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U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy is a Republican from Wisconsin. U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy is a Republican from Wisconsin.

U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy is a Republican from Wisconsin.

By Alan Hovorka September 6, 2017

Testing Sean Duffy claim that 'We're flying 1987 planes with 1987 technology'

With House Republicans shifting from health care to tax reform and the budget, U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy recently argued for an increase in military spending, claiming the U.S. military’s air fleet is antiquated and leaves the nation at risk.

Duffy’s push for more military spending came during a July 20, 2017, interview on The World Over with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN, days before Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed in the U.S. Senate. Duffy’s claim arose from a question by Arroyo about whether the U.S. spends too much on defense.

Duffy (R-Wisconsin) responded with a firm "no," then rattled off a series of familiar talking points about the nation’s military: the military is depleted; there’s peace through strength; and it’s vital to stay ahead of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

To drive his message home, he made a very specific claim about the U.S. air fleet.

"We're flying 1987 planes with 1987 technology," Duffy said.

Duffy’s wider point about a depleted military is one PolitiFact has addressed in fact checks of other politicians, such as Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan.

In this item, we’ll look at whether the U.S. is really flying planes from 1987 that have 1987 technology and what that says about the state of the military.

Aging aircraft

In 2015, Duffy did a fly-along in an F-16 with the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing in Madison. On the visit, staffers from the Air National Guard told him the planes were built in 1987 and had 1987 technology, aides to Duffy told us.

"He received that information from the Wisconsin Air National Guard and took their professional guidance on the matter," said Duffy spokesman Mark Bednar.

Capt. Joe Trovato, deputy director of public affairs for the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, confirmed the fly-along happened and that Duffy recalled the conversation correctly. The F-16’s assigned to that specific fighter wing were built between 1986 and 1988, with the bulk in 1987.

The conversation, however, was specifically about the F-16 and how peer or near-peer nations such as China and Russia are catching up and can match or exceed F-16 technology.

In the EWTN interview, Duffy offered a broad statement about the nation’s military aircraft, without limiting it to specific planes or providing a sense of how many planes may fit the criteria.

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In any case, there is more to the story.

The body and engines on the F-16’s in question remain largely the same as they did when they rolled off the assembly line. But in the years since, the government has upgraded weapons, sensors and software on the planes, Trovato said.

For instance, they now have better GPS locator systems and better weapons and munitions.

The aerospace policy experts we spoke with agreed with Duffy’s general sentiment, but said it passes over important context, such as the upgrades to the fighters.

"These older aircraft have been upgraded and modernized over time," said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies -- a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank. "While the airframe may be old, the cockpit, navigation systems, sensors, and other electronics have been modernized.

"An F-16 flying today is much more capable and technologically advanced than when it rolled off the assembly line in the 1980s."

Still, Harrison and others said, there are limits to the upgrades: The F-16 can’t be upgraded to have the stealth capabilities common in the much newer F-22 Raptors or F-35 Lightnings.

Laura McAndrews, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Air Force, said in an email that the average age of aircraft in the Air Force is 27, and fighter and attack aircraft specifically have an average age of 25.

Typically, when the military wants to introduce a new generation of aircraft, it can take two decades to get an aircraft from the conceptual stage to test stage and finally full integration into the nation’s air fleet, according to Harrison and other policy experts.

The F-22 Raptors, which first got off the ground in tests in the 1990s, are among the most recent additions. The Air Force has 183 of them, according to fact sheets.

The F-35 Lightnings, a program started in 2001, are part of a controversial $400 billion order that, over 20 years, aims to replace aging aircraft across three branches of the military, according to the Department of Defense.

Our rating

Duffy said, "We're flying 1987 planes with 1987 technology."

In the case of the airplanes Duffy based his claim on, the engine and body remain largely the same as in 1987, but experts and the military say the F-16 has undergone other technological upgrades. In addition, Duffy’s statement is more general, which ignores ongoing efforts to modernize the fleet and purchase and design new craft.

We rate his claim Half True.

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PolitiFact rating logo PolitiFact Rating:
Half True
"We're flying 1987 planes with 1987 technology."
In an interview
Thursday, July 20, 2017

Our Sources

Fact sheet, "F-22 Raptor," U.S. Air Force website, accessed 8/1/17

Acquisition report, "Selected Acquisition Report (SAR): F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Aircraft (F-35) As of FY 2015 President's Budget" Department of Defense Accessed 8/1/17

Email, Mark Bednar, spokesperson for Rep. Sean Duffy, 7/25/17

Email, Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 8/2/17

Email, Michael O’Hanlon, director of research for the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, 8/1/17

Email, Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for Teal Group, 8/1/17

Email, Joe Trovato, deputy director of public affairs at Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, 7/29/17

Email, Laura McAndrews, U.S. Air Force spokesperson, 8/1/17

PolitiFact item, "Donald Trump says Navy has shrunk dramatically since 1991," PolitiFact, 1/20/17

PolitiFact item, "Donald Trump claims military jets need salvage parts," PolitiFact, 7/23/16

PolitiFact item, "Paul Ryan's Pants on Fire claim on Air Force pilots forced to scrounge for airplane parts in museums," PolitiFact, 5/11/17

PolitiFact item, "Marco Rubio says the United States isn't building aircraft, bombers, nuclear subs," PolitiFact, 5/5/15

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More by Alan Hovorka

Testing Sean Duffy claim that 'We're flying 1987 planes with 1987 technology'

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