to the F-35 which speaks more to the magnitude of the F-35’s failings than any strengths of the Hornet.
I’ve used aircraft examples but the concept of maintenance upgrades applies even more to ships due to their extreme cost. The
Tarawa class could have been easily maintenance upgraded (I’ve never really
heard a good reason for their retirement).
Ships are often described by the Navy as being worn out. That’s just another way of saying that the
mechanical systems have been neglected.
Navy leadership should be fired for not conducting proper maintenance
but, even so, the ship’s systems can be removed and replaced for much less than
the cost of a new ship class.
Before we toss the next aircraft or ship into the dustbin, let’s think about maintenance upgrades if the platform is still capable of acceptable performance.