December 27, 2007 (by Lieven Dewitte) - The grounding of hundreds of F-15s because of dangerous structural defects is straining the US air defense network.
Some states have been forced to rely on their neighbors' fighter jets for protection, and Alaska currently even depends on the Canadian military.
The F-15 is the sole fighter at many of the 16 or so "alert" sites around the country, where planes and pilots stand ready to take off at a moment's notice to intercept hijacked airliners, Cessnas that wander into protected airspace, and other threats.
The Air Force grounded about 450 F-15s after one of the fighters began to break apart in the air and crashed Nov. 2 in Missouri. An Air Force investigation found "possible fleet-wide airworthiness problems" because of defects in the metal rails that hold the fuselage together. It is not clear when the F-15s will be allowed to fly again.
Compounding the problem created by the grounding, another fighter jet used for homeland defense, the F-16, is in high demand for Iraq
operations. And the next-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, is only slowly replacing the aging F-15.
Military officials say they moved quickly to patch any holes in the homeland air-defense system, and they report an increase in air defense sorties in the past month, using replacement F-16s.
The filling in causes some strain and resources are spread a little thinner than one would like. However, air defenses have not been compromised according to Mike Strickler, a spokesman with North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD
). "We can be anywhere at any time," he said.
With the F-15s in Massachusetts out of commission, the Vermont Air National Guard is covering the whole Northeast. The Minnesota Air National Guard is manning sites in Hawaii. In Louisiana, the Illinois Air National Guard has been filling in.
And with Oregon's fighters grounded, the California Air National Guard is for the first time in history standing watch for the entire West Coast — in Riverside and Fresno, Calif., and Portland, ORE
The unit has had to borrow F-16s from bases in Indiana and Arizona and trim back training for certain overseas operations.
A relatively small number of F-15s — the F-15E Strike Eagle version — were not found to have the structural problem, and are unaffected by the grounding.
For three weeks in November, Canadian CF-18s filled in for the F-15s over Alaska. Several times, the Canadian fighters scrambled to "do an identification" of Russian bombers flying exercises outside U.S. airspace near Alaska.