“F-15 panique”, prestissimo et fortissimo

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Plusieurs articles, dans la presse spécialisée et dans la presse générale US, marquent la préoccupation de plus en plus grande pour la question de la crise du vieillissement des chasseurs F-15 après les différentes mesures d’immobilisation prises à la fin de l’année dernière. Il est maintenant acquis qu’une partie non négligeable de la flotte de F-15 sera maintenue indéfiniment au sol, qu’un nombre important d’avions devront être modifiés, et que, sans doute, un nombre significatif d’entre eux ne voleront plus. Les investigations de l’accident du début novembre 2007 qui a déclenché toutes cette affaire ont montré que certains F-15 souffraient d’un défaut de fabrication en même temps que de la fatigue de l’âge, les deux facteurs se combinant pour aboutir à l’accident. A ce jour, des défauts du même type, demandant une réparation très sérieuse, ont été trouvés sur neuf F-15.

C’est l’article du Los Angeles Times du 9 janvier qui apporte le plus de précisions à cet égard. Il est fait à partir d’interviews informelles d’officiels de l’USAF et donne ainsi beaucoup de détails inédits. L’impression qu’il laisse est celle d’une situation particulièrement préoccupante.

«The Air Force plans to allow about 260 of the remaining grounded planes to return to duty today. But about 180 more will remain idle because of suspected structural flaws.

»“Many of them may never fly again,” a senior Air Force officer said. The officer, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because results of the investigation are not due to be made public until today.

(…)

«Air Force officials said they thought some of the F-15s that remained grounded might be able to return to duty after repairs. But some senior officials have raised questions about how effective the F-15s will be after they are fixed. Some officials believe that repairs to stiffen the aircraft could reduce its capability as a fighter plane.

»“Do you try to patch a 25-year-old airplane that has been patched and patched and patched?” another senior Air Force official asked. “After the repairs, it will not be the same aircraft it was before.”»

Un article du Washington Post du 11 janvier n’apporte pas de précisions essentielles par rapport à l’article du Los Angeles Times. Il rapporte néanmoins une déclaration du commandant de l’Air Combat Command, le commandement de l’USAF chargé des avions de combat : «Gen. John D.W. Corley, head of Air Force's Air Combat Command, told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday that the F-15 problems amount to a “crisis” affecting the nation's “workhorse” fighter jet responsible for defending U.S. airspace. Corley said there is no pattern connecting the apparent manufacturing defects, as they span different production years, and that there is no way to detect the problem without pulling the aircraft apart for close inspection. “This is not isolated,” Corley said. “This is systemic.“»

Enfin, pour compléter ce dossier en l’élargissant à la situation de crise de l’USAF, on se reportera à l’éditorial de Air Force Magazine, dans son numéro de janvier 2008. Le magazine, qui est un organe officiel de lobbying de l’USAF, prend violemment position en mettant en cause la responsabilité des diverses autorités, y compris en un sens celle des chefs de l’USAF qui ont lancé beaucoup d’avertissements mais n’ont rien fait de sérieux. Il s’agit des F-15 mais aussi d’autres avions, et l’on apprend ainsi qu’aujourd’hui l’USAF a plus de 800 avions interdits de vol ou faisant l’objet de restrictions de vol pour divers problèmes en rapport avec leur âge, soit 14% de la flotte entière de la force aérienne.

«The Secretary of the Air Force, Michael W. Wynne, reports the average age of an Air Force aircraft in 1973 was eight years but today is 24 years and headed toward 26.5 years in 2012. The problem goes well beyond the F-15 to include most of the major aircraft types—bombers, tankers, and transports no less than fighters.

»USAF’s 505 KC-135 refueling tankers average more than 46 years of age. Many C-130 transports are grounded due to poor reliability and concern for their in-flight safety. C-5A cargo aircraft have low availability because of frequent maintenance.

»The roots of the problem are many and tangled, but no one doubts that things began to go off the rails during the so-called “procurement holiday” of the 1990s.

»Problems first emerged in the 1989-93 presidency of George H. W. Bush. In his four years as Pentagon chief, Dick Cheney—now Vice President Cheney—curtailed USAF’s F-15 program, postponed the F-22 fighter, terminated the B-2 bomber at only 20 aircraft, and cut the C-17 airlifter.

(…)

»Today, more than 800 aircraft—14 percent of the USAF fleet—are grounded or operating under various flight restrictions. Older fighters in the near future won’t be up to fighting modern air defenses or modern fighters.

»The Air Force is “going out of business,” said Wynne. He added, “At some time in the future, [aircraft] will simply rust out, age out, fall out of the sky.” Indeed, it is already happening.

»No one can claim there was not fair warning of the danger. As far back as 1996, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, USAF Chief of Staff, noted “the term ‘aging aircraft’ takes on a new significance when [you are] keeping fighters in the inventory 25 to 30 years.”

»In 1999, Gen. Richard E. Hawley, head of Air Combat Command, observed that, “We are flying the oldest fleet of airplanes that the Air Force has ever operated. ... Old airplanes break in new ways. ... The older it gets, the less predictable it gets.”

»Fogleman’s successor, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, in 2000 expressed deep concern about fleet age and the high cost of finding the proper kinds of spare parts in sufficient numbers to support readiness.

»In 2005, near the end of his tour as Chief of Staff, Gen. John P. Jumper warned, “The thing that ... worries me the most is the [stunted] recapitalization of our force. ... We are now facing problems with airplanes that we have never seen before.”»


Mis en ligne le 14 janvier 2008 à 09H50

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