Many analysts argue the unmanned Global Hawk could do the job more effectively, but Congress has nixed that idea for now. More than $1.7 billion has been invested in upgrading the U-2.
MAJOR KONG'S FAVORITE BOMBER — THE B-52
Iconic, yes. State-of-the-art, no. The venerable B-52, remembered by movie fans for its starring role in the 1964 Cold War comedy "Dr. Strangelove," remains the backbone of the Air Force's strategic bomber force. It dates back to 1954 and was already losing its edge by the end of the Vietnam War, but nearly 100 B-52s remain in service.
The Air Force developed the B-1 in the 1970s as the B-52's replacement. President Jimmy Carter killed it, President Ronald Reagan brought it back, and none have been delivered since 1988.
Next up was the stealth B-2 Spirit, which first flew in 1989. Because only 21 were built, they ended up costing a prohibitive $2 billion each. The Air Force is now hoping to upgrade with what it calls the Long Range Strike Bomber, but it's not clear when it will be ready.
To be sure, all of these aircraft have undergone massive overhauls and updates, and most experts agree the U.S. Air Force remains the best-equipped in the world. Its aircraft aren't likely to soon start falling out of the sky, either, thanks to intensive, and expensive, maintenance.
Zoellner, the KC-135 pilot, bristled at the idea his Stratotankers aren't safe. He said they "fly like a champ."
But Loren Thompson, of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank, said the graying Air Force is evidence of how Washington has failed to keep its eye on the ball.
"The reason the fleet is so decrepit is because for the first 10 years after the Cold War ended, policymakers thought the United States was in an era of extended peace," he said. "Then it spent the next 10 years fighting an enemy with no air force and no air defenses. So air power was neglected for 20 years, and today the Air Force reflects that fact."
Former Air Force Col. Robert Haffa, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, added that although ground forces were the primary concern in Iraq and Afghanistan, air power will be a key to future security requirements as the United States turns its attention to the Pacific and a strengthening China.
Unlike America's more recent adversaries, China has a credible air force that could conceivably strike U.S. bases in the region, requiring a deterrent force that is based farther away, out of range. America's bases in Japan — and possibly Guam — also are within striking distance of a North Korean missile attack.
"As the nation looks to increased focus in the Pacific, these long-range strike platforms will be especially important," Haffa said. "Planes like the B-52 simply cannot survive."